It has been two decades since "When Nietzsche Wept," the well-known novel by renowned psychiatrist Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, came out. The novel rapidly became a best-seller, making its author a household name the world over. The writing of the novel marked several clear motifs and ostensibly insoluble problems.
Yalom's latest book, "The Spinoza Problem,” deals with the same motifs. The book prompted me to explore the two aspects of Yalom's work – besides being a writer he is also a teacher. For the last 50 years, he has served as emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He is often invited to speak at academic conferences and various faculties. Yalom is a celebrity in every respect, and his fans include President Shimon Peres, among many others.
"I recently received a beautiful letter of appreciation from President Peres," he says with excitement. "I was very proud of it. I framed the letter and it is currently hanging on the wall of my library at home."
At his peaceful clinic in northern California, there is nearly no indication that Yalom is one of the most revered authors and thinkers of our time. "I don't take all that seriously," he says. "I don't think it has changed me that much. Writing is just a part of me."
Do you consider your books to be your conceptual legacy?
"In all my books, I try to communicate messages and give the topic of psychotherapy a human dimension,” he says. “I try to put an emphasis on the authenticity of the meeting between a patient and a therapist. I feel very threatened by everything that is currently happening in this field in the U.S. Many of the new generation of psychiatrists that I come across don't know too much about psychotherapy, and deal mainly in writing prescriptions. Thus, they are not in essence fit to be real therapists, so like in my generation, and apparently anyone who really wants therapy, should look for a psychiatrist with gray hair."
Should everyone go to therapy?
"Therapy is intended, first and foremost, for individuals suffering and feeling some kind of distress,” he says. “I have a selection process by which I choose my patients, or perhaps it is they who choose to come to me, mainly because they like my sympathetic approach as a therapist. This gives them a very positive feeling and produces a lot of expectations. But I can say that I help a large majority of the people I treat very much."
I prepare myself for the traditional Jewish question — how much does it cost? — which will naturally come later in the interview. As I look at his serene wooden lodge I ask myself how many patients have been on this couch in this modest room. In the background, the world's greatest analytic minds are busily developing the next high-tech miracle; Yalom's clinic is deep inside Silicon Valley. It is very likely that most of his patients come from the area.
Do you ever feel that a patient isn't really suffering any true distress?
"It happens, but then you have to wonder why they came to you in the first place. They think that something is wrong with their lives, and this feeling has prompted them to seek therapy. Therapy is definitely not for everyone, but ever since the 1960s and 1970s there is a school of thought here in California that promotes therapy for regular people, which is basically support groups that operate on the premise that therapy is too good to be reserved only for the ill. In that kind of setting, the term is not therapy, it is growth. People change and develop, and in a study I took part in many years ago we found that those people who are part of those support groups really do benefit greatly, especially because it refines their sensitivities and the way they approach the people around them."
Do you still see patients regularly?
"Yes, I routinely see patients. About 10 or slightly more per year."
May I ask how much you charge per hour?
"I charge the going rate — $250 to $275 per hour. There are therapists in this area, and in general, who charge much more, but I am not looking to charge more because of my name. I don’t need the money. The main source of my income is the royalties from my books."
Yalom and his wife Marilyn, a PhD in comparative literature and a writer in her own right, have three sons and a daughter. Each child chose a different profession, with one choosing to follow his father's footsteps and work in clinical psychology.
His legacy and the question of what will become of the art of psychotherapy after he dies are issues that occupy Yalom quite a bit. In an interview with Salon Magazine several years ago he said that when the thought of death crosses his mind, he recalls the doctrine of the Roman poet Lucretius, who said, “Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not.” Yalom confessed that "in a strange way" he found this "a very comforting thought."
But for now, in the ninth decade of his life, he is maintaining a busy schedule. He treats patients, writes new theses, lectures in psychiatry, literature and philosophy at Stanford, and he appears at conferences and events around the world. There is never a dull moment.
The idea for his latest book came to him after a trip to Holland several years ago. As in his previous novels – "When Nietzsche Wept" and "The Schopenhauer Cure" – in "The Spinoza Problem" Yalom once again felt that there was a link between the life of the 17th century Jewish Dutch philosopher and Yalom's own field of expertise in psychiatry and psychotherapy, as he explains in the prologue.
During his trip to Holland as a guest lecturer, Yalom sought to explore Spinoza's life. He was invited to a museum bearing Spinoza's name, and there he was confronted directly not only with the problem he addresses in the book, but also with something else. At the museum, he saw Spinoza's books, restored after having been confiscated by Alfred Rosenberg, the chief anti-Semitic Nazi ideologue of the Third Reich. Rosenberg had been charged with looting the belongings of the Jews wherever the Nazis invaded. The Nazi report concluded that Spinoza's writings were dangerous, but the nature of the Spinoza problem could not be diagnosed. Yalom was surprised that the Nazis did not just burn the books, but rather kept them. He understood that the journey to deciphering the enigmatic personality of Spinoza was the idea that would lead to his next book.
