'The Examined Life' Gathers Decades of Wisdom in One Book

Stephen Grosz's book gave me a great deal to think about. It also renewed my belief in the efficacy of good therapy.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 240 pages
Author: Stephen Grosz
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-05

This will be one of the easiest reviews I will ever write. The Examined Life is a joy from start to finish. I can't think of a reader who wouldn't benefit from the insights Stephen Grosz presents here, in his first book.

Grosz has been a psychoanalyst for many years. Upon reaching his 60th birthday, he realized that he might not be around for his child's emergence into early adulthood, and he wanted to be sure that he had a book of insights to pass on to her. So he contacted some of his patients and asked if he could gather their stories into one volume. Not a single patient objected; each hoped that others might benefit from his or her story.

Grosz divided the book into sections on various life stages, such as beginnings, changes, and death. Each section contains surprising insights.

For example, in the "beginnings" section, Grosz recalls a patient who shocked him. This patient had been in therapy for several weeks when he stopped showing up. His girlfriend sent Grosz a note that said he had killed himself and, obviously, would not be coming to therapy anymore. Months elapsed. Suddenly, the supposedly dead man materialized; he had forged the note from his girlfriend. He had felt a compulsive need to astonish and unsettle Grosz.

After several consultations, Grosz and the patient discovered that the patient had been badly traumatized in the years of his infancy. His young parents had been overwhelmed; they had used physical violence to try to calm their baby. The baby "stored" memories of that startling violence for years and though, as an adult, the patient could not consciously recall having been abused, he enacted his own story by abusing others. Grosz says, "When we cannot tell our own stories, our stories tell us." If we have repressed something traumatic, we may end up enacting the trauma without understanding what we are doing.

Other stories are equally remarkable. One patient is an autistic child who insists on spitting at his therapist at the beginning of each session. Grosz, and the child, cannot unearth the reason for this obsessive anger. Finally, Grosz realizes that the anger is meant to mask a deeper feeling: intense sadness. The child is sad that he will never be like his siblings, or like other "normal" children. He will always suffer from disabilities. Once Grosz and the child are able to discuss and mourn this reality, the treatment progresses. The child grows up and becomes a mailroom worker in a company, and fondly, annually recalls the help Grosz once gave to him.

Still another patient, in Grosz's section on death, discovers that he has HIV. As his body fails him, he begins to fall into silence in each of his sessions. The silences have their own individual qualities; some are anxious, some are restful, some are sad. Knowing that he can be quiet, and still be present in Grosz's mind, the patient begins to relax and to articulate his wishes for his own death. He wants suicide; he does not want to be powerless before his surrender.

As it happens, the man lives through the development of pioneering drugs and now, 20 years on, he is reasonably healthy. Grosz's larger point seems to be that we humans communicate with one another via silence, just as we communicate via words. We know some things about one another, even when we cannot articulate all of our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts.

A fourth patient has a less inspiring story. In his early 20s he, too, has HIV, and he is sent to Grosz by his doctor, so that Grosz might find a way to persuade him to take his medicine. Grosz fails at his task. He cannot find words to get the patient to practice self-care. Instead, the patient skips off to a tropical country for vacation and dies, at 26, of dysentery. Memories of this unfortunate chapter haunt Grosz years later, when he cannot persuade his own young son to take medicine for a different ailment. Suddenly, he finds the right tactic: empathy. If he had been able to communicate to the 20-something a bit about his own fears and irrational attitudes toward medicine, he might have helped that patient.

Grosz concludes the story by acknowledging that, sometimes, he finds himself longing to speak to patients many years after the therapy has been terminated.

It's thrilling to read -- and re-read -- this book. It's the sort of thing that makes you, briefly, aware that the things you're living for are probably sort of inconsequential. We worry about money, and status, and how we are perceived by strangers, but the thing that really matters is our close relationships. We all have a pronounced need to have intimate connections to others -- to understand, and to be understood.

I wish I could say I think this book will change my life in serious ways. It probably won't. Books about therapy tend to be like slices of pizza, at least for me; they're quite delightful on the way down, and then I forget about them.

Still, for a while, this book gave me a great deal to think about. It also renewed my belief in the efficacy of good therapy.

May we all seek help from a counselor as wise and as patient as Grosz.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.