Why Are Therapists So Fascinating To Their Clients?
Shielded from view by necessary confidentiality and ethical boundaries, therapists often fascinate clients and the general public
Writer Joanna Briscoe shares her own experiences of therapy and how these have informed her new novel
The Seduction follows therapy-client Beth as she becomes increasingly interested in her therapist's private life
Why are therapists quite so fascinating? To both their individual clients and the public at large, they are objects of intrigue.
Meeting a therapist at a dinner party is a bit like an encounter with an entertainment lawyer or a consultant surgeon. These are all highly trained specialists who are authorities in demanding fields, and who are party to the secret agonies of clients whose names must never be revealed. The immediate instinct is to trick them into analysing us; into revealing some particularly juicy gossip; or into diagnosing our unusual aches. Luckily, most of us know to shut up. But the desire to interrogate these experts is there.
For clients in therapy, the one-sided nature of the process can be frustrating, riddled with a curiosity that can never be assuaged, and as the therapy progresses, the conjecture can become almost maddening. It was this desire to probe behind the mask that was one of the initial ideas behind my sixth novel, The Seduction, in which a therapist is, apparently, a source of succour, with her lulling voice, restrained manner, and clever insights. But she gradually reveals herself to be a little more complicated than that.
My own experience of therapy
I’ve seen a few therapists over the years, and I’ve always been curious about their real lives. Who are they, behind that clinical, straight-faced exterior? As a novelist, I am, of course, perpetually curious, and I find it almost unbearable that I can’t ask strangers on the underground about the novel they’re reading or the state of their love lives, and so sitting and spilling to someone who knows my innermost secrets but can’t be lined up for a hundred-question interview is a particular torment.
Having said that, their anonymity is, on a more serious note, reassuring. The therapists who parade themselves too frequently on social media and appear soft-lit on Google images are, at some level, off-putting. That hidden therapy persona, for all the longing to get behind it, is of course absolutely necessary, and any sign of a therapist ego at play feels simply wrong…
My protagonist, Beth, is increasingly fascinated by her therapist – an NHS clinical psychologist with a training in psychotherapy who is meant to be providing basic CBT, but uses far more dynamic therapy. The desire to know about her private life – does she have children? A husband? Where does she live? Who are her friends? – sends Beth into a round of fruitless googling and invention, and she is none the wiser, until the therapist herself starts making the tiniest chinks in her own professional armour….
With more boundaried therapists, and of course the vast majority fall into that category, all we poor clients have to go on is their consulting room décor, their accent, name, and, most importantly, their clothes, hair, possible make-up and glasses choices. Ah, the mine of information there. Well, not quite information but delightful guesswork opportunities. Does the therapist have dreadful right-on dated outfits with terrible therapist shoes? Is it possible to dress in an entirely neutral way? Is that top from And Other Stories? Is that intentional stubble or lazy razor-dodging? Why does she have more make-up on today? Most intriguing of all, why does this one seem to be changing from New Age social worker to semi-siren as the therapy progresses? We may never get the answers, but with such little fuel for the imagination, a new tie can indicate the world.
Of course a lot of this drifts into transference, since it involves projection and a desire to break down barriers. With one of my therapists, I spent some time walking along talking to her in my head as though she were my friend, before I realised that I was being a sad case. This all goes backwards, tapping into a childish fascination with teachers. What do they talk about in the staffroom, and what do they really think of me? The curiosity and projections continues in adult life, with doctors, employers, and other authority figures. A desire to please them, smash down boundaries, be special even. But shrinks are top of the league table here.
Why do we invest them with quite so much power? I think this is partly about the fact they are at one remove from us, elevated in their knowledge, and partly about unprocessed early experiences with teachers and parents. But even though there is a certain power difference in the consulting room, this is more about us investing these people with even more power. And therefore they become the rulers and celebrities of their tiny worlds, even though we or the NHS are paying them.
In The Seduction, the speculation is gradually transformed into an obsession that becomes so heightened, it can only have dramatic results. As for me, I’m content to speculate about this week’s jacket choice and what exactly that means about the therapist’s inner life. After all, therapy is, to some extent, about regression….
The Seduction by Joanna Briscoe is published by Bloomsbury