A Q&A with Author Linda Sherby
It's unusual for a psychologist to describe experiences from their chair. What inspired you to do so?
First let me say that it is becoming more common for therapists, including psychoanalysts, to write about their subjective experience of working with patients. We call that countertransference, the therapist's response to the patient, and we take our subjective responses as giving us important information about the patient.
Having said that, however, I would say that it is far more unusual for a therapist to reveal either to her patients or to the world as much person information as I have done in Love and Loss and I recognize that I may have made my future life as an analyst far more difficult. Some patients may come into treatment knowing much more about me than is customary and that will certainly change the dynamic between us. I also know that some people in the field will condemn me for revealing as much as I have, but this book served more than one purpose for me. Yes, it was important for me to demonstrate how a therapist's present life circumstances affects the therapeutic relationship because I do believe that particular aspect of the patient/therapist interaction has been largely ignored. But the other purpose of this book was to memorialize my husband and what I thought and still think was the unique relationship between us and there was no way I could do that without talking about him and about myself.
How did the book affect how you think about your patients? How have they responded?
I am far more comfortable sharing information about myself with patients if, and this is a big if, they want to know. Some patients have no interest in knowing anything about me and or definitely want me to remain the neutral therapist, and that is perfectly fine with me. Just today, one patient, after discovering my profile on Linked-in, told me that she didn't think she'd want to read my book because she would then see us more like two equals, as opposed to her still seeing me and wanting to see me as her mother. Another patient can't wait to read my book. She wants to know as much about me as possible because she wants to "take me down a peg," which she's sure reading my book will do. Both of these reactions have meaning in terms of who these patients are and, of course, both positions have to be looked at and understood.
How did writing the book shape your grieving process? What do you think your husband would think of it?
Of the many, many, many sadnesses I have about George's death, his not being able to read this book is one of them. George was always my biggest champion, my biggest fan, and tremendously supportive of my professional life, including my writing, so I know he would have loved the book. He was also a very open person, so I know that he wouldn't be at all troubled about what I reveal about him and us in the book. And because George will obviously not be able to read the book, perhaps more than any other readers, I look forward to George's children and grandchildren reading the book, as surrogates for George himself.
As far as my grieving process, my thought prior to writing the book was that it would be both a way to hold onto George, as well as a way to move beyond my grief and to some extent I would say that has happened. But grief is a very complicated process and I can never tell when I will again be engulfed by it, perhaps for briefer periods for time, but mourning is not really a process that is ever over. So, for example, when you asked me how George would react to my book, that immediately brought tears to my eyes. And that's all right. George will always be with me. The book is another way for me to hold George with me, but he is always with me in my mind.
What writers inspire you?
Let me start by answering that question from the negative point of view. There is so much written in my field that is dry and boring and uninteresting and I knew that was not the kind of book I wanted to write. On the positive side, one book that comes immediately to mind which I read while I was in graduate school - not as part of the curriculum - was actually a novel, although everyone knew it was autobiographical, which was Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a seriously disturbed schizophrenic girl. Her analyst was very well known, Frieda Fromm Reichmann, although she's not named as such in the book. Later, Irving Yalom, wrote engaging books, sometimes fiction, sometimes actual clinical cases, that captured my interest. And in terms of a contemporary analyst, I would say Philip Bromberg writes beautifully about the clinical experience and the interaction and relationship between patient and therapist.
In terms of notable memoirs, especially ones related to grief, I'd mention C.S. Lewis', A Grief Observed; Not Dying by F. Robert Rodman; Anne Roiphe's Epilogue; and Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story. And truthfully, what I most love to read are novels. And I probably have more "favorites" than I could even think of - Nicole Krauss, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, and my relatively new find Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending.
Whom do you see as the audience for LOVE AND LOSS?
I hope I don't sound too conceited when I say this, but I don't think there's anyone who couldn't take something away from Love and Loss. Having said that, I do feel that different audiences would take away different things. I think the general audience could read a love story between two very different people, who forged a unique bond and dealt with both the joys and adversities that life inevitability brings along. I think they could see the importance of allowing yourself to love fully and completely and to learn that you can deal with loss, however painful that might be. Everyone deals with loss in their lives and seeing how people cope with loss can be extremely helpful. I think a general audience would also get a unique perspective on what it's like to be a therapist - what a therapist thinks and feels as she both lives her life and works intensively with her patients. Love and Loss certainly dispels the notion of an objective, non-feeling therapist and I think that's a myth worth dispelling.
I also think this could be an invaluable book for professionals in all the mental health fields, which includes students in those fields, as well as those who deal with death and dying. Love and Loss is a very hands-on book. I present a great deal of clinical material and I'm always reflecting on my own thoughts and feelings as I interact with patients. I think it could help students learn how to be better therapists, as well as freeing them from the notion that they have to be more than human. And although there certainly may be those in my field who will object to my approach in one or perhaps all of my cases, I have given them enough material with which to argue and I think I have also made clear how human we all are and how our present life circumstances can't help but affect our work.