According to Augusten Burroughs (2009), there are two types of therapists: ‘those who are truly gifted with perspective and empathy, and those who are profoundly confused and possibly sick, and must feed off others’. After reading Couch Fiction (twice) I am reasonably confident in the feeling that Philippa Perry must fall firmly into the former category.
In an interesting departure from the usual graphic novel format, Couch Fiction both tells and analyses the theraputic relationship between Pat Phillips, an experienced psychotherapist, and James Clarkson Smith, her client. James is a successful barrister from a priveliged background who has developed a shoplifting habit which could threaten his career if he is caught. He is sceptical about psychotherapy but has decided to give it a try after overhearing a friend recommending Pat’s services. The book chronicles James’ weekly sessions over almost a year.
James is rather suspicious at first and hides behind a cocky and jocular front, but the panels tell the story of his gradual acceptance of Pat’s help, the formation of their therapist-client relationship and his facing up to, and overcoming (for now at least) his kleptomania. Pat does her best to get him to open up, but it isn’t easy and Pat is not perfect, pursuing a couple of blind alleys along the way. As a mature therapist using manifold approaches, however, she finds the way to the nub of James’ problem.
Beneath the panels- and here is the novelty of Perry’s chosen approach- a series of footnotes analyses Pat and James’s exchanges. The authorial narration, which reminds me of the directors commentary on a DVD, raises interesting questions about the author/ character relationship. Whereas a DVD commentary tends to explain the directors choices, fill in back story or add anecdotal information, Perry’s remarks (for the voice is undoubtably the author’s) are not aimed at the narrative structure, but at the actions, thoughts (we have access to them by means of inner dialogue within thought bubbles) and speech of the characters in this fictional relationship of her own construction. Having written it, she is reading, as it were, over our shoulder and explaining the technical stuff about psychotherapy. A second layer of analysis is added by Andrew Samuels’ afterword, which also comments on both Pat’s approach to James’s therapy, the storyline and psychotherapy in general.
The author’s note to readers at the beginning of the book suggests one can read the story plus the notes or just read the story. I started reading both, but found that the notes slowed down the pace of the narrative, so I continued to just read the panels. Then I went back, started again and read both. Strangely, I found that I recognised most of the notes as I read through a second time, suggesting that I may have scanned them ‘subconciously’ during my first reading.
One of the most important sections of the book is the part in which Pat and James discuss (James’) sexual fantasies, particularly those concerning Pat. James’ dream of bending Pat over and ‘giving her a good seeing to’ is graphically depicted, in both senses of the word. It seems healthy that this subject is discussed within the psychotherapeutic consultation, because erotic emotion between doctors and patients, at least in my experience, is very seldom addressed within medicine. I suspect that this denial of normal human responses, under the guise of supreme professionalism is probably based on the fear of complaints and litigation. As the saying goes, doctors sometimes get away with killing patients, but not sleeping with them. It is almost as if any acknowledgement of attraction is the beginning of a slippery slope.
I digress. This book, I feel, is an excellent advertisement for psychotherapy. I would pay money to consult Pat.
What audience will it reach? I think this funny and enjoyable book will become required reading for psychotherapy students and would benefit anyone with even a casual interest in psychotherapy. Those who are thinking of consulting a therapist might ‘dip their toe in’ here, as might any lover of graphic fiction who relishes evesdropping on the lives of others: as a fly on the wall of Pat’s consulting room.