My brother became a celebrated psychologist and wrote a shelf-ful of books about things as diverse as films and cricket, in the process making mincemeat of my heroes on the pitch and heroines on the screen. But long before this could implant in me an appropriate loathing of his profession, I came across a stray article in Stephen Spender’s magazine Encounter. It was an analysis of Woodrow Wilson, the American President, written in collaboration with a US diplomat. It was a scintillating piece, eye-opening and cerebrum-lifting. The author was Sigmund Freud.
I presume there are practicing psychologists who do wonders for their clients. I cannot get out of my mind the remarkable psychologist Ms. Lowenstein, played by Barbra Streisand, in the movie Prince of the Tides. Given my admiration for their science, it is a pity that the psychologists I have encountered in real life have been, for want of a better word, so pitiable.
Just out of the university, I had gone for a job interview with Unilever and I was told to meet their psychologist. Dr Patil’s entire style was one of haughty condescension, derisive of the hapless candidate who had to undergo his interrogation. He tossed intrusive questions and almost mocked answers you gave. He played the time-honored trick of asking you to draw a picture of a tree. If you drew it in outline, he would accuse you of being superficial; if you drew it in detail, he would dub you a detail-obsessed micro-manager. He asked me the well-worn question of what I expected in ten years; when I suggested more interesting and responsible work, he countered, “How can commercial work be interesting?”
I worked for a European company with generous medical benefits and I went to see the city’s most famous psychologist. As a young person I felt I wasn’t doing that well in my relationships, including those with women, and naively imagined I could gain some insights. When I told him my expectation, his first question was, “How regularly do you visit brothels?” I told him I didn’t, but he persisted by naming two red-light districts, and again asked, “When was you last congress with a prostitute?” Frustrated, I pointedly told him that, when I talked about improving my relationships, I was talking about human relationships, not physical ones. Now he seemed frustrated, as if I was balking a meaty theme. He looked crestfallen, like a puppy whose bone has been snatched away. He promised – ‘threatened’ seemed the right word – that he would explore more the next time. I never went back.
My fourth experience was a subtler one but made me aware of the pitfalls of self-confident psychologists. My wife and I went for marital counseling to two distinguished highly recommended psychologists, who were a couple and offered joint counseling to us. They were thoughtful, perceptive counselors whose views I respected, but I quickly began to see how culture-bound and ethnocentric their marital views were. They simply could not perceive the small but infinite little differences in cultural mores that different societies present and create a host of issues in an intercultural marriage such as mine. While we completed the planned sessions, I had a lesson in the handicap of culture-bound psychologists who do not realize the implications of social cultures and traditions and cannot help their clients in a lasting way.