The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy

by J. M. Coetzee, Arabella Kurtz


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143109822
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/27/2016
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 887,639
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

J.M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. His work includes Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace, Summertime, and The Childhood of Jesus. He was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice.
Arabella Kurtz is a consultant clinical psychologist and is completing psychoanalytic psychotherapy training at the Tavistock Clinic in London. She has held various posts in the National Health Service adult and forensic mental health services and is currently a senior clinical tutor in the University of Leicester clinical psychology training course. Kurtz lives in England.


Adelaide, Australia

Date of Birth:

February 9, 1940

Place of Birth:

Cape Town, South Africa


B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969

Read an Excerpt



Being author of one’s life-story (inventing one’s past) versus being merely its narrator. Producing a well-shaped story versus telling the true story.

The analyst as the story’s ideally attentive listener. Hearing and analysing resistances in the narrative. The therapeutic goal: freeing the patient’s voice, the patient’s narrative imagination.

JMC – What are the qualities of a good (a plausible, even a compelling) story? When I tell other people the story of my life – and more importantly when I tell myself the story of my life – should I try to make it into a well-formed artefact, passing swiftly over the times when nothing happened, heightening the drama of the times when lots was happening, giving the narrative a shape, creating anticipation and suspense; or on the contrary should I be neutral, objective, striving to tell a kind of truth that would meet the criteria of the courtroom: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

What relationship do I have with my life history? Am I its conscious author, or should I think of myself as simply a voice uttering with as little interference as possible a stream of words welling up from my interior? Above all, given the wealth of material I hold in memory, the material of a lifetime, what should or must I leave out, bearing in mind Freud’s warning that what I omit without thinking (i.e. without conscious thought) may be the key to the deepest truth about me? Yet how is it logically possible for me to know what I am unthinkingly leaving out?

AK – I suppose it is the task of psychoanalysis to try to tell the deepest truth; or more modestly and more accurately, to analyse resistances to its telling so that an individual’s story can emerge in as full and coherent and engaged a way as possible at any one point – because the process is continuous, the story ever-changing. The true story one might tell as a child will be different from the story one might tell about the same experiences as an adolescent, or an adult, and so on.

Freud proposed the method of free association as the best way of getting access to unconscious experience in the consulting room, but in my experience it really doesn’t work in the way people expect. The patient is invited to speak as freely as they are able, without reference to normal social rules and niceties, but what he or she usually discovers is the extent to which free expression is constrained – even in the privacy of their own minds. What this does is allow us to see the way that defences operate for the individual and to work on the analysis of resistance, which is a substantial task in most therapies.

One way of thinking about psychoanalysis is to say that it is aimed at setting free the narrative or autobiographical imagination. If we follow this line, then it is possible that a writer like yourself may have insights to offer on the form that narrative takes in the consulting room.

JMC – Very well. Then let me ask a question that has nagged at me for some time. What is it that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themself, as opposed to collaborating or colluding in a story – let us call it a fiction, but an empowering fiction – that would make the patient feel good about themself, good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?

A more radical way of posing the same question is: Are all autobiographies, all life-narratives, not fictions, at least in the sense that they are constructions (fiction from Latin fingere, to shape or mould or form)? The claim here is not that autobiog-raphy is free, in the sense that we can make up our life-story as we wish. Rather, the claim is that in making up our autobiography we exercise the same freedom that we have in dreams, where we impose a narrative form that is our own, even if influenced by forces that are obscure to us, on elements of a remembered reality.

As we are both aware, there are varieties of self-help therapy that pretty clearly see their goal as making the subject feel good about themself, and that tend to be dismissive of the criterion of truth if the truth is too much to handle. We tend to look down on such therapies. We say that the cure they produce is only a seeming cure, that sooner or later the subject will again crash against reality. Yet what if, by some kind of social consensus, we agreed not to rock the boat but on the contrary to come together to affirm one another’s fantasies, as happens in some therapeutic groups? Then there would be no reality to crash against.

In our liberal, post-religious culture we tend to think of the narrative imagination as a benign force within us. But there is another way of seeing it, based on our experience of how self-narratives work in many people’s lives: as a faculty we use to elaborate for ourselves and our circle the story that suits us best, a story that justifies the way we have behaved in the past and behave in the present, a story in which we are generally right and other people are generally wrong. When this self-narrative clashes blatantly with reality, with the way things really are, we as observers conclude that the subject is deluded, that the truth-for-the-self produced by the subject’s imagination is in conflict with the real truth. Therefore is it not one of the duties of the therapist to bring it home to the patient that they are not free to make up their life-story, that making up stories about ourselves can have serious real-world consequences?

AK – But a narrative about one’s life that is too self-serving in the way you describe will have a frailty, a brittleness, a tendency to come undone on its own terms. One could describe the activity of psychoanalysis as a combination of attentive listening and selective comment – on those aspects of a life-story which do not seem to hold, or which seem to hint at the possibility that a more convincing underlying story may emerge. This is what I meant when I said that I think of psychoanalysis as aimed at freeing the narrative imagination.

