Rowson cartoon

This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

My good friend James died last year. There were many glowing tributes: references to his pioneering academic work, his kindness towards strangers and his intolerance of injustice. But nobody at the humanist service chose to mention his
enduring affection for psychotherapists.

For not only did James switch from one therapist to another with all the volatility of a four-year-old in a sweetshop, he also displayed a cheerfully cavalier attitude towards their theoretical orientation. He seemed just as comfortable with an archetypical Jungian as with an unreconstructed Freudian, equally at ease with a holistic Adlerian and a bit-and-piece neuro-linguistic reprogrammer.

Nor did he hesitate to talk about his analytic relationships. When we met, it was almost invariably our first topic of conversation. “My new one’s German,” he’d announce with relish even as I was uncorking the Merlot. “She has this wonderful guttural pronunciation. ‘Vot exactly are you sinking?’, she asks. ‘Tell me all about your mutter’. It makes everything seem so much more significant.”

When I first learned about his analytic promiscuity, I assumed that he was searching but failing to find someone to resolve some deep-rooted psychological trauma. But when he told me one Saturday evening that he’d seen a Reichian, I finally demurred. “Surely that’s a load of nonsense. How do you expect to find out anything worthwhile about your inner life from someone who believes the path to mental well-being is increasing your orgastic potency?”

I could see that my jibe had hit home. But when he retaliated, he did so in a most unexpected fashion. “You don’t understand do you?” he said. “You didn’t notice anything strange when I was talking the other day about that Hampstead psychoanalyst who was having such difficulties with her eldest daughter’s unresolved Electra Complex. And you were equally insensitive when I went on and on last year about that Belsize Park Jungian being in a constant state of high anxiety because she was well past the age when Jung suggested that her individuation should have occurred.”

But what had this to do with his readiness to go to charlatans for psychic help?

“Let me remind you of a little story,” he said. “During the erection of the Festival of Britain complex there was some concern that materials were being stolen from the site. So an inspector was promptly stationed on the main entrance. Day after day he rigorously examined the inside of every wheelbarrow leaving the site. Day after day nothing contraband was ever found. How come? Simple, really. It was the wheelbarrows that were being stolen.”


“Exactly. What intrigues me about these different therapists, whether they’re orgasmic Reichians or free-will existentialists, is not the prospect of them resolving my psychic traumas. What I want to do is to walk away with theirs!”

“But aren’t they wise to that? The Freudians must surely be alive to counter-transference, to the possibility that they are displacing their own emotions onto the client?”

“Let’s face the awkward truth. Most therapists are considerably more interesting than their clients. So, anyone who gives them a chance to talk about themselves and their problems is positively relished.”

“But do you really help them? Surely you haven’t the expertise?”

“You’re missing the point again. I’m not there to offer therapy. I want to manipulate the situation in such a way as to persuade them to reveal their psychological concerns.”

“And then?”

“I promptly leave them for another therapist.”

“But what does that do for you?”

“Simple, really. What could be a more reliable indicator of my own mental well-being than the knowledge that therapists of all persuasions are falling over themselves to talk to me about their troubles?”

After the service I fell into conversation with an elderly woman on the long path to the crematorium gates. “You knew James well?” I asked.

“I should not mention this,” she said confidentially. “But he was one of my clients. A lovely lovely man.”

“You’ll miss him?”

“Of course. Who else is there now to talk to about the problems I am having with my mutter?”