Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Christie Tate’s memoir, “Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life,” lifts the curtain on the process of working out trauma and healing within a group.
Maybe America needs group therapy.
I sat down to read Christie Tate’s memoir, “Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life,” as a pandemic raged and our nation’s capital was reeling from a violent attack and our president faced a second impeachment and our collective nerves felt collectively shot.
I finished it in a day.
The book is largely devoid of politics. Tate, a Chicago lawyer, started writing it in 2015, and it chronicles events from a decade prior to that. None of today’s specific frustrations or events are present on its pages.
But it plumbs the human psyche — Tate’s psyche, mostly — in such a way that you can’t help but think, as you read: Man. Do any of us even know what we’re feeling? Or what to do with the feelings we can identify?
“I had no idea the range of people who would reach out to me after reading it,” Tate told me Monday. “I didn’t realize how many people were suffering loneliness or stuck-ness.”
Or rage. Or shame. Or hunger. Or the frustration that comes with feeling misunderstood. All of which Tate brings to the group therapy sessions she starts shortly after completing law school. She’s recovering from an eating disorder, struggling with feelings of intense isolation and finds herself imagining — maybe even causing — her own death.
A friend recommends her therapist. In a highly Chicago moment, Tate is afraid to see that therapist because an ex-boyfriend used to see him. When she relents and sees the therapist anyway, she realizes she also knows the therapist from some previous encounters. Big city, small town.
The therapist, Dr. Rosen, recommends group therapy. (Tate changed all the names in the book.)
Tate initially recoils at the thought.
“What’s going to happen to me when I start group?” she asks Rosen.
“All of your secrets are going to come out,” he replies.
And they do. And she puts them in the book. The childhood traumas. The disordered eating. The disappointing relationships. The bad sex. The good sex. The shame and sorrow and joy and fear and loneliness and disappointment and exhilaration attached to all of it.
“It wasn’t until after I published the book that I really understood that people think sharing all of this is brave,” she said. “Maybe two weeks in, I was getting, ‘You’re sooooo brave’ enough that it started to feel like maybe it was coded for, ‘Are you crazy?’”
But she’s drawn, she said, to storytelling that’s deeply revealing. She has spent years in group therapy rooms filled with revealing. She didn’t want to write a book that shrunk back from revealing.
“I was always hungry for books about therapy where it was messy and it took more than 30 days and maybe it took more than a pill,” Tate said. “I wasn’t averse to medication, but I knew whatever was wrong with me was going to take more than a pill. I didn’t know any stories like that, and I wanted them.”
Reese Witherspoon selected “Group” as her November book club selection — the equivalent, Tate said, of winning the lottery for an author. The book launched immediately onto the New York Times bestseller list, which transcended Tate’s fairly modest goals. During Tate’s writing process, author Rebecca Makkai urged Tate to write down her wildest dreams for “Group.”
“My wildest dreams were I hoped to come out in hardback,” Tate said, “and I hoped to have five well-attended events at bookstores. And by well-attended, I meant at least 12 people. That’s how big I was dreaming.” In a phone interview, I asked her if she thought America would benefit from group therapy.
“The true answer is I do,” she said. “It’s certainly not a book that’s prescriptive: ‘Go get group therapy!’ The truth is it’s a brutal, confrontational, nowhere-to-hide domain, and that’s asking a lot of somebody in their mental health treatment. But when I see things happening in the world, on a large scale, I think, ‘You know, all that anger that is being splashed about and acted out, that stuff could be dealt with in a group. A group could hold space for that. There are ways to get that out.’”
Her groups have always been multigenerational, multicultural, multifaith. “It’s scary and it’s tense and it never gets tied up in a bow at the end of the session,” she said. “And I’m grateful I get to do that and see that in a therapeutic setting. There are no easy answers for some of this stuff. There’s time and there’s distance. There’s getting feelings out. There’s not a quick fix, which is unappealing to lots of people.”
Her book lifts the curtain on the process, and what you see is uncomfortable and messy, but also beautiful and hopeful. Not unlike America itself.
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