In this memoir, famed existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom sets out his past and his intellectual history. He starts with his home life living in Washington DC, where his immigrant parents ran a supermarket. While they maintained a traditional Jewish life, Yalom was always resistant to religious thought and often explains his antipathy towards religion. But his parents were always very supportive of his education, and he excelled as a student. He went on to become a psychiatrist and he specialized in group psychotherapy. He writes both about his professional life, his marriage to scholar Marilyn Yalom, and a little about their children. He emphasizes his identity not just as a healer but also as a writer, placing himself as much in the humanities as the sciences.
Yalom is now in his 80s, and he says that his is his last of his many books. It's a substantial book at 350 pages, and it is mostly well written. There is some repetition about his life as he sets the context for various stories. His tone is relatively casual and he is charming in tone, often marveling at his luck and admitting how he has had few difficulties to grapple with in his life. Sometimes he imagines doing therapy with his younger self, which is a little strange but still interesting. He shows an open mindedness about different approaches to therapeutic interventions, including drugs such as hallucinogenics and ecstasy, and encounter groups. At other times, he seems a bit didactic and inflexible, such as with his existentialist belief that people have great fears about their mortality but they are unable to articulate such emotions. He doesn't seem to consider the possibility that maybe most people are not preoccupied by their deaths.
This memoir is probably mostly of interest to readers who have already enjoyed the writing of Yalom. It gives some impression of the development of existential psychotherapy in the USA, but it is more about the personalities of the big names rather than their ideas.
© 2018 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.