I know many women who are like the writer Christie Tate. They are professionally successful, hard-working, disciplined, obliging, inhibited. They do not allow themselves to express their anger or frustration – because women are taught from a young age that anger is unacceptable, that if one cannot be pleasant it is better to be quietly sad – and so they channel it inwards and experience it as physical self-loathing. They starve themselves or binge-and-purge, they wish they could disappear.
At the beginning of her memoir, Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved my Life, Tate is a star law student about to begin a demanding internship at a law firm. Having attended 12-step meetings for years to manage her bulimia, she has reached some kind of impasse: she eats almost the same three meals every day and then, after dinner, she gorges on apples, stopping only when her stomach aches too much to continue. She wants to become a lawyer because the 60-hour working weeks are a distraction from her profound isolation. She fantasises about killing herself.
On the recommendation of a friend she gets in touch with Jonathan Rosen, an eccentric, gnomic therapist who specialises in group sessions premised on radical transparency. Rosen’s patients do not keep secrets from one another, and they do not keep each other’s secrets because, he believes, to hold another person’s secret is to hold on to a shame that doesn’t belong to you.
When Tate arrives for her first group session Carlos, a “sharp-tongued gay doctor” who has been seeing Rosen for two years, asks her, by way of greeting: “In sex. Top or bottom?”
“Definitely top,” Tate replies, thinking that if “they want bawdy, sex-positive Christie, I’d serve her up”. Rosen doesn’t believe her.
“How about an honest answer?” he says.
“That you don’t like having sex at all.”
If, by now, you are squirming in second-hand embarrassment, it only gets worse. When Tate confesses that “guys don’t… respond to me”, a “grandpa-aged” man she calls “the Colonel” is sceptical. “A pretty girl like you? That can’t be true,” he says. She thinks he may be leering. A little later, the Colonel targets her again because she has crossed her legs. No one in the group is allowed to cross their legs because doing so suggests one is being defensive or shutting down emotionally. To me, the whole exercise seems less like therapy and more like sexual harassment, but Tate is game, or at least desperate enough to give it a go. She spends the next two decades attending Rosen’s group therapy sessions.
Her subsequent memoir is an enjoyable, absorbing book; I read it greedily in one sitting. Tate is your chaotic, funny, over-sharing girlfriend, or the stranger who grabs your wrist in the pub loo to tell you everything you didn’t need to know about her piece-of-shit ex-boyfriend. The story Tate purports to tell is about how a group of honest, open, generous strangers, presided over by Rosen, taught her how to love herself and others, liberating her to live the life she always wanted. The story she actually tells seems a little different.
I had thought Group might be a sly feminist manifesto, that this would be about what happens when a shy, repressed goodie-two-shoes finally rebels, but it’s more conventional than that. It would be no surprise if Group were adapted by Hollywood; it has the perfect structure for a romcom: Tate cycles through a series of damaged and inappropriate men in her search for The One. What Tate wants more than anything is a husband, and she seems to treat any moment of self-discovery or sexual awakening as secondary to this goal.
[see also: Don DeLillo’s echo chamber]
For all her professed self-awareness Tate is at times afflicted by a self-absorption so complete that it hampers her capacity for real insight. She turns up to one group therapy session devastated because buying her first home has reminded her of her singleness. No wonder her group mate Max, whose story she interrupted in order to off-load her house-buying angst, rolls his eyes at her. She throws a shoe at him, they shout fuck you at one another. Tate discovers that she is learning how to be intimate with another person – after all, she has never fought like that with another man before. She does not reflect on why Max might have been dismissive of her self-pity, or why her life feels so incomplete without a man.
I wondered if instead Group is better thought of as a story of the redemptive power of friendship, but that doesn’t quite fit either. When she discusses with her group mates masturbating in her closet (so symbolic!) after her fling – a married man and fellow Rosen patient – rang her from the supermarket frozen food aisle for phone sex, I thought about the kinds of conversations I used to have with friends, before our romantic relationships became “serious” and we became protective of our partners and our old-fashioned private lives. Should we all talk about sex more? Doing so is fun, after all, and maybe it can be useful and even therapeutic. Yet while Tate celebrates the generosity and kindness of her fellow group members, her attitude towards them can be oddly transactional. It’s telling that the question she describes as her “part mantra, part catchphrase” is: “What am I going to get out of this?”
Then there is Rosen, who is entertainingly unconventional and also very creepy. At one point he suggests she might overcome her hatred of her breasts by getting a henna tattoo on her stomach saying: “I hate my breasts.” She does. In a fleeting moment of insight, Tate compares Rosen to a cult leader. She pays him $70 a session and ends up seeing him for three sessions a week, indefinitely. Sometimes group members graduate and leave, but she is a “lifer” and her dependence on him is absolute. She does not want to make decisions without him and seeks his approval for the men she dates.
When Rosen does not prevent her from embarking on one very ill-advised love affair she wonders at his methods, suggesting that if she had killed herself over the doomed romance he could have been at risk of being struck off the register. It was bizarre to me that she should see him as so responsible for her choices. Then, when she finally gets engaged – to a “young, single, age-appropriate, gainfully employed man” who, surprise, surprise, reminds her of Rosen – she seeks her therapist’s “explicit blessing”.
And yet, Group is a fascinating, thought-provoking book, the kind that friends will pass among themselves because you cannot read it without wanting to discuss it. It is an exploration of the therapeutic relationship – an attempt to explain the mysterious healing power of feeling listened to and understood – and a meditation on intimacy. The group’s rules are “feel things and tell everything”, a mantra that Tate adopts as her own and that others might benefit from adopting too: perhaps too many people are burdened by their untold stories, and by all the hurt and shame and anger they don’t allow themselves to feel.
In one revealing passage Tate confesses to a new boyfriend that she is so attached to her therapist she cannot imagine ever moving cities. “Would you like me to join you out on that limb?” he responds, before sharing the story of his parents’ divorce and remarriage. “So, this is how it happened. This was how you built an intimate relationship. Word by word. Story by story… just like group,” she writes. In her view, then, intimacy is built on the sharing of confidences. In some circumstances that must be true: we are all unknowable and the only way we can try to overcome our existential isolation is to try to put our thoughts and feelings into words, and hope others do the same.
[see also: The magic of Frances Hodgson Burnett]
But I wished that instead of settling for this trite conclusion and a sickly-sweet ending – with Tate transformed from a lonely, suicidal student to a high-flying lawyer, wife and mother who apparently has it all – Tate would acknowledge that the act of personal disclosure is also complex and fraught. Another person’s intimate disclosure can be a gift, or it can be an unwelcome demand: for sympathy, for attention, for reciprocity.
I thought about the absolute power enjoyed by Rosen, who sets the terms under which his patients share their grievances and dispenses his expert feedback, knowing how much he is depended upon and revered. And I thought about the vulnerability of the confessional writer, who must trust their readers to be kind and open-minded and understanding, when so often we are not. What strange power I enjoyed when I pored over this book, peppering the margins with exclamation marks and revelling in every salacious reveal, and how uneasy that makes me feel now.
Simon & Schuster, 288pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos