Spill the beans

Confession is good for the soul.

As any practicing Catholic will tell you, that old tune still plays true. You may dread going to confession — I don’t know anyone who enjoys spilling out his faults and sins before a priest, who quite literally speaks for Christ in granting forgiveness, but the feeling on leaving the confessional is frequently one of mild ecstasy, of actually feeling forgiven, of being clean.


Before I begin my review of Jim Joyce’s Use Eagles If Necessary: A Psychoanalyst’s Stories (ISBN 1-59663-761-7), which is in many ways a collection of confessions, I‘d better make two confessions to my readers. First, I’ve known Jim Joyce for several years. I’ve gone once to his home to a book club meeting. I’ve read and reviewed his previous book, Pucker Factor 10: Memoir of a US Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam. I’ve enjoyed several discussions with him about literature and religion. Readers should take into account that what I say about the book of an acquaintance or a friend may be different than what I might say about a book by an author whom I will probably never meet. (Parts of Use Eagles If Necessary are appearing in this newspaper, but I didn’t read those, wanting to wait for the book.)

The second confession has to do with the book itself. When I first picked up Use Eagles If Necessary, my heart sank. Oh no, I thought when I read the blurb on the back jacket. This is one of those books, a work which, though doubtless written with enormous love and great hope, fails to grab the attention of any reader other than the author’s wife and children. Each of us, someone once said, has a novel in us, which is true, yet only a few human beings have the wit, the genius, the will, or even the grammatical ability to pull that novel out of the heart and onto a page.

As I began reading the first pages of Use Eagles If Necessary, however, I came first to appreciate this book, then to enjoy it, and finally, to love it. I liked the fact that I learned exactly what psychoanalysts do, how they prepare themselves, what they study, how they survive dealing with the problems of others, even how they set up their offices. (“Ideally a psychotherapist’s office will be somewhat secluded from the world’s view. Most people, understandably, are reluctant to let others know they are seeing a shrink.”)

In addition to learning about psychoanalysis, I also enjoyed the entertainment offered by Use Eagles If Necessary. In telling stories of his own struggles as well as those of his clients, Joyce protects their anonymity, of course. Jim Joyce invites the reader to join him as if they were both pulled up in chairs before a fire with whiskies in hand.

My own personal favorite patient was Brian, who spent some of his life in various illegal activities. At one point Brian, who wore his hair in a ponytail, was working on the docks. At that time other dockworkers resented “hippies,” and after telling him to get his hair cut on numerous occasions, one of his co-workers yanked him by the hair to the floor of a bar, poured beer in his face, and told him to have his hair cut by the next day. Brian left the bar, calmly sought out his assailant’s trailer, called to make certain that no one was home, tried to kill the man’s Doberman by feeding it pieces of chicken, and then blew up the trailer by igniting gasoline around the propane tank.

Joyce writes, “By now I was in shock. ‘Brian, you’re putting me on, right?’ I said incredulously. ‘You didn’t really burn up the guy’s house and kill his dog with chicken bones, did you?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘The dog didn’t die. Dobies are tough to kill. He came out of surgery just fine.’

When I regained my composure, I asked him what happened when he went to work the next day.’

‘I got a lot of weird looks. Everybody thought I did it but they couldn’t prove it. Just to be sure I switched tires on the truck. The ones that left tracks at Earl’s were floating down the Mississippi. They were halfway to the Gulf of Mexico by the time the cops came by. From then on everybody avoided me. I worked on the docks for another year and nobody messed with me or my ponytail again. They figured I was crazy. And I am.’”

What is best in Joyce’s book, however, what puts it a cut above other personal reminiscences, is his honesty and his voice. I have already mentioned that he has a warmth in his writing that’s attractive to readers. Let me add that Joyce practices a remarkable candor in presenting his own views. In the chapter “Ways To Screw Up Your Kids” (a chapter which consists of just 11 pages), Joyce gives us an incredible amount of information about child-rearing and parent-child relations. Some of what Joyce says in this chapter may offend or bemuse parents, yet it is true nonetheless. He warns, for example, that a parent should not become a child’s buddy or confidant. Most children don’t want their fathers acting like ten-year-olds at the Little League games or their mothers confiding personal secrets to them. His writing here on Oedipal conflicts contains valuable truths often overlooked in parenting manuals. I was also happy to see what Joyce had to say about the old aphorism “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But names will never hurt me,” an adage often quoted to me by my father when I was young, but one which I have since realized was foolish. Name-calling, as Joyce points out, can be devastating, particularly when the caller is a parent or friends

Joyce brings up other issues for our consideration. He reminds us that while medicinal drugs may be efficacious in the short run for the well-being of patients, research tells us that psychoanalysis is equally effective. He warns in blunt terms of our desire as a society for simple solutions, including psychotherapy, solutions that may only mask problems rather than actually solve them.

Here in this book is a man of our time discussing his work and his ideas with great verve and intelligence. I strongly recommend that you read him.

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