Psychoanalysis Retold

Emma Lieber, The Writing Cure

Bloomsbury, 208pp, £75.00, ISBN 9781501360169

reviewed by Mersiha Bruncevic

Talking about dreams is tricky. This difficulty is expressed in various ways, but essentially the challenge is this: can words ever give a truthful account of what is experienced in sleep? If you dream of a sheep and then write or talk about that sheep, are you really describing what you saw? After all, it is a widely held belief that an image perceived while asleep is a code packed with unfulfilled wishes, memories and neuroses. A dream-sheep is always a desire-wolf in disguise.

Emma Lieber frames her discourse on psychoanalysis by referencing this logic. The Writing Cure is meant to be about her own psychoanalysis. But she feels that words and language can never suffice to communicate that experience, the neurotic journey into the self.

The book begins, fittingly, with a confession: ‘This is not the book I intended to write’. When Lieber first conceived of the idea for The Writing Cure, she was a literary scholar in the process of retraining as a psychoanalyst. Nearing the end of her analysis, which all aspiring practitioners must submit to, she decided to write a book about the transition — the moment of becoming. What motivated Lieber initially was the conviction that: ‘The end of analysis does indeed call for testimony.’ Yet somehow, she confesses, along the way the book became something other than what was first indented. And this is perhaps so because words, literally, failed her.

Psychoanalysis has long been referred to as the ‘talking cure’, but it is precisely the talking that is the problem. To illustrate the shiftiness of language, Lieber gives a series of examples. In doing this she maps out the various obstacles she faces: the physical, the sociocultural and, most importantly, the personal aspects of language. The first example is ‘verbs that become nouns by shifting the accent from the second to the first syllable [. . .] compost, refuse, object.’ The meaning of what is said is not in the letters or the word’s physical appearance on a page. It is where you put the stress, where you breathe in the word. The written account and the speech act can potentially contradict one another. Perhaps the dynamic, oral and aural nature of psychoanalysis can’t be translated to the written, static form of a text.

In the next instance, the meaning of a word is even less evidently deductible. Here the noun-verb shift doesn’t even happen on the level of stress, it is culturally, socially and perhaps even evolutionarily ingrained. Lieber considers the aptly psychoanalytic words: father and mother. To ‘father’ indicates a single event, to engender, to create — a person as much as an object. It has no moral value. To ‘mother’ implies an ongoing, interpersonal relationship which is nurturing and protective.

Then, Lieber gets personal. She provides explanations for words like ‘snowman’, ‘Woodhouse’, ‘Bobby boy’ and ‘snarlag’ which can, in the present context, only be understood in light of her own memories associated with them. What snowman is to her is not what snowman is to me, and so on. While the language hurdle that Lieber needs to clear in order to write about the analysis process is philosophical and theoretical in nature, the other challenge she faces is of a more ethical kind. There is an implied taboo in the psychoanalysis field. It’s kind of like Fight Club. The first rule is you never talk about it. ‘It’ being yourself and your analysis.

The tacit credo of the field dictates that a psychoanalyst must stay as anonymous as they possibly can, an increasingly onerous imperative in the digital knowledge age. But Lieber disagrees, boldly claiming that ‘psychoanalytic theory is Freud’s autobiography’ and stressing the importance of ‘analysis accounts’ and the need to ‘articulate the end of analysis’. To make a case for this view, she enters into dialogue with other authors who have crossed that line and talked about the process. Lieber’s engagement with the books that serve to justify her confessional transgression are perhaps the most rewarding parts of The Writing Cure. And if ‘analysis accounts’ is a genre that interests a reader, I think it is possible to make a nice reading list of Lieber’s theoretical interlocutors, such as: Eve Sedgwick, Alison Bechdel, Shoshana Felman, Nancy K. Miller, Dan Gunn, and others. Although, it is a list that needs to come with a slight notice — most of the writers are American, white, solidly middle-class and up.

