Yalom continues his fictional traversal of philosophy and psychotherapy (Momma and the Meaning of Life, 1999, etc.) with this beautifully wrought tale of a therapy group’s final year.
Dr. Julius Hertzfeld is only 65, but a cancerous lesion on his back indicates the galloping approach of death. In his despair, Julius seeks out Philip Slate, a sex addict he treated years ago with a complete lack of success. Philip was too remote, too devoid of empathy, for therapy to work, and when Julius calls him to find out how he’s been coping since they parted, he’s astonished that Philip has become a therapist himself. Eschewing the obligatory protocols of concern for Julius’s illness, Philip instead advises him to read famously gloomy German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—and floors Julius by asking him to become Philip’s training clinician. The two strike an unusual bargain: Julius will study Schopenhauer under Philip’s tutelage if Philip will attend weekly meetings of Julius’s therapy group for six months. At first holding himself at arm’s length from the group, answering direct questions from the other five patients and offering informative glosses on everything but himself, Philip abruptly assumes a new role when Pam Swanvil, a sixth patient returning from an ashram in India, recognizes Philip as the teaching assistant who took advantage of her and her best friend when they were students at Columbia. The narrative intertwines the ensuing group sessions—rich in accusation, analysis, and conflict, not all of it productive—with a touching account of Schopenhauer’s life (1788–1860) in order to contrast the unflinching imperative Philip inherits from the solitary philosopher (shun relationships that can produce only unhappiness) with the dying Julius’s urging that he open himself to others.
Yalom risks occasional prosiness and inflation to present a moving debate about the end of life—a debate doubly rooted in fictional experience and philosophical wisdom.