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Class Notes

The Existential Psychotherapist

In his latest book, Irvin Yalom puts himself on the couch.

Photo by URS JAUDAS

As a gifted child of uneducated immigrant parents who worked long hours in the family grocery store, Irvin Yalom (HS, psychiatry, 1960) nursed a fantasy of rescue by an influential elder who, recognizing the boy’s potential, would lift him out of his hardscrabble circumstances to begin his true education. This daydream poignantly sets the stage for the many stories of cultivating dreams—his own and others’—that make up Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir, the octogenarian’s 18th book.

During his residency at Johns Hopkins, Yalom studied under John Whitehorn and Jerome Frank. Though he didn’t realize it until he was writing his memoir a half-century later, these men—along with David Hamburg, who hired Yalom at Stanford, where he would spend his career as a professor and practicing psychotherapist—were the mentors he had sought. Even more important than what they taught him about working with patients, Yalom said recently, was what they showed him about himself. “They saw something in me that communicated to me that I had value, I had worth. They took me very seriously, gave me responsibility.”

Another acknowledged mentor is his wife, Marilyn Yalom, a feminist literary scholar who introduced him to existentialist literature, spurring his realization that “through narrative, these writers had plumbed depths of existence in a way that psychiatric writing never seemed to have achieved.”

In his practice, Yalom would soon ditch his white coat and invite patients to call him Irv, elevating authentic relationship as the “mutative force” in therapy, above interpretation or catharsis. He wrote the book on group therapy, literally—his textbook The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy is in its sixth edition—and developed “existential therapy” to help patients grapple with such problems as the finitude of life.

He has also opened the therapist’s experience for examination, with fiction and nonfiction, including the best-selling Love’s Executioner and When Nietsche Wept. In fact, he says, he intended nearly all of his books to be teaching tools for therapists in training, and his worldwide following includes readers in many parts of the world where such training is otherwise unavailable. “Look out the patient's window,” he urges. 

The Existential Psychotherapist