English Professors as Therapists

I loved this, from Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

In an important study done in 1979, researchers demonstrated that any form of therapy could be effective if certain criteria were met: that both the therapist and the patient were acting in good faith; that the client believed that the therapist understood the technique; and that the client liked and respected the therapist; and that the therapist had an ability to form understanding relationships.  The experiments chose English professors with this quality of human understanding and found that, on average, the English professors were able to help their patients as much as the professional therapists.

This leaves me with several questions.  Why English professors?  Is this choice intended to be some kind of extreme example that goes to show that any sensitive person, in any random profession, might be able to do as much good as a trained therapist?  (As in, even an English professor.)  Or were English professors presumed to be relatively intuitive and emotionally sensitive to begin with?  I suppose probably the latter, although I wonder if that assumption would be as likely to be made today; in 1979, before the theory and culture wars, the profession may have seemed seemed more “sympathetic” in some respects that it does today.  (See, for example, movies like Smart People.)

Were self-nominations accepted for English professors possessing these “qualities of human understanding”?  Imagining therapy at the hands of certain English profs I’ve known over the years would be a somewhat scary thought.  But much as we dislike it when students try to turn class discussion into group therapy, I kind of like the implication that there could be some hidden therapeutic benefit in our talking cure (not that this is the point of the experiment).

Anyway, Solomon’s book is excellent and quite moving and eye-opening in its descriptions of the devastating effects of chronic/major depression.  It made me feel sad about David Foster Wallace, who apparently had suffered from very serious depression for years prior to his recent suicide.  (Btw, I feel retrospective guilt about my reaction to his very bleak story “The Depressed Person,” which I took to be somewhat cruel in its depiction of a woman whose depression is overwhelming and tedious to her acquaintances; for some reason it did not occur to me that it might be based on his personal experience as a “depressed person.”)

2 thoughts on “English Professors as Therapists”

  1. Other people’s depression IS tedious and overwhelming. I’m awful, too.

    Also? I don’t wanna be a therapist! nooooooooo!

  2. I wasn’t questioning that fact — I just had thought the story was kind of cruel in its depiction of this character, but it all looks sort of different when you imagine he might have been using himself as a model.

    Of course, he also might not have been. Based on “Infinite Jest” as well, he probably spent a fair amount of time in group therapy sessions, and probably got a lot of material there.

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