Three Books

I asked for (and received) a couple of books for last Xmas: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, and The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton. The first is a wonderful collection (sometimes interwoven) about the weird and wonderful (but weird) world of of physicists, mathematicians and chemists as they flirt with madness trying to come to terms with things like the would-you-believe basics of quantum theory. The latter is about the intersection of three great minds — philosopher Immanuel Kant, physicist Werner Heisenberg, and author Jorge Luis Borges — and how their shared interests in the struggle to understand how it is that we can’t always comprehend certain aspects of the world — were informed. I should mention that I received a third book at Xmas, from my partner, who thought I would like a collection of short fiction and essays from…Jorge Luis Borges.

Let’s just say that it’s been an intense ride, twisting my mind not only around the paradoxical ideas that quantum theory suggests, but also some strong narration and themes that rise from well-drawn portraits, the intimate (and wonderfully weird) lives of otherwise brilliant people.

Those first two books, by Labatut and Egginton, are very well done and I highly recommend them, by the way.

Speaking of Borges, I am truly amazed sometimes at his ability to distill entire universes with such economy; some of his work left me flabbergasted and dizzy. Some of it can also be front-loaded with a lot of geographical or historical weight and so it’s not exactly “diving in” literature; it’s a little like going to the gym, to be honest. But boy, the rewards.


Radioland, a Nine-Month Retrospective

As of August 2nd, it will have been nine months since the official launch of my second novel, Radioland. I wanted to reflect, if non-linearly, on how things have gone. And yeah, I get that “nine months” is a fairly loaded measurement of time. Fact is, I could’ve written this months ago, but time is my enemy.

a copy of Radioland on my home work desk
  1. I will always (and I mean that literally) be thankful for the opportunity to have my work published, especially in novel form. The format takes a lot of time and energy. Time from my life. Energy from my life. Not only am I thankful that those sacrifices were not in vain, but that my publisher (and acquiring editor) took this particular book on. Call it what you will or want — psychological thriller (a descriptor my publisher chose that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with), weird fiction, urban fantasy, or simply “literary fiction” — this isn’t an airport book (ie easy to read, not exactly challenging or demanding on the reader).

2. Unlike my experiences with the publication of The Society of Experience, which went so smoothly that I stand in awe of it, with Radioland every step of the way was difficult. Not only was I tasked with promoting a complex, multi-threaded tale in the sort of limelight I didn’t have for The Society of Experience, the more I tried to summarize it into an elevator pitch for radio and podcast interviews, the less I believed it (or felt I was doing the book justice). From an investment standpoint, my publisher choosing psychological thriller makes sense in that it at least gives the potential reader a rough idea of what’s inside. It’s certainly better than literary fiction which can mean anything to those who don’t discern or care whether they’re reading Jo Nesbø or Eudora Welty. As thankful as I was for the opportunities, it still felt as if I was peddling some vague literary fiction, especially given that the vast majority of those I spoke with didn’t have time to read the fucking book (this, I understand, is par for the course), leaving me to build a scaffolding of sense about it while they prod me with the same goddamn questions gleaned from our PR person’s one sheet (“So, this is a psychological thriller. Could you tell us about that?” “What’s it like writing about Toronto?”). I would’ve killed for someone to have asked about its darkness, its weirdness, its splitting the world into the real and unreal and how both of those worlds are in internal conflict. At least my chat with Jamie Tennant included realtalk about music, given that a) he actually read the book, and b) he’s a musician. The strange, flattening, surreal experience of trying to get word out about a novel in ways much more wide and far-reaching than The Society of Experience and yet walking away not knowing whether anyone listening had any better a clue about what it was that was being presented.

