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Review of "Mockingbird Years"

By Emily Fox Gordon
Basic Books, 2000
Review by Christian Perring on Dec 31st 2000
Mockingbird YearsI had been in therapy a couple of years, during my time in graduate school and I was in my mid-twenties, when I confronted my roommate. With my new confidence in voicing my emotions, I explained to him my resentments. Our shared apartment was full of his possessions - his TV, his VCR, his microwave, his espresso machine, his couch, his phone, and so on. I felt like the apartment was hardly my own. Of course, I was not offering to replace his possessions with my own - I could not afford that - I simply wanted to tell him how I felt. He was extremely gracious in his response, and even encouraged me to dredge up other resentments. He empathized and acknowledged my feelings.

Looking back on that episode, I feel rather embarrassed. How ungrateful I was! How childish! But then, therapy can lead one to be like that. Nearly all modes of psychotherapy emphasize the identification of previously unacknowledged emotions, their articulation, and an exploration of what they mean to the client. Therapy didn't create those feelings of resentments in me - they had been there previously, and I think it probably was helpful for me to learn to express my feelings rather than hide them. I can't remember exactly how I went about my self-revelation, but I hope that when I did it, I at least did so with a sense of humor, rather than in dreadful earnest.

Therapy led me to other confrontations too, more personal ones I don't feel like making public, but they were the type one might expect - revisiting the past of my family history and old girlfriends. In those cases, my statements of how I felt were greeted with far less enthusiasm and sympathy. I don't think I permanently damaged my relationships, but I certainly created some tensions. It was probably healthy for me to learn I could voice my negative feelings and have my relationships survive. But I still have a sense that the therapy was causing me to act like a five-year-old, maybe learning the skills I should have learned at five years old. Nevertheless, when I see a young child whining with such righteous indignation, it's unattractive, and it's much more unattractive when an adult acts that way.

It's been several years since I was in psychodynamic therapy, and I confess I miss the comfort of the experience. I liked going over the past, whether it was my childhood or the past week's events, contemplating what happened, how I experienced it, and what I made of those events while I was sitting in the chair in my therapist's office. Sometimes I think about going back into psychotherapy, but I have mixed feelings about it, and besides, I doubt that my medical insurance would pay for it now. After all, if I have any problems, I can take some pills. And anyway, these days I don't have the time to devote to seeing a therapist once a week.

I say all this because reading Emily Fox Gordon's Mockingbird Years made me think it. It's a great book for anyone who has been in therapy, or who is a therapist, to read. I'm less sure if I'd recommend it to people contemplating going into therapy - the insights it gives are probably the sort that one has to learn through the hard toil of analyzing one's experience on a weekly basis, and then reflecting on the whole process afterwards.

Gordon, who describes herself as middle aged, spent many years in therapy, starting when she was a child. Her first therapists were psychoanalysts on whose couches she lay, and talked, (or didn't), while they remained mostly silent. It was when she had been at Austen Riggs Hospital in Massachusetts for a year that she met her most important therapist, Dr. Leslie Farber. She was then nineteen years old. She had been admitted to the hospital after cutting her wrists, and before that, she had had difficulties in high school and she had been a rather wild teenager. From her account, it seems that her therapy with Farber changed her life. Years later, she underwent the longest period of therapy in her life, with the only therapist she really chose for herself, and she seemed to find it useful, despite her misgivings and disdain for her therapist, "Dr. B."

This is not the standard sort of tale of a psychotherapy in which the therapist serves as a guide through the forgotten past, uncovering painful experiences and helping Gordon come to terms with herself. Nor is it a sensationalist exposé of malpractice, although her therapists were certainly imperfect. Gordon's attitude towards her therapists, even her much admired Dr. Farber, is critical, and indeed occasionally verges on the scornful, but most of all it is reflective-Gordon acknowledges that her husband, the philosopher George Sher, now at Rice University has influenced her thought considerably. What especially gives the book its power is the figure of Dr. Farber, and the contrast between his methods and those of other therapists.

Farber was an existentially inclined therapist, but Gordon suggests that really Farber didn't aim to be a therapist at all, in any conventional sense. Farber wrote a great deal about therapeutic method, and Gordon has read his work repeatedly, both while she was his patient, and also in the years since she last saw him. She characterizes him as a friend, and in her sessions with him, they talked about the world around them (it was during the late 1960s and the 1970s that they had their sessions), and about Farber, as well as about herself. On one dramatic occasion, during the middle of a session Farber received news that his father had just died. Gordon offered to leave, but Farber told her to stay, and he went on to talk about his father. In countless other ways, Farber broke with ordinary therapeutic standards about the boundaries between patients and therapists. He talked about his previous divorce; he asked for a ride to his home with her after a session; he got her jobs with his acquaintances and his brother; he allowed her to become friends with his wife, and she visited his house frequently, mixing with his family and friends. He was rude to her sometimes, once asking her, "Can't you ever be quiet?" He allowed himself to get angry with her, and allowed her to beg for his forgiveness. In short, he violated the ethical codes that govern the patient-therapist relationship.

Gordon says that for many years she refused to accept any criticism of Farber, but now she is somewhat shocked when reflecting on his actions. Nevertheless, she remains respectful of his goal, which was to make the interaction between himself and his clients an ethical one rather than a therapeutic one. What alligns her with Farber is his skepticism about psychotherapy, and his attempt to formulate a different form of meeting between two people. He wanted the meeting to involve real talking, rather than the all-too-formulaic exchange that often occurs in therapy. It seemed that partly this meant that he made less effort to hide his own thoughts, flaws and problems, and his behavior towards Gordon was highly questionable. Nevertheless, the idea that there is something problematic in looking at the world from a therapeutic stance is one that is rarely articulated these days, even though psychotherapy seems to be in decline.

When, little more than ten years ago, I explained to my roommate my resentment of his crowding our apartment with his possessions, many of the people I knew were in counseling or therapy. Today I can't remember the last time a personal acquaintance told me that he or she is in therapy. I haven't seen the statistics, but I imagine that the number of people in long term therapy has declined significantly in the last decade or two. These days, my students talk about their "chemical imbalances," and plenty of people I know take antidepressants, while on TV I see figures like Oprah Winfrey get respect for her talk of "spirit." Speaking personally, I hope that we don't forget the therapeutic stance, because for all its problems and awkwardness it is one of the best approaches we have to understanding our lives. And even with all her criticisms of psychotherapy, I suspect that Emily Fox Gordon might agree that it can enrich one's life.