Text therapy – how literary remedies help people to heal
It’s the new Prozac. Or perhaps that should that be prose-ac. Using literature to support good mental health, known as bibliotherapy, is increasingly popular in Australia. And research is confirming what many of us have always believed – that curling up with a good book can be the best therapy of all.
A 2011 study in the Annual Review of Psychology found when people read about an experience, their neurons fired as if they were going through that experience. Another study published in Science in 2013 discovered that reading literary fiction enhances the capacity to understand other peoples’ beliefs and desires and how these may differ from our own.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to Sonya Tsakalakis, whose journey to become a bibliotherapist began with an article published in The Guardian in 2008.
“It was the first time I’d come across the term ‘bibliotherapy’ and it set me off on a path of self-education,” says Tsakalakis. As a genetic counselor and avid reader, Tsakalakis had some comprehension of reading’s therapeutic value but hadn’t realised how books and therapy could work together.
Tsakalakis now works with The School of Life and runs individual consultations. Her clients include those in Australia and overseas (via Skype).
“The client initially receives a questionnaire asking about their reading habits, their reading tastes, as well as what is preoccupying them at the moment and their passions,” Tsakalakis says. “From that I get a sense of where to go with their literary aspirations and what they want to gain from our session.”
During a one-hour consultation Tsakalakis explores issues raised in the questionnaire. “It can get quite personal,” she says. “A lot of people are happy to share deep emotions and thoughts.” Tsakalakis then puts together a personalised reading ‘prescription’. “It’s tailor-made according to an individual’s needs and where they are on their life journey,” says Tsakalakis.
People come to see Tsakalakis for a variety of reasons. Some are stuck in a reading rut and want to explore other genres, others are living through grief and loss and some feel there is not enough passion in their lives.
For Glyn Morris, one of Tsakalakis’ clients, the recommendations resonated deeply. “I was so impacted by [Sonya’s advice to read] Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,” he says. “The world of Gilead was the world I inhabited as a child with my father being a Baptist pastor. I came to the end of it and was moved to tears. Sonya intuited where I was at and gave me a wonderful present in her recommendations.”
“The words on the page can reflect our feelings and thoughts in ways that perhaps we can’t articulate for ourselves,” says Tsakalakis. “I find that great writers are great healers.”
Providing a space for individuals to heal and learn about themselves is a passion for Susan McLaine. The bibliotherapist, in her final year of a PhD at Melbourne’s RMIT University, works with a different bibliotherapy model from Tsakalakis.
“There are various types of bibliotherapy and the work I do is in groups with vulnerable people. I’ve worked in prisons and hospitals, with people who are experiencing substance abuse issues, homelessness and mental health problems.”
McLaine often reads a carefully selected short story and poem that is relevant to the group, with members reading aloud if they wish, followed by discussion around meaning creation. “I like to go into places where people think reading may not be able to produce good results but we consistently have been able to show it makes an enormous difference,” she says. “It’s a really powerful tool.”
Common life challenges and recommended books
Grief and loss
Five Bells by Gail Jones
Set in circular quay, Five Bells pays homage to Sydney’s beautiful waterfront. It’s about five characters with disparate lives but who have all experienced loss. “Gail Jones writes with such psychological insight,” says Tsakalakis. “It simmers with imagination and it’s a really powerful book.”
Searching for your passion
The Savage Detective by Roberto Bolaño
The novel tells the story of two characters who are on a quest to find the 1920s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. “It’s a Chilean book, so they have this fire in their belly,” says Tsakalakis. “It’s so exciting that you come out thinking, ‘I need to pursue a passion!’ It’s a wonderful exultation to go and follow a passion before it all ends.”
For her clients who feel they don’t have enough intimate friendships, Tsakalakis recommends Meg Wolitze’s The Interestings. It follows a trajectory of long term friendships beginning in the 1970s with a group of teenagers forming a bond, traverses adolescence, into their 20s and well into middle age. “You get an insight into how their thought patterns, life and friendships change over time,” says Tsakalakis. “It’s a beautiful read.”
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