FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY, IT is the worst of times. The effectiveness of antidepressants has relegated talk therapy to the backseat, while bestselling self-help volumes give the impression that learning a slogan or mouthing a mantra will stop a reader's addictions to sex or shopping. The kind of personal change that involves self-reflection is a lot more complicated than taking a drug or reading a book, but it's not as quick a fix. As Paul Solotaroff describes his own time in group therapy in the prologue to his latest book, Group, what happens in the therapist's office "was about as epiphanic as ditch-digging."
Group chronicles a year in the lives of six adults trying group therapy in New York City, treating the reader to a realistic, gripping examination of some of this psychological construction work. Group therapy is generally a private endeavor, but Solotaroff, a journalist, was able to attend and tape the year's worth of sessions, and conduct private interviews with the patients and the therapist, Dr. Lathon, because he had once attended "group" with Lathon himself.
As with MTV's The Real World, Group's narrative appeal lies in its sometimes unlikable characters. Two are women: a magazine editor and a social worker. The four men include a former Broadway producer, a songwriter, an accountant, and a Wall Street millionaire. This cast has the potential to come off as a collection of whiners--in a nation where people work three jobs to get by, the woes of multimillionaires can seem ridiculous--but their weaknesses prove compelling. Some have had great falls: The ex-producer was suspended for embezzling, and the Wall Street tycoon had an obsessive, coke-laced affair with a stripper. Others, unable to commit to a relationship or unable to stand up for themselves at work, suffer from more everyday problems--as Solotaroff puts it, the "inability to turn down the all-day racket in our heads and listen for the whisper of true self."
Despite Solotaroff's obvious enthusiasm for group therapy--his own experience helped him define his life as a writer and led him into a serious relationship--the writer doesn't shy away from criticizing what he sees. Some of the members of the group radically change their lives during the year, ending old relationships, entering into new ones, and taking new jobs. But the author recognizes that group therapy is no panacea, and some problems don't go away in 12 months, despite the best intentions.
Solotaroff also shows how the therapist himself occasionally hinders the progress of the group. Although a smart, insightful, and experienced practitioner, this man undergoes a crisis of his own, separating from his wife and scheduling marathon appointments to pay off the staggering renovation bill for a swanky new uptown office. But Group is no 1990s version of The Bob Newhart Show, where both therapist and patient were gleefully lampooned. Solotaroff deftly describes how the group's members, with the help of the time-honored psychological methods of honesty and communication, learn to care for one another and for themselves.
When Dylan, the rock 'n' roll musician, returns to the group after disappearing into an alcohol and drug binge, members of the group are both concerned about his health and annoyed that he has let them down. What makes Group a fascinating book is that readers, caught up in this persuasive human tale, will feel the same way.