The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
“American politicians know the power of a personal story,” writes Margaret Talbot in a recent New Yorker profile of Senator Bernie Sanders. Talbot enumerates examples across the 2016 presidential field—Jeb Bush’s life changed forever when he met his wife in Mexico; Hillary Clinton’s childhood as a Methodist and Girl Scout shaped who she is today. Sanders, by contrast, is known for offering little of his life story to the public—which, in its refusal to indulge the press, might be read as a way of creating an “authentic” personal narrative. But what is an “authentic” personal narrative for a politician or any person, and when is that narrative not truthful even if it’s personal?
The idea of the “life story” is central to The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, a conversation between the South African writer J. M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist training in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Based on the premise that what a therapist and novelist have in common is an interest in human nature and growth, the book covers literature—Don Quixote, Oedipus Rex, The Scarlet Letter, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, to name a few—memory, prayer, education, national history, and gang psychology. Coetzee and Kurtz write in their Authors’ Note that they hope the book will be relevant to those outside of the therapy field, given that “the ideal of personal growth [has] become part of the Zeitgeist.” But the book accomplishes something more important: it demonstrates how to critically think through an issue both on the most basic personal levels and on broader, political ones. It implicitly encourages readers to examine history as it unfolds—whether that is the reader’s life story or a story told on the public stage—to find the narratives and look closely at what they suggest.
“One way of thinking about psychoanalysis,” Kurtz writes towards the beginning of the book, “is to say that it is aimed at setting free the narrative or autobiographical imagination.” In response, Coetzee asks why a therapist would then lead a patient to confront a truth, when instead he or she could live out an “empowering fiction.” Kurtz clarifies that the therapist does not aim to give a patient hard truths; rather, she hopes to make sense of the “internal world” of the patient, based on his experience and relationships. This opening exchange gets at the two kinds of truth that preoccupy Kurtz and Coetzee throughout The Good Story—a subjective truth that is based upon relationships with other people, and the “one and only truth,” as Coetzee calls it (truth with a capital T). Kurtz suggests that our relationships with others are real and add to our sense of subjective truth—that “if experience is located within the minds of living beings, living beings are in turn firmly located in our shared world—the world of rocks and trees and rivers and concrete and cars and other people.” This logic feels practical and even comforting—it allows us to believe that we know something true, grounded in day-to-day life experience. Subjective truth relieves us from the maddening idea that we know only impressions of those around us, and nothing more.
Coetzee is not one to shy from provocative ideas, instead suggesting that we only know constructed fictions of other people, and that we are capable of entertaining this idea “without feeling we are at the edge of the abyss.” Truth, then, comes from the understanding that we deal in fictions, rather than anything inherently “real” in ourselves or others. Those familiar with Coetzee’s larger body of work will recognize this interest in a negotiable, or constructed, reality. In 1997 – 1998, Coetzee delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. But instead of giving a typical talk, he read a short story titled “The Lives of Animals,” which would later appear in his novel Elizabeth Costello. The story’s protagonist is a sixty-something intellectual named Elizabeth Costello, who—like Coetzee—is interested in animal rights, and who—like Coetzee—has been invited to give a prestigious lecture at a college. When Elizabeth Costello delivers her lecture, she shocks her hosts by comparing today’s animal slaughterhouses to Nazi concentration camps, suggesting that our cruelty to animals rivals that of the Holocaust, and in some ways is worse because there is no end in sight. The reader is shocked, too: first, how can this character make that comparison, and second—if the reader is inclined to take the leap—how can Coetzee draw that comparison? In The Good Story, Coetzee admits, “Elizabeth’s frame of mind is all too familiar to me.” He goes on, “How can my good kindly neighbours be descended from people who justified the slaughter of other living beings on the grounds that they were not fully human? More to the point, how can I myself be descended from such people?”
In the most compelling section of The Good Story, Coetzee and Kurtz deliberate on the psychology of individuals descended from countries with violent and oppressive pasts. Coetzee brings up the subjugation of indigenous Australians by white settlers of European ancestry, writing that the settlers acted under the “pernicious illusion” that they were better than the indigenous peoples because their ancestors were European. But by World War II the story had changed: while white Australians are heirs to their forebears’ heinous crimes, “the sort of crime which enlightened people like themselves would never themselves commit,” they have accepted the notion that their ancestors were “slaves to a false conception of themselves and their role in world history,” and could commit these crimes without “crippling moral qualms.” One could imagine a German person with Nazi ancestors, or an American person with slaveholding ancestors, following the same train of thought. “[As] a piece of self-deception if works,” Coetzee writes, “it enables us to retain our good opinion of ourselves yet not to unmoor ourselves entirely from the past.” By accepting this kind of story, Coetzee says, individuals can go on with their happy, happy lives without much guilt or consequence.
But truth, Coetzee and Kurtz suggest, isn’t so easily delineated and defined. Many sections of The Good Story end in uncertainty—“Am I wrong?” “Can you help?” While at times these questions sound contrived, by the end of the book they feel necessary. The reader will not come away with a solid definition of truth—nor should she expect to. Instead, we leave with two valuable, if open-ended, trains of thought. First, Kurtz’s belief that there is something central and real in us; that our relationships have value. And then Coetzee’s belief, that against a backdrop of a large, objective truth, we live in a world of our constructed fictions. Taken together, their ideas form something whole and valuable. Perhaps we, as people having real experiences in a real world, can entertain “fictions” as a way of understanding ourselves and those around us. We might even consider it a way towards empathy, and an exercise against close-minded, prescriptive thought.
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.