April 2009

Catherine Lacey


An Interview with Susie Orbach

Susie Orbach is a noted psychotherapist, feminist thought leader and author of Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978), What's Really Going on Here (1993), Towards Emotional Literacy (1999), The Impossibility of Sex (1999) and Susie Orbach on Eating (2001).

With Luise Eichenbaum she co-founded The Women's Therapy Centre in London in 1976 and in 1981 The Women's Therapy Centre Institute in New York. Orbach also counseled Princess Diana. She currently lectures throughout Europe and North America, is a visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and maintains a practice counseling individuals and couples. Additionally, Susie Orbach frequently contributes to several publications, as well as to radio and television programs like The Today Show.

Her latest work, Bodies, casts a critical look at the somewhat modern notion that “biology need no longer be destiny.”

This interview was recently conducted over e-mail.


Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. I really enjoyed Bodies; I couldn't put it down. The voice was so engaging and the stories were unbelievably moving. Your empathy and intellect melded beautifully on the page. How do you feel that you've changed and grown as a writer since publishing FiFI thirty years ago?

Gosh! I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a writer when I did FiFI. It was more of an urgency to share what I had come to know and think. The consideration at the level of writing was entirely pragmatic: How do I tell people these ideas that they probably won’t be that receptive to? Because of FiFI’s success, I have had many opportunities to write, and by the time I wrote Hunger Strike I remember working at the words for effect. Now I think I work for authenticity: Does this really express what I mean? Has it caught the subtlety of the idea? I am particularly alert when it comes to technical language because then I fear it is easy to hide what one hasn’t quite understood.

There were a few times in Bodies where you wrote about the concept of countertransference, which I found completely fascinating. Could you please give a description and/or example of this phenomenon?

Ah! Well this is a useful, all-purpose concept in the way I am using it to describe the feelings and thoughts, the influences that are making their impact on the therapist in the therapy relationship. Countertransference happens all the time -- we cannot have an encounter without it influencing us. So that’s not novel, but the therapy centre allows us to examine and explore what the influence is. A simple example is that a patient comes into the room and moves her chair close to you. So close in fact that it feels like a breech of your own space. Unthinkingly, you push your own chair back. She moves closer into the space between you and you notice you are backing away. Countertransference presses a private pause button inside of you to reflect on the whys of this happening and what it might mean.

It seems that there is a lot in common between being a psychotherapist and being a writer. In both occupations you seek to uncover narrative (the patient's or the character's) in the hopes of reaching a revelation. In what ways have these two modes of thinking and working been similar or dissimilar to you?

Absolutely. But it is not just at the level of narrative because what writing and psychoanalytic therapy share is a quest for truths. That sounds like a big word, but it is an accurate one. It isn’t one truth because we are too complex for that. It is about the truths in that moment or in that understanding at that time. Both writing and therapy have a kind of contingency to them.

I found a lot of similarities between Bodies and much of Oliver Sacks’s work. Both of you have a natural ability to incorporate scientific information and case studies into a narrative that is at once informative and guided by an original voice. Have you read any of Sacks's work? If so, do you feel that it affected you as a writer in any way? If not, have you found any other writers (scientific or otherwise) particularly influential to your work?

Thank you for saying that. When I wrote Impossibility of Sex, which were stories of encounters between an analyst (based on me and called Susie) and imaginary patients -- a book incidentally that Americans did not like because it wasn’t the truth -- I had in mind Oliver Sach’s work and acknowledged its influence on me. For me, the struggle is to understand and evaluate the current scientific work well enough to know whether it is valid (because a lot isn’t). Then, once digested, I had to find a way of telling it to myself simply and clearly. He is so engaging.

I read in a 1999 interview that you were reading Phillip Roth at the time. A big criticism of Roth’s work is that he can’t write women very well. If you were going to give him advice about how to better capture a woman on the page, what would you say?

Hmmm, when he asks I’ll think on it with him!

While I was researching Fat is a Feminist Issue , I found a few comments from women in discussion forums about how FiFI is a great companion to other self-help/diet books, (i.e., How To Be Naturally Thin) a fact that may be turning your stomach as you read this. Do you think these women are missing the point or does FiFI actually have a lot in common with self-help books? Did you intend for it to be thought of as a self-help book?

Yes, well I am sure it was marketed that way. I was always talking of "fat" as an idea in the head and not adiposity per se. I certainly wanted and want people not to suffer with their eating and FiFI does try to address that. So, in that sense, it is self-help. But as a way to be thin, ugh.

Other than the basics you've outlined elsewhere (eating when you're hungry, stopping when you're full, being thankful of your body instead of punishing it), what do you feel are other ways that people can maintain sane conceptions of their bodies when faced with the insane ideals inherent in most media?

Not easy. My main thing is to transform our visual field, smash the diet industry, push magazine editors to be bolder, help new mums, etc. But, in the meantime, finding ways to be generous to you. For example, if one looks at a picture from a few years ago and realizes how lovely one looks and then remembers that one didn’t, that can be a moment for reflection and an opportunity to say, “Well… how anguishing: The same will probably happen a few years from now so can I dare to feel ok?” The other thing is to say, “Yes, I find these offerings of transformation inviting. Can I be curious about that rather than act?”

I understand that your next book will be about sex. Is there anything you can share about the research you’re doing on that?

It will be contesting notions of a naturalistic sexuality, and addressing why sex and the erotic are so problematic.