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Book Forum: Life Stories   |    
The Listener: A Psychoanalyst Examines His Life
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1952-1952. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.11.1952
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Cambridge, Mass.

By Allen Wheelis. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, 256 pp., $25.95.

Allen Wheelis was born in 1915 and has already authored a dozen books. The Listener is only the fourth one that I have read, and although it is beautifully written, I think it would be hard to imagine that any book might be more grim. Looking back over his long life, Wheelis still seems caught in the years of his early childhood. We are told once again, as in The Quest for Identity (1), how his father one summer made him cut the grass with a straight razor. And there is quite a bit about his mother, who lived to the age of 100 years. Getting that old does not make for a pretty picture, and Wheelis is unsparing in his description of the approach of death. Throughout The Listener one has the feel of an author who is able successfully to describe the lack of success. Despite occasional moments of reports of happiness, what came through to me was an almost overwhelmingly bleak account of the author’s coping with the apparent meaninglessness of existence.

There is so much more I would like to ask him about. We learn almost nothing from this book about Wheelis’s professional training as both a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. What exactly were conditions like when he trained? He surely had a training analysis, perhaps more than one such experience, and yet he fails to tell us anything about what he learned or failed to benefit by. How does psychiatry today strike someone who started out in such a different climate of opinion? Although The Quest for Identity showed an interest in theorizing, we get little about any abstractions in The Listener. Theoretical disappointments can be as moving as any other sort, but we are not let into what they might have amounted to.

Wheelis quotes his second wife (to whom The Listener is dedicated) as complaining that he shuts her out, and that’s how I felt about this book. The life of a psychoanalyst has to involve loads of fascinating human stories, but Wheelis tells us about almost none of this. There is a reference to a first wife, and two of his three children go almost entirely undiscussed. There is nothing at all about any students he might have had. Wheelis consistently keeps circling back to his father and mother, with a bit about a sibling. Just as his professional life takes a backseat, so do his earlier books. It may be true that everything pales beside the poignant early years he recaptures for the reader, but a less self-involved writer might find that he had in his storehouse of memories plenty that would be fascinating to hear about. I think it would be unfortunate for Wheelis to end his career on such an unrelievedly somber note as The Listener maintains.

Wheelis A: The Quest for Identity. New York, WW Norton, 1958


Wheelis A: The Quest for Identity. New York, WW Norton, 1958

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