Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington

The Use of Fiction in Psychotherapy:
A Contribution to Bibliotherapy

by Sofie Lazarsfeld

(Originally published in the "American Journal of Psychotherapy," Vol. III, No. 1, pages 26-33 January, 1949.)

Abstract: Fiction may be used in psychotherapy to assist in the revelation of the patient's total personality and his obscured goals. The portrayal of the individual's problems as he imagines them can extend the analyst's understanding of traits and provide a means of illumination leading to the patient's self-understanding. The fiction test may consist of (1) discussing those stories, either recent or remembered from childhood which the individual considers particularly impressive, and (2) prescribing certain titles and analyzing the patient's reaction to them.

Sofie Lazarsfeld (1882-1976) was trained by Alfred Adler in Vienna in the 1920's. She first practiced in Vienna, later (1938) in Paris, and moved to New York City in 1941. She was the author of numerous articles and books, focusing mainly on women's issues, and was the mother of sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld.

The extent to which people read fiction to answer their own emotional problems arrested my attention from the day I began my work as a psychologist. That was a quarter of a century ago. The trend has grown steadily in our time among the entire reading public. I found it equally prevalent in Europe and the United States.

"Have you read this or that book?" has been a habitual query by individuals, usually the less articulate ones, who sought me out for help. "Because if you haven't, please do so now! There you will find exactly my problem," they would assure me confidently.

Seldom did I find "exactly" their problem in the pages to which I was referred. While fiction supposedly mirrors life, what is seen in the mirror depends upon the eyesight of the person who looks into it. But, though I did not find my client's precise counterpart, I did find his personality and his problem portrayed as he imagined them and that was immensely valuable--so valuable that the "fiction test" became for me an important instrument of my scientific approach. In many cases it drew a straight line to the revelation of the individual's total personality and his obscured goals. The client's conflict material came to the surface during our discussions of the literature with which he identified himself; and however unrelated in content and quality his selected books might seem to me, a diligent search always brought to light the common denominator in the various fictional situations and the client's own situation.

After having appraised the utility of "book discussions" in my collected case histories of twenty years, I am convinced that people who like to read can make strides toward discovery of their real selves by accompanying one trained in psychological techniques upon a few conducted literary tours.

The mere act of pinning and holding the attention of maladjusted persons on the question why certain books impressed them so much, often achieves the end result of enabling them to discover certain basic personal characteristics of which they had been quite unaware.

The inference is not to be drawn that I believe exact parallels can be found in fiction and real life. But the psychic mechanisms which guide characters through a good novel or play are precisely the same mechanisms which govern our motions in daily life. The elements which an author gives to his imaginary figures in literature all exist in the spiritual universe of mankind.

The social need for improved understanding of human nature never has been more urgent than it is today. Most of the ailments that occupy psychological consultants start with the individual's unrealistic attitude to himself, other people and the world around him.

In view of the manifold relationships which face people in the complex maze of our society, it is comprehensible that many lose their orientation. They look for help and advice. They read popular scientific books, listen to lectures, and some fortunate few turn to experts. A very popular way to learn, especially appealing to those who have no financial means for consulting experts and those who are too inhibited to disclose their intimate woes to strangers, is by reading fiction. Here many hope to find their problem accurately drawn and its mystery elucidated for them. Sometimes they succeed, unaided. More often they identify themselves with the wrong situation, for few of us indeed are cable of tracing personal problems to their psychological origins without the help of a trained psychologist.

Long before psychologists began to assay the power of literature upon men and groups of men, striking evidence existed that it was a dynamic social force to reckon with. Uncle Tom's Cabin, which became a nationwide call to action, exemplifies the provocative power of a timely book. This book was written with the deliberate purpose of swaying public opinion; but it is interesting to note that books which were not created for propaganda purposes have been just as potent as if that had been the author's aim.

For instance, when Goethe let Werther end his life by shooting himself, the fictional shot had trans-continental repercussion. It set off a curious mental epidemic. A vogue to suffer like Werther, to attire body and soul like him, pervaded the intellectual universe. It became fashionable to wear a broken heart beneath a dark blue coat and yellow vest-the costume in which Werther was dressed when he shot himself. So many young men ended their lives as Werther did-even leaving farewell letters saying that to follow his example was the best thing they could do with their lives-that Goethe hastened to inscribe on the title page of a later edition, "Sympathize with me but do not imitate me."

A classic of fiction reading that stimulated the readers to immediate action is immortalized in Dante's Inferno. Francesca and her lover, Paolo, were reading the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Suddenly Paolo stops reading, kisses Francesca and..."Quel giorno piu non vi leggemo avante." ("This day we read no further.") The quotation became one of the most widely used literary utterances.

