Six People in Search of a Life

By Paul Solotaroff

Riverhead. 339 pp. $25.95

Whatever happened to group--that once fashionable adjunct to talk--therapy? Over the past decade, therapy groups seem to have been co-opted by human-potential courses, corporate seminars, or AA and other program enclaves. Can it be time now for group to make a comeback in some pared-down, postmodern version? In the form of sessions like the kind profiled in this book, maybe?

"Group" records a term of 20 preset sessions, each 2 1/2 hours long, devoted to six patients who meet over 40 weeks. The group is led by the pseudonymous Charles Lathon, a New York psychiatrist with a flair for the dramatic and an eye for the expedient. Unlike the laconic, opaque shrink of popular imagination, Lathon makes forceful statements about his patients, himself, the human condition. Lathon believes that life is short and must be lived with "passion," not squandered on therapy. A ticking clock is of the essence. Accordingly, he treats patients privately for three to six months, with drugs if need be, through the worst of their "presenting crisis," before considering them for group. During his individual sessions, he also primes them for the business of "serious listening," and of breaking down and communicating specific orders of pain. Once the acute crisis is in check, the patients can carry their struggle into group, "part support meeting, part truth squad" (part theater, too, evidently), for the dialectic of truth-telling and problem-solving that makes for "deep and expedient change."

The author, a journalist and former patient of Lathon's, originally asked for permission to recount the stories experienced during his own group therapy. Lathon declined but offered instead another proposal: He was putting together a new group of particularly thoughtful and articulate patients, all of whom were open to the idea of allowing a writer into their sessions, provided of course they remained anonymous (names changed, professions disguised, etc.) and the writer remained silent and unobtrusive during the sessions. In addition, each member, Lathon included, would sit for separate interviews, to clarify or dilate on personal history.

The resulting compromise is this savvy reportage by Paul Solotaroff. The purpose of his narrative, he says in the prologue, is not to write a self-help text but to tell the stories of six people "in search of a life" who are "not archetypes or paradigms but imperfect originals."

Not archetypes, perhaps, but almost as familiar. The two women and four men involved share "the full complement of modern misery. Alcoholism, bankruptcy, clinical depression, drug abuse, erotomania, filial hatred." An arrogant young Wall Street whiz kid who has made millions and seems to have it all can't seem to kick his hazardous addictions. Despite her success as photo editor for a glitzy women's magazine, a strikingly attractive former high-fashion model is depressed and pessimistic about ever finding a man. A successful commercial songwriter, once a rock-and-roll sideman, is plunged into drugs and alcoholic binges by a barrage of bad luck. A respected social worker and mother of two teenagers is desperately trying to hold on to her rights and her self-respect through the ordeal of a bitter divorce. A senior analyst at a major accounting firm is defeated by his lack of self-esteem on the job and mistrusts his good luck in finding a woman who not only loves and wants to marry him but happens to be rich as well. A former Broadway producer is trying to make a comeback after his early successes led to the ruin of cocaine, alcohol and larceny.

Blame it on Jerry Springer, but these stories, while engrossing, turn out to be tame and even wholesome in the unfolding. Those who imagine group sessions to be far more murky, rough-and-tumble affairs may be disappointed. Even Lathon, for all his flamboyance and eccentricity, speaks the familiar Esperanto of self-help gurus. Break down "categories of pain." Learn how to "tell it from its imitator, suffering." "Show up with your pain, and let us help sort it out." Distinguish "false story" from "true story." Draw out the truth with "ruthless compassion."

When Lathon first describes his method of putting a group together, he says, "I've found what works best is an equivalency of mind. Choosing people at the same level of talent and intelligence." But if the characters in this group, Lathon included, seem as felicitous as characters in a play, this may be due more to the author's hand in sizing up and shaping his material than to any creative matching of group members. Whatever the group's contribution to the outcome of their individual dramas, their stories have been well served by its sympathetic transcriber.