Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise

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Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise consists of 19 short stories I have collected over a lifetime.. The stories are selected for their insight into human nature and their merit as fine works of literature. Each story is followed by a discussion of the psychological principles revealed in it, as I see them.

Reading this book will be a unique opportunity for lay readers and professional psychologists and writers alike to deepen their knowledge of human psychology. This book is recommended for students of human nature enrolled in psychological programs as well as the self-taught. Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise began as a text for a course I am teaching online for on the Psychology of Writing, which demonstrated to me that artists can learn the psychological understructure of their characters from the insight of an experienced psychologist. Similarly, I believe that lay people can absorb the teachings of these master writers in a captivating, painless manner. It is entirely possible that reading a particular story can change the life of a reader, reveal the depths of his or her own psyche or that of a loved one, demonstrate what is pathological and requires medical assistance, or reassure the individual of what is normal behavior. No one who reads these stories in depth will ever be the same again. Regardless of the book's side benefits, it will be a delightful reading experience for everyone. The book covers a wide variety of human beings of all ages, degrees of emotional health, social class, and nationalities. In so diverse a group of personalities, everyone can find his or her own life situation. The authors range from Pulitzer Prize winners to the relatively obscure. But whatever the degree of fame or experience, in each case the writer has seen deeply into the human soul. 

Sometimes a story like Paul's Case, by Willa Cather, will set off a profound psychological resonance and remain a permanent fixture of our emotional memories. Others, like Conrad Aiken's Silent Snow, Secret Snow, are stored in the back of our minds, and for no reason that is immediately discernable, pop out at unexpected moments. Yet another type, like Henry James's James's The Middle Years, can lead us through difficult stages of development, so that we can say, "Ah, yes, I know those feelings! If s/he could get through them, perhaps I can, too." Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise is a book which includes all three kinds. It is made up of tales which rip aside the veil of convention and disclose a hidden truth. 

The book is a very personal collection of short stories that have changed my life. Readers used to speak of losing themselves in a book or story; nowadays it is more common to hear them speak of wanting to find themselves in literature. Many of the stories in this book have helped me find myself. I knew while reading a few, such as The Test, by Angelica Gibbs, that my life would never again be the same; others like A Distant Episode, come back to haunt me after certain frightening life experiences. In many cases these stories have left as deep a mark as the early words of one's parents or first lover. They provide a psychological education and a fresh point of view to young and old, professionals and laymen, the naive and the world-weary.

There were two major criteria for including a story in the book: First, that it be well written, in many cases a literary tour de force.  Silent Snow, Secret Snow is an exquisite example of the juncture of psychology and literature. Secondly, the story must reveal a profound psychological truth or give vivid insight into behavior that indelibly brands it into the mind of the reader, such as in Paul Bowles' A Distant Episode. I have tried to select stories that cover a wide range of human experience, including love, marriage, life and death, grief, mourning, catastrophe, sadomasochism, friendship, childhood, adolescence, mid-life crisis, aging, inner conflict, character types, mechanisms of defense, split-off personality, race relations, alcoholism, mental retardation, and even one story about a happy childhood. Given a choice between two stories of equal value that illustrate a similar psychological issue, I selected the one about or written by a member of a minority group. The stories are all in the English language, as it would take another lifetime and many volumes to cover the insightful works written in other languages, in countries of Northern Europe, France, Italy, Russia, Latin America, and the third World. The period covered is from the early twentieth century to the present day. This volume consists purely of my own selections, as determined by personal taste and insights gained in over thirty-five years of private practice as a psychoanalyst. My choices, needless to say, were hampered by questions of space (many fine stories had to be excluded because they simply were too long to fit in the book) and the ever present difficulties of obtaining copyrights.

My lifetime favorite is Paul's Case, which casts light on the possible folly of taking one's own life. I have used the story many times with suicidal patients, and believe it contributed to the saving of lives. Another of my favorites since my college days is the above mentioned Silent Snow, Secret Snow, which in unsurpassed beauty of language leads us deep into the recesses of a disturbed boy's mind. The Test, by Angelica Gibbs, woke me up to the realities of the racial discrimination in the United States as no academic text could have done. I am particularly fond of Woody Allen's My Apology, with its refreshing candor on his feelings about death and dying. I searched for answers among the pundits for many years, and found only Woody's philosophy on that score helpful. Oddly enough, his "deadly" serious humor appears to be the best way to approach the terror that the thought of death inspires in us all.

A number of stories deal with defense mechanisms of the ego, and will guide the reader into the intricate workings of the mind. A Complicated Nature, by William Trevor, illuminates one man's characteristic method of dealing with feelings, and its effect on his life and those of others around him. He, by Katherine Mansfield, illustrates the usefulness of denial in living with tragedy, and the despair felt when the defense is pierced.. A Distant Episode, a story which has haunted me since my freshman year in college, is a horrifying portrayal of a man who uses an obsessional defense to deal with unimaginable catastrophe. The story shows how it was essential to his survival, and illuminated the catastrophic response which flooded his psyche when the defense exploded. I don't believe anyone who reads this story will ever forget it. Carson McCullers' Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland poignantly demonstrates the way in which a chronic liar lights up her dull, work-infested life, and how the assault on an indispensable defense can lead to a breakdown and depression. Truman Capote's Miriam is the story of the pathological return of a split off part of a woman's personality, and the terrors and delights inherent in the situation. In Truth and Consequences, Brendan Gill demonstrates how one person's honesty can help another to break through a false self based on the needs of another. 

A number of stories deal with life changes. Anne Tyler's Teenage Wasteland and Roses, Rhododendon, by Alice Adams explore vastly different aspects of adolescence. Henry James's The Middle Years looks into a man's mid-life crisis decades before the term came into use. Sherwood Anderson, one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by Sigmund Freud, gives an accurate picture in The Other Woman of the manner in which many men in pre-Freudian times dealt with their oedipal fears and desires.

The stories reflect many kinds of conflict. The Right Thing and The Lamp of Psyche describe people caught in a conflict between their instincts and their conscience, and their dissimilar ways of resolving comparable inner struggles. Morley Callaghan's A Cap for Steve describes the pain of an adolescent boy who yearns for a loving father, and how he changes too when his father is able to grow. Going Ashore, by Mavis Gallant, tells the story of an adolescent girl with a longing similar to Steve's, and her very different way of gratifying it.. How to Win fills the reader with sympathy as it portrays the pain endured by a loving mother whose child suffers from the inability to control his aggression. In the Region of Ice, Joyce Carol Oates vividly paints the dilemma of a highly repressed nun whose instincts are awakened by a psychotic student. In The Death of Justina, the unsurpassable John Cheever aptly depicts the desperate battle of a man to conquer his alcoholism, and the steps that lead to its defeat. 

A few stories deal with grief and its mastery. Stanley Elkin's Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers illustrates different styles of grieving, and A Small, Good Thing, by the great Raymond Carver, is a poignant study of the extreme personality changes that can come about in the mourning process. 

On a different level, Verona: A Young Woman Speaks is a rare description of a happy childhood. Harold Brodkey portrays the sensual bliss experienced at life's beginnings, when the milk keeps flowing, one's parents are loving, when all is well and hope is never-ending.  John Cheever wrote in one of his short stories that "Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less). Tales of Psychology: Short Stories to Make You Wise has already helped its writers to "triumph over chaos." It will help readers to do the same.

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