This Memoirist Got By With a Little Help From Strangers

This Memoirist Got By With a Little Help From Strangers

How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Changed My Life
By Christie Tate

Scan the book jackets of many contemporary memoirs and you will find the words “brave,” “honest” and “raw,” often followed by “redemptive.” But these reduce the art form to confession, as if little more than a diary into which the writer has spilled her guts. I’m reminded of something Annie Dillard once said about writing memoir: “You may not let it rip.” At its best, memoir is an act of consummate control. The writer hasn’t just survived her trials and tribulations. She has transcended them enough to craft them into a story.

Christie Tate’s “Group” is one of those rare memoirs that can be accurately described as honest and raw, and I don’t entirely mean that as a compliment. As a young law student, Tate suffers from terrible loneliness and a self-loathing that manifests in a variety of ways. She struggles with a longtime eating disorder, chooses unavailable men, has trouble with intimacy of any kind. “I wished passively for death,” she writes, “but I didn’t stockpile pills or join the Hemlock Society’s mailing list. I didn’t research how to get a gun or fashion a noose out of my belts. I didn’t have a plan, a method or a date. But I felt an unease, constant as a toothache. It didn’t feel normal.” Tate is first in her law school class, an accomplishment that only sinks her further into despair. She imagines an empty future defined by billable hours, a legal career as “culturally approved-of beard for my dismal personal life.”

A friend tells Tate about Dr. Jonathan Rosen, a therapist who is Jewish and Harvard-educated (I mention this only because much is made of his ethnicity and pedigree) and whose highly unconventional psychological methods involve group therapy in which radical honesty is the rule. Both inside the group and out, patients are allowed to disclose what goes on. Sexual hang-ups and habits, bodily functions or dysfunctions, obsessions, affairs, all are fair game. Into this mix marches Tate, whose fear of being truly seen and known is even greater, at first, than her fear of sucking at relationships and her fear of dying alone. Rosen’s unusual technique includes what he calls “prescriptions.” After Tate confesses to the group that she’d eaten seven apples the night before, Rosen asks her to call another group member every evening and recount exactly what she’d eaten that day. “The apples aren’t killing you,” he tells her. “The secrecy is.”

Herein lies the greatest strength of this raw and honest memoir. We witness, up close, a young woman as she takes halting, awkward baby steps toward becoming herself. It’s a process, and it isn’t pretty. As Tate’s ties to Rosen and his groups deepen (yes, plural; at one point she is in two groups and attends sessions three time a week), as she speaks aloud her most shameful secrets and realizes that no one has shunned her, she slowly becomes tenderized, and her heart — she had been so sure it was defective — begins to open, both to herself and others.

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