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by Mary Pipher

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-465-05766-7
Publisher: Basic

A long-time psychotherapist mingles reassuring tips for a newcomer to the field with personal recollections of her own successes and failures.

Employing the same format as other volumes in this series (Todd Gitlin’s Letters to a Young Activist, p. 205, etc.), Pipher (Reviving Ophelia, 1994, etc.) writes letters to Laura, a young graduate student, setting forth some of her views on what therapy is all about and how good therapists do their work. The letters are grouped into seasons and date from early December 2001 to late November 2002. The winter correspondence discourses on the characteristics of good therapists, conducting family therapy, and helping clients connect surface complaints with deeper issues. Spring takes the author into the subjects of how to help patients deal with pain and achieve happiness, the use of metaphors as therapeutic devices, and the role of antidepressants in therapy. Pipher considers family therapy in more detail in the summer letters, which also take up the problem of the therapist’s personal safety. In the fall, she turns to ethical issues facing therapists, how storytelling can help clients see themselves in more positive ways, how to recognize and deflect patients’ resistance, and how to deal with failure. Ruefully recounting some of her own missteps and bad judgments, Pipher reminds her student that therapists are human and errors are inevitable. Throughout, she eschews psychological jargon and takes a commonsensical approach to the vicissitudes of living. As she puts it in describing her own sessions with clients, “I do bread-and-butter work”: she often suggests getting a good night’s sleep, going for a swim, or taking a walk.

Although Pipher defines the therapist’s job as clarifying issues and presenting choices rather than telling people what to do, giving advice seems to be second nature to her. Fortunately, the advice appears to be well considered and benign.