Interview: Shrink wrapped: Susie Orbach

When the Princess of Wales got a few things off her chest in her Panorama interview, many saw the influence of Susie Orbach in those confessions. But can the psychotherapist match her most famous patient in frankness?; The Deborah Ross Interview
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The Independent Culture
It all started so well. A beautiful, hot, blue-skied day. A select little street - England's Lane - in select little Belsize Park. Wondrously chi-chi shops with signs in the window that go: "Would the owner of the brown dog please stop it from fouling the pavement. It is unlawful and unsociable." And: "Drivers, please try to make less noise when delivering newspapers, as the residents complain." Naturally, I am immediately tempted to open a Dixey Fried Chicken franchise with a pyramid of dusty Tango cans and a large number of dead flies in the window plus a sign that goes: "Nasty chips for post-pub drunks on sale here! Special half-price deals for the drug-addicted homeless!" Still, I overcome this temptation sufficiently to skip (it being one of those sunny days that so makes one want to skip) into The Camomile Cafe (yes!), where I am due to meet Susie Orbach, possibly Britain's most famous psychotherapist and, of course, Princess Diana's shrink for two years.

Susie lives locally - with her partner, the author and therapist Joe Shwartz, and their two children, a son of 15 and daughter of 10. She is already there at the back, at a table by the French windows, with the sunshine streaming in. She is 52 and rather beautiful. Thick hair. Darkly interesting face. She is wearing the sort of skimpy vest only teenagers who are very into Kookai can get away with. She looks lovely in it. I am excited to meet her. I am actually very interested in psychoanalytic therapy, and what it might have to offer. Her first book, Fat is a Feminist Issue, published 20 years ago, genuinely changed women's lives. Her new book, The Impossibility of Sex, is a collection of fictional case studies of patients, told from the therapist's point of view. Although I'm not sure it wholly works, I can see it might have been worth the try. Still, we don't seem to get off to the best start.

She says she hates giving interviews. Hates, in fact, attracting any kind of publicity. I say, in that case, it must have been awful for her when it first became known she was treating Diana, and the tabloids besieged her and her house. She says: "It was horrible. Horrible." I say, did they go through your rubbish bins and all that? She says: "No. The bins are on my property." I say, jokingly, perhaps I'll pop round later for a good rifle myself. She says, not jokingly. "I think you'll find Camden have already collected today." She is brilliantly earnest. I was going to ask her if there were any plans to bring out a newer version of Fat is a Feminist Issue - updated, perhaps, to Fat is a Feminist Issue, Although it Doesn't Make You Look Any Less Rubbish In A Bikini, but decide against it. I am already feeling decidedly less skippy.

I suppose, if you are a therapist, you do have to be something of a blank. You are there, presumably, to soak up and unravel the complexities of others, rather than reveal any of your own. I do appreciate this. I do expect and respect this. But, still, it can prove monumentally tiresome. Susie, what was your parents' relationship like? "Stormy." Stormy in what way? "Lets just say `stormy' is the word for it?" OK, what was your relationship with your mother like? "Complicated." Complicated? " Sorry, but from the perspective of who I am now, I can't say anything more useful." Finally, and somewhat courageously, I decide to go ahead and ask the big one. Susie, do you have a middle name? "Yes." What is it? "I'm not saying." Is it something terrible, then? Is it Ethelberga? "No." Gerald? "No." Fifi-Puddleduck- O'Pancake? "It's really very ordinary. I'm just not telling you." I think that if I were a therapist and she was my patient, I might give her a good ticking off for not exactly getting into the spirit of things.

I do want to like her. And, yes, I do want her to like me. But it's just so frustratingly difficult making contact. On any level.

"Do you like telly, Susie?"

"Not much, no."

"Books?"

"Yes."

"Who do you read?"

"Philip Roth."

"Anyone else?"

"My mind has gone blank."

"When you are treating someone, do you ever get the urge to shout: `Get a grip!'?"

"No."

"Is there such a thing as happiness?"

"It depends what you mean by happiness."

"What do you mean by it?"

"Well, if you mean knowing who you are in any situation, knowing when it's reasonable to be excited or sad or, then, yes. Happiness is about being present with your feelings."

"Could psychotherapy be fairly described as worshipping at the shrine of small, childhood hurts?"

"No, although all histories are, of course, significant."

"You know the Philip Larkin poem. The one that starts: `They fuck you up, your mum and dad'?"

"Yes."

"Well, one view is that if they hadn't, he wouldn't have had anything to write about, and then he'd have been well and truly..."

Long pause. A slight arching of her eyebrows. Then, with some disdain: "I suppose some people might look at it that way, yes."

It's all frightfully exhausting. And, maybe, even slightly patronising. By this, I don't mean that I think I'm as clever or as insightful as her. I certainly don't. Or that I am entirely sceptical about therapy. I'm not. I just want to find certain things out, but can't, because she does rather carry on as if she has a total monopoly on serious thought, and that such thoughts might be rather wasted on Dixey Fried Chicken regulars like me. This is, of course, wholly absurd. I, too, have serious thoughts once in a while. In fact, I've just had one now. Penis envy? Do all women feel it when they find they're caught short on the motorway and know they can't just do it against a tree, but must find some discreet bush to crouch uncomfortably behind? Or is it just me? I am angry, now, that I didn't have this thought at the time. I would have impressed Susie with it, I think.

