The Listener: A Psychoanalyst Examines His Life

Allen Wheelis, Author, Wheelis, Author W. W. Norton & Company $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-04783-7
Brooding yet illuminating, this memoir reveals the struggle of a psychoanalyst practicing in San Francisco to reach a deeper understanding of the effect of childhood trauma on his own life. Having grown up in rural Texas with a cruel, consumptive father and a confused mother, Wheelis examines the disastrous results of bitter poverty and complex psychological woes on a family largely devoid of love and kindness. As his bedridden, dying father sought new ways to torment everyone within the sound of his voice, Wheelis, as a boy, became more insecure and withdrawn. His mother, unable to find solace in her religious fervor, created a world of comforting myths, amiable ghosts and soul-numbing fantasies to help her face her husband's inevitable decline. Told in extended bursts of free-flowing thought, short asides and emotionally charged rants, the book is chiefly a shattering portrait of a family that becomes more bizarre and inhumane with each page until Wheelis recounts how his father, nearing his end, ordered him to cut foot-high grass on an expansive lawn with a straight razor--a backbreaking task that took almost an entire summer to complete. Wheelis's sister escaped by departing for college, leaving Wheelis and his mother in a strange limbo of emotional dependence, sensuality and need. The author, seeking a stable sense of self, later stumbled through two marriages, believing that a so-called happy marriage is nothing more than ""an agreed-upon diminishment of life."" This cleverly written celebration of cynicism and despair ultimately wears down the reader with its self-absorbed and disturbingly one-dimensional view of love and life. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 08/30/1999
Release date: 09/01/1999
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