Speak what we feel

Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?
Jane Haynes
Constable & Robinson, 352pp, £7.99

Imagine a relationship in which, several times a week over a period of years, one spent an hour in intense, sympathetic communion with a wise, tender and accepting partner. Physical contact will never rob this liaison of its immanent erotic charge; nor will wailing children, washing-up or the exigencies of the credit crunch interfere with near-Platonic conditions for conversation. I am referring, of course, to the compact between the analyst and his or her analysand, and the wonder is not that erotic transference occasionally makes its seductive entry into the consulting room, but that it ever leaves it. In fact, you might almost say that if you’re not in love with your therapist, you can’t be doing it right.

It is certainly easy to see why patients might fall hard for Jane Haynes, whose memoir this is of her own analysis and subsequent therapeutic practice. In her professional life Haynes brings to bear not just her Jungian training, but also her literary sensibility, emotional range, a rich creativity and much warmth and compassion. Now a grandmother, she is patently still quite capable of arousing a transference or two of her own; treatment with her clearly has about as much in common with standard “counselling” as Tolstoy does with chicklit.

Nevertheless, psychotherapy is having something of a renaissance as an approach. In recent years, as the psychoanalyst Darian Leader discusses in The New Black, our desire for instant gratification, or at any rate a speedy solution to our problems, fuelled a demand for a magic pharmacological bullet that could alleviate or suspend the symptoms of psychic distress, enabling us to function once again as economic units. No antidepressants, however, can address depression’s underlying causes, and a move away from the mass-produced “one size fits all” of chemical intervention seems to fit the mood of our current times. Therapy, you might say, is “bespoke”, a matter of meaningful discourse between two particular human beings. Just as we are rediscovering the hard-won pleasures of home-grown and home-prepared food over the chef’s exorbitantly priced tasting menu at the latest temple to gastronomic fashion, so the labour of love that is the talking cure is in steady ascendance over the quick psychological fix.

It may seem frivolous to compare the kitchen to the consulting room, but I don’t think Haynes would agree (I’m betting that chicken soup is on her list of recommended therapies). At best, both meet fundamental and connected needs. Breaking bread together implies reciprocity, a recognition of our shared humanity, while “the creative therapeutic partnership”, as Haynes describes it, is also a means by which, in the reciprocal give and take of dialogue, we can experience ourselves as harmonious and authentic, and, most importantly, be recognised as such by another.

Therapy, writes Haynes, uses “the combined powers of relationship and narrative” to heal, helping patients begin to tell a more coherent story of their lives. “I regard the practice of each therapy as a creative act . . . My tools are modesty, patience, imagination, a good memory, curiosity that has been sublimated into a skilled and appropriately empathetic listening technique and an appetite for other people’s dreams.”

Haynes is a fluent and natural writer, though her efforts to be absolutely true to the complexity of the experiences she recounts lead to the occasional verbal and intellectual tongue-twister. So, on one level, her book is an engrossing and often poignant memoir, opening with an account of her own fractured childhood with a syphilitic father and a coldly disengaged mother. She then describes 13 years of passionately engaged analysis (during which her husband, a photographer, would drily observe that he supposed it was better than Haynes having an affair), which comes to an end only when her beloved therapist is struck down by a heart attack.

The second half of the book explores the treatment she is able to offer her own patients: a suicidal woman in middle age, a porn-addicted casualty of celebrity parents, an Aspergerish recluse. Each portrait, one feels, honours the intransigent truths of that patient’s reality while enacting aspects of the very dialogue Haynes describes. In “She Sat with Dark Eyes and Fingers Touching”, a young man gives his side of the story of his analysis; in “Few Love to Hear the Things They Love to Act”, the hardcore addict delivers his own polemic against the ubiquity of internet pornography; in “Miss Suicide Shops at Tesco and Finds a Phoenix”, Haynes gives space to the unedited transcript of a conversation she has with a former analysand. Most movingly, in “As Flies to Wanton Boys Are We to the Gods”, she tells the appalling story of her son-in-law’s murder and her anguish that her granddaughter will suffer “the permanent absence of those powerful arms around her small body and his loving paternal protection”.

Everywhere, however, there is acknowledgement not only that Haynes sometimes gets it wrong, but also that often when she gets it right it is when she is being her least rigorously analytical and her most fully human. And that is really the point of this book. Analysts, she says, delude themselves if they think they can ever be neutral or objective in their treatment, and by denying the huge power they wield may even end up abusing that power. She questions the “Eleventh Commandment” that forbids therapists from touching their patients and asks whether the profession gets enough training in the use of “their bodies, voices, ears and breath”. She cites the public hunger for Lady Di’s “healing touch, her appearance of accessibility and her attention to the small details of her subjects’ lives” as evidence that these ordinary, comforting human interactions are mistakenly excluded from the consulting room. In other words, she argues for a “joined-up” approach to the treatment of human suffering that exploits the full range of a therapist’s powers to soothe.

Breaking the rules is fine, one might argue, if one is as talented a practitioner as Haynes. But the quotation from King Lear that gives the book its title may alert readers to the message at its heart, which is as much a plea for creativity as for therapy. At the play’s desolate end, Albany’s lines “The weight of this sad time we must obey,/ Speak what we feel; not what we ought to say” signify, writes Haynes, that “although it may seem that we have been abandoned by the angels we must still struggle, through our attempts at dialogue, to move the stars to pity”.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power