Irvin D. Yalom’s Becoming Myself

I can’t now recall what made me reach for Irvin Yalom’s memoir. I had never heard of him, prior to picking up this book, so it wasn’t his sterling reputation as a professor and practitioner of psychiatry, or his successful career as a novelist that swayed my decision. Perhaps it was the cover endorsement by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a respected philosopher and novelist. Or perhaps, after the dreary hours I have spent in 19th century Russia, the promise of an uplifting and affirming memoir seemed appealing. In any event, encountering Irvin Yalom and reading about his life was serendipitous, as much for how he lived his life as how he recounts it.

Like any good therapist, Yalom begins with childhood, and immediately establishes himself as a candid and sincere narrator of his own life. His parents were Jewish immigrants to America from Russia, with extended family in Poland, and the grim events of World War II and the Holocaust cast a terrible pall over his childhood. His existence in America is marked by loneliness, first because his parents work seven days a week to keep their small grocery store profitable, and second because their interest in him never penetrates into his inner life. His mother “never had a positive word” for him, and his father maintained a quiet reserve his entire life. “He never inquired about my life or my work, and I never told him that I loved him.” But there was love, and part of this book’s project involves Yalom turning his well-trained psychiatrist’s eye on his own upbringing. With the benefit of more than a half-century of hindsight, he comes to understand his own parents better and sympathize with the obstacles that dominated their lives. What they lacked in displays of affection, they made up for in service, working themselves ragged each week and weekend without fail so that their son could have an education. We catch a glimpse of the depths of the pain they harbour in an anecdote he shares with us, of a rare example of his father being candid:

Only once did he allude to the Holocaust at all. When I was about twenty, he and I went out to lunch together, just the two of us. This was rare: even though he’d sold the store by this time, it was still hard to pry him away from my mother. He never initiated a conversation. He never searched me out. […] Our lunch discussion remains clear in my mind. We spoke together as adults for an hour and it was quite wonderful. I recall asking him if he believed in God, and he replied, “After the Shoah, how can anyone believe in God?”

It is precisely this recollection that that forces forgiveness on Yalom – “for his silence, for being an immigrant, for his lack of education and his inattention to the trivial disappointments encountered by his only son.”

Perhaps the central thesis of Becoming Myself is that we fashion our own personhood, and the more actively and resolutely we apply ourselves to the task, the better the results. It’s a therapist’s outlook, of course, but also a philosopher’s, and one of the joys of Yalom’s life was his early discovery of public libraries, which initiated him into a lifetime of reading and discovery. As a child, approaching the intimidating stacks of his local library, he finds himself in the Biography section, and makes his way, over months and years, through the entire catalogue, A-Z. As an adult, he takes much the same approach to philosophy, immersing himself in Nietzsche, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer, and drawing from their lives and lessons not only inspiration about how to live his own life, but how to create his own literature. As of my writing, Yalom is 89 years old, with a publishing history that spans memoirs, short stories, novels, and clinical psychology textbooks. This wide exposure enlivens his writing and adds depth and weight to his clinical pronouncements, giving him – particularly in the eyes of his global audience of fans – the aura of a sage rather than the mere authority of an expert. It also makes Becoming Myself a rousing and uplifting read.