The Good Psychologist
is one intriguing book. Part psychology instruction manual and part novel, it explores a male psychologist’s professional and personal lives and the intersection between them. The author Noam Shpancer has a unique take on both the professional (therapy and teaching) and personal (a single man who helped a colleague by fathering her child when her disabled husband couldn’t). He offers many powerful, clever metaphors for life experiences that clearly illuminate his clients, students, and the reader.
The author’s voice is unusual, as is the lack of quotation marks throughout the story. Beyond my love for his creative metaphors (which I will quote liberally below), it’s hard to know what to make of this novel.
I read some other reviews of this novel on Goodreads, and some readers were put off by the psychologist’s arrogance. He does seem dismissive when describing the students in his class and how he doesn’t care to get to know them; that all young people look similar and distant to him
p.32. However, while I’ve met my share of egotistical psychologists, I don’t believe he is one of them. I think the fact the author grew up in Israel, combined with his blunt cognitive approach, make him seem cold or arrogant when he’s not really that way at all. Calling the main character a “good” psychologist is more about irony or striving to be good instead of boldly proclaiming he’s the best psychologist ever. I was appalled when one of his first therapeutic responses was “So what?” but then I read on and understood this was part of his style and perhaps even his charm. In the beginning of the novel, the psychologist sounds conceited, but through growing to understand him I began to accept him more (which parallels his emphasis on the importance of acceptance in therapy). He does seem to be an effective therapist and teacher, using his own distinctive style.
Parts of this story made me uncomfortable. His main client is a stripper whose panic attacks prevent her from performing her job. Explicitly following the anxiety “exposure” treatment model, the psychologist actually goes to the strip club to offer her support after they’ve worked together to deal with her anxiety more effectively. When she splays herself naked in front of him, I squirmed. I’m wondering if this psychologist, who seems a bit over-sexed at times, went a bit too far with his exposure treatment? (Excellent play on words by the author).
I found so many quotes I wanted to share, including these brilliant metaphors: Crying is the trail of blood that leads to the corpse in the bushes.
p. 12You grew up in the country, he says, right? Well, fears are like mice in the fields. Nobody likes mice, but if you run away from them, if you deny their existence, they will only multiply and ruin the crops and gardens, take over the house. You must go after them and hunt them down. The same is true with fears. You are training here to become an anxiety hunter. Not an anxiety victim. Not anxiety prey.
p. 42Think of a swimmer trapped by an undertow. His response would usually be to try to swim against it. But that would cause him to tire, cramp, and drown, done in not by the current, mind you, but by his erroneous response. To save himself, the swimmer should let the current carry him to sea, where it will dissipate, and the swimmer can paddle around and back to safety. The same principle holds true for our negative emotions, which should be accepted, even though the impulse to push against them is strong.
And his thoughts on therapy, which he states so well:The big bang theory holds that a successful treatment is characterized by a movement toward the killer insight, the miraculous climax, the rattling catharsis that will release dammed-up emotions, wash away the pain . . . The big bang theory is iconic. It’s the dream of the handsome prince who kisses Sleeping Beauty and takes her to a life of wealth and happiness. It’s the dream of winning the lottery. But waiting for a dreamy prince is not a serious relationship strategy. And the hope of winning the lottery is not a serious plan on which to base your financial future. And the story of therapy, here, in this world, is different entirely . . . There is no purifying insight. There is no magic wand. There is no big bang, only small tremors, each meaningless on its own. And even if there is catharsis, still the true healing occurs afterward, after the kiss, after the waking up, after the insight and metaphor, and it is embodied in the gray repetitive grind of daily practice, of learning a new language, stuttering, with clenched teeth.
pp. 80-81.And herein lies the secret of the therapy experience: acceptance, genuine acceptance of the client, warts and wounds and injuries and all. Such acceptance pushes back the fear of death, even if just for a while, for the therapy hour, like a flashlight’s beam of light calms the person who’s walking through darkness even without chasing the darkness away entirely. Acceptance allows the client to rest, allows him time and space within which to sense himself fully, sober up, look inward and around him, organize the matter of his being, tune his instruments, play the right note.
I believe therapists, psychology teachers, and therapy clients will enjoy this novel for its insight into human nature and the therapy process.