I want to ask you as a writer whether this idea, that of working through mask-narratives to find a truer one, resonates? I mean truer in the sense of poetic or emotional truth, when a thing is both true to itself, internally coherent, and in correspondence with things outside, but not necessarily in a way that is transparent or direct. And what writers know, and psychotherapists can learn from them I believe, is that the best way of trying to get to something both true and new, or newly conscious, is often a creative one; or at least at odds with what is established and laid down as true in an unexamined way in our communal, shared reality.

I do believe that the better psychotherapists, like the better and more sympathetic listeners, attend more to the internal coherence of a narrative – the unspoken desires and frustrations, which emerge gradually in inconsistencies and disruptions of form and content – and impose less of themselves in terms of external ideas about the reality of a situation or preconceived notions of how a life ought to be lived.




Writers and their problematic (perhaps self-serving) notions of the truth. The malleability of memory. Fixing memories versus raiding the memory-store to rewrite the life-story. The allure of self-invention. Social consequences of free self-invention.

The patient’s truth in the therapeutic encounter. Dynamic (evolving) truth. The mediating role of the therapist. Intersubjective truth. Sympathy. The role of the heart, the role of the mind. Shared social experience as constraint on reckless self-invention. The lessons of art. The encounter with the artwork as an intersubjective experience. Learning to be free to inhabit one’s own perspective; a clinical example.

JMC – I feel I must press further on the question I raised last time: Is the goal of the therapist (deliberately I don’t write, the goal of therapy) to bring the patient face to face with the true story of their life or to provide them with a story of their life that will enable them to live more adequately (more happily, which in the minimal Freudian prescription amounts to being able to love and work again)? How flexible can therapy afford to be in actual practice? Of course the therapist always desires the ideal outcome, the whole truth and the embracing of the whole truth by the patient; but given the constraints of time and money, doesn’t the therapist more often than not have to settle for a good-enough outcome, a truth that is not the whole truth but is good enough to get the patient back in working order?

When I read Freud in his less pessimistic moments, I do find him echoing, in what seems to me a rather unquestioning way, the prescription: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. My question is: If the goal of therapy is to set the patient free, is the truth the only avenue to freedom? Will a version of the truth, not as comprehensive as the whole truth, and perhaps tailored to the demands of the moment (the demands of the present juncture in the patient’s life), not do equally well, if the goal is to get the patient back on the rails?

I find the question urgent because, since at least Plato’s time, the accusation against poets (that is, people who make up stories) is that their allegiance is not first of all to the truth. Poets typically defend themselves by saying that they do believe in the truth, but that they have their own definition of what constitutes truth. When their definition is investigated, it usually turns out to be a mixed one. Poetic truth is in part a matter of reflecting the world accurately (‘truthfully’), but also in part a matter of internal consistency, elegance, and so forth – in other words, a matter of satisfying autonomous aesthetic criteria.

The heart of Plato’s case against the poets is that, when it comes to a choice between truth and beauty, they are too ready to sacrifice truth. The heart of the poets’ case is that beauty is its own truth.

You will find some version of the beauty-is-truth plea in the practice of almost any writer. ‘I may be making up this story, but for mysterious reasons that have to do with its internal coherence, its plausibility, its sense of rightness and inevitability, it is nevertheless in some sense true, or at least it tells us something true about our lives and the world we live in.’

The poet, says Plato, persuades us of the truth of his version of the way things are, and persuades us using the full armamentarium of poetic tricks and devices. The poet is thus like the rhetorician, whose goal is not to get to the truth but to swing you around to his way of thinking.

I return to the therapeutic situation. What prevents me, as therapist, from setting myself the goal of using what the patient tells me to come up with a persuasive (that is, plausible) narrative of what the patient’s life has been, up to now, and a persuasive sketch of how that narrative line may be continued into the future in such a way that the patient may love and work productively in the world?

The obvious answer is: I am prevented by my allegiance to the truth. But in practice can the truth – the whole truth – be attained without interminable analysis? And if interminable analysis is not practical, why not settle for a version of the truth that, in some sense, works?

AK – The short answer to your question is yes, of course one must content oneself with a version of the truth that works. But my experience is that more often than not the truth IS what works – I can’t really go along with the opposition between practicality and truth set out in your account. For a start, by the time people come to the point of asking to see a psychotherapist, they have often exhausted all plausible and common-sense explanations of what is going on and tried all available forms of practical aid. There is a need for the psychotherapist to help the patient dig deeper and come to a way of understanding why they are so unhappy that has not been possible before, usually because something painful or difficult cannot be faced. When this happens, however imperfect or incomplete, it feels like truth. Not historical or scientific or philosophical truth, but emotional truth.

