Having read Scottish journalist Lorna Martin’s self-help memoir Girl on the Couch: Life, Love and Confessions of a Normal Neurotic, I can say for sure that I do not want to read about anyone’s experiences in therapy. This may seem like a sweeping statement, based on just one book. But while Martin’s account of coming to terms with her minor issues certainly has its own problems, reading it made me think that a book-length report of one’s own therapy may necessarily be both boring and overwrought.
You’ve heard of therapy, right? It’s been around for awhile. Most of us know that everyone has problems, and that talking them out with another person might be of some use. Some of us probably even know someone who was once a therapy skeptic, and later began to rely on it. To begin with, then, the idea that learning the value of therapy might be a process worth witnessing is sort of baffling. Especially at length, in this format: Martin’s experiences would make sense to read on a blog -- the book actually began as a series of weekly columns called “Conversations with my Therapist” in the UK magazine Grazia, and it’s likely that was easier to digest -- but they make upwards of 300 pages feel like many more.
Sort of like Cathy Alter (who attempted a similarly self-conscious self-improvement project in Up for Renewal), the pre-therapy Martin is irresponsible, oblivious, and obsessed with an unavailable, bad news kind of guy. Minus that last thing, though, she’s not much different after long hours spent reclined on a couch in the office of “Dr. J.” Throughout the book, Martin shows us all her neuroses, and then her therapist tries to help her recognize and work through them. The patient is so transparent that readers will have diagnosed her long before her first session, and will feel more compassion for the therapist than for Martin herself. Sure, it’s nice when she’s finally able to see that she, a 35-year-old woman, is plainly and rabidly jealous of her 2-year-old nephew for having usurped her place in the family spotlight, and when she comes to the incredible realization that there’s “something uniquely refreshing about being completely honest with someone about all these deep and ugly motivations.” By that I mean, it’s nice for her. I just can’t understand why she thinks anyone else would want to read about it:
I came incredibly close to saying “Fuck you” or getting up and walking out or bursting into tears and begging [Dr. J] not to shout at me. Instead I held my hands up and said: “Hmm, yeah, sorry, I guess…” I stopped myself from saying “Sorry for saying sorry for saying hmm and I guess,” and continued, still in an apologetic tone of voice, “Yeah, I probably agree with the observation.”
Oh God. I corrected myself before Dr. J got the chance. “I mean, I agree. I agree, okay. I agree. I don’t probably agree and I don’t largely agree. And I don’t think I might agree. I just agree. I agree.” By this point, I’d almost forgotten what it was I was agreeing with.
Plenty of books that offer up some version of “too much information” are insightful, or at least enjoyable. The problem comes when personal narratives are gratuitous and self-indulgent, without being at all perceptive or entertaining. A book about being in therapy shouldn’t have to feel like the paperback incarnation of the therapy itself, with the author working out all her issues, for her own benefit and her own amusement, in front of you.
The Girl on the Couch, a 1956 pulp novel by Georgiana Hunter (yes, the same title as Martin’s book, plus an extra “the”) about a 25-year-old prostitute who decides to quit the world’s oldest profession and go into analysis, is similarly dramatic.
“Oh,” she moaned. “I need help. I must be reborn unto myself, made clean and pure -- not as the whoring daughter for ten thousand fathers…” She dug her nails into her palms, trying to pierce the skin. “Oh, God, I need so much help! I must dig up my sins and belong. I must get out of that eternal orphanage. I must be analyzed…”
But it’s a pulp novel. And its protagonist is a traumatized prostitute, not a socially inept journalist.
To show how badly she needed to be in therapy, it makes sense that Martin would have to portray herself as something of a mess. To hold our attention, though, she needs to be at least somewhat sympathetic. Instead, she’s a full-fledged Bridget Jones cliché come to life: drinking too much and then swearing off drinking and then drinking too much again, sending regrettable text messages and e-mails to unavailable men, traveling on assignments she’s miserably unprepared for, spouting off wholly unconvincing streams of chatter to a handful of comparatively smart, well-adjusted friends who can only roll their eyes in response. It’s hard to believe that Martin is actually as oblivious as she makes herself out to be -- it’s all so severe and silly that it sometimes seems like a kind of drag, or chick lit performance art.
Which would be okay, if it was done with a knowing wink. Instead, Martin paints herself as an idiot in an attempt to be funny: we’re supposed to laugh when she sends a 4,000 word e-mail to a guy she’s very, very interested in declaring that she’s uninterested in men, freaks out and cries every time she lays eyes on the married jerk she slept with once who is now seeing someone else, and claims she has no reason to be jealous of her sister because she herself has “always been better.” (If I were a therapist, I might say that the whole attempt at humor feels like a horribly misguided attempt to make her readers like her.) Instead, we cringe. Not because we don’t recognize similar tendencies in ourselves, but because Martin is stunningly unaware, even as she’s trying to show us that she now knows just how unaware she used to be. She must not realize what an unflattering portrait this is -- if she was, it’s hard to imagine she would let anyone read this book (not to mention have written it in the first place). Unless it’s a sly mind experiment all it’s own, designed to make us so annoyed by Lorna Martin that our own insecurities are revealed…
So, how do you go about writing an account of your fledgling self-awareness when doing so means portraying yourself as an adolescent? How about: don’t. Pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself if it’s really worth having a book in the world with your name on the cover if that book makes you look ridiculous. Then ask yourself again.