Such examples of the broad influence of literature and my experience that people so often had referred to fiction were suggestive to me. It seemed logical that books might have their part in the reconstructive work of psychotherapy and counseling and I started to include them within such work.

Using fiction in psychotherapy or counseling can serve at both ends: The analyst's understanding of his client's traits is extended; for the client, the discussion of fictional situations often flashes light on a critical spot in his own pattern, illuminating it so effectively that his self-understanding increases.

Of course, the factors which fiction helps to ferret out or to influence would emerge also without these means, but I have found that they serve as a short-cut. Some illustrations may clarify my general remarks.

A woman came to ask for help because her husband was cruel to her. According to her version she was without fault. Experience has taught me to suspect those who put all the blame on others of being responsible for the crime. One may be sure that the person who says nothing of his own faults but catalogues only those of his persecutor is responsible at least 50% for the mess he is in. And as my client painted her husband in darkest colors, the certainty grew in me that she had contributed substantially to her marital troubles. Yet her shortcomings remained obscure to me; she seemed to be a decent sort, rather easy-going and soft and not aggressive at all.

I started her readjustment in the usual way, but found her strangely unreceptive, impregnably enclosed in her own set ideas. Finally I resorted to the "Fiction test."

I asked her for books that had especially impressed her. Instantly, without reflection, she named three books whose contents differed widely; but there was a similarity in all three books, concealed but significant: the heroines, upon analysis, were all the same. Each got everything she wanted from the hero without herself contributing anything. It was like a formula: men have to give; the role of woman is to receive. Furthermore, all three authors had painted this arrangement in the agreeable colors of a normal, moral status. Subsequent sessions with my client verified my belief that this was her conception of a normal love-relation-ship. She said that she never had been conscious that this was her fixed attitude, or that it was unusual; or that it should be questioned. When the inequity of such a love-relationship became explained to her, she saw immediately that her conflicts originated from her expectation of getting 100% while contributing nothing. She learned to give something to the partnership and from there on her marriage proved more successful.

A very amusing fictional example of this type, which is all too common in real life, is to be found in one story by the Hungarian humorist, Herezeg Ferceny. The heroine courageously sets out to find the ideal husband, one who would satisfy all her wishes. A magician constructs for her an automaton who can meet every one of her requirements. As his wife she has only one task: she must wind up her automaton husband once a month....The marriage fails because the wife does not even do this. I have gotten good results many times by the simple device of recounting this story, to clients who had not responded to other methods which I had applied, hoping they would perceive that life does not and will not let us get "something for nothing."

Another hard type to deal with, whom I found responsive to the "fiction treatment," is the perfectionist, the person who is so lacking in self-confidence that he does not dare to be less than perfect, to compensate. As perfection is not in the realm of human capacity, the illusion of perfection can only be nurtured by fictional means and especially by shifting the blame for personal failure to others or to factors beyond the perfectionist's control.

In Marcia Davenport's novel, The Valley of Decision, the heroine is such a hapless being. This noble woman, living by high ideals, piles misfortune on misfortune upon those around her, just by being "perfect."

My perfectionists all admired the heroine. But when I analyzed her and the real role she played and the motivations, their understanding matured. They began to see perfectionism from a new angle.

Among perfectionists there is one brand who by unending search for the "perfect" decision manage never to make any decision at all; they prefer to let others or "Fate" decide for them, thus escaping responsibility for anything that might be less than perfect. This unhappy way of life always has interested me very much and I have tried to give to these people what I have called "the courage of imperfection."

This term has been used by Helen Howe in her novel The Whole Heart where a psychiatrist advises his patients to acquire "the courage of imperfection" as the essential starting point for their improvement. When I came across this book, some of my ever-indecisive perfections had already perceived that their problems grew from this all-or-nothing trait of theirs but they had accepted the fact only intellectually. The dynamics of genuine understanding, real insight, was missing. I advised these people to read the book without telling them why. It proved to be an enlightening experience for me because when they came across the aforementioned phrase, some of them reproached me for never having given them a formula as helpful as this one. Of course, I had used this term with them, but what they could not take "wholeheartedly" from me, they could take from fiction. This leads to the crucial question: why can an emotional response sometimes be provoked by fiction better than by the analyst or consultant himself? Before we ponder the question, I want to offer one more example.

