The other day an author I know sent me her latest book, and when I thumbed through it and read the publicity materials that came with, I realized I had my hands on a miracle. Here was a book I wouldn't even have to read before subjecting it to punditry. The book was born to be a case study of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the role it plays in journalism.
Heisenberg was a quantum physicist who in 1927 asserted that where subatomic particles are concerned, their exact position and velocity can’t both be known at the same time. He was concerned with the limits of observation. But social scientists in general, journalists in particular, refuse to leave it at that. Observation is their bread and butter and in their self-lacerating moments they enjoy supposing it not merely limited but treacherous. They like to say that Heisenberg liked to say, “The observer changes the thing observed.” For examples, look here, here, here, and here.
Personally, I doubt Heisenberg ever said that and I'd appreciate a citation. Nonetheless, the point has to be taken: insert an inquisitive reporter into a situation and its temperature changes. And many reporters will say, "God, I hope so!" For instance, 17 years ago, a young Chicago writer named Laurie Abraham published a book called Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America. Abraham was writing to shake things up, and she told me then the only concern she had as she watched a North Lawndale family jump through hoops for two years was that maybe doctors were being nicer to them “because some white girl was in the room asking questions.”
Abraham lives in Brooklyn now, and her new book, the one that just came in the mail, is a different matter. The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group tells the story its title promises, and last month's New York Times review was full of praise: “Abraham’s great, if melancholic, achievement is flipping Tolstoy on his head. What lies within the cocoon of most troubled marriages is far more mundane than you might think. What goes on in happy marriages may, in fact, be the real mystery. “
Abraham penetrated the cocoon. The essence of journalism is going to where the story is, and Abraham figured out a way to get there. But I immediately wondered: How did she manage to sit in on a couples therapy group for a year, a process I’d have thought the couples would consider no one’s business but their own? And how did she sit there for a year taking notes and not distort the therapy? She’s a reporter and I’m a reporter so my third thought was simply, well she got her story and more power to her. But out of curiosity I initiated an exchange of emails that Abraham was decent enough to maintain.
Did Abraham become part of the process? “Somewhat,” she tells me. Was that inevitable? “Perhaps, just because as a reporter I HAD to ask questions to clarify things, and that happened sometimes during the group and sometimes outside of it. So in that sense I influenced the group, most directly obvious when something I asked outside of the group was brought back into it.”
Yes, as time went on, she not only spoke up more often during the sessions but she also took to visiting the couples in their homes, sometimes with dramatic consequences. “My goals were twofold,” she wrote me: “to get inside troubled marriages and to watch troubled marriage in action.” She continued, “As for the distortion, I don’t think I really ‘distorted’ the dynamics any more than any other group member ‘distorted’ the dynamics.”
Any other group member? Like a combat reporter who’s embedded in a unit under siege and picks up a gun, Abraham discovered she could not simply be with the group and not join the group. Actually, the therapist she found who agreed to cooperate with her project would not have had it any other way. The therapist was Judith Coche of Philadelphia. Coche presented the idea to the five couples in a group she was forming in 2006 and then introduced Abraham to them in a conference call. Abraham, who at that point simply had a freelance assignment from the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, told everyone that although she’d change their names she wouldn’t change their “identifying details” because if she altered the facts of their lives they’d no longer be real, and she advised them that when they eventually read the article they might hate the way they looked in it. Coche had done her homework; she’d read Abraham’s old journalism and talked to the subjects of a couple of her profiles; she told the couples she respected Abraham’s work and had a gut feeling she could be trusted. And so, Abraham wrote me, “the group decided to trust me too. Take-home message. Therapists have a whole lotta power.”
Cloche not only let her in but encouraged her to speak up, "saying that even as an observer, I was in a sense part of the group,” Abraham told me. According to "standard thinking" of how groups work, Abraham explained, "everything that goes on in the group is part of the group.” It seems to me that urging Abraham to contribute because she was in the room begged the question of whether she should have been in the room. But that was for the therapist to decide. Reporters aren’t quantum physicists brooding over the slipperiness of observation. Offer them access and they grab it with both hands. “I was careful to stay in the background at first,” Abraham told me, “in part so that people wouldn’t mistake me as one of their own, rather than as a reporter who would eventually write about them, and in part because I felt like that was the most effective way of reporting: fly on the wall….As time went on, I did participate more, often because people would be speaking so vaguely, that, as a reporter, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were getting at….As time went on, I think the group grew to like what I had to say, like my role in the group, and so in a subtle way forgot what I was doing.
