President’s Column: Irvin Yalom and the Fiction in Stories of Group Therapy

Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.

Giorgio A. Tasca, Ph.D.

At this year’s APA convention I will have the honour to introduce Irvin Yalom at a special conversation hour on Thursday August 9 at 11am. Dr. Yalom will receive an award from our Division celebrating his lifetime of work as it pertains to group psychotherapy, and acknowledging the great influence he has had on the field of study and practice. My first initiation to Yalom’s writings was as an intern back in the 20th century. I was given his book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (3rd edition), and told to read it by my supervisor because I was to participate in an inpatient group with her the next morning. Well, for those of you who know The Book, it’s not a volume that one reads in a day, rather one studies it over many days/weeks/months/years. Nevertheless, I gamely pored over it, understanding some but not much of the content. All I remember from the next day’s group was that most of what happened went over my head, and that my supervisor seemed to know what she was doing, though I didn’t know why. Maybe that is why it felt that the post-group discussions that day (and others in which I’ve participated over the years) seemed like fiction to me – that is, narratives constructed by therapists to make sense of what had occurred. I wonder if that is why Irvin Yalom turned to fiction particularly later in his career when trying to bring to life the complexity and mystery of what occurs in human interactions and group psychotherapy in particular. In Every Day Gets a Little Closer, Yalom told a true (?) story of treating a young writer, Ginny, who had writer’s block and limited funds to pay for treatment. They struck a deal in which Yalom and Ginny wrote parallel journals of each therapy session. Sure, there were some similarities in what they wrote, but there were also striking disparities that showed how widely two people can diverge in their narratives of the same events. Was this two people simply telling their versions of what occurred or was this fiction? What happens when you put 8 people together in a group – do we get 8 versions of events? Recently, a member of one of my groups, Jim, retold a distressing incident that occurred several weeks ago, but this time he described the event with considerably less distress and even flippantly. Another group member piped up and said: “that’s not how you described it last time!” What ensued was one of those discussions in group therapy about who said what, that as an intern I would have found pointless. Except it’s not pointless. People construct narratives (fictions?), and the narratives say something about who we are and how and what we need to do to manage. And just as importantly, the construction of the narratives tells us something about the nature of the relationships we are in when recounting the story. Jim needed to retell the story to his self and to the group differently this time, and to some extent this said something about his relationship to the group. In his novel When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom writes in part about the start of modern psychotherapy through a fictional encounter between Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Breuer. Psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis, likely had its start with Studies in Hysteria by Breuer and Freud – including the Case of Anna O. So, why did Yalom write of a fictional encounter between two historical figures to describe the birth of “the talking cure”, when perfectly good case studies written by the founders already existed? Was Yalom’s fiction more compelling or instructive than Breuer and Freud’s truth (can one even say that Studies in Hysteria was the truth)? Similarly, what I wrote in a few lines about Jim and my group was a distillation of a 90-minute session and a longer history of relationships between group members – how “true” can that be? (Should we go down that rabbit hole?). Irvin Yalom has had an important impact on my work and on my outlook on what I do as a group psychotherapist and group researcher. Some of that impact has come from his scholarly work (especially The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy), but his fiction and his “non-fiction” has had an equal impact. I will try not to gush when introducing him on August 9th, but I may not be able to help myself – and that’s the truth, I think.

Categories: Columns, Leadership, presidents column, Welcome

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