3. The pants-down ridiculousness of University of Toronto Press Distribution not anticipating that lower / less consistent orders from independent publishers and bookstores (this coming after the lockdowns of the pandemic) would cause their internal algorithm to go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ just as publishing’s fall season was unrolling in anticipation of the Christmas buying season. This meant that my book wasn’t in stores when people expected it to be. I was marathon-publicizing a book (see #2) that no one was able to buy in the city of Toronto. Oh, but they could buy it in Ancaster. I was interviewed about it here, but there’s a paywall (that said, Steven’s site is worth the $5/month). Here’s an excerpt:

One affected author is Matt Cahill, whose second novel, Radioland, published on October 18. His book is still not in stores in his home town of Toronto, and some stores are not even sure when they will receive supply of the title. “As an author I bust my ass to revise and make deadlines; the editorial and layout staff are busting their asses; the publisher has paid an advance to me and is overseeing the printing schedule; bookstores are preparing to stock their shelves for the upcoming season; readers are creating their Christmas lists; preorders have been prepaid,” Cahill says. “And all of this comes to a crashing halt for reasons that don’t sound unforeseeable.”

4. Oh, and then there were the book reviews. I’m not going to go into thoughts about Goodreads (note: please feel free to leave a review there if you wish), but rather reviews written by people whose role is to actually review books. Now, I know that reviews aren’t aimed at the author (and their ego) but rather intended to help readers sort through new releases, etc, and it’s always good to come back to this. But there are so few outlets left in this country (forget about getting a review in another country for a there-unknown Canadian author) that each one seems to have more gravitas than before. Add to this that a review of one’s work can be just a little stressful in the first place. Add to this that a review posted online anywhere is 100% better than nothing nowhere. Radioland received a couple of glowing reviews from the Ampersand Review and The Minerva Reader which I deeply appreciate. It also got a couple of mixed reviews elsewhere, which I find issues with, but it would feel neurotic/insecure to post my feelings here. I should note that The Society of Experience had no reviews. Nix. And there’s something about this that illustrates the deal you make as a published author: you want exposure? Ok — oh, but you don’t get much say in how it happens. It is, as they say, what it is.

5. I’m gladdened by the unwavering support I’ve experienced from loved ones, friends, family and complete strangers. Despite my own anxiety, despite the fuck-ups with the distribution, despite it not being an airport book, despite the ebook coming out months after the paperback’s publication, many people indulged themselves in my work, which is very gratifying (<- understatement). It’s good to remind myself of this, especially as the seasons cycle and the latest “hot book” takes up all the oxygen, and the opportunities for me to publicly promote Radioland become less and less. It’s also good to remind myself of all the people who helped get Radioland into Toronto Public Library, most of whom I don’t know.

6. What is success as a literary writer? I can tell you that I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want people to recognize me on the street (though this *sometimes* happens, especially in Kensington Market where I used to live). If “Matt Cahill” is just a name people associate with my writing but not me as a person I’m ok with that. Would I love it if my book sold thousands of copies (thus supporting bookstores, my publisher and me)? Sure thing! But that’s not very realistic in the smaller market of literary fiction. So, success… I think success is reaching a broad spectrum of readers. Art doesn’t exist without an audience. I don’t know how much Radioland has sold — and, like external reviews, maybe it’s best I don’t inquire too much — and I won’t know until year’s end. I still don’t know how my weird tale of two people trying to find connection in a city almost designed to thwart them is going to land with readers. That said, the arrow has left the bow. I’ve done all I can on this one.

The one person who has been through all this with me is my partner, Ingrid. Without her support, her ear and her perspective, I’d likely set fire to all this years ago. I’d also like to thank you, dear reader, for giving me time to open up a little here, warts and all.


Reading Fiction

One casualty of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the fact that I can’t read fiction. The good news is that this doesn’t affect my ability to read/revise my own writing, however any plans I’d had to finish or start something transportive I’ve had to set aside.

My assumption is that this is a product of low-level fight/flight/freeze instinct at play. Once again, there’s a very real danger out there, after all. A lot of very real deaths out there, too, which has in turn halted the world’s economies. Mass layoffs, and entire industries staring into the mirror, wondering what awaits them around the corner. Fast-forward two endless months, and each province, state, and country is playing a game of How Much Do We Open, some more cagily than others. And still the thrills and chills — commercial real estate as we know it may be undergoing a paradigm change — continue.

Whatever the reason, I just don’t have the space for fiction at the moment. I have enough room in my head to be able to navigate the world (as well as the fictional ones I’ve created) and that’s about it. And, believe me reader, I would love nothing more than to finish Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent, which is a lovingly told novel about the lives of a trio of young men (and by extension their loved ones and colleagues) in post-Stalinist USSR. I suppose the good news is that I get to savour it?