I would like to say something more about the nature of truth in psychotherapy, because I think it is upon this that the matter hinges. Let us think for a moment of the way one’s version of one’s parents, say of one’s mother, changes over the life course, so that in a psychotherapeutic conversation one can distinguish between the view of one’s mother one had as a baby and the view one had as a child, as an adolescent, as a young adult with or without one’s own children, as a middle-aged adult, and so on. Now it seems to me that if one thinks of this as an example of the way in which life-narratives develop in therapy, it is not that some fixed and external truth exists and is gradually and painstakingly accessed – in this case with regards to the person of one’s mother and who she really was and is. Or at least, if this is the case, this is not the business of therapy as I understand it. More, it is that therapist and patient work towards an understanding of the way in which an intimate, formative relationship is experienced in the mind of the patient, based upon the important matter of perspective: where the patient is situated in terms of their own development and needs, their temperament, the nature of the relationship and the external situation as it is experienced by them. For this reason the truth in psychotherapy is in its essence dynamic because it derives from the perspective of a living being whose external and internal characteristics change, even in small ways, over time.

If one thinks about how, for example, a patient idealises their mother in order to protect themselves from the full force of their disappointment in her, the key thing is to help the patient to explore the emotional logic of the situation and understand where it fits in their development, and how the resulting frame of mind obstructs forward movement. One might do this by in effect removing a distortion and revealing something that feels to the patient more real and more true in the external world. But as a psychotherapist one aims to operate by working to understand the internal world of the patient, taking away the need for distortion through an understanding of that need – rather than by too much presenting of external truth. (To my mind, the latter scenario comes dangerously near to the sort of criticism and invalidation of emotional experience which leads people to therapy in the first place.)

Truth in psychoanalytic psychotherapy is internal truth – the truth of what is in the heart and the mind of the patient, perceived – and if one is lucky – understood, through the heart and the mind of the psychotherapist. For just as one tries to remain mindful that the patient is a perceiving subject, who experiences the world in their own unique way, and help them to be more aware of themselves as such, the psychotherapist is also a perceiving and feeling subject in relation to the patient as object. And it is this, the way in which therapy mirrors all acts of knowledge and understanding involving a subject and an object, which allows for a properly sympathetic and emotionally attuned exploration of the patient’s mode of meaning-making.

So the truth which psychotherapy is based upon, or at least my version of psychotherapy, is always dynamic, provisional and intersubjective. It is contained within the terms of a relationship, which aims to reflect upon internal experience to help the patient to live as fully as possible in the world. It is also based, I think, on a belief than we can only know and understand ourselves fully through others – through the way we experience others and ourselves in relation to others, and the way others experience us.

This is what I read your book Summertime to be about.

JMC – Behind what you say there so obviously lies a weight of clinical experience and of prolonged reflection on that experience that I feel embarrassed to offer to reply. I have no experience behind me, from either side of the clinical dialogue; the case I put (and I wonder whether it even constitutes a case) sounds to me abstract to the point of airy-fairyness. But I shall press on anyway, as best I can.

Let me start by posing a philosophical question. What is an event itself, as opposed to the event as we interpret it to or for ourselves, or as it is interpreted to or for us by others, particularly authoritative others? ‘When I was eight my father hit me with a tennis racket,’ says a subject. ‘Not true,’ says his father. ‘I was swinging the racket and accidentally hit him.’ What really happened? Specifically, is the boy’s memory of the event true, or is the father’s true? I call it a memory, but that is an oversimplification: it is a memory-trace which has been subjected to a certain interpretation. I might even go on to say that it is a memory-trace which has been subjected to an interpretation behind which lies a certain will to interpret (in the boy’s case perhaps a will to give the event its darkest interpretation, in the father’s case a will to give it a harmless interpretation). How are we to disentangle the memory component from the component of interpretation, leaving aside for the moment the will behind the interpretation? Is it possible – philosophically but also neurologically – to speak of a memory that is pristine, uncoloured by interpretation?

Just recently I read an article by Jonathan Franzen in which he says that, after submitting to one promotional interview after another for his new book, he felt he had to break free or else he would begin to believe in the life-narrative that he had been spouting in the interviews. I interpret him as saying, not that he had been telling untruths in the interviews, but that the repetitions of a single account of his own life were scouring so deep a trace that he would soon lose his freedom to interpret (remember) his life otherwise.

To think of a life-story as a compendium of memories which one is free to interpret in the present according to the demands (and desires) of the present seems to me characteristic of a writer’s way of thinking. I would contrast this with the way many people see their life-story: as a history that is forever fixed (‘you can’t change the past’). The strange thing is how many of us want to fix our life-story, by repeating over and over, to ourselves and to others, one or other preferred interpretation of it.

You can hear trivial examples of fixing a piece of history any day of the week as you sit in the bus eavesdropping on conversations. ‘I said to her . . . She said to me . . . I said to her . . .’

You write of the changing ways in which one may be able to see the past according to one’s age or personal development; you use the word perspective. I don’t think you and I are far apart here. The therapist who comes up against the ‘ordinary’ notion that one’s past (more accurately, the story of one’s past) is immutable must surely experience it as an obstacle.

As I have said before, what interests me in these fixed life-stories is not so much what finds its way into them as what gets left out.

From the Hardcover edition.

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