Noam Shpancer: The Good Psychologist (2010)

A witty, absorbing novel on the days and ways of a cognitive behaviour therapist whose life outstrips his theories.

I seem to be drawn to books with psychologists as characters lately. No wonder I picked up The Good Psychologist when I saw it in a book shop. After a few moments of puzzlement I enjoyed it a lot. It’s unusual. One could call it literary non-fiction, if that genre even exists. What puzzled me was that the main character is always just called “the psychologist”. Like some of his patients, he has no name but is referred to via his profession. The other thing that surprised me is that you have a feeling not only to be in the therapy sessions with him but also in class where he teaches his students.  Shpancer, a first-time novelist, is a professor and therapist and both professions are the topic of this book. It is important to know that the specializations of his character are the same he has, namely anxiety disorders and depression. The method is cognitive behavioural therapy. I was completely absorbed by the novel. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in therapy, this book will show you. If you are interested in psychology, you will enjoy it and should you suffer from anxiety disorders, I think this book may help you or at least show you that there is a possibility to be cured.

Eager therapists, the people-persons who drip with goodwill and sympathy, theirs is a false promise, and theirs is a wounding touch, he will say later in class. A therapist who rushes to help forgets to listen and therefore cannot understand, and therefore cannot see. The eager therapist, the one who is determined to offer salvation, involves himself and seeks his own salvation.The good psychologist keeps his distance and does not involve himself in the results of his work. The right distance allows a deep and clear gaze. The good psychologist reserves the business of closeness for family members and beloved pets and leaves the business of salvation to religious officials and street corner eccentrics.

The Good Psychologist tells the story of a middle-aged, single psychologist who also teaches evening classes. His life is rather lonely but that’s how he wants it to be. He is in love with a woman who is married to a very sick man. They had an affair and because she wasn’t able to conceive from her husband, she asked the psychologist whether he would be willing to let her have his child. After she gets pregnant, she breaks the affair off and doesn’t want to see him anymore. Still they stay in touch professionally and she is the one he turns to when he needs advice with one of his clients.

Tiffany is a stripper who cannot dance anymore. Like most of the people who come for therapy to the psychologist, she has panic attacks. Her biggest fear is that she will never be able to dance again and will not earn enough money to get her child from her abusive husband where the girl stays at the moment.

The chapters alternate between chapters in the therapy room, the class room and at the therapist’s home. We see how he treats with the method of cognitive behavioural therapy, how he teaches his students the principles and how he applies them in his own life.

Tonight we will discuss a common confusion among young therapists, he announces to the class. Mental health – to the extent that there is such a thing as mental  and such a thing as health – is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. The therapist is like a driving instructor not a chauffeur.

I found this highly fascinating. The psychologist is constantly questioning the “cranky Viennese” (Freud) and introduces other names and concepts. Maybe this sounds very heavy-handed and theoretical but it’s well done. We learn that the biggest difference between psychoanalysis, the way Freud taught it, and CBT, is how different the importance of childhood is perceived. CBT therapists do not think that childhood is that important. They show their clients that it’s their thought processes they have to change. This is illustrated in many different ways and I was more than once amazed or surprised about different insights.

Try this exercise: switch all your daily buts with ands. Jennifer – he turns to her – instead of telling your fiancé, I love you but you’re driving me mad, tell him, I love you and you are driving me mad.

What I loved about this book is the fact that the psychologist never sounds smug. He isn’t a know-it-all. He is a man who struggles in his own life but who is genuinely kind. He does make mistakes and we see how he handles them.

The Good Psychologist is highly readable, informative, fascinating and it introduced me to a fictional character that I would enjoy meeting in real life.

Needless to say that this book is very quotable. Just like in Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, there is a great quote on every page. I just picked a very few and hope they give an impression.

Here write this down. The goal of therapy is to provide the client with the tools to nurture and maintain psychological health. We help him practice the correct use of the tools: acceptance of emotions, rational examination of thoughts; to consciously confront erroneous patterns of response and embrace the flow of correct healthy patterns.

Personally I do not think there is one therapy that is right for everyone but this sure sounds like one that makes a lot of sense, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders.

If you do not want to read this novel but are interested in the therapy, here is a site that gives a Mini Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

40 thoughts on “Noam Shpancer: The Good Psychologist (2010)

  1. Let me recommend Lying on the Couch by Irvin Yalom and Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi. I, too, have a fondness for “therapy” novels, and you’re right, they’re awful when they’re smug.

  2. i would might have bothered to read the book but you have already gave the outline of the novel, and i like suspense….
    the only psychological book i read is veronica decides to die by paulo coelho…. that was good knowing what goes on in the mental hopitals

    • I don’t think that would happen. He shows what little tricks the mind plays. If you have ever read Paul Watzlawick, that’s where he is coming from.
      For example when someone passes you by on the street without saying hello and you immediately think “He hates me”, while the person may not even have seen you. People who tend to be very anxious will start to spin a story in their head and end up thinking “Everybody hates me”…
      We all have days when something minimal is blown out of proportion. To see how he picks things like this apart is entertaining.