As for non-fiction? I’m mainlining that shit. And I’m so thankful for my subscriptions to the Literary Review of Canada, and (a Christmas 2019 gift) the London Review of Books. Yes, make of this what you will, but though I don’t have room in my head for fiction, I have more than enough for reading essays about books (some of which are fiction).

I’m also thankful that I’d started learning a musical instrument last year — being able to practice guitar (and, more importantly, relearn a lot of music theory I’d abandoned decades ago) allows me to appreciate music in a fuller way than I have previously as just a listener/devotee.

So, perhaps it bears repeating: there are no awards being handed out when this is all over, because the “all over” will neither be soon, nor easily measurable because it stands to happen very gradually (and I’m not placing any bets on the “all” part). A lot of us who have had our self-development routines halted — going to the gym, dance class, recreational team sports, for instance — are looking for ways to perform (on a basic level at least) so that we feel some sense of personal progress. And the truth is that I think we will all be left on our own to make sense of this, in our own ways — which is perhaps the equivalent of a participation badge rather than an award.

Just make the best of it. Don’t expect a lot, because this is a crisis. Take whatever you can find in terms of growth and accept that for what it is. Routines will come, but later. Relaxation will come, but later. Reading fiction (for me, at least) will come, but later.


Book Review: Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, by Anne Harrington

image of

For the longest time I’ve been looking for an impossible book: an historic exploration of psychiatry and psychology over the last 150+ years that lays the groundwork of how we got to where we are (with the infighting, the arrogant spectacles, the tentacles of private interests), that also isn’t painfully academic or with too little (or too much) of the author’s own perspective of such a unwieldy topic. Well, as I said, it doesn’t exist, but Anne Harrington’s Mind Fixers comes very close.

As the subtitle states, Harrington (a science historian and the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University) has her lens steadied on the search for the (real, perceived, and ultimately elusive) biological underpinnings of mental health conditions. This is a terribly important topic and if this book has not ignited the debate it might have, it’s no reflection on the scholarship or insights gleaned from Mind Fixers, but perhaps a victim of timing and not being the loudest possible controversy to be found on Twitter. Even then, if you follow psychologists, psychiatrists, and those who specialize in related research on Twitter you’ll soon find yourself inundated with accusations of anti-psychiatry levelled at those who criticize prevailing notions of mental illness being caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, while the replication crisis undermines many of the foundations of Psychology 101.

If there’s a story here, it’s one of shifting hegemonies: from those who were concerned of their patient’s physical wellbeing, to those concerned with their brains, from those concerned about subconscious maternal conflict to those convinced the answer was in our brains, but only chemically. And with each shift in search of a possible answer to mental suffering there are reciprocal shifts in public investment and, eventually, interest from pharmaceutical companies. And at the end of the day what shifts the most are some of the most vulnerable people in our society: from sanitariums to hospitals; from wartime battlefields to community centres…only to be dumped onto the streets. It’s all here in Mind Fixers, and it’s a timely read considering the vested interests currently luring large investments in brain science, or in such promised but potentially dangerous remedies as ketamine, or those convinced of a genetic pathology. And if it sounds as if this book is strictly for history/psychiatry wonks you are dead-wrong.

What Harrington does very well is take reams of historical information and distill it into a narrative that ultimately maps out how those with what is generally called (though I hold some hesitations at times) mental illness were treated and what those in their charge felt was at play inside their bodies. Along the way we see ethical lapses in the form of wholesale human experimentation (i.e. injecting unknowing patients with blood infected with malaria), as well as the overreaching ideal of Freudian psychoanalysis as a Rosetta stone. Along the way we are introduced to ideas and theories which seemed to make sense at the time — narcosynthesis, insulin coma therapy — along with travesties such as deinstitutionalization, basically the dumping of people with mental health issues on the streets as a result of overambitious government policy that was out of sync with the realities of state coffers. Mind Fixers is also blunt about the influence of pharmaceutical companies, who increasingly figure in the narrative; the last quarter of the book is an admonishment of the profiteering that took place from the mid-1980s to the mid-00s as companies such as Eli Lilly were able to advertise directly to Americans and, with the help of an increasingly subjective DSM that allowed two people with completely different symptoms to be diagnosed with the same disease, exponentially increase their profits through prescriptions.