While I have not come across this sort of autobiographical, ‘narrated psychoanalysis’ accounts by minority writers, it should not be assumed that psychoanalysis is in any way a field lacking in this perspective. To pad out Lieber’s list somewhat, it is worth mentioning books such as: Self, Culture, and Others in Womanist Practical Theology by Phillis Isabella Sheppard; Psychoanalysis and Black Novels by Claudia Tate; The Blackness of Darkness by Hugh F. Butts; or the anthology Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. A lot of work has been done in Black and Postcolonial studies on the very issue that troubles Lieber — the hidden meanings of words, the inability to accurately describe a confession, a memory or a dream. Even the taboo of writing about the self, when the self is expected to stay silent and anonymous, is amply explored by Black and Postcolonial theorists.

The Writing Cure is a hybrid work. There are scholarly segments discussing theory and terminology, but no references or bibliography. There is a list of books at the end which are arranged ‘in order of appearance’ like stars in a movie, but with no bibliographical information other than title and author. Lieber inserts written accounts of her own dreams; there are also short stories written by her in there, and self-analyses of her own childhood memories. Although these are not professional analyses as she is not yet a psychoanalyst when she writes them. But I think that, ultimately, what she is striving for here is something similar to the Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin — a book of quotes, fragments, dialogues and other pieces, which most aspiring writers have attempted.

At the beginning of Lieber’s book there is a strong emphasis on psychoanalysis, what it means and what it could become. She bravely pushes back against established dogmas of its canon to argue for the need to talk and indeed write about one’s own psychoanalysis. The intention is to record, in real-time, the final stages of the process. The trouble is she doesn’t finish her analysis during the writing of the book and it ends with Lieber not having completed the transition. She says ‘this causes me some worry, though I’m not sure why.’

Like the memory of a dream, the theoretical and philosophical focus on psychoanalysis fades progressively. You can see it in the way Lieber describes her intentions: at first it is ‘a testimony’, which by definition ought to be true in order not to be perjurious. Then it is described as an ‘account’ of analysis, which would imply a subjective narrative where its accuracy varies according to the narrator’s memory. It then becomes an attempt to ‘articulate the end of analysis’, a sort of tentative try to grasp the subject at hand, morphing progressively into ‘a supplement to [her] analysis’. Finally, the book’s purpose turns out to be a ‘self-composition’ — that is, an autobiography of sorts, but not quite. The Writing Cure positions itself, it seems, somewhere midway between two terms that mean a lot of different things to different people: autotheory and autofiction.

This metamorphosis of purpose is the driving force of The Writing Cure. There is a constant inner monologue of figuring out why she is writing the book. On one page, Lieber says ‘I had gone into analysis to figure out how to have a baby’. On the following she retracts her statement, ‘It isn’t quite true that I went into analysis to figure out how to have a baby. . .’ Elsewhere, Lieber suggests that her book was intended to be a gift to her analyst. Then, she realised, the gift was intended for someone else entirely — she just didn’t know it at first.

The Writing Cure ends the way it began, with a confession. And here Lieber ties my hands. There is a final reveal that explains what the book was about all along. Now, if this were a book on the theoretical and creative challenges facing psychoanalysis (as it is initially billed), I could make some concluding points about her conclusion. But the denouement is more like that of an autofictional novel; it is not something I want to give away in a review. She tells the reader why the purpose of her writing changed along the way and perhaps explains, to some extent, why she hasn’t completed her analysis and professional transition.

In wanting to write herself to the end of analysis but arriving to an altogether different reality in the end, Lieber does manage to illustrate the duplicity inherent in any retelling and, really, any representation. Still, I do wonder if perhaps she should have waited to finish the book until she had experienced the actual performative end of the process and then told us about it. As I understand it, she is a practicing analyst now. In The Writing Cure, the psychoanalysis-sheep turned out to be an autobiography-wolf. But maybe I should have been wise to that potential shift when Lieber claimed that psychoanalytic theory was Freud’s autobiography.
Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer and literary scholar based in Paris and Gothenburg.