Group offers that most edifying and ennobling form of intellectual voyeurism: a fly-on-the-wall peek at six apparently accomplished New Yorkers miserable enough to seek professional help. All given pseudonyms to protect their privacy, the characters range from a Park Avenue social worker with a bully husband to a Broadway producer struggling to resurrect a career that could be nuked by his compulsion to hemorrhage money. There’s a sense of urgency to all the cases, a kind of now-or-never hitting of midlife walls. Their sagas are well-edited, so instead of the grueling, sometimes boring slogging that constitutes the reality of bewildered people in therapy, Group comes across with all the plot-furthering dialogue, pithy backstory, and dynamic cross-cutting of a well-tinkered docudrama.
No stranger to therapy himself, Paul Solotaroff opens by putting his wreck cred on the table. Until l990, he was a mess. Then a dapper psychopharmacologist named Charles Lathon named Solotaroff’s monster (“standard panic disorder”) and tamed it with Anafranil. But an ex-mess does not live by meds alone. Two years in a group with Lathon helped the author and his fellow wretches “turn down the all-day racket in our heads and listen for the whisper of true self.” Four years later, Solotaroff went back to cover a new group, supplementing tapes of the sessions with one-on-one interviews with each member.
The prologue rather disingenuously describes Group‘s intentions as “narrative journalism,” not “to be mistaken for a self-help text.” While I pored through trying to pick up tips on how to cope myself, I was thoroughly eating up the spectacle of other people thrown into a kind of emotional boot camp getting trained to bare their pain and shame. Group is written with the micro-attention to nuance cultivated in such a milieu, but Solotaroff’s efforts toward emotional precision sometimes wobble into preciousness. I couldn’t help but think of his occasionally unctuous tone as an authorial sneeze-guard against the book’s schadenfreude, a fussiness of word-choice gentrifying what is basically a thoroughly compelling peep show into other people’s woes.
Lathon’s technique explicitly treats therapy as a narrative issue, and the making of one’s “story” as a creative, deliberate act. He describes his patients’ impasses as a discrepancy between their “false story” (the role they used to cope within their family) and “true story.” The group learns to “listen for the pain” by aggressively interviewing each other and having what Lathon calls “effective conversations, in which people tell each other the truth of what hurts them, and design action to heal the wound.” While there’s a grain of truth in Lathon’s words, sometimes his earnestness can go over the top into drippiness. His discourse makes sense in a pat kind of way that is reassuring at first, but leaves you feeling like you’ve binged on upper-middlebrow psychological junk food.
With mixed results, the group process is organized as an amped-up
insta-therapy for busy strivers. Each member masters listening for the pain and busting others when they avoid it, and by the end of the year some make dramatic changes. The biggest successes are the reformed doormats who stagger forth and sprout new wings of self-confidence, such as the nebbish accountant who takes flight when it finally sinks in that his parents’ low opinion of him is worth “exactly zero,” and the Princeton-educated social worker who finally turns the tables on her rich, bully husband in divorce court.
Others seem less ready for deep healing. The designated wreck of the group, Dylan, a commercial songwriter, is the most obvious basket case, incapacitated after a year in which his in-and-out-of-AA wife dumped him, his writing partner died, and his agent got cancer. The group resents the jingle writer’s poor attendance and shows little compassion for his naughty behavior when he shows up drunk. As the others struggle to ventilate their misery, Rex, a Wall Street braggart with daredevil issues and a whiteboy hip-hop mouth, sits back and heckles: “I am not one of those weepy, talk show geese.” Like a good capitalist he plans to “reap the gain, without groveling in the pain.”
In a group of characters who are as riveting as they are screwed up, perhaps the most compelling is Lathon. Uncompromising, supportive, and pedagogical in turns, he tells his patients to “stop avoiding, and face the pain,” but finds it hard to follow his own advice. “My marriage is over,” he shares, “I’m up to my eyeballs in debt, and my son hasn’t talked to me in a month.” A maker of lurid figurative sculptures in an East Village studio as well as a therapist with a thriving practice, he makes what turns out to be awkward style moves “to reduce the strain between his two stories.” The group is weirded out when he brings his “unsettling and phantasmagoric” figurative works into their space and gives himself what some of them read as an obvious midlife-crisis makeover, replacing his trademark tailored suit with the style of a “downtown salonista,” including a Navajo bracelet and a goatee.
That the group leader emerges a bit silly and movingly human opens the book to an abyss of existential verisimilitude. Solotaroff glances behind the wizard screen of his former transference and sees a person struggling with a failed marriage and identity issues similar to those faced by his patients. Rather than negating his expert insights, Lathon’s bloopers reveal the mystery and also the humor of our struggle to apply what we know to how we live.
There is something aesthetically pleasing in the way Solotaroff uses the tidy Tupperware of taut journalism to serve up people grappling with the messy glop of their lives as issues of a story. It is to his credit that I couldn’t tell whether he was showing me that every treatment situation is fascinating or if I was just caught up in my nosiness and his seamless editing. In the end, the reader winds up in the same voyeuristic position as the withholding Wall Street guy. It’s an engrossing read: we reap some gain by watching these people grapple with their problems. And we don’t have to grovel in the pain of exposing our own.