Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy

Image of Creatures of a Day
Release Date: 
March 7, 2016
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“a collection of tightly written and deeply moving testaments to the brevity of life and the existential imperative to live it well.”

Irvin Yalom has, over the last 40 years, become a master of the art of psychotherapy storytelling.  To his latest collection of clinical tales, Creatures of a Day, Dr. Yalom has brought his characteristic warmth and wisdom, but there is something new here as well: urgency. 

Having spent most of his career exhorting patients and readers to face our ultimate mortality, he now writes as a man confronting his own. Indeed, not only is death the explicit theme of many of his stories, but Dr. Yalom approaches both the therapeutic encounters and the writing itself with a keen awareness of limited time. The result is a collection of tightly written and deeply moving testaments to the brevity of life and the existential imperative to live it well.

By generously allowing his readers entrée into the consulting room, Dr. Yalom shows us that it is possible to be profoundly affected by but a brief therapy. One elderly patient insists on but a single consultation, and by the end of the hour is buoyed by Dr. Yalom’s having borne witness to the most important relationship of the man’s life.

 Another patient, also of advanced age, presents with a fixation on an ex-husband she has not seen in some 40 years and a bizarre feeling of having “insulation” between herself and her everyday experience. By the end of the second and final session, she has begun to let go of her past and live more fully in the present, embracing—tentatively—the inescapable fact that all our lives end in death. 

Still another flies in from Georgia requesting a single visit to help him grapple with frustration over the highly scheduled organization of group activities at his retirement home. By the end of the interview, the patient confronts the non-negotiable schedule inherent in all our mortal lives—that is, the fact that they end in our deaths.

For all the ferocity of his focus on death, Dr. Yalom’s manner toward his patients is gentle, empathetic, and genuine. He continually expresses compassion and care and calls on his patients to adopt the same attitude toward themselves.

 One patient, a physics tech by day, writes furtively each night only to hide her poems and stories in her closet. Upon learning that she had burned all her poetry as a teenager, Dr. Yalom beseeches her to look upon herself more softly. "Such violence toward yourself!” he exclaims, “Tell me . . . do you have any sympathy for that young, fourteen-year-old girl?” 

With similar tenderness, Dr. Yalom counsels an aging nurse, awash in bitterness and self-recriminations, to imagine a line of people she has helped beginning in the consulting room and stretching out the door and around the block.

Students of psychotherapy will value this book for such revelations about process. Hardly a dry textbook, Creatures of a Day does not enjoin the student to be gentle toward the patient, to connect with him or her genuinely and personally, to emphasize the here and now, to appreciate the way a confrontation with death can enhance life; rather, the author shows us on every page.

But this is not a book exclusively for therapists and students, nor even a book solely for the aged; this is a book for us all. For we all pass through this life but briefly. We all must take up the task of living well in the fleeting time we have.  We are all, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, “creatures of a day.”