What is Hollywood's fascination with psychotherapists? More to the point, why does Hollywood insist on portraying those in the profession as ethically-challenged, emotionally distant, or psychologically damaged? I guess the reality of being a psychotherapist - with the inevitable awkward silences, equivocations, idiosyncratic references, and mundane moments that punctuate the therapeutic hour - just isn't that interesting to a Hollywood writer.
Thankfully, HBO offers viewers a more realistic portrayal of a modern day therapist. Based on an Israeli television show, In Treatment follows the treatment of several patients as they struggle to address their psychic conflicts.
What is so compelling about In Treatment is the show's protagonist, Dr. Paul Weston, who is brilliantly portrayed by the Irish actor, Gabriel Byrne. Byrne brings to the role a humanity that frankly many real-life therapists could learn to emulate. Paul (as his patients refer to him) grapples with issues that all of us encounter in our therapeutic work with patients. Like many of us, Paul is at times in awe of those he helps, sometimes pushing them to face challenges in therapy that most of us would rather leave buried and repressed.
What I find so astounding about Gabriel Byrne's work in this role is the fact that he has never been in therapy himself. In an interview with NPR the actor said that his approach to the character is based on the awareness that the art of listening to another person can be immensely therapeutic. It's an insight that rings true to me.
If you're interested in exploring some more realistic portrayals of psychotherapy, you might want to check out the following films and books:
Peter Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time. A comprehensive and well-written biography of one of the best known, but often misunderstood, therapist in history. This book will make you question what you thought you knew about Freud.
Robert Linder's The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales. Another work of non-fiction but one that reads like a novel. Linder presents several real-life tales from the couch that offer a window into the therapeutic process.
Irvin Yalom's When Nietzsche Wept. Set in nineteenth-century Vienna, this historical work of fiction follows the psychoanalysis of the existential philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche by Josef Breuer, Freud's predecessor and the originator of the "talking cure."
Irvin Yalom's Everday Gets a Little Closer. This book follows the real-life reflections of a psychiatrist (Yalom) and his patient (Ginny), a talented writer who struggles to connect with people.
La stanza del figlio (The Son's Room). Nanni Moretti wrote, directed, and starred in this understated Italian film about a psychoanalyst and his family, as they go through the profound emotional trauma of morning the loss of a son.
Captain Newman. A great older film with Gregory Peck as a military psychologist during Second World War.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.