Lori Gottlieb is a Beverly Hills therapist who wants to let you know that she’s just like everyone else. “Of all my credentials as a therapist, the most significant is that I am a card-carrying member of the human race,” she writes in her new book, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” Gottlieb, who is also the “Dear Therapist” columnist for the Atlantic, wants to show us not only her own humanity but also that of her patients. She throws open the door on sessions when she’s in the chair — and on others when she’s on the couch. The result is a dishy romp, an eavesdropper’s guilty pleasure that — perhaps not surprisingly — is already being developed as a television series with Eva Longoria and ABC.
Gottlieb gets off to a flying start. On Page 1, we’re in her office, where she’s with a new patient, “John.” (All names and identifying information have been blurred.) John is “stressed out.” He’s having trouble sleeping and getting along with his wife. He needs “help managing the idiots” in his life, he tells Gottlieb. John says he’s chosen Gottlieb because she’s a “nobody” in Los Angeles, so he doesn’t have to worry about running into his Hollywood colleagues near her office. Gottlieb doesn’t flinch then, or when he gives her “a wad of cash” as payment, to hide from his wife that he’s seeing a therapist.
“You’ll be like my mistress,” he says. Or rather, “more like my hooker. No offense,” he adds, “but you’re not the kind of woman I’d choose as a mistress . . . if you know what I mean.” Gottlieb is only mildly offended. “I figured that this comment was just one of John’s defenses against getting close to anybody or acknowledging his need for another human being.” To herself she mutters, “Have compassion, have compassion, have compassion.” John never makes it easy, and part of the joy of the book is watching his emotions — and Gottlieb’s — evolve over time.
If only John knew: Gottlieb herself is in a vulnerable spot. “Boyfriend,” the man she thought she was going to marry, has just ended their relationship. Divorced with teenage children, Boyfriend says he wants to marry Gottlieb but doesn’t want her young son (who was conceived with sperm from a sperm bank as Gottlieb neared 40 without a husband on the horizon) in the picture. “You can’t order me up a la carte, like a burger without the fries,” she shouts at him, and decides she needs to return to therapy herself.
Soon enough, Gottlieb chooses “Wendell” as her therapist, thereby becoming one of the roughly 30 million people in therapy in the United States at any given time. Although about three-quarters of the clinicians who practice therapy in the United States are women (Gottlieb’s book is replete with such facts and figures), she has selected a man to be her therapist, a married man with children, because she wants to see if an “objective male professional who has firsthand experience of marriage and kids — a man just like Boyfriend — will be as appalled by Boyfriend’s behavior” as she is.
A few of Wendell’s techniques are unconventional. Early in her therapy, a sobbing Gottlieb suddenly sees an object flying toward her. At first she thinks it’s a football, but quickly she realizes it’s a brown box of tissues. It lands nearby, and she makes use of its contents. “Having the box there seems to narrow the space between Wendell and me,” she writes, “as if he just threw me a lifeline.” On another occasion, as she is droning on about Boyfriend, Wendell walks over to her and lightly kicks her foot. “What was that?” she replies. “Well,” Wendell says, “you seem like you’re enjoying the experience of suffering, so I thought I’d help you out with that.” He reminds her that pain and suffering are not the same and tells her: “You’re going to have to feel pain — everyone does at times — but you don’t have to suffer so much.” (You’d think, as a therapist, she might know this, but . . .)
“Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” consists of 58 brief chapters, a number with provocative titles (“If the Queen Had Balls,” “Therapy With a Condom On”). The book alternates between Gottlieb’s therapy with Wendell and the therapy she does with John; with “Julie,” a 33-year-old professor coping with a cancer diagnosis; with “Rita,” 69, a thrice-divorced woman with suicidal ideation; and with “Charlotte,” an anxious, untethered 25-year-old with an unacknowledged drinking problem.
Gottlieb also offers a few autobiographical chapters in which she reveals that she Google-stalks Boyfriend, that an article she wrote for the Atlantic was “the most emailed piece in the one hundred-plus-year history of the magazine” and that she has had bikini waxes. TMI? For me, yes. But Gottlieb likes to share — and to stir the pot. In 2000, she published a memoir, “Stick Figure,” that divulged the contents of her diary as an 11-year-old struggling with anorexia. Ten years later, in the book “Marry Him,” she ruffled many a feather by suggesting that ambitious, unmarried 30-something women were being too picky when it came to finding a man.
Gottlieb can be provocative and entertaining, but her prose often descends into psychobabble; she is prone to use jargon (ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic disorders are defined); she overuses the f-word, along with additional expletives, as interjections and as adjectives, verbs and other parts of speech; and she quotes from a few too many psychiatrists and psychologists. Doses of Freud, Jung, Fromm and Erikson are to be expected, but James Prochaska’s transtheoretical model of behavior change and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” state seem superfluous for the lay reader, for whom this book is obviously intended.
And yet: The excerpts from the therapy sessions keep us reading. John, who insists on Skyping one session and on eating during nearly every session — he provides Chinese chicken salads for the two of them — gradually reveals himself and appears less obnoxious. Gottlieb is helpful to him and perhaps more so to Julie, the most likable person in the book. As Julie faces death, Gottlieb is forced to look at her own shortcomings. “Would I offend her if my feelings — discomfort, fear, sadness — came across in my facial expressions or body language? . . . What if I let her down?” Gottlieb wonders before pulling herself together: “I had to remember that I was there to help Julie, not comfort myself.”
By tearing down boundaries, Gottlieb gives us more than a voyeuristic look at other people’s problems (including her own). She shows us, with high praise to Wendell, the value of therapy. “People often think they go to therapy for an explanation — say, why Boyfriend left, or why they’ve become depressed — but what they’re really there for is the experience, something unique that’s created between two people over time. . . . It begins with the knowledge that our time together is finite.” And with that, she ends her sessions: for now.
By Lori Gottlieb
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
415 pp. $28