There are some issues. Repeatedly, Harrington refers to the “neo-Freudians” who, in their day (mid-20th century), held the reins of power with respect to diagnosis and how psychiatric trends were approved. There is a lot of confusion (just look at the definition provided on this U of C Berkeley page) about what a neo-Freudian is: those who studied but ultimately disagreed with Freud (however kept his strictly psychodynamic approach) or those who held Freudian views but refused to downgrade the role of biological processes? It may sound semantic, but in lieu of a definition the term’s repeated use without context begs for clarity. In the process it also makes it sound as if all psychoanalysts were in some way Freudian adherents. What about Melanie Klein and the rest of the object-relations movement? How did they differ? Indeed, the role of plain ol’ talk therapy — explicitly Freudian or not — is given short shrift, which might sound understandable in a book looking at biological underpinnings, but as a tool in the arsenal against so-called mental illness its absence feels odd, especially in light of the author’s emphasis on the misdirections of neo-Freudians. I get that Harrington could easily have written a book three times its size on her chosen topic. But if you’re going to talk about the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis in general then I feel you have to unpack and contextualize a bit more than what is on display here.

For the most part, however, Harrington is surprisingly fair-minded, not only unveiling the naked greed (and capricious biological arguments) of psychopharmaceutical manufacturers, but highlighting the testimony of those patients who were — placebo effect or not — helped by their medications, even if it came at a cost of other aspects of their health. She is by no means on a mission to dispel the notion of a biological source of mental illness, as I’m sure some vested interests might think looking at her book from a distance, but rather to show how partisanism, arrogance, and greed have wasted decades of valuable mental health research as we swing from trend to trend.

Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness, is available at an independent bookseller near you, or online.


Book Review: The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

A publishing colleague posted this book’s cover on Twitter and I was immediately interested. If you know me or know my work, then the subjects of jazz and physics (particularly quantum physics) are both dear to me. To my surprise, I was subsequently sent a copy of Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics in the mail…which I then proceeded to neglect for over a year.

Why? Well, for one, I had a backlog of books I’d earmarked for reading and I was also finishing off the manuscript for my next novel. However, if I were to be perfectly honest, it was partly out of fear. Aside from the loose premise, I didn’t know Alexander as an author and I didn’t know what the thrust of the book and, perhaps most importantly, its tone would be cover of The Jazz of Physics I was afraid it would be a beginner’s guide to physics using jazz as a loose, entertaining metaphor that ultimately ends up lacking specificity about either jazz or physics.

I could not have been more wrong. It’s the opposite. The Jazz of Physics is written by someone who is as serious and seriously accomplished a physicist (currently a professor at Brown University) as he is a dedicated and well-studied jazz musician. Rather than a figurative metaphor, Alexander uses jazz as a profound analogy for the very workings of our universe. He’s not using it to disingenuously sell physics. Growing up in the Bronx surrounded by musical influences (a story about the Five Percenter Nation is fascinating) as well as having a natural intuition for understanding the principles of science, The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating biographical narrative and nothing short of a passion project, an attempt to argue in the deadly-serious terms of cutting edge quantum theory that the relationship between music — specifically jazz, in how it centres on improvisation — and the formation of the universe is less figurative than literal.

Tall order? Yes.

First, let me stress how difficult a task it is for someone such as Alexander to pull this off. I have read well-argued books by esteemed physicists that ended up self-sabotaging themselves because they lost track of who their audience is — something I am inclined to believe is the chief challenge of any such endeavour. As an author writing for a general audience, the deeper you go into the macro and micro of physics (corresponding respectively to relativity and quantum theory), the harder it is to keep the reader’s attention. Alexander works hard, imaginatively and creatively, to find analogies to help the reader along — the use of analogies themselves are the cornerstone for him:

Next to mathematics, I learned that one of the most powerful tools involved with unraveling the secrets in the theoretical sciences is simplifying the system at hand and borrowing an analogy from what might, at first glance, be a completely unrelated discipline. It is in the limits of these analogies, where there exists a need for further research, that an avenue for discover lies.

