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Book Review: Fifty Shrinks by Sebastian Zimmermann

1409240347566Fifty Shrinks combines photographs by Sebastian Zimmermann, a psychiatrist and photographer, of therapists’ offices as well as interviews with therapists. “As you read through the book, you will be struck by the variety of mood, ambience, and furnishing, mirroring the wide spectrum of therapeutic philosophies held by the practitioners who opened their private offices and their minds as well,” writes Lee Kassan in the front cover text.  And, that sums it up nicely.

The cover shows the psychoanalyst Martin Bergmann who continued to practise until a few weeks short of his 101st birthday. He is pictured in an elegant penthouse office anchored by a towering bookcase and sweeping views of Central Park. It is an image that radiates, and invites, contemplation. I would have liked to know whether it had been Dr. Bergmann who had decided that he wanted to be photographed looking down in thought while seated on a bed or whether he did so following instructions by the photographer.

1409240797246A hint of how Zimmermann went about his work is given in the text that accompanies the portrait of Dr. Charles Brenner, “whose towering reputation as the dean of American psychoanalysis for half a century intrigued and intimidated me.”  After taking some photographs of him at his desk and reading from a book, Zimmermann noticed a chess board on a sideboard and asked Brenner if he would pose by the board. “His posture straightened, his focus intensified, his mood lifted, and he transformed into the authority figure that I had anticipated.” It is a remarkable portrait that radiates the kind of authority I would clearly be intimidated by.

I’m not always sure what a therapist’s office says about the therapist but I can quite easily say whether an office helps me to feel at ease or not. My favourite would clearly be the one of Martin Bergmann for I do share, and can easily identify with, the feelings expressed by Sebastian Zimmermann. “In his office I’m readily transported by a fantasy of high civilization, where time stands still and you can surrender …”  It goes without saying that it is not just the office that attracts me but also Bergmann’s approach: “Gradually you create within yourself an image of the person and then you communicate out of this idea. As you get to know the patient, the image becomes more articulate. In all of this, I am not focused on change. I am trying to understand what the patient is about and to allow him or her to develop the goal of his or her own changing.”

Steven_Lee0886Fifty Shrinks is a truly fascinating tome that provides valuable insights into what shrinks have decided to reveal about themselves. Some are talking about themselves, others about their patients, and some, Otto F. Kernberg, for instance, who mostly treats patients with severe personality disorders, explain what a certain affect state is all about. “A person with borderline personality organization, for example, experiences intense affects of love, hatred, fear, rage, anger, envy, or sadness. Under such affect states, he loses the capacity to assess where he stands and what he feels, what he should do, and what other people feel or think or are doing. This brings about a rigid judgement of what is going on and how to behave in his relations with other people. He doesn’t know how to understand his own feelings, how to control them, and what to do with them.”

The rooms shown are very varied, from spartan to colourful, the objects displayed couldn’t be more diverse. And, as Elizabeth Danze, writes in “The Therapeutic Interior”: “During the process of therapy, these objects provide potent opportunities for association.”

Since the personality of the therapist is crucial for the therapeutic process, and since this personality also reveals itself in the chosen therapy surroundings, Fifty Shrinks could very well serve as a suitable guide to select a possible shrink.

1409243542073PS: I thought it funny that the portraits are introduced by Alfred Adler’s quote “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well,” for it might of course suggest that what we are getting to see in this book are not normal people … and they would probably agree …



Fifty Shrinks
by Sebastian Zimmermann
with an essay by Elizabeth Danze
First edition 2014
For more info and to purchase the book: www.fiftyshrinks.com

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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