Tuesday April 21st, 2009

The Listener by Allen Wheelis

wheelisRecommended by Leigh in Cleveland, Ohio.
At the end of 2007, in the annual The Lives They Lived edition of the New York Times Magazine, I was intrigued by an article that memorialized Allen Wheelis, a psychoanalyst and author who had died that year at the age of 91. I tore the page out, and whenever I happened into a used book store, I looked for his name, determined to buy the first book I found. I kept expecting to find his most well-known work, How People Change (from 1975). Instead, I stumbled on a memoir he wrote in 1999 called The Listener. It is a page-turner. Wheelis, a seasoned psychoanalyst, performs a self-analysis that is both frightfully and endearingly honest. Though far from uplifting, I take comfort that someone so deeply neurotic and just generally pessimistic about life made it through 91 years nonetheless, all the while wrestling with the big questions and doing work he seemed to find important and satisfying. Towards the end of the book, I read this paragraph, remembered it from the Times obit, and was reminded of why I was compelled to look for his work in the first place: “What we deny is not death but the awareness that, before we die, nothing is going to happen. That big vague thing, that redemptive fulfillment, is an illusion, a beckoning bribe to keep us loyal. A symphony has a climax, a poem builds to a burst of meaning, but we are unfinished business. No coming together of strands. The game is called because of darkness.”