Psychotherapy Blog


Fact and Fiction in Psychology

Posted by John Marzillier, PhD on 4/6/11 - 5:48 PM
In 1992 I was a Visiting Fellow in the Psychology Department at the University of Western Australia in Perth. For two months nothing was demanded of me other than to talk to the staff and students of the Department in a learned and wise manner, which is easy to do even if you are neither. I was asked one favour which was to give a lecture to the whole department on a subject of my choosing. Can it be any subject, I recall asking the Chairman? Yes, he said, what did you have in mind? An exploration of the psychoanalytic theories of narcissism as illustrated in Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, I replied. At that time the UWA Psychology Department was staffed by hard core scientists whose idea of psychology was to do controlled laboratory experiments and high-powered statistical testing. That sounds fascinating, said the Chairman. Too optimistically as it turned out for fascination was not quite the word to describe the stunned and horrified silence that met the end of my eloquent, literary disquisition. I remember one questioner spluttering angrily that psychology was about data, about hard facts in the real world, and I was talking about a work of fiction, the last word spoken with contemptuous disdain. But why have psychologists ignored fiction? What is wrong with studying the works of good novelists and poets for the illumination they provide about the human condition?

Psychoanalysts have long recognised the value of fiction. Freud delved into Greek mythology to explicate analytical theory, the Oedipus complex being the most famous example. Narcissism, the subject I was studying at the time, is founded, as its name indicates, on the myth of Narcissus who was transfixed by the beauty of his own image in a pool, and, depending on which version of the myth you follow, faded away or was transformed into the narcissus flower. Dorian Gray’s intense fascination with his own portrait is an echo of that story. His self-obsession and relentless pleasure-seeking lead to his gruesome death, exemplifying how narcissism is, in the final analysis, self-destructive.

Like many psychotherapists I would pepper my words of wisdom with extracts from favourite novels and stories. I was fond of an episode from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass though I now think that my recollection of it may not be totally accurate. Alice is in a garden with paths leading in all directions. Her earnest wish is to get to a house she can see in the distance. She takes a path that apparently goes towards the house but inexplicably it vanishes and reappears to her right. She then takes that path but again the house vanishes and appears elsewhere. After a few more futile attempts like this she says ‘Oh blow,’ for she is a well brought up girl, ‘I shall not bother with the house.’ She turns and walks off in the opposite direction only to run straight into it.  It is a good metaphor and the great value of metaphors is that they enable us to see the world differently. However, for academic psychologists seeing the world differently was not at all what they wanted. In fact, they wanted to see the world as it is. That is, they would claim, what psychological science is about. But that too is an illusion for we can never see the world as it is. We are always looking through the prism of our ideas. Facts do not exist in isolation from our interpretations as all good scientists should know.

It can be said of a novel or story that it is not true by which is meant that someone has created it from their imagination. This is why my talk angered the UWA psychologists; the subject matter was not observable reality, the world of facts, but a story, a fiction. But truth has many forms; it is not always literal. There is truth in fiction; you only have to make sure you look at it in a certain way. In the story of Anna Karenina, for example, Tolstoy shows us how an intelligent and beautiful woman can lose everything for the sake of love that is at heart narcissistic. Towards the end of the novel, Anna is in deep despair. In a remarkable passage, Tolstoy enters her self-consciousness as she is driven to the station by her coachman, Pyotr. It is the best account of depressive, self-destructive thinking I have come across. Anna throws herself under a train. It was reading about just such an incident, of a young upper class woman killing herself in that way, that prompted Tolstoy to write the novel. A fact led to fiction which in turn illuminates the truth about certain types of relationships.

I have just finished reading Jonathon Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One its strengths is how real the characters feel; I am sorry that I shall not be there with them anymore. If I look at the novel from a psychotherapist’s perspective, I see how well Franzen has captured the way people unconsciously replay the scripts of their childhood. For example, Patty’s overweening love of her son, Joey, derives from the casual indifference of her parents to her own achievements. But just as she was driven away from her family by that neglect, so Joey is driven away by the intense scrutiny of his mother’s love. I think anyone reading this novel would learn more about the psychology of family life that they would from reading any psychology textbook. It is fiction of course but it tells a certain truth.
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