Along his path, we are introduced to both eminent physicists — not just the usual suspects such as Einstein, Dirac, and Schrödinger, but contemporaries such as Lee Smolin, Faye Dowker, and Bill Unruh — and their musical equivalents: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and MC Rakim. Yes, I wish there were more women represented in this book, but I’m not going to put that on Alexander because he’s drawing from direct experience.

What leaps off the pages of The Jazz of Physics is Alexander’s passion for both disciplines, and he goes to pains in order to lure the reader — the question of which, jazz fans or amateur physicists, are more likely to be interested is a question I will come back to — into the complexities of these distinct yet related worlds and his unfolding thesis — that, ultimately, the stuff of our current universe may very well have been formed via sound. A stumbling block for some readers might be the extent to which they are either a) versed in these subjects, and b) prepared (if not) to travel the highly sophisticated, often mathematically structured path Alexander is, by his own decision, obligated to illustrate. There might also be those who question the extent to which the term “music” is construed from what is ultimately sound. This latter concern is remarkably well handled by the author who ultimately provides a convincing argument.

With respect to the mathematics and formulae included in the book, there are two sides to look at this from. Alexander is careful in the beginning to encourage the casual reader to accept the parts that are over their head and keep following the tune, as it were. I am by no means adept at math, my interest in quantum physics being more conceptual than anything else. While I was able to proceed past sections where the author felt it necessary to draw the more mathematically-minded kids in the room closer without losing a beat, I have to admit that three-quarters in I began to get lost in the minutiae of quantum theory itself. Want to know what a brane is? Inflaton fields? Anyone? No? After a while, neither did I, and this is where I began to ask myself — as someone who felt that this book was written for me — how many other readers with a general-to-specific interest are going to find themselves skipping numerous paragraphs (if not the better parts of chapters) because of the growing complexity of these quantum building blocks that Alexander discovers in his journey. I can’t fault him because these are the very things that were stumping him so why should we be able to swallow it in one gulp? It has led me to ask myself how well this book sold, seeing as it might be too science-y for jazz fans, and the language of jazz itself can be a figurative mess for anyone who’s never needed to decipher a symmetric diminished scale.

This is a science book that draws its inspiration from a deep and abiding love of jazz (and music as a whole). Anyone expecting to understand music in the same way that Alexander attempts to illustrate his passion for physics might find themselves disappointed, although, to the author’s credit, his passion for both is infectious.

Lastly, there is something very significant in this book about mentorship. Alexander’s journey of discovery is also one of, to use a phrase from Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. Science, like jazz, is inherently collaborative — the thing is, not anyone off the street is going to be given room for a solo on the stage. You have to have chops, and I appreciate how the author comes back to this bargain one makes, that if you want to learn and grow with the more experienced colleagues in your field you have to first demonstrate your aptitude and willingness to learn.

The Jazz of Physics (ISBN: 978-0465034994) is available at an independent bookstore near you. Curiously, I wonder what it’s like as an audiobook?


Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging

Whenever a mental health authority is interviewed in the media it’s nearly inevitable that this person is a medical doctor, usually a psychiatrist. This individual typically isn’t a practicing therapist; they may only be able to speak of clinical diagnoses and/or the prescription of psychopharmaceuticals. I mention this because when this authoritative psychiatrist is interviewed in the media I end up listening to a depiction of the massively complex human interrelational landscape I see around me every day, as both a writer and psychotherapist, reduced to a chemical imbalance in someone’s brain. It’s like ascribing a boxer’s loss of a title match solely to the width of their biceps.

book coverThe gold standard for looking at mental health is through what’s called a biopsychosocial lens, a flexible model that allows professionals to consider the biomedical (for example, thyroid issues, dementia), the psychological (traumatic experiences, abusive relationships), and socio-economic factors (unemployment, impoverished environment) that might be at play in the mental health profile of any given individual, even if it ends up a combination of one or more parts. In North America there is unfortunately a sacred primacy around the biomedical approach to mental health, with the psychological and socio-economic as (at best) secondary considerations at the table of funding and education. At this moment there are medical doctors losing sleep wondering how to beat the shame of knowing there is a patient in their care whose condition might be psychogenic (meaning, whose pathology is not, strictly speaking, a biomedical end product). Continue reading “Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging”


