Nightmare cures for unhappiness

Does the boom in therapy herald a more compassionate age, or merely a more selfish one?; Like therapists, cults aspire to cure the vague, nagging sense of discontent
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In Therapy, David Lodge's new novel published this week, the hero lists all the good things in his life - well-off, healthy, good marriage, great car and so on. Then he lists the one bad thing - "Feel unhappy most of the time."

Clearly this one bad thing invalidates all the good things. No matter how great the car or the marriage, they are not working as intended. They are not getting through to the inner man because, in the midst of this privilege and plenty, he remains unhappy.

Traditional wisdom would have no problem with this discontinuity. This man is spiritually lacking, inwardly empty. Human happiness is not to be found in the things of the world, it is to be found in the things of the soul. Indeed, by ending his novel with a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Lodge seems to be acknowledging as much. His hero finds secular peace in an ancient religious impulse.

But novels are novels and in the real world most people don't find peace by going on pilgrimages. They shop and remain perpetually puzzled by the feeling that things aren't quite right. One survey some years ago came up with the imperishable finding that on an average day the average person feels a little worse than average. Feeling "off colour", "under the weather" or, more seriously, "depressed" is, it appears, a normal state of affairs.

And this is where therapy comes in. Before the Santiago experience Lodge's hero is heavily committed to the therapeutic life. He has aromatherapy, acupuncture and psychotherapy - anything, in fact, that might fix the unhappy feeling. He works on the assumption that out there somewhere must be an expert with a remedy.

Lodge is not alone in identifying this as a typical contemporary attitude. Fay Weldon's recent novel Affliction is a bitter attack on the whole therapeutic ideology. A marriage is destroyed by a couple of all-purpose therapists who poison the husband's mind with psychobabble, hypnobabble, New Age babble, any kind of babble that will persuade him that his wife is an evil nutcase. "The surgeons are after our hearts," says Weldon's heroine, "and now the therapists are after our souls."

Both Weldon and Lodge have identified therapy of one kind or another as an important new phenomenon. For Lodge it is the target of satire - the professional therapists turn out to be silly, beside the point. For Weldon they represent something far more serious - her fictional therapists are brutal, immoral distorters of reality, with their destructive insistence on the narcissistic pursuit of the "true self".

The first point to make is that both novelists are clearly right in spotting that therapy has become big business. From the colourful market stall of alternative medicines to the more sober department store of counselling and psychotherapy, business is booming. This is a rapidly expanding industry with a flood of new products. Lodge's hero is not alone in wanting to try them all, just in case one works - look at Princess Diana with her gyms and irrigations.

More and more people want to try holistic cures or talk about themselves. It is now commonplace to find that one's friends are "in therapy" of some kind. But is Lodge right to regard this with sceptical amusement or is Weldon's loathing of the entire business a more appropriate response? Or perhaps they are both wrong and in reality the therapeutic society is the healthy, compassionate society.

The logic of therapy - whether it involves Eastern medicine or Western psychoanalysis - is quite different from the conventional logic of sickness and cure. The old idea was that something was clearly, identifiably wrong and that some specific remedy could be targeted at the problem or, failing that, the symptoms could be relieved. Something being wrong was assumed to be a discrete event, disconnected from normal life. It was a misfortune inflicted on you by the world.

But the therapeutic idea encourages the view that a specific malady may be only the superficial sign of a much wider problem. Holistic medicine treats the individual as a complete system which cannot be broken down into distinct, separately treatable parts. Equally, most of the vast range of psychiatric techniques assume that the whole life is at issue rather than any specific malfunction. Misfortune comes from inside rather than outside.

Obviously, within therapy there is a wide spectrum of respectability. A sober psychotherapist with his couch cannot be put in the same pigeon- hole as a New Age nut with his pyramids and crystals. But the shift in emphasis inwards is common to both.

The danger of this shift is that it encourages a loss of contact with reality. If everything is inside your head, then nothing is outside. Reality becomes utterly subjective, there is nothing against which any treatment or condition can be tested. People become vulnerable because their own judgements, perceptions and memories are called into question. They are open either to respectable cure or to malign or misguided manipulation.

Weldon's novel is a nightmarish vortex of unreality, an awful warning of how far this manipulation can go. And, of course, it is fiction - the novelist is free to caricature and exaggerate. But how much of an exaggeration is it? There may well be cases just like the one she describes, unrecorded precisely because the therapists have done their job so well in persuading their patients that the outcome of their therapy is benign. Certainly the cases involving "false memory syndrome" in the United States suggest that reality can be as frightening as any fiction.

Furthermore, the worldwide cult explosion can surely be linked to the growth of therapy. Cults are an organised expression of the way people can be convinced that their sense of reality and themselves is fundamentally wrong. Like therapists, they aspire to cure the vague, nagging sense of discontent.

Both thrive because the discontinuity between material well-being and happiness is a widening gap waiting to be filled. It is no accident that the most materially successful societies in history, Japan and the US, have for years also been the most fertile generators of new religions, new therapies and, latterly, savage cults. When the new car fails to satisfy, the new faith or treatment may do the trick.

This might be welcomed as a return to spiritual values. Therapy is the new, more compassionate form of the confessional, and cults are simply the wilder expressions of a turning away from the false consolations of materialism.

But these are bizarrely self-centred forms of spirituality. Both cults and therapies tend to undermine customs and obligations. At their worst - as Weldon's novel so cuttingly illustrates - they demand the severance of all existing connections in the name of a renewal of the self. People are open to such demands because the external life has become so easy while the internal one seems as intractable as ever. Therapy, like the cults, is religion gone wrong, twisted selfishly inwards. Reality cannot be so lightly evaded - or perhaps, most nightmarishly of all, it can.

Comments