That shrinking feeling: therapy on the radio

From The Archers to The Angry Therapist podcast.

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To a landmark edition of The Archers, devoted to just one scene: Elizabeth Pargetter’s first therapy session. Recently Elizabeth has been “very snappy” and always looking for reasons to avoid long walks with Jolene. “She’s got depression,” Ruth concluded the other day, Nancy Drew-ishly, like it was a badly creosoted fence that had mysteriously appeared overnight. And so here’s Elizabeth, opposite someone called Jamila, talking about her son being in the young offender institution for dealing class-As and her daughter going to live with the perverted former principal of her college and her husband falling dead off the roof.

Mere bagatelles to her founding trauma: failing her 11-plus. “If you need them,” intoned Jamila at this point, “the tissues are just next to you.” I thought of Susie Orbach in her addictive Radio 4 series In Therapy: how we heard, from patients, professions of all sorts of outrageous emotional chaos or fraudulence, and yet as therapist, Orbach’s voice was instinctively the only one you ever listened to. She carried so much authority – even when you suspect that the whole
profession is littered with windbags who have constructed their entire life around being an authority figure who cannot be questioned. Or to being like Jamila, doggedly “safe-spacey” and “if you’d rather not discuss the death of your husband that’s OK”.

Basically, someone there to make you feel better about all the things you were going to do anyway, like Tony Soprano’s terrible psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi, who I came to dislike more than any murder or death or despicable behaviour in the show – but who I’d still take any day over John Kim and his LA podcast The Angry Therapist.

Kim’s USP is readily admitting that he’s broken, too, certain that this “seering honesty” will help other people. And yet it just sounds like a way of thinking about himself the whole time. “I believe that our belief system is everything. What you believe can be, ya’ know, the life you want for yourself or not…” No insight; only occasionally an air of intensity, of drama. And hours of the stuff – the pomposity! Increasingly, podcasts can sound like the living, dithering opposite of Kafka’s modest order to his literary executor Max Brod: “Burn it all.”

The Archers (BBC Radio 4)
The Angry Therapist Podcast

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State

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