    • You are welcome, Carole. I hope you will like it. I have read quite a lot of books on psychology but for one reason or the other I wasn’t really familiar with CBT. I loved to read a novel and to feel I learn a lot without it being preachy. Well, at least it wasn’t for me.

  3. Psychology is an area that I never have studied and feel woefully ignorant about the subject–I only know bits that I have picked up here and there. Maybe that’s why I shy away from books like this, though I should really give one a try. I’m not at all familiar with this author, but the story does sound interesting.

    • He writes very well, it’s a quick read and quite captivating, I think you might enjoy it. It gives you the impression of having read a novel and non-fiction at the same time. It could have gone wrong but it worked well. I’m curious to see whether he will write another book and what that will be.

  4. Caroline,
    I bought this little gem when it was first published and was not disappointed. Like you, I love books about psychologists and therapists. As a novel it was a unique read, and I liked the foibles of the psychcologist whose primary life seems to be wrapped up in his patients.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • It is a little gem and quite unique. It could have gone wrong to add such a lot of theory but I thought it worked well, I had the feeling of sitting there in class and therapy with him. I’m really curious to see whether he will write another novel.

      • Yes, Caroline, I wonder if he’ll write another. I’d like to read it! I like his sensiblities. Shpancer teaches at a college in Ohio–Occidental College, I believe. I remember emailing him and asking if I could interview him for my blog. He kindly agreed, but because the book was published in mid-August 2010 and I was madly planning for my fall classes, I didn’t follow up. Darn! If only there were 27 hours in a day.

        Judith

        • Oh, Judith, that would have been so wonderful. I hope he will write another one and you will get a chnace to do that interview then. I suspect he has portrayed himself in the book and the psychlogist does really sound like someone one would like to get to know.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! I loved the author’s last name :) This looks like a fascinating book. I liked very much that passage you have quoted about mental health being a process and not a destination. Very thought provoking. I also liked that advice about replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ in our conversation. I will try it sometime. I studied psychology at the university for a year and I found it to be a really fascinating subject. I haven’t read many ‘psychology’ novels though. I remember reading ‘The Naked Face’ by Sidney Sheldon when I was in college, which had a psychoanalyst as the lead character. I remember liking it very much at that time. I also liked Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ though it is written from the perspective of a person suffering from depression. Have you seen a movie called ‘Spellbound’ directed by Alfred Hitchcock? It has Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck playing the lead characters. Bergman is a psychoanalyst in the movie. The movie is quite wonderful.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I could have quoted so much more and some of the experiments are quite amazing. Just little things like replacing but with and. It changes a lot. I’ve just read a Finnish novel, also with a psychoanalyst in it but I’m not sure if I review it here as it hasn’t been translated. We will see, may I’ll do it in the end anyway. The Bell Jar is amazing but very different.
      I think I have seen Spellbound but can’t remember it so well. Is it the movie in which he tries to drive her mad?

      • ‘Spellbound’ is about a new head of a mental hospital (played by Gregory Peck) who is mysterious and turns out to be an imposter. He seems to have amnesia and has forgotten his past. One of the doctors in the hospital (played by Ingrid Bergman) wants to help him by treating his amnesia and unlocking his past memories. Then a murder comes to light and what happens next is the rest of the story.

        • I wonder with what other movie I mixed this up?
          It sounds quite good. It’s even possible I have it somewhere. I bought a Hitchcock collection and haven’t seen them all. His movies are always a great choice. I like both actors a lot.

  6. I haven’t read any Psychologist book before, one that is this serious. I read a seriel killer book that was investigated by a psychologist once but I bet that was different to this.

    I really like the quotes you have shared here, especially the buts and ands. That’s worth to try.

    • It’s different, yes. What I liked as well is how he showed how he teaches his students.
      I think a few of the things he mentions are worth trying. The way we use language influences the way we experience the world.

  7. I am so relieved you liked this. I bought a copy of it on a whim when it first came out, and of course have yet to get around to it. But it’s a relief that you did find it fascinating. I noted the slightly odd style and wondered if it would bother me, but I feel more optimistic now. As you know, I really do love therapy novels. I would also recomment Yalom, although I like his case studies more than his fiction.

    • I have seen a guardian review calling it a failure as a novel. That’s one way of putting it but I think the genre isn’t as strictly defined as that and there is a story, fictional characters and a denouement. Plus it’s well written and informative. I hope you will like it.
      I have started one of Yalom’s non-fiction books and was very captivated, no idea why I didn’t finish.

  8. Some way, it reminds me of La maladie de Sachs, only Sachs is a GP.

    Btw, I read Watzlawick in school, for HR and marketing classes. I remember I liked it.

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