When I meet clients who are interested in group, the most common question is, "What will this group really be like?" Since there is no "preview" to group (as one might look at an apartment or car), some way of conveying the group experience is paramount. Paul Solotaroff's book Group: Six People in Search of a Life does a good job of providing a window into some of group's possibilities. I recommend this book for people who are curious, motivated, and interested in group with the desire to know how it works and how they may benefit.
Mr. Solotaroff focuses on one year of group therapy in Manhattan. The author conveys the stories of six group members under the care of therapist and psychiatrist Dr. Lathon. An element of crisis is a guiding theme for each group member. Dr. Lathon is a true believer in group and has seen, like many of us, a potential for accelerated growth and movement through group participation. The experiences of the group members are fascinating and at times, gripping, as one roots for these individuals as they navigate through their pain and struggles.
Dr. Lathon focuses on common therapy dilemmas such as the influence of family upbringing and examination of defenses; nothing is particularly new for the seasoned client or therapist reading this account. However, the content is packaged in an engaging and useful manner. Group members are asked to participate according to the following principles:
1) Challenging the false story. The false story is what one shares in preventing the problem from being solved, also known as avoidance. The true story is encouraged to be seen as the "root" injury; one that takes courage and vulnerability to both uncover and stay with.
2) Trying doesn't cut it with the tough love Dr. Lathon. "Practicing," rather than "trying" is the preferred form of engagement.
3) The "suffering conversation" is demonstrated by endless why questions - those tending toward bottomless circularity without resolution - vs. the "effective conversation" which leads to the original pain and the potential for movement. Dr. Lathon is a big believer in confronting parents for their ineffective and at times, pathological parenting, as well as challenging clients who aren't doing the work.
As is sometimes the case in therapy, the group experience yielded mixed results. The members who have the most "success" do so because of their ongoing commitment to practice, ability to see through their defenses to the core pain and willingness to incorporate new behaviors. Group members interact with concern and fondness while also challenging each other. There is swearing, competition, flirting and posturing accompanying the deep pain and pathos of those who express it. The author portrays mostly believable stories and concrete ways that group works, such that you might want to join a group immediately after finishing this book! If you are interested in group either as a therapist or a client, this book will certainly give you an overview of what group is about.
Contextual reactions to this particular portrayal of group therapy:
a) The author/narrator was a former client of the therapist, and now is a collaborator, which would evoke ethical issues for most of us.
b) The group starts out meeting twice monthly, which is not a common mode of psychotherapy group work. The therapist eventually changes to weekly meetings when things heat up.
c) All group members appear to be White, heterosexual and fairly privileged. It would have been interesting to see what a group that was more diverse produced.