On writing a therapy memoir: Christie Tate and Catherine Gildiner discuss the delicacies of the form
As anyone who has sat through a Zoom therapy session knows, there's really no substitute for the real thing. But, the book world is giving it a shot. There's been a swell of books about the therapeutic experience in recent years — everything from character studies to psychological tell-alls — and this month two more are hitting shelves. Christie Tate's Group is a memoir about her experience attending group therapy, which she seeks out for help reconciling her achieving career as a lawyer with her more troubling personal difficulties. Good Morning, Monster by Catherine Gildiner is a psychologist's retelling of five of her most memorable (and harrowing) cases.
The two authors came together (over Zoom, of course) to discuss the many nuances of publishing a book about, perhaps, the most sensitive material an author can publish.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were each of your reactions to reading the other's book, and how did it make you reflect on your own takes on the therapeutic process?
CHRISTIE TATE: I would say as a book, they seem as far apart as a book from the patient's perspective and the therapist's perspective should be — but, because my therapy has been headed by a man for all these years, it made me feel a longing, honestly, for the type of creative presence and healing and mothering that you offered your patients. I feel like I got that too, but I just think everything would have been different if it had been a woman.
Cathy, when you read books from a patient's perspective, are you surprised by anything that you read?
CATHERINE GILDINER: It depends who the therapist is. If they're writing a book saying, I had the worst therapist, listen to this, then you're like, well, that's terrible. But then I've had patients that have been referred to me who have been to terrible therapists. So, it just depends what kind of story they want to tell.
TATE: What I was really struck by, and so moved by, was the ways in which Catherine was herself changed by what she saw in her patients and their heroism, their survival, their grit. It made me understand, in a new way, how the process works both ways.
Can you talk about what went into your decisions to actually write these books?
TATE: I started out as a very spectacularly failed novelist and I kept writing books about a woman with a therapist. I took a break from writing, took a few classes and I started writing nonfiction. But I really thought it was just a practice and then I would go off and write the great American novel that had nothing to do with this story of myself. And then I just stuck with it. In my very first draft, I never used anybody's real name, even the therapist. I just never thought anyone was going to read it. I never thought this would be a thing. But when you think that no one's going to read it, then you write the truth.
GILDINER: For me, about 35 years ago, I went to a high school reunion and there was a guy there who won the Purple Heart. We all stood up and cheered and told him how incredibly brave he was. And he'd done an incredibly brave thing—but I thought at that very moment that I was going to write this book because I said, I have seen more bravery than General Patton ever saw. I have patients who grew up in conditions worse than a prisoner of war camp, and she lived there every day and she had to make it work. There was no one else in the world to help her. I thought, I want to write a book about psychological heroes.
The level of detail in both books is impressive; how did you recreate everything?
TATE: Well, early on with my therapy, I kept a journal, so I had that to look back on. In early drafts of the book, it was more episodic — I remember this happened, and then this happened — it wasn't an art. It was like a lot of me cracking jokes about look at the zany thing and I had to find the through-line for all of those. When I remember scenes, some of it is still so vivid to me: I remember what I was wearing my first five sessions.
GILDINER: I was very scientific at the beginning of crafting the book — I had taken all these statistics courses, I wanted to have a very non-biased sample. At first, I picked out the first five people I liked as the subjects, and then I spent eight months reading every other file and trying to decide who to put in it. In the end, I took the five people that came right to my mind, and then something even weirder happened. My editor was reading the book and she said, why did you choose each woman here, who has each been raised by her father, not the mother. That's kind of unusual. I was raised by my father and not my mother, so I realized, oh, I unconsciously attached to them because I experienced life in the way they did.
Christie, was your storyline always woven into the stories of your group-mates, or did that change throughout writing?
TATE: Some of the things that really stuck out to me are all the people who ended up in group with me — over time there were almost 20 of them. They have really compelling stories. They had things that would be very fun to read and write about. When I started taking the book more seriously, I had to consider that those are not my stories to tell. I can't write about my group-mate's sex life. So I had to do a process of excising out stuff that I was just borrowing to make a better book.
Cathy, you did of course include the stories of other people. What was the process of getting their permission and blessing?
GILDINER: People had different responses. Some said, go ahead, but I don't want to read it because it's going to bring up triggers. Peter was astonishing. I thought his story was so personal, he wouldn't want that out there, but he said he didn't mind at all, that if it helps one person in the world, that's good. He said it's like the 12th step, where you give back.
But you both did change personal details, and even larger details, of the people in your books to keep their privacy, correct?
TATE: I changed some biographical markers, and that part felt really hard because some of these people are super accomplished and I didn't want to take that away from them. But the barometer, for me, was what is an emotional truth? If the job that I chose to replace her other job, if it felt the same and it has the same social power and the same gravitas, then that was okay. I kept calling them lateral facts.
And I let everyone in the book read it and weigh in on it. I mean, I still sit with these people, so I can't screw them over. I wouldn't anyway, I hope, but there's a real check on me here. There were some facts that people really picked up on and asked me to change, that I wouldn't have thought they would care about. And I honored that because it's part of the ethics that I chose for this project that makes it possible to go forward.
GILDINER: It was quite complicated for me, because in the end I decided not to get authorizations, but to take three or four clients and make them all one client so that it wouldn't be too close to anyone. That was hard to do because there's cause and effect to everything that happens and truth is always, always better than fiction.
Is there anything that gives either of you pause about releasing a book about therapy you've experienced into the world?
GILDINER: Well, in the last case I write about, I made so many mistakes—I got talked, by the father of the patient, into flying to New York for sessions, and I lost my therapeutic office and was thrown off. I got into that mess because of a transference I had made: the father reminded me so much of my own father. I didn't think much about writing that, because as you know, Christie, it's just you and your computer. But the book has been out for a year in Canada, and as I go to book groups and talk to readers, I realized it's harder to address that when you talk to people. But without it, you're writing a ridiculous, I'm-a-perfect-therapist book.
TATE: The ethos of my group is that secrets are toxic, but there's a big gulf between secrets being toxic and actually writing about them. Interestingly, one of my early readers reflecting a fear back to me that was sort of storming around. She just pulled me aside at a little league game and was like, Christie, I've got to ask you a question. Do you trust your therapist? And I just laughed so hard. Because I do, but more than that I trust the group process. So if I use intellect, I can rationalize any criticism like that, because I know my own story.