"Even as a teenager I was very interested in Spinoza," he says, with the same tranquility that characterizes the entire conversation with him. "I have always been interested in him."
For Israelis and for Jews in general, every mention of World War II hits very close to home. Do you feel that way too?
"Of course, the war is part of my personal problem; a part of my life. Many of my distant relatives died in the Holocaust. I admit that personally I have a phobia that prevents me from delving into and deeply reading anything written by Nazis. In one of my previous books, "I'm Calling the Police,” I started to approach the topic of the Holocaust, and in my new book, in dealing with Rosenberg the Nazi, I just started really discovering this world. It is important to preserve the memory of what happened in order to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again, but beyond that, maybe it would be wise to try to find some form of logic in this senseless massacre that happened there. People look for ways to use the murders to derive conclusions about our situation today, and that is why we must remember. I understand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he says that Iran must not be allowed to do in eight minutes what Hitler tried to do in eight years."
Do you follow Israeli politics?
"I don't usually like to talk about things that I am not well versed in, like politics, so I don't have too much to say on the topic. But the truth is, speaking of Netanyahu, I recently had the opportunity to peruse letters written by his late father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu. He was one of the foremost researchers of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry and the Inquisition. Spinoza's parents lived during the Inquisition; in fact it was the reason they ultimately fled."
And in the book you also mention Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
"Yes. He was a well-known Spinoza fan, and people didn't like the idea of erecting a statue of Spinoza as the father of secular Zionism. So the Spinoza problem in Israel is also several decades old. I am guessing that Jews who observe tradition and ultra-Orthodox Jews won't like my new book. I don't think they would be its natural audience. Spinoza can be seen as poison to them."
Yalom was born in 1931 to parents who emigrated from the Russian-Polish border to the U.S. shortly after World War I. He grew up in Washington D.C. in a poor neighborhood, where he could not run freely around the streets, so reading books at home was his pastime. His house was a "Jewish-cultured" home, as he puts it. Religion was respected, kashrut was observed, but they did not attend a synagogue on a regular basis.
"My parents had a grocery store, and they used to close up shop during the Tishrei holidays, but I, myself, am an atheist, secular Jew," he says. "I don't observe the traditions nor do I attend a synagogue, but I love the religious family events. We have a Passover Seder every year, for example."
What about your four children?
"One of my sons had a bar mitzvah, as per his request, but my daughter is the one with the most inclination toward religion. She is the one who organizes and cooks the Seder meal and she is the one who preserves this family's ties to Judaism."
You have at home quite a few translations of your books to different languages, many of them to Hebrew. Do you speak Hebrew?
"I don't speak Hebrew. Language was always the one subject I always failed in school. I learned a little when I read from the Torah, but I have forgotten it since."
Do you follow current events in Israel?
"Yes, and I'm worried. My friends explain to me that the real problem of the Jewish people is not the conflict with other nations, but rather the conflict among the Jews themselves. I have been to Israel several times, when I was invited to speak, but I haven't visited Israel in about 10 or 12 years. As a matter of fact, I hear a lot about what is happening in Israel in my private practice – I have several Israeli patients. This whole area of Silicon Valley has become a hothouse for Israelis who move here for their high-tech jobs. My Israeli patients are mainly concerned with the question of whether or not they should stay and live here. They have a lot of guilt over being far from their country, and that is the main issue that accompanies them as expats. Several months ago, a pair of Israeli therapists approached me with the idea of establishing a treatment program that operates on the video chat program Skype. I was pretty skeptical about it, but when I heard the idea it piqued my interest. They were actually going for a platform where someone who emigrated from China and lives in Ohio could be treated by a therapist who speaks his mother tongue. There is merit to the idea that communication in a language that is not a native tongue loses something in the translation, or in feelings that become difficult to communicate."
What about all the psychology books, available at every book story, that guide readers to heal themselves in 20 steps? How do you feel about that niche?
"The more simplistic books usually cater to the lowest common denominator and therefore to less sophisticated people. There are people who benefit from these books, merely because they are written by very charismatic authors, the kind that the camera loves when they are interviewed on television. I personally get about a dozen emails a day from people telling me that my books helped them."
Speaking of television, have you had a chance to watch the program “In Treatment”?
"I love that show. When I started watching it on HBO and I saw Gabriel Byrne playing the psychologist, I immediately thought it was me. He is an excellent actor, and he spoke exactly the way that I speak, and worked exactly the way that I work, and in one episode he even mentioned me and my writing. I got a lot of phone calls the next day, it was very amusing."