Private Lives: Psychotherapy of everyday life

A Paris cafe has become a forum for personal problems
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The Independent Culture
ALAIN HAS a problem. His girl-friend refuses to sleep with him. But she also refuses to leave him alone. She expects him to organise her life; she kicks up a fuss if he spends a weekend with his parents; she cries when he tries to dump her. They have been seeing each other for more than a year. He desires her terribly. But she will not sleep with him.

"She's, well, she's just not interested. She likes me above the belt; but not below the belt. She knows what I would like from her. She says that, for that kind of thing, I should look elsewhere.

"But she refuses to let me leave her. She even has a very affectionate nickname for me."

What should he do? Alain is a rather mournful man in his late 30s, prosperous, and handsome in a nerdish way. He is asking the question of 60 strangers in a Paris bar. (The men say "get rid of her"; the women say "ravish her" and "what's the nickname?") But mostly Alain is asking Maud.

Maud is categorical: dump her straightaway. "She has her mind in one place and her sex in another. That's fine for her but not for you. You have to get rid of her. She's not your problem. You need to start thinking of yourself... pretty soon, you'll find that can be a full-time occupation."

Maud Lehanne is a psychotherapist and one evening a week she exercises her profession in public on the first floor of a cafe overlooking the Place de la Bastille. For 10 francs (just over pounds 1), anyone is welcome to come and share a drink and reveal their problems, worries or innermost secrets. Or, if they prefer, they can just listen to the quiet desperation and reassuring banality of other people's lives. Problems with husbands; problems with wives; problems with over-amorous colleagues; problems with grown-up sons and daughters who won't get out of their parents' lives; problems with mothers who won't accept that their children are grown-ups.

Maud, 53, who sits on a small table, twirling a drinking-straw in her hand, is a kind of bar-room agony aunt; but she is also much more than that. Her humour, wisdom and compassion have given her a cult status among her regulars. Her presiding philosophy is that selfishness, within limits, is healthy, even essential. "People are like countries. If they are invaded by others, it's because they have made themselves invadable... People who always say `yes' are not admired; they are despised." She is also, on occasions, brutally practical, bordering on the cynical. To a woman who feels neglected and insulted by her husband but knows that her standard of living will fall if she leaves him, Maud says: "Dignity is a luxury. If you can't afford that luxury, too bad. You'll have to accept things the way they are until you have money of your own."

There are 60 people in the room, both singles and couples, aged from 20 to 60, equally divided between men and women. It is, against expectations, an educated, well-spoken, articulate, prosperous audience: an audienceof professional people and civil servants. In other words, it is a typical cross-section of Parisians in a city where privacy is a religion; where people would normally never speak to strangers.

Maud's idea - the Psychotherapy Cafe - is an off-shoot of a long-established Parisian institution, the philosophy cafe, where earnest people impress each other with their understanding of Nietzsche or Voltaire. Having visited one or two such places, Maud decided that most people would prefer to talk about themselves.

"Someone would raise the subject of, say, fear, and then the discussion would go into learned abstractions about the nature of fear, without asking that person `what do you fear, and why?' I was sure there was a need for a place where people could stand back and take a look at their own lives."

Maud believes that it is the nature of big-city life, not just Parisian life, that makes it easier for some people - even intelligent, prosperous, well-loved people - to talk in front of strangers, rather than to confide in family or friends.

"I see my role as being partly a referee, to sum up quickly how far they should be allowed to go, to make sure we get to the heart of the subject, but also to step in quickly to stop things from becoming unhelpful or damaging."

Towards the end of the evening, a gaunt, kindly looking woman in her late 40s, whom no one has noticed before, makes what is evidently a painful decision to speak. Her name is Pascale. She has brought up her only daughter to be independent and now, at the age of 23, the daughter has gone to Spain and rarely contacts her. That's fine, she says, although she would prefer to hear from her sometimes.

The problem is that since being left alone she has stumbled into a series of disastrous relationships with unsuitable men, including a down and out, each of whom she has mothered obsessively and then kicked out. Recently she went for 10 days without eating, and was taken to hospital. Her elderly mother came to the hospital and mothered her in a bossy sort of way...

Maud interrupts. She knows what the problem is. Pascale is an adult, a successful mother, but she is still being treated like a child by her own mother. She is caught in an endless mother-child cycle in which there is no place for an adult, independent, self-willed Pascale. Is that not it? Pascale, tense, her eyes filling with tears, admits that, yes, that is exactly it.

Maud salutes her "courage" in speaking up, but says that her problem went beyond the scope of such an evening. She advises her to go and see a psychiatrist or another psychotherapist. Pascale, looking distraught but already relieved, says that she will.

A few minutes later, the audience/patients/friends of Maud, who were morose on arrival, leave in high good humour.