This time my client was a young woman who had been her mother's favorite to such a degree that a strong neurotic bond had been established between mother and daughter. It dominated here life, long after her mother's death. She walked through life as if everyone were under obligation to look upon her as her mother had, namely as the center of the world for whom nothing was good enough. Any experience that fell short of this extravagant expectation became to her deep disappointment because unconsciously her guiding goal was mother's approval and every act was gauged by whether or not it would satisfy mother. Of course, mother never would be satisfied by the world's treatment of her beloved child.

Such a style of life inevitably brought her continuous misery. It endangered her marriage; intelligent, and a logical thinker, she quickly grasped the nature of her problem but this did not prevent her from lapsing into the old pattern.

Her dreams showed that she was attacking her problems, and I thought that fiction might accelerate the process. Therefore, without any apparent connection with the rest of our conversation, I asked her one day whether she remembered Grimm's fairy tale, Fallada oder die Gaesnemagd. She was a European and I knew that she must have known this fairy tale, like all the children there. She could not remember it offhand, but after a few suggestive remarks, she suddenly came out with the very quotation I had hoped she would recall: "Wenn das Eure Frau Mutter wuesst, das Herze wuerd ihr brechen." ("If your mother could see this, it would break her heart.")

In Fallada or the Goose-maid, a princess travels to a distant land to marry a prince upon a faithful horse that her mother gives her to guard her from harm. But the princess is captured and is made to be a goose-maid. Her horse is killed, his head nailed upon the wall. When the princess in her state of subjugation passes the horse's head, it speaks to her, in the words of the quotation which my client's memory singled out. The close similarity of the story and my client's approach to life is evident. She articulated the quotation under strong emotional stress and immediately showed the symptom of real insight, that is, she drew conclusions and applied her new understanding spontaneously to her own situation.

To return to the question, why do fictional characters and fictional situations often shorten the road to deeper insight when the usual psychological means do not? I am not sure my answer is the right one, but I surmise that in such cases a suspicion on the part of the patient is working against the analyst, that the latter is out to "sell" him a preconceived idea. This is sufficient to provoke resistance which, in turn, blocks the emotional response.

In contrast, the author is neutral, he does not know the reader; hence his interpretations can be evaluated as genuine and trustworthy. They are offered without any analytical purpose and therefore are easier to accept without reserve. My conclusion gained plausibility for me when I found that phases of resistance and stagnation could be broken by the aid of fiction when other expedients had failed.

Response to fiction can be generated only after the ground has been prepared by the usual methods of psychotherapy or counseling. The right moment to attempt the fictional method must be chosen carefully. Usually dreams will indicate whether the client is ready to draw the correct personal inferences from the books, legends or folklore which portray his essential problem.

A number of experiments were made by use of fiction in order to find out factors that later might be used for practical purposes. These experiments were made with a group of people who were not under therapeutical observation and of whose traits we knew little or nothing.

In one experiment they were asked to read Galsworthy's book, The Dark Flower. (It describes a man's love-affairs with four different women: his first love, the love of his mature years, his marriage romance, and finally his love for a young girl when he was an old man.) The participants were asked which love affair had touched them most, and the choice in each corresponded to the episode nearest their own age. The men as well as the women, the young and the old, identified themselves with the fictional figures according to age.

Another investigation was made to determine whether special characteristics were conducive to remembering details of a story read years back and enjoyed. This promised to be interesting and so it was, for we know how flexible memory is and how ready it is to conform with our "style of life" (Adler).

A group was asked which fairy tale had remained most vividly with them from their childhood. The favorite, singled out by 32 people, was Andersen's Little Mermaid. The participants were then asked to tell the story as they remembered it. No one remembered it in full detail; and the portions which each remembered corresponded with the salient character traits of each narrator.

A jealous woman recalled nothing except the prince's betrayal of the mermaid and his taking another wife. A malicious man gave emphasis to the great amount of pain the mermaid had to endure; a musician who had far more interest in his music than in any human being remembered only the beautiful song of the mermaid. And-truly-amazing-a man who preferred to withdraw rather than to approach women told the whole story and omitted the prince completely: there simply was no prince in his remembered version of the story.

Then the group were asked how the tale ended. Not one remembered the highly moral ending and each gave the tale a finale which was exactly in accord with his personal style of life. A melancholy person invented a mournful close, and an optimistic fellow provided a cheerful one; other endings were just neutral-matters were left floating in suspense. No two ending were the same.

The last experiment was made in Europe, where fairy tales occupy the popular place that comic strips enjoy in the United States. It is possible that studies on comic strips here would lead to the same results we have obtained by using other fictional forms, namely, a shortened road to self-understanding and improvement of our clients.

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