OK, what to know about Susie Orbach, apart from the fact she treated Princess Diana, which Susie doesn't want to talk about, and which is fine by me because, frankly, what is Susie suddenly going to say about her? "I don't know what she had to complain about, especially as she had so many nice frocks"? I suspect not.

So what do we know? Well, she was born and brought up in Chalk Farm, north London. Her father, Maurice, who came from a large family of Polish Jewish immigrants, became a Labour MP of radical stamp, dying of a heart- attack on the day Mrs Thatcher came to power. Her mother was an American who wanted to be a lawyer, but never really got around to it. At this point I try to get back to the "stormy" business. Was your parents' relationship acceptably stormy, or upsettingly stormy? "It wasn't something I appreciated." So it upset you? "As I said, it wasn't something I appreciated." The inquisitive inner child within me is getting quite exasperated.

She went to a local primary school but then, aged 11, won a scholarship to North London Collegiate, a posh girls school some miles away. She hated it there. "I wasn't the right sort of girl." In what way? "My mother was American. I came from Camden Town. I was very argumentative." Argumentative? "I wanted to have arguments about everything. If the school said we had to wear brown tights, I campaigned for brown socks." She was ultimately expelled, aged 15, for becoming pregnant. Heavens, how did your parents react? "I wouldn't say they jumped up and down for joy." Did you try to hide it? "Yes. For a while. I even went by myself to the local hospital, but in those days, to get an abortion, you had to prove you would kill yourself if you had a baby." Is that what you did, then? I ask, thinking we are getting somewhere revealing. "In the end, I had an abortion." Which you arranged for yourself? Or which your parents ultimately arranged? "I had an abortion and that's it."

"Did it affect you in any way?"

"Everything that happens to us affects us."

"How did this event affect you?"

"This isn't something I particularly want to talk about. It's something the tabloids dragged out, and I then had to explain to my own children... "

This is the confusing thing about Susie Orbach. She is all for the confessional age. (She was a powerful, if unseen, presence in Diana's famously revealing Panorama interview. She is the co-founder of Antidote, an organisation devoted to campaigning for "emotional literacy".) Yet she acts offended if you ask her to be in any way confessional herself. Further, her latest book begins rather sensationally with: "I felt twitches in my vagina, pleasurable twitches. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, two years after I had stopped seeing Adam. I was chopping some fennel when he not so much entered my mind as tapped into my body, as he had so many times during the course of a five-year therapy..." This is, she insists, entirely fictional. No, she has never felt sexual desire for a patient. If the book does not wholly work, it's possibly because it lacks a certain convincing authenticity. So, what's the point? Does she want to hang on to her own celebrity? True, she says she despises celebrity. But, if so, what is she doing here today, talking to me? Well, not exactly talking to me, but offering her presence, which she has also just done for the The Times and the Daily Mail? I just don't get it. Perhaps, simply, she is just someone who likes to have their cake and eat it. Fine. It's just that I might have preferred her in the days when she ate her cake and then threw it up.

Although, this said, she was never seriously bulimic. She was more the constant dieter. "You know, I'd go on a diet for as long as I could, then eat four Kit-Kats. Then I'd go on another diet..." This was in the late Sixties, when she'd gone to America and joined a women's studies programme in New York. There, the thought occurred to her: What is this restraint women feel around food? She underwent therapy herself, then came out with Fat is a Feminist Issue. The book was absolutely ground-breaking, the gist of it being that fatness or, say, finding yourself in front of the fridge at 3am eating peanut butter with your fists, was not about greed or lack of willpower. It was about our society. And culture. It was about the messages women receive to look a certain way and be a certain way. It was about food becoming imbued with emotional meaning. She was the first to identify this phenomenon, and it turned her into something of a feminist icon. Yet when she returned to this country, it was as a psychoanalytical therapist. I say, as a feminist, how can you be attracted to psychoanalysis, with its penis envies and castration complexes and all the other things that seem to say that women go about as disappointed beings from the moment they discover they are not men?

She says: "I was drawn to what it had to say about how we make ourselves. How our insides create our outsides. It's an abstracted account of how we come out of the womb and turn into human beings." But is it the right account? "It's an additional account." Additional? "To sociological accounts. Economic accounts. Other psychological accounts." OK, the Oedipus complex: is that a valid theoretical construct, do you think? "It's not about wanting to kill your father and sleep with your mother, it's about how a child understands the exclusive nature of the relationship of the parents, and how he enters the adult world." So Freudian definitions are just a framework in which to operate? "Exactly." But isn't it solely for the self-obsessed, Western affluent? If someone didn't have enough to eat, they wouldn't worry about the state of their id, would they? "Well, some might and some might not."

We have our one hour, then she has to dash. She has an appointment with a patient. I find I don't skip back along the smart street. I kind of drag myself along in a rather depressed way. I might not have needed therapy before, but I feel I possibly do now. I do feel this great sense of failure. Could I have engaged her more fully? Plus, I have another one of my sudden, disturbingly serious, thoughts: it isn't so much penis envy, it's more, I think, simply a matter of getting fed up with stinging nettles in your knickers. It is very easy, I know, to confuse the two.

`The Impossibility of Sex', Allen Lane/Penguin Press, pounds 16.99

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