by Frank Tallis
Basic Books, 2018
Review by Christian Perring on Jul 30th 2019
Frank Tallis is a British psychotherapist and a prolific writer. He has many novels in the mystery and supernatural genres, and three books about psychotherapy: Hidden Minds: A History of the Unconscious (2002), Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness (2005) and now The Incurable Romantic. Tallis points out at the end of this book that while the classical authors of literature have played a great deal to romantic love and the problems that come with it. It is neglected in the modern psychological literature and in therapeutic training. This might seem surprising since attachment theory is a major part of modern psychology, but Tall is also talking about the passion of sexual attraction and the intimacy of togetherness that is an essential part of romance, according to Robert Sternberg. The collection of therapeutic tales Tallis provides show the importance of love and sexual attraction to understanding some remarkable stories of dysfunction.
There are 12 chapters, mostly featuring one main case but often including some shorter cases too. Tallis employs an eclectic mix of psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory, some brain science, and general therapeutic lore to discuss the problems of the people he encounters. He starts off with a case of De Clerambault's syndrome, also known as erotomania, of a woman convinced that her dentist was in love with her. This delusion turns out to be amazingly fixed and resistant to counterevidence, so treating it is a challenge. Indeed, as with several other cases, Tallis says that there only a limited amount that a therapist can achieve in getting the client to be more rational. It is particularly striking when Tallis meets the woman's husband, whom she says she still loves. He takes a stoic and sympathetic view despite the fact that his wife still keeps a little shrine to the dentist she is in love with. Tallis is a talented writer and he is able to convey the plight of the people he meets with great sympathy.
This ability to create a portrait of his patients that evokes compassion is tested in his chapter on a man with pedophilia, to the extent that Tallis at one points entertains the idea that it might not be terrible if the man would kill himself. Nevertheless, Tallis does show an understanding of the difficulty of the man's problems, and emphasizes that the man has never hurt any children, even if he expressed worries that he might not be able to control himself in the future. Again, Tallis finds that he has little ability to cure his client, so at best he can help him manage his life and find ways to reduce his unhappiness without hurting anyone.
There are tales of people who engage in risky behavior, compulsive behavior, who have strange delusions, a couple with a sort of joint personality disorder, and a woman with pathological jealousy. Some of the patients get over their problems, some come to terms with them, some don't change at all, and some just stop coming to therapy, so Tallis never finds out what happens. It is refreshing that he does not portray himself as able to solve every problem, and he gives some indication of the variety of problems people face and the difficulties in helping them. The Incurable Romantic is a nicely done book of psychotherapy for people with pathologies of sexual and romantic attractions, with whom many readers will find it surprisingly easy to identify.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.