Fiction Therapy

Reading great works of literature is not often considered among the foremost sources of personal change. Yet many individuals say it was a book that changed the course of their life. Others put it more generally as Patrick Kurp has. “I’ve read thousands of books since I learned to read 50 years ago and that, certainly, has had a cumulative impact on my life – all that time I could have spent bowling or watching the History Channel …Books have helped populate my interior landscape, overhauled my imagination, buffered me against loneliness and despair, kept me amused, honed my critical faculties…”

Reports like this suggests that both practitioners and investigators of the behavior change process may be neglecting the very considerable influence that works of literature can have for individuals. To be sure, some attempts have been made to examine their clinical implications. One approach, with highly variable results, is known as bibliotherapy--the use of reading material (usually self-help manuals), whether imaginative or informational...to effect changes in alcoholism, obesity, and mild depression, etc.

The application of poetry, also with variable effects, has been employed in clinical situations. Reading a poem to an individual or group and then discussing its personal meaning is the most widely used poetry therapy technique. In addition, individuals are sometimes asked to write a poem on a subject the therapist believes would allow the patient to express more freely the issues to be resolved.

A few years ago, I chanced upon a Web site with a provocative hypothesis by Edward Santoro, a teacher of literature, who wrote, “Many years ago I was thinking seriously about a radical psychology (though I wasn’t calling it that) that would include fiction as therapy, quite similar to prescribing Prozac or Ritalin or whatever is the flavor of the day. If somebody is trying to work through a difficult issue, particular works of fiction could be prescribed, discussed, analyzed. This dialogue and the learning to think critically about a text would put a person into a better position of knowing the self and society and their interrelation. I thought and still do think this would be a successful therapy. The irony is that this is exactly what education is supposed to do. Years ago I was looking for books on just such a topic, and though there were a few, nothing really described what I had in mind."

Joseph Gold in Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support System illustrates precisely what Santoro was seeking. According to Gold, the literature can be therapeutic because in reading literary fiction or poetry “…you experience feelings, emotions, as well as thoughts and images. You see pictures in your mind and you have feelings associated with the pictures. …When you learn to do this, you can use your feelings about what you read to explore yourself, your relations, your attitudes to job, home, sex, children and parents, aging, death and religion, for example. There is a direct link between what you feel about stories and what you feel about everything else, especially about yourself.”

In one case study, Gold describes a woman who had been suffering from an extremely poor self-image that he attributed to a childhood characterized by a rejecting mother. Eventually Gold asked her to Daddy’s Girl by Charlotte Vale Allen, a novel that depicts a young girl growing up under somewhat similar conditions. Gold reports that for the first time the woman “felt some real energy and excitement at seeing her feelings described in print.” In turn, this led the woman to begin to redefine her early experience and move on to a more fulfilling life.

In another case study, Gold describes a student who came from a profoundly troubled home. After assigning her Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the student wrote to Gold: “What I admire about Connie Chatterley is her courage to be free, to do what she wants and to live her own life.” Sometime after Gold learned that this student had indeed taken charge of her own life by entering the Canadian Armed Forces flight-training program.

In Read For Your Life Gold recounts numerous applications of literary therapy in his practice, applications that he believes were directly associated with subsequent improvement in his clients. These apparent successes are largely due to Gold’s very considerable knowledge of literary fiction. Tailoring the reading material to the client’s emotional or cognitive needs is one of the critical requirements for a successful application of bibliotherapy. To be an effective as a bibliotherapist, a practitioner has to be well versed in both literature and clinical technique, a combination that is not often found among professionals in either discipline. It remains to be seen whether further applications of this approach will lead to the establishment of training programs to develop just such expertise.