Book Review: Conflict Is Not Abuse, by Sarah Schulman

I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that less and less people want to use the phone. I cannot help but draw a correlation between this observation and the ubiquitous rise of digital communication. Email? Sure. Text? Yup. And what’s wrong with this, you might ask? On paper it would objectively appear that text-based communication (particularly including social media) is superior at transferring information without error, if only us pesky humans didn’t make mistakes. And this last part is key: we are not objective, we balance the objective world with our much less easily measurable experiential (or personal) reality; this second reality is informed by our experiences, which are diverse and sometimes punctuated by trauma or loss. When we talk to someone on the phone we are leaving ourselves prone — to fallibility (stammering, going off on a tangent), or having our hesitations read as something we may not otherwise wish to reveal.

I was thinking about these things (and many others) when I began reading Sarah Schulman’s powerful book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair. The problem with nearly all forms of digital communication and social media (with the exception of apps like Skype, etc) is that there is no actual dialogue — we aren’t allowed to have the sort of vulnerable conversations that speaking in-person or on the phone forces us into. And, in one of the book’s more important diagnoses, Schulman recognizes this as a key ingredient in the escalation of violence. Instead we are only allowed to trade unidirectional statements, leaving nuance and human connection by the wayside. So, when we have a disagreement with someone via text it becomes easy to pile on them, to vilify them. We can’t see them and there is no way for them to interject. On a social media platform like Twitter, this sort of conflict easily escalates into directing the wrath of groups upon an individual. Continue reading “Book Review: Conflict Is Not Abuse, by Sarah Schulman”


Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading “Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin”


The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading “The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics”


Book Review: The Therapy Industry, by Paul Moloney

I don’t have a lot of time or head space for reviews of any kind these days, however I try to make an exception for work which deserves attention, if only for sake of better exposure and discussion.

One of these works is the book The Therapy Industry, The Irresistible Rise of the Talking Cure and Why it Doesn’t Work by author Paul Moloney (Pluto Press). I came across this provocative title through Moloney’s recent curation of new book releases on the site New Left Project. What follows is a necessarily compressed review, certainly more so than what you would normally find for this sort of work, and perhaps more succinct than this book deserves.

Let’s stop the bus and draw your attention to the driver. My interest in this book is complex and certainly not unbiased: I’m a relational psychotherapist – it is a career I chose later in life and one whose practice and philosophy I have a deep, evolving respect for. However, increasingly I have found myself dissatisfied with the level of critical discussion about the array of available therapeutic modalities, the politics non-medical practitioners encounter with respect to recognition in an increasingly medicalized notion of mental health, and not least the pecking orders (particularly reinforced by those practitioners who receive provincial health care coverage, those who receive coverage via corporate health benefits plans, and those who receive neither).

I was drawn to this book not only for its stated critical approach but also, perhaps relievedly, that it was written by someone who is a counselling psychologist and lecturer. This is not, in other words, a journalistic view from the outside. Quite selfishly I thus figured that it must have some sort of a happy ending. And, in short, it does, though you need to swallow some hard medicine first.

The gist of The Therapy Industry is that there is a disconnect between the mainstream approach toward treating those with mental health issues and the realities of (at the very least Western) industrialized society which is becoming more and more demanding upon us, economically, socially, and – as a result – psychologically. The system generally available to the public – from awareness campaigns to the attitudes of medical and non-medical practitioners – goes to lengths to make those seeking help feel that the problems they are experiencing are the product of their genes or their own faulty reasoning about the world around them. Or, if the practitioner does recognize that there is a probable cause that is environmental rather than genetic, the prevailing course of treatment is, in essence, mind over matter. According to the book there is, in short, some denial about the more environmental causes in the marked rise of mental health-related issues over the last century. And worse still, if there is clinical – which is to say institutionalized – denial then that doubly disfavours those seeking help. Continue reading “Book Review: The Therapy Industry, by Paul Moloney”