How Literature Saved My Psyche: Attending a Book-Themed Therapy Session at the Center for Fiction

center for fictionIt was a delightful cocktail of paranoia, depression and a crippling fear of dying that led me to three different therapists before the age of 20. The first was a hairy, stout ball of a man who sported a dirt-colored 5 o’clock shadow. He was a strict Freudian and, not being much for countertransference, would just sit there and look at me. I took to just sitting there and looking back at him, engaging in a 45-minute-long staring contest that usually culminated in my shouting that he was a bastard for not caring about my problems, which were fascinating. He didn’t look nearly enough like my father for this to be productive.

I don’t want to talk about the second one.

The third was an attractive woman of about 40 who’d nod her head furiously in encouragement as I talked. And I really talked, too, until one day—our final session—she interrupted me and said, “Where are you from?” I’d only been talking my head off about where I was from for weeks! She hadn’t been listening to a word I said.

At that point, I decided to take a different route toward curing my existential dread, one that involved a delicate balance between self-medicating and trying to think about my life as little as possible, repressing the whole thing until death came creeping into the room and I could let all the misery out in a long, confused rant to friends and family. I started compulsively reading fiction, which created enough mental distractions that I barely even knew who I was anymore. Just what the doctor ordered!

Which brings me to the good news. For those of us who consider Ulysses and Portnoy’s Complaint to be their own brand of self-help book, there’s a new program at the Center for Fiction—a nonprofit that holds readings and events, gives writers office space and promotes the general celebration of literature—called A Novel Approach, in which writers and editors involved with the center (“bibliotherapists”) will give you a 45-minute consultation dealing with the life crisis of your choice and prescribe a year’s worth of reading to help you get through it. I signed up immediately. I went to the center’s offices in the old Mercantile Library on East 47th Street and met Noreen Tomassi, its director since 2004. She’d recently done a consultation for the organization’s managing director, who’s getting married (it was a struggle to find a single book about a happy marriage), and for “a young person about to decide what to do with their life.” She told me that, while many of them wouldn’t admit it, people who consider themselves serious readers believe that reading is “making their lives better, and that they are becoming better human beings through reading.”

“WHY DO YOU WANT to come and explore whatever you need to explore in your life through books?” Ms. Tomassi asked me in her office (there was no couch, but the room was lined with books).

“I’ve always used fiction as a way to escape my life,” I told her. “And to assess other things about myself.”

“Is there a particular issue that you’d like to address in your reading that we prescribe for you?”

“The horror of being alive” seemed a little vague, so I instead told her I had “money problems,” which is true and also encompasses significant portions of my general sense of terror and foreboding.

“Is there a book that has really made a huge difference in your life?”

To the Lighthouse, which I first read when I was 19 and I try to reread every year, because I think it’s different depending on the year or even the season you read it in.”

“Tell me, are there writers right now that you’ve read recently—and remember this is completely confidential—that you just absolutely hate or feel like they’re overrated?”

“I’ve never been able to force myself to like Salman Rushdie,” I said. “I don’t particularly like Michael Chabon very much. I don’t really like Jonathan Franzen. I guess it’s mostly über males.”

“A lot of men I talk to—and a lot of women too—read along gender lines, which it doesn’t seem you do at all.”

“I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. I think Lydia Davis is better at writing about men than Jonathan Franzen is. And speaking of Lydia Davis, I really don’t like Paul Auster.”

Meow! Where was all of this coming from? We’d reached what a regular shrink might call a breakthrough.

MS. TOMASSI asked me where I felt the gaps in my reading were. I mentioned a certain group of opaque postmodernists from the 1980s, Barth, Coover, Gaddis and the like. We then concluded that there were two issues at stake, the first being my personal relationship to money and the second a “societal issue” related to America’s relationship to money. You see, my problems are not my fault, at least not totally, something that I always had a hard time convincing my other therapists.

“A couple either/or questions,” Ms. Tomassi said. “Answer these off the top of your head: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”

“Tolstoy.”

“Brontës: Emily or Charlotte?”

“Charlotte.”

(Strange, I always considered myself a Wuthering Heights man.)

“Do you have a story that you think is the perfect short story?”

“I like ‘Head, Heart’ by Lydia Davis”—a (very) short story that tells the whole story:

Heart weeps. Head tries to help heart. Head tells heart how it is, again: You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday. Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart. Heart is so new to this. I want them back, says heart. Head is all heart has. Help, head. Help heart. 

“You have a few writers over for dinner,” Ms. Tomassi said. “Who’s there, living or dead?”

“Well, Beckett is there. Woolf is there. Pynchon is there, just to see his face. How big a dinner party is this?”

“Six, including you.”

“Okay. Hemingway is there to bring booze.”

“It’s a slightly moody party. You’ll need Hemingway to get everyone drunk.”

“Yeah, I’m realizing that. You probably want this to be quick and associative, but I can’t answer this question fast.” A long pause. “I’d invite Franzen just to make him uncomfortable.” I was only sort of kidding! Who would want to go to a dinner party like this? When I thought more about the question later, I came up with an entirely different list: Honoré de Balzac (really liked coffee), Henry James (a sufferer of chronic constipation, it would be funny to torture him with the cheese plate), Walter Benjamin (good to have a German in there), Raymond Carver (the dinner party scenes in his stories were basically what I’d want to approximate) and the wild card: Walter Pater (no one ever suspects Walter Pater). What a special evening. And yet, with no planning, thinking spontaneously, I’d sure put together an awkward group of historical figures. I had some real soul-searching to do when I got home.

“I think I have a sense of the gaps in your reading,” Ms. Tomassi said, “the problem you want to address, your history as a reader, what you’re attracted to in writing. So what happens now is I take about a week to two weeks, and I not only do a list, but I consult with a group of people who are connected to the program. Some of them are writers. Some of them are editors. Then I make a prescription.”

The next week was filled with no more or less drudgery than usual. I managed to deplete my bank account to an extent that I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d make it through the weekend. As I was fretting about this, right on cue, an email from Ms. Tomassi arrived in my inbox with my prescription: “Five classics, one big unwieldy post-modernist, one book about love, money and friendship, two non-fiction selections, two contemporary novels, and a dash of genre fiction. No more than one per month, client to be shaken and stirred.” Here’s how it broke down:

New Grub Street by George Gissing, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, JR by William Gaddis, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood, Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, Florida by Christine Schutt, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens, Money and the Meaning of Life by Jacob Needleman, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, Dear Money by Martha McPhee.

I was cured, all right.

mmiller@observer.com

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