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Review of "The Gift of Therapy"

By Irvin D. Yalom
Harperperennial, 2001
Review by Heather C. Liston on May 23rd 2002
The Gift of Therapy

            For the general reader interested in psychotherapy, there is no more interesting writer than Irvin D. Yalom.  The author of eleven previous books, one of which (When Nietzsche Wept) is actually a novel, Yalom is a psychiatrist and practicing therapist who also happens to be a gifted storyteller.

            His newest book, The Gift of Therapy carries the subtitle “An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients,” and it consists of eighty-five very short essays on what he has learned in thirty-five years in practice.  He brings to his work as a writer the power of experience—as a therapist, and also as a patient.  He himself has been through Freudian analysis, gestalt therapy, Rolfing, marital-couples work, support groups, and even—in the 1960’s—a nude encounter group, and he has studied and worked with some of the great names in the history of his field (Rollo May, Eric Erickson, and others).  There seems to be no sort of patient he has not encountered and no question about the process of therapy with which has not personally struggled.

In fact, speaking of experience, one of the best parts of the book is the dedication: “To Marilyn, soulmate for over fifty years and still counting.”  The author’s wife, Marilyn Yalom, Ph.D., is the senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and, like Yalom, a writer both serious and popular. This tribute to an extraordinarily long relationship between two professionally successful people is as powerful an argument for effective therapy and self-examination as anything else in the book.

            In these eighty-five chapters of one to three pages each, Yalom offers manageable bits of advice, embedded with intriguing stories of real patients.  Some of his suggestions seem almost obvious (“Therapists must be aware of their own dark side and be able to empathize with all human wishes and impulses.”) and some are more startling (“I make it a point to touch each patient each hour . . .) but all are thought-provoking.  Admitting at all times that therapists are human too, he rejects the “blank slate” school of therapy that says the doctor should reveal nothing of himself so as to be available for pure transference.  Of course the therapist is a real person with a life and feelings of his own, says Yalom, and it is not only OK to reveal that, it is therapeutic for the patient.  In fact, “Therapist disclosure begets patient disclosure.”  He offers thoughts on coping with sexual attraction to patients, and ways of dealing with your feelings about patients who repulse or annoy you.

            There is a welcome lack of orthodoxy in Yalom’s work.  He seems open to a variety of methods, applied with the individual patient and situation in mind: “the task of experience therapists [is to] establish a relationship with the patient characterized by genuineness, positive unconditional regard, and spontaneity.”  Therefore, he says, “the therapist must strive to create a new therapy for each patient.” How to do that is much of the content of this book: how to listen; how to empathize; how to provide useful feedback without upsetting your patient; how to upset the patient when appropriate so as to provoke her to new insights and difficult growth.

            The Gift of Therapy is a quick read.  You can zip through it all in one sitting, or digest each pithy, self-contained essay one at a time, while sitting in your therapist’s waiting room.  If you do, you will almost certainly get some good ideas about what to discuss with her when you go in, and how to do it.


© 2002 Heather C. Liston

Heather C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.