Infatuation, jealousy, heartbreak, trauma, addiction: when love becomes mental illness

“The merest spark of sexual attraction can cause a fire that has the potential to consume us”.

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“It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science,” wrote Sigmund Freud in Studies on Hysteria (1895). Latter-day clinicians and therapists tend to take a less dim view of the literary potential of case histories, finding a keen appetite among the reading public for accounts of the outlandish and tragic secrets of the consulting room. From the neurologists Oliver Sacks and Suzanne O’Sullivan and the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, to the psychoanalysts Stephen Grosz, Adam Phillips and Susie Orbach, growing numbers of those involved in treating disorders of those enigmatic organs, the brain and mind, have turned to literature to report their discoveries.

The latest addition to the genre is a study of obsessive love by the clinical psychologist Frank Tallis. This is Tallis’s second exploration of the pathologies of love – in 2004 he published Lovesick, an account of romantic love as a form of mental illness. In The Incurable Romantic, he returns to his theme:

It is my belief that the problems arising from love – infatuation, jealousy, heartbreak, trauma, inappropriate attachment and addiction… merit serious consideration and that the line which separates normal from abnormal love is frequently blurred… The merest spark of sexual attraction can cause a fire that has the potential to consume us.

The subjects of Tallis’s essays are an eclectic sample of the infinite ways in which passion can curdle into misery: a barristers’ clerk who developed a sudden infatuation with her dentist; a widow haunted by apparitions of her dead husband; a woman possessed by irrational jealousy; a serial seducer; a lovelorn swain; a psychotic evangelist; a narcissistic man who preferred sex with himself to the messy business of coupling; a night porter addicted to prostitutes; a paedophile at war with his own nature; and a couple with bizarrely synchronised personality disorders.

In each essay, Tallis broadens his analysis of an individual case study to reflect on the scientific background of the aberrant behaviour, and its relationship with the more acceptable manifestations of romantic love. His chapter on Megan, the barristers’ clerk gripped by an entirely unrequited passion for her dentist, includes an account of de Clérambault’s syndrome – a disorder described in 1921 by the French psychiatrist Gaétan de Clérambault, and used by Ian McEwan as a key element in the plot of his 1997 novel Enduring Love. Tallis concludes that Megan’s affliction, which so disturbed the unfortunate dentist and his family that they eventually moved to Dubai to escape her, was “quantitative rather than qualitative… Her delusional thinking was, in a sense, normal, because romantic love is often very irrational.”

Elsewhere, his account of a woman tormented by obsessive jealousy is the starting point for an analysis of self-defeating behaviour patterns, while the bereaved widow’s hallucinations trigger musings on the changing role of sex in long-
term relationships.

Tallis gives thumbnail sketches of his subjects: Megan is “dowdy”; Anita, the jealous girlfriend, is “a tall, leggy blonde with eyes an astonishing shade of violet”; Mark, the narcissist, is “a fastidious gay man in his early forties”. Such brief character outlines are a commonplace of clinical practice but the effect here (perhaps intensified by the necessity to disguise the identities of Tallis’s clients) is disconcerting – as though we are reading not about real people, but constellations of symptoms given a top-dressing of humanity.

The effect is most pronounced in a chapter devoted to a disturbing encounter that Tallis had in his mid-twenties with a deranged American evangelist, which seems partly to have precipitated his decision to train as a clinical psychologist. Here the Gothic detail – strange mists, looming scenery, lurid folklore, the lurching figure of the maddened evangelist, like “a B-movie monster”, is laid on so thickly as to obscure all sense of verisimilitude.

In his preface, Tallis remarks that he has “always been attracted to hinterlands, fringes, twilight places and oddity”. Over time, he writes, his interest in psychological oddity “became something less prurient and somewhat closer to intellectual curiosity. But it remained, in essence, unchanged.”

This is honest, but it leaves unaddressed the uneasy question of what Adam Phillips has characterised as “the therapist’s own self-love”. The therapeutic relationship, however collaborative, inevitably places the therapist in a position of power over his or her client; when the client becomes the subject of a published narrative, the situation becomes even queasier. Very few books are written by patients exposing the quirks and eccentricities of the practitioner who treated them (though such a book might be interesting). Reading Tallis’s stories of Megan, Anita and Mark, one begins, naturally, to wonder about the ownership of such narratives.

“Intellectual curiosity” is not a bad answer to the question of why a clinician might feel entitled to publish an account for a general readership of his clients’ intimate suffering. But perhaps further justification is required. The very best writing on such matters combines professional expertise with a pitiless self-knowledge and outstanding prose to offer a transcendent insight into the human condition.

Tallis is undoubtedly an expert in his field: humane, compassionate and deeply engaged with his clients (or their literary avatars). In the numerous cases where the outcome of treatment was inconclusive, he expresses a wistful curiosity about their eventual fate. His style is, on the whole, unobtrusive (with the exception of the overwrought chapter about the evangelist). But after a while the repeated pattern of case study followed by exposition begins to feel not just formulaic, but voyeuristic.

If these narratives were short stories, rather than hybrid constructs of fact and fiction, Tallis might, paradoxically, have felt able to write with more freedom and candour. As it is, one moves from one strange story to the next as though viewing a gallery of living statues: beings neither movingly real, nor eloquently artificial. 

Jane Shilling’s books include “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage)

The Incurable Romantic: and Other Unsettling Revelations
Frank Tallis
Little, Brown, 304pp, £18.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit