Book Review: Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life

My copy of Group.

“Save it for group.”

Such is the mantra internalized by Christie Tate and manifest in her lovely, hilarious and heart-breaking, well-written with such wit, insight and flow debut 2020 memoir, Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life.

Tate is at the top of her second-tier law school, looking to take the next step into the law firm in Chicago, Skadden, where they offer you essentially a signing bonus of $7,000.

However, Tate wants to die. She has intrusive, suicidal thoughts of hoping, pleading with someone to put a bullet in her brain. To get caught up as collateral damage in a gunfight on the street. (I can relate to these feelings; my suicidal ideation at times often manifest as hoping to die in such a manner.) To add to that, she’s already going to AA meetings for bulimia because of long-ingrained body image issues. And she has this deeply abiding fear that she will always be alone and unlovable. Years of holding in her emotions because of her religious, Texas upbringing and her parents willing her to keep those emotions in, has led to her being unable to manifest attachments to anyone, much less something approaching a “healthy” romantic attachment.

Glossing all of this is a trauma from her teenage years she has yet to deal with, where she was on vacation in Hawaii with a friend and the friend’s died drowned in the ocean (it was a beach with “restricted” signs he apparently ignored, unfortunately).

That’s where Dr. Rosen, who in my mind’s eye is a small man reminiscent of Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, Sean. But instead of the confrontational pushback Sean shows to Will, Dr. Rosen has the quite, comforting and unyielding (and almost ungodly) patience reminiscent of my philosophy professor in college. My philosophy professor in college would always start the class by posing a question based on the assigned reading and just sit there in his chair looking pensive, waiting for someone in the class to speak up. Usually I’d break the silence because I found it unbearable.

That’s Dr. Rosen, who is Jewish and Harvard-educated. Soon, after joining up with Dr. Rosen individually, he recommends Tate to join group therapy with a few others. They sit around in a circle and everything is on the table for discussion. Secrets are the way we conceal shame and shame is not allowed in group. Everything must be spoken aloud and discussed.

So, throughout the book, Tate tells us about her various relationships and their (seemingly) inevitable implosion, from Jeremy, the depression video-gamer with a dirty dick; to Alex, who was apathetic at best about Tate despite Tate thinking he might be the “one,”; to Brandon, who lacked a libido and was known as Mr. Flipper for his one and only move in bed; to Reed, a married man in group because of his infidelity, but who Tate fell for, but would break things off with; and to finally, John, who would become her husband.

Through all of these relationships, we see how years of group therapy — including additional “advanced” group therapy on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to the Tuesday group she was already doing, each 90-minute sessions — and talking with group members and leaving acidic voicemails for Dr. Rosen about how he’s not helping her, we learn precisely how group therapy is helping Tate: It’s helping her to discover what it means to be fully herself and fully herself with someone.

There was no quick fix. Throughout the group therapy, Tate throws copious tantrums, cries enough to flood Chicago, self-harms and so on, but through that, she finds her voice. She finds understanding of her emotions; emotions she had locked deep within.

One of the most profound takeaways from the book, which comes from Dr. Rosen, is the line, “If you can’t say no, there is no intimacy.”

Of course, the fun paradox of life is that intimacy is about learning to both say no and to say yes, so perhaps it’s more about learning when to say no and when to say yes more than anything.

Two things I find quite interesting as takeaways from the book is that early on, Dr. Rosen tells Tate, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” echoing the sentiment in Buddhism to not rely on a teacher for enlightenment. Yet, Tate does rely on Dr. Rosen (and her group members) a great deal! She even acknowledges that at times it feels like a co-dependent relationship, or holy Freud balls, like each relationship is merely a projection of her desire to sleep with a man like Dr. Rosen. So, I’m not sure what to make of that. Obviously, she needed his steady guidance, but I think it was more so, his lack of judgment? That his groups are such open testimonials. He’s not going to give you the answer. That isn’t the point. Just the space to fully become yourself.

Secondly, the vast majority of the book focuses on Tate’s romantic relationships and those ups and downs. We do have a harrowing recounting of the Hawaii vacation and I had chills the entire time and my breath was in my throat. But I think I would have liked more on the familial relationship front? Did Tate ever talk to group about her family? Or parents specifically? Through the Hawaii vacation story and trauma she tells group, we know her parents basically told her to bottle up her trauma, but what comes of that? We know that Tate would dip low into her loneliness particularly around the holidays, which by omission, tells us that she’s not flying back to Texas to be with her family on the holidays. So, what’s the story there? She thanks them in the Acknowledgments, but how’s that relationship? What did they think about all of her group therapy and sex shenanigans in the book, i.e., premarital sex?

I was riveted in every facet — laugh-out-loud moments, grossed-out (by dirty dick and junior prom, respectively) ones, heartfelt ones, and everything in between, relating all along the way, despite being a man — by the romantic relationship journey, but the lack of parental relationship did leave me wanting more! That’s not a mark against the book, though, but perhaps a call for a second memoir.

Also, to think of this book as group and be as open and transparent as possible, I have to admit my negative thoughts while reading the book: my jealousy of Tate. That she could afford nearly $1,000 a month to go to group therapy. Her money and job and globe-trotting life. That she even had that many romantic relationships to talk about, as bad as some of them were and that they obviously didn’t work out until John. That she has a Dr. Rosen, who is Harvard-educated and apparently brilliant. And that she has these group people, who are just a fascinating cast of characters beautifully sketched by Tate. Or that the therapy is so open? I was very open with my therapist, but I feel like almost a closed book reading this book! Not to mention, the “after therapy session” voicemails and talks with other group members seem foreign to my therapy experience, particularly going to Dr. Rosen’s house for a dinner date.

I’m just being honest! I know all the responses to those things because I say them to myself — that money doesn’t mitigate depression, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, loneliness and the need for therapy, or that it isn’t a contest in quantity when it comes to romantic relationships, or that I shouldn’t be envious of her relationship with Dr. Rosen because I had my own helpful therapist — but I wanted to be honest with my thoughts.

Tate’s book is absurdly readable, relatable and lovely. Her writing is exactly in my wheelhouse because I feel like, at times, she was writing from my head! I can’t praise this debut memoir enough. I felt like I was the proverbial fly on the wall to her group therapy sessions. It was enthralling. I loved the roller coaster of each new romantic relationship and wondering, “What’s this guy’s hang-up going to be? Is this one going to pan out?” And I felt her five-plus years at group therapy and her wondering if she could ever be fixed until … she was and John came and their baby and their wedding and hey, she’s better. Fixed is a silly way to think about our well-being. But better? That’s attainable. That’s measurable.

When I first dipped my toes into reaching out for help with therapy in the summer of 2021, the intake person at the place I turned to asked if I wanted to do group therapy or individualized and the thought of group therapy was an instant, “HELL NO!” in my head and then verbalized in a more polite version. The thought of sitting in a circle and sharing as openly as possible with a group of people like Tate does in the book (and particularly, the anger and the confrontation, which I’m supposed to be comfortable with!) gives me social anxiety even imagining it.

But also, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t yearn for the group dynamic in the book that feels like a dang revelation: to have the bond humans can only form by being so figuratively naked in front of each other.

Maybe one day I’ll try it. I know this book gave me a different perspective and more to consider regarding group therapy than previously.

3 thoughts

    1. I’ll add it to my want to read shelf! I love everything I’ve heard from Brown. She’s great, but I haven’t actually read a book of her’s yet!

      Like

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