An architect wins a prestigious competition but is consumed by despair when he proceeds to lose his wallet on the subway. A patient assures his therapist that he wants to change, “but not if it means changing.” A husband lies to his wife about having advanced lung cancer—and then lies about recovering. A woman refuses to face the mounting evidence of her husband’s infidelity, until she visits him in his “work” apartment, opens the dishwasher, and sees two of everything, perfectly stacked. Her question—“Who loaded the dishwasher?”—becomes the banal, life-changing moment in their lives.
This may sound like a great collection of short stories (and it often reads like one) but it is in fact a lapidary collection of vivid true-life tales gathered by a psychoanalyst in the course of his 25 years of practice. Although the author teaches psychoanalytic theory at University College London and has treated a wide range of patients from the criminal to the privileged, the writing is anything but clinical. There is a lucidity and a gently amused empathy to the stories that feels Chekhovian in their ability to recognize the small, transformative moments in our relationships. And this therapist isn’t a blank slate; his doubts and daydreams in the consulting room enter into the stories, which helps level the playing field between therapist and patient, and triangulates the mystery. (One of the more fascinating chapters reflects on why he finds one patient so “aggressively boring.”) One wonders how his well-disguised former patients feel about seeing their stories recast like this, of course. But I see our time is up now.