Yalom first gained fame among psychotherapists for The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. The book, published in 1970, argues that the dynamic in group therapy is a microcosm of everyday life, and that addressing relationships within a therapy group could have profound therapeutic benefits outside of it. “I’ll do the sixth revision next year,” he told me, as nurses came in and out of the room. He was sitting in a chair by the window, fidgeting. Without his signature panama hat, his sideburns, which skate away from his ears, looked especially long.
Although he gave up teaching years ago, Yalom says that until he is no longer capable, he’ll continue seeing patients in the cottage in his backyard. It is a shrink’s version of a man cave, lined with books by Friedrich Nietzsche and the Stoic philosophers. The garden outside features Japanese bonsai trees; deer, rabbits, and foxes make occasional appearances nearby. “When I feel restless, I step outside and putter over the bonsai, pruning, watering, and admiring their graceful shapes,” he writes in Becoming Myself.
Yalom sees each problem encountered in therapy as something of a puzzle, one he and his patient must work together to solve. He described this dynamic in Love’s Executioner, which consists of 10 stories of patients undergoing therapy—true tales from Yalom’s work, with names changed but few other details altered. The stories concentrate not only on Yalom’s suffering patients but also on his own feelings and thoughts as a therapist. “I wanted to rehumanize therapy, to show the therapist as a real person,” he told me.
That might not sound like the stuff of potboilers, but the book, which came out in 1989, was a commercial hit, and continues to sell briskly today. In 2003, the critic Laura Miller credited it with inaugurating a new genre. Love’s Executioner, she wrote in The New York Times, had shown “that the psychological case study could give readers what the short fiction of the time increasingly refused to deliver: the pursuit of secrets, intrigue, big emotions, plot.”
Today, the people around the world who email Yalom know him mostly from his writing, which has been translated into dozens of languages. Like David Hasselhoff, he may well be more of a star outside the United States than at home. This likely reflects American readers’ religiosity and insistence on happy endings. Mondays with Yalom are not Tuesdays With Morrie. Yalom can be morbid, and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife; he says his anxiety about death is soothed somewhat by the belief that what follows life will be the same as what preceded it. Not surprisingly, he told me, highly religious readers don’t tend to gravitate toward his books.
Yalom is candid, both in his memoir and in person, about the difficulties of aging. When two of his close friends died recently, he realized that his cherished memory of their friendship is all that remains. “It dawned on me that that reality doesn’t exist anymore,” he said sadly. “When I die, it will be gone.” The thought of leaving Marilyn behind is agonizing. But he also dreads further physical deterioration. He now uses a walker with tennis balls on the bottoms of the legs, and he has recently lost weight. He coughed frequently during our meeting; when I emailed him a month later, he was feeling better, but said of his health scare, “I consider those few weeks as among the very worst of my life.” He can no longer play tennis or go scuba diving, and he fears he might have to stop bicycling. “Getting old,” he writes in Becoming Myself, “is giving up one damn thing after another.”