A colleague here at Otterbein University, Noam Shpancer, a psychologist, has just hit the big time at age fifty-one with his first novel, The Good Psychologist. Early reviews are positive to raves: Kirkus gave it a starred notice, Alan Cheuse reviewed it on NPR, and the Boston Globe called it “extraordinary” and “a rare gift.” Bought by Henry Holt at an auction conducted by Noam’s agent, the story is about a therapist who’s treating a stripper with stage fright. And it’s about the psychologist’s own complicated love life. Another plot concerns the therapist’s night class at a college where he’s an adjunct instructor trying to change the way students think about thought, emotions, and memory.
The good psychologist deals with story and identity, he announces. And he who deals with story and identity deals with memory. All your events and experiences, all your insights and history, all that is bound and wrapped into your notion of I—it all depends on memory. That’s why it is important to know something about memory processes. Most people know nothing about memory, and if they have any idea, then it is usually wrong. Your own understanding of memory, we may therefore assume, is faulty, and our job is to correct it. He waves his chalk in front of them. . . .
You, the psychologist says, looking over the room, may believe that memory is but a video recording that is documenting the days of our lives as they happen and storing them in the brain’s archives. This is a common assumption and an intuitive metaphor, not lacking in elegance: the brain is a library in which the tales of our times are bound and housed; a beautiful metaphor, but, alas, erroneous and misleading. Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such it is made of storytelling materials: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness. He steps forward with practiced theatricality.
A stripper did show up years ago seeking Noam’s help for her sudden fear of exposure, he says, but she never returned. Her problem intrigued him. He began to imagine a psychologist with such a client, a psychologist with his own problems, and to think about the man’s quirky students and his pontificating before them. Noam says he wanted three narrative threads and piled up notes and ideas about each before beginning to write. He wrote 1,000 words a day and finished in five months. (Noam also blogs: His “Insight Therapy” is hosted by Psychology Today.)
He wrote the first draft in Hebrew, his native language—he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and didn’t learn English until he was sixteen—and sold the novel first in Israel. His agent was having a drink with an American agent and mentioned this novel “that might do well in America.” One thing led to another. A play based on the book is being prepared in Israel, and there’s talk of a movie in America.
“It’s all serendipity,” Noam says. “I don’t think of myself as a Writer. My ego isn’t based on this. I have two more novels I want to write. I had a good life and was
happy.” He adds, “I read mostly poetry, and I write some. I’m a visual person. Instead of reading a novel I’ll go to a museum or watch a movie. . . . This novel is an indie movie.”
He seems a natural writer. I devoured The Good Psychologist in three sittings, admiring its spare language and exposition—“I believe less is more,” Noam says—and was intrigued by the inner life of the psychologist and by the book’s interwoven structure. It’s a literary novel that moves almost as fast as a summer beach book, which is probably why it’s also been sold in Italy, Germany, and Great Britain. As a memoirist I twigged to the enigmatic psychologist’s thoughts on memory and inner narratives.
. . . [N]ow we choose to meet the client with humility and purpose, to try to understand her story. Alas, here we should be beware, because the client will always begin with her alibi, not her story, even though her very presence in your office is evidence that her alibi has been ineffective. We do what we know. And people know their alibi much better than their story; since one’s alibi has daily uses while one’s story—who wants it? Moreover the client’s story, because it is human, contains painful elements, territories of failure and disaster. Naturally she will seek to distance herself from those and keep away others as well, for self-protection, or out of compassion or good manners. And that’s the job of the alibi: to deny, to distract and conceal and in doing so make life more bearable for the client and those around her. So your eventual work in therapy will be to walk the client from alibi to story; from the headline to the event itself. But first, the client’s alibi also allows them to test you.
Test what? the pink-haired girl asks.
Two things: whether you’ll buy the alibi, in which case you’re useless, and whether, if you refuse to buy it, you’ll resent the client for offering it, in which case you’re dangerous.
You’re cynical, Jennifer says.
Not necessarily. Perhaps clear-eyed. The first thing your client says is always a lie in essence, always impure. And this is not to condemn the client. Distorting and hiding the truth are, after all, essential life skills. Thus digging for truth in the context of therapy does not involve rejecting the lie, tarnishing the lie, or getting rid of it, but rather a deeper acceptance and understanding that includes the lie. Therapy is not a journey from lie to truth, from darkness to light, but an attempt to find the right balance between them. That’s why it’s important to grasp the value of the lie and its uses. . . .
The lie, it turns out, is not a bug in our software but a feature of our hardware. And the good psychologist can get to know it, learn its ways.
Of course the Zen-like psychologist seems rather passive in his own life—can he use his knowledge to save the stripper and himself?
The editing process sparked differences between the Israeli and American editions. Noam was amused by his Israeli editor, who said readers would wonder
why the man wasn’t talking to his mother; the editor also found the students oddly passive, maybe stupid. “These are Midwestern students,” Noam laughs. But he made them more complex and contentious, and gave the psychologist a backstory—with parents, albeit dead. His New York editor made him condense the psychologist’s lectures that Noam knew Israeli audiences would savor. “But then she wanted me to change the ending,” Noam says. “She said Americans like resolution. I said, ‘I’ll do anything you want, but not that.’ The ending is the best I can do.”
I hope Hollywood makes a movie of The Good Psychologist—and wonder if I’ll recognize the story at all once the stars and their agents, the scriptwriters and the director, are through. But I suspect Noam, regardless, will just shrug and smile.