“But not completely, because I also got them to agree early on to talk to me outside of the group, and near the end (when I felt I knew enough about people’s situations to make the interviews productive), I started talking to the couples in their homes…After one of these home interviews, one wife came back in the next group and announced that she was considering divorcing her husband (came out of the blue, they had been keeping some key details of their situation from the group), and that the questions I’d asked them crystallized her dissatisfaction.... So there is no doubt in some way that I became part of the process…
“Another thing in the group: When I participated more, I was among the hotter members, wasn’t so good at suppressing my pique, or sadness, which was interesting, at the very least. At one point, the therapist said the group was ‘rather low on the affect side,’ so she was glad I was there, but it was weird when one time I burst out crying (at a heart-breaking story one woman in the group told), and everyone else remained dry-eyed.”
(The Times reviewer observed that “through no fault of her own, Abraham has fallen in with a rather dull lot,” and comments, “Part of the trouble seems inherent to the form: people self-censor in individual therapy and doubly so as a couple; in front of a full-blown gathering, inhibitions may be especially hard to unleash, more so with a reporter taking notes.)
I began to imagine the movie: Flamboyant reporter insinuates herself into pool of depressed spouses and slowly bends it to serve her needs for lurid melodrama. “It’s all good,” says oblivious therapist.
“GOD,” replied Abraham (using all caps that I’ll spare you). “I feel like I must be a little slow, but not only did I never consciously do anything to make a more melodramatic story, I never thought of it! I mean, first of all, there was drama all around me, and second of all, stuff like that just never occurs to me….Even at an unconscious level, I don’t think I did anything to juice the wheels of the group, make it more dramatic.
“Then you ask, did I feel a twinge of defensiveness about what I was up to?...I sometimes felt guilty I was getting involved in helping these people, caring about them, but that ultimately I’d be writing about them in ways that I figured would make them feel hurt or bad.”
This moment of snake-in-the-grass foreboding is a familiar one to many journalists, who tell themselves they have a job to do but don’t like to think of themselves as in the business of betrayal. (Read just the first page of Janet Malcolm's book on Joe McGinniss for the ultimate word on the subject.) Fortunately, this crisis often passes like a tsunami that hits shore three inches high. The Times piece, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” focused on one of the five couples and appeared in August 2007. Abraham had had the foresight when the group was formed to get its members’ written permission to write a book as well as the article, but she knew that if they disliked the article they’d stop talking to her and the book would be dead. That didn’t happen: “Incredibly,” says Abraham, “Marie,” the featured wife of the Times story, which didn’t flatter her but appeared to understand her, “was OK with it, even liked it.” So the book was on, and Abraham eventually stayed involved with the couples much more than a year, from May 2006 to November 2008.
The general reaction of the group members she heard from when the book came out was that it was painful to read because it brought back a painful time. One woman loved it. One man was a little put off by a description of his nose.
In the end, Abraham concluded that therapy made a useful difference to the couples. “It simultaneously normalized fuckedupness (a new word!) in marriage and made it less desirable to stay fucked up (the latter with time).” But my questions were these: Did she make a difference? Should she have made a difference? Does she wish she’d made a bigger difference?
“I may have made the group move faster than it would have,” Abraham replied. For example, one woman “realized after I interviewed her how dissatisfied she was with her marriage, so much so that she was seriously considering divorce. Do I think she would have eventually come to this conclusion? Probably, but maybe not so soon.” She went on, “I guess that ideally, I would not have affected the process at all, except that even by asking questions I ‘affected’ the process, so impossible to imagine how I could have done it without having some impact.”
I sent some questions to Judith Coche, the therapist, that she chose not to answer. The only one I thought was actually interesting occurred to me as I composed the email. Coche is clearly a canny woman. When she did her due diligence on Abraham did she think only of how she'd perform as a journalist, or did she also ask herself what Abraham would bring to the party? After all, the couples seemed noticeably low on affect, didn't they? They could stand to be in a room with someone who let her emotions flow.
Our prattle about Heisenberg notwithstanding, reporters spend little serious time contemplating the effect of observation on the observed. It's not just that they go into journalism to change the world. It's that every news release, every story tip, every leak and spin presumes that change and attempts to manipulate it. Why would a therapist be different? Why wouldn't a therapist entertain Abraham's striking proposition and calculate that having in the room someone incendiary (in the book Abraham describes her "combative side" as "overdeveloped") could be useful? Eventually Coche announced she was glad Abraham was there for just that reason. But was it her plan all along?
As I say, Coche didn't answer.
My last question to Abraham was whether she took advantage of her opportunity to get in the final licks. It was her book, and therefore the last word in the therapeutic process was her own. If she'd left unspoken any telling insights or nagging discontents she could dispose of them in the manuscript. Were there things she put in the book for the couples to get out of it? I wondered. “No,” Abraham admirably replied, “the thought never crossed my mind.”