Lies, examined. – Essay on The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

A book and a mirror, Grosz’ collection of stories brings humanity’s flaws to the surface, and points to the healing power of the truth.


Tekst: Camilla Helen Heiervang



Sometimes I lie to my neighbours in the flat next door. I lie about my plans for the holiday, perhaps, or about my parents’ marriage to a colleague, or I lie to the shop assistant when the dress fits perfectly but I nonetheless don’t want it, or I can’t afford it, or something of that kind. I smile, I say I’ll come back the next day, I say thank you and please, only to (of course) never to set foot there again, at least not within the next 3-4 months.


As silly as this lying may be, it’s not the worst kind of lying. Or so I believe. For in every person’s life there’s a kind of lying that’s invisible, inaudible, almost non-existent but one that still wrecks whatever it wants to wreck. I’m talking about the lying to ourselves, which we all do, almost all the time. Lying to ourselves about what we want, who we are, where we came from and where we dream to go.


Then suddenly, we are exposed. Someone says something, which reveals us, unintentionally. Our smirk has a certain inconcealable gloom, we miss the train to dinner chez les parents, we accidentally drop our lover’s favourite mug to the floor so that it shatters into 44 uneven pieces. Or perhaps when we realise we’ve long since fallen out of love with the ex we’re still obsessing about, and what we’re really attempting to achieve with this obsession is avoiding the silence of being on one’s own, rather than a return to coupledom.


Only rarely, however, do books take it upon themselves to expose things of any real meaning. Often, a book gives us information, some drama or intrigue; or it takes away something, perhaps the conversation we could have had were we not lost in the long lines of a russian novel at that moment, or the slow cooked Sunday afternoon meal that gave way to those war stories, yet again.


Not so with Stephen Grosz’ collection of stories based on his experiences of 25 years’ practice as a psychoanalyst in London. Like a kaleidoscope of tiny mirrors, each story reflects a part of our fragmented selves. There’s the woman whose life is an ongoing series of catastrophes, carefully orchestrated to avoid regret, there’s the raging boy’s sadness over that which can’t be changed, there’s the boring man who can’t stop annoying everyone he talks to, knowing that by pushing them away like that, he’ll never truly be hurt again, forever marred by the way his parents hurt him all those decades ago.


In the 2 years I’ve had the book, I’ve read and re-read it. I’ve slept with it, I’ve returned to it first thing after my eyes opened, I’ve cried brave and not so brave tears over it. Indeed I do not lie when I say it has changed me.


Using few but carefully selected words, Grosz highlights the oblique in his patients’ lives. With almost poetic language, he shows how they get close to themselves, only to lean away at the last moment before becoming who they really are, underneath the lying, the becoming, the having been this and that. And I’m reminded of the poetry present in the kindest of human interactions, the most patient, the most tolerant. It is the analyst’s job not to judge, not to point too soon to the blind spot, not to grow sick and tired of his patients. Grosz describes how he sometimes falls short of this, but he also invites us to the space that opens up when questions are asked without the demand of immediate answers. In this space, truth appears, in a blink, in a flash. And like the reflection of the sun in the sea on a bright summer’s day, the truth jumps right out of the book and into the reader’s consciousness, revealing something that up until that point had been concealed.


I have often pondered over how poetry tells us something true about the world precisely by lying about it. In much the same way, the truth about a person is revealed in the way he lies to himself. Unnoticed, this hiding of truth reveals itself in various symptoms – stagnated relationships, paranoia, hatred, cynicism, suicide. But brought into the light of day, truth has the power to transform a life spent trying to avoid oneself into a life lived in truthfulness. And so the experience of life, examined, becomes worth it all. Through Grosz’ writing you may realise, perhaps just in time, that the examination must begin now.