Book review: The Talking Cure

A meandering exploration of the inner world, ideally undertaken while reclining on a velvet couch, has fallen from favour in recent years, replaced by quick fixes such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

But, as Professor Gillian Straker and Doctor Jacqui Winship argue in their co-authored book, The Talking Cure, more intensive forms of psychotherapy remain valuable. And in the case of struggling parents, intensive family therapy is ultimately cost effective, as prevention is far better than cure.

But what is therapy? The wise and impassive therapist is a familiar figure in popular culture, yet the work itself is a mysterious process, and it’s natural to wonder just how sitting in a room, talking to a stranger – albeit a highly trained professional listener – can make a difference.

The Talking Cure goes some way towards answering this question through the presentation of nine case studies. These fictional, yet recognisable characters are each grappling with troubles that will be familiar to many, including crippling shyness, parenting battles and unbalanced or unsatisfying relationships.

Each chapter opens with the initial encounter between the patient and the therapist (who is never named, but could be either one of the authors), and continues with a beautifully observed account of the unfolding relationship and its gradual impact on the patient’s life beyond the consulting room.

It is in this developing relationship that the work happens, as the therapist becomes a blank slate upon which the client unconsciously demonstrates his or her particular style of relating to others.

Old patterns, often forged in childhood by interactions with inevitably flawed caregivers, play out in this private, rule-bound space. It’s the therapist’s often-uncomfortable task to bring these unhelpful patterns to the patient’s conscious awareness at just the right moment so that they understand – both intellectually and on an emotional level – how they might choose to do things differently.

These encounters form the crux of the book, and what makes each one so intriguing is that the reader experiences the process through the eyes of the therapist.

We meet Troy, a doctor whose tendency towards hyper-vigilance and selfless care for others makes him an excellent physician, but leaves him exhausted and resentful in his personal relationships. Here, we are privy to the therapist’s reactions to Troy, and what it’s like to simply be in a room with him.

“I found his intense observation of me wearying,” she notes, “as I reacted by trying to control my own shifts in energy and attention to avoid having a negative impact on him.”

Further sessions reveal the source of this hyper-vigilance: ­ Troy’s distant, moody father and overly sensitive mother, whom he felt obliged to take care of while receiving little in return.

As he becomes increasingly aware of this tendency to focus too much on others and not enough on himself, he begins to ask a little more of those around him, and experiences more equal and satisfying relationships as a result.

The authors are both academics and psychologists, with decades of experience between them. So it’s a revelation that as therapists they often falter, constantly probing their own reactions and missteps in order to better understand and help their patients.

We see the therapist’s uncertainty in her conversations with Prisha, a charming and engaging woman who feels sure that her regular conflicts with her boss are deeply unfair, and in no way her fault.

In one heated session, the therapist gently voices her differing perspective on the situation. Her comments are not received kindly, and she worries later that she was too abrupt, and has lost Prisha’s trust. 

It is in these moments of disconnection that, counter-intuitively, the most progress is made. Bound by the formal yet inherently trusting nature of the relationship, in the next session Prisha is able to face down her uncomfortable feelings about being challenged, acknowledge them, and move on.

Each chapter concludes by addressing the dynamics at play in each encounter, the childhood experiences that can often underlie them, and a checklist of common markers for each. This is followed by some suggestions for work, often as simple as naming your feelings, that the reader might do to address these issues in his or her own life. 

In observing the deep respect and attention the authors’ bring to their conversations with their imaginary, yet utterly recognisable clients, The Talking Cure offers countless insights into the therapeutic process, and relationships generally.

For some, this book may well be the spur for them to try psychotherapy for themselves. For anyone wondering about a career as a psychotherapist, it would be invaluable.

It’s also a reminder of the power of simply listening to others, and of being heard ourselves, as we navigate through life.

“I still have my moments,” writes Prisha in a friendly postcard, long after her sessions have concluded. “But they pass more quickly.”

First published in The Australian Books August 10, 2019