Q & A: Oliver James

'If few books are forgivable' (as the psychoanalyst RD Laing prefaced one of his), then so are even fewer of today's newspaper columns. Adding to the compost heap of self-referential drivel produced by the brotherhood and sisterhood of Polly Fillas would be inexcusable, yet it is so hard to be confident that I am any different. I might point to the fact that I worked in a mental hospital for six years as a clinical psychologist, that I have produced many documentaries, that I have written several books and that I have read a great many others. But so what? Lots of people have done lots of things - it does not mean they would necessarily write good columns. I can only fall back on the idea that my mixture of science, clinical knowledge and bigotry might possibly sometimes entertain as well as inform about subjects that I feel passionately about. Alas, facile opinion has often replaced fact, and investigation in newspapers is deeply to be regretted. I must leave it to you to decide whether my efforts are yet another example of this trend.

You ask the questions

Q My life is slipping away, like sand through my hands. If I hear another dinner-party discussion about property prices, I may lose control. I am 'living and partly living' and my life is 'measured out by coffee spoons' (pace Eliot's Prufrock). Is it hopeless?

A No, definitely not. The carapaces of civilisation have been keeping us apart for some time now (as you rightly indicate by your quotations) and at least sometimes, in some respects, things truly have got better. Think of the authenticity of children, and the much greater engagement of many parents with it, compared with the recent past. Think of the emancipation of women, with all its problems; the greater opportunities they have to be themselves. Think of the many couples that once might have stayed together who are happier apart, and of the many other intact ones who are enabled by modern life to explore each other more fully in greater numbers. If that does not work, watch Withnail & I or Life is Sweet.

Q After more than 20 years of trying, at 42 I have finally given up on relationships (and even friendships to a large degree) with men. They are not worth the effort! Hating men is not the question. It's more about not being such a mug any more. It's about not accepting inequality any more: economic, financial, social, sexual, emotional, domestic. It's about looking at heterosexual relationships and considering the fact that they have worked (after a fashion) for centuries simply because women have always been forced/prepared to put up with quite a lot. That's enough! My motto is now: 'If they can't consider equality, leave them well alone.' So, what's the answer?
Maggie, Folkestone

A Clinically speaking, this is not a sign that you are a loony. As far as I am concerned, Hell is Other People, as Sartre famously encapsulated it, so you have all my sympathy. However, we misanthropists run the risk of transferring our dudgeon on to hated groups, in your case men (in mine, people who got Firsts and Office Politicians). Regarding gender inequality: while I can see that men do still have some unfair advantages (above all, they rarely get left holding the baby), I really doubt it's what it was. For example, the exam-obsessed education system seems to favour girls far more than boys. The answer for you, masturbation apart, is surely to seek out men who have grown up. You may doubt there are any, but in my experience, for instance, there do exist some male divorcés of about your age who have actually learnt from the experience and I am sure would make rather good partners.

Q Could you say a little more about personality disorder, of which you often write? I suspect I have it. I have been 'in therapy' at various times in my life, but I feel worse now than I have ever felt.
Charles, York

A The self-preoccupation, grandiosity, fear of relationships, proneness to despair and flaky hopping between people and careers of the personality disordered (PD) is greatly magnified by modern life. We have shifted from a highly structured, collectivist society in which identity was ascribed to us by our gender and class to one in which individualism dominates, with identity achieved through education and profession. In the world of Brief Encounter, there were many certainties and boundaries which helped to limit PD (the same is still true in Singapore and Shanghai, where I have recently been). But in New York or Notting Hill, self-transformation into anyone or anything is not just a possibility - it's a virtual duty. While that does mean a person can become David Bowie (whoever he is), it also means they can be Michelle in Big Brother (whoever she is). Either way, while people with PD may be very entertaining and successful, it's not much of a life. Luckily, it is one of the ailments for which psychoanalysis has been proven to work, so I fear you may have to seek this terribly time-consuming and costly solution. I hate to say it, but you have been to the wrong therapists.

Q As I understand things, the human species and our forebears have been social animals for a very, very long time indeed. So why should we think that there might be a conflict between the needs of the individual and the needs of society? The two are surely indivisible. I can only think that the conflict arises because of what we are taught about how to behave - for which I find myself increasingly laying the blame at the door of religion. I used to be ambivalent about it, as it seems to be in decline, but the more I look at the evidence, the more I realise men treat women as illogical and not to be trusted. No wonder we get nowhere fast at work! And there's only one source of that attitude: the Bible and presumably all other male-focused religious doctrine. Is religion as bad a thing as I suspect?
Carmen, Oxford

A For some time now, religion has been a rather tricky problem for social scientists like me. The trouble is that in study after study, people who attend church once a week come out as less likely to suffer depression or unhappiness than those who do not. Since few of us share Tony Blair's enthusiasm for The Almighty, there has not exactly been a torrent of books and papers advocating it. Luckily, we do have a get-out clause in the data: it's not altogether clear why the pious are better off.

It could be because they were actually more than averagely screwed up before God came into their life and that they are self-deceivers (opium of the people, etc). It could be that it's not religion which is doing the business for them but the fact that church-goers are much more likely to be actively involved in their communities - a major inoculant against affluenza. Finally, gulp, it could be that there is a God and the righteous shall inherit the earth. Not much has been written supporting the latter hypothesis, but in a world where Blair can still be prime minister after taking us to war under false pretences, anything is possible.

Q I have been taking the antidepressant Seroxat for seven years and I read in the papers that it is addictive. Should I switch to something else?

A While not a pill doctor myself, I know a good deal about this, and would say it is probably all right to carry on. Seroxat is often handed out because the depressed patient is also anxious or sleeping badly, and it is said to be quite good for people with these co-morbidities. As I have written before - resulting in cartloads of email manure from doctors - I tend to think that the least worst modern antidepressant is Lustral.

Prozac is now handed out by GPs all the time because it is the first modern drug to have become cheap (out of licence), but I would not recommend that. I know several men who rapidly switched from being earnest, tongue-tied wallflowers at parties to silver-tongued devils on it. Unfortunately, their priapism did not match their pulling power, resulting in some very embarrassing incidents (I also know of some Prozac-fuelled women who started shagging anything that moved after taking the drug).

Plenty of people find Seroxat hits the spot, and when it comes to pills, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you do decide to come off it, the key is to wean yourself gradually. It's not anything like as ghastly as coming off Valium (or fags), and with close monitoring from your doctor you should be able to do so relatively painlessly.

Q Is this a question?

A If this is an answer, then that is a question (favourite gag when I was at university).

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


comments powered by Disqus