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Book Commentary: Love’s Executioner

PS2007's picture

This semester I read the book Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom a writer who is also a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.  This book is the non-fiction account of ten patients who have been in therapy with Dr. Yalom over the years.  All of the patients have very different problems but they all experience some kind of personal breakthrough during their therapeutic sessions.  

I really enjoyed reading this book in conjunction with our class discussions because it gave me a glimpse into the process of psychotherapy, and the change psychotherapy can cause within a person.  Even though psychotherapy was criticized a lot in our class, and is criticized a lot in general as a type of treatment, reading these moving stories about how effective the process can be makes you believe that it is possible to take control of your life and make major changes. The people in the book gained the courage to make these changes through psychotherapy, but as we have discussed in class, this is not the only way to achieve self-actualization. Regardless about how one might feel about psychotherapy, I believe most people would find this book inspiring.

What really made this book stand out to me is when Dr. Yalom discusses his therapeutic technique.  I have not read much about the process of psychotherapy but Dr. Yalom’s explanations of why he would say or do certain things in a therapy session were easy to understand and interesting to read about.  He talks a lot about “existence pain” which underlies his approach to psychotherapy.  He believes that existence pain is the basic anxiety we all feel and use to cope with the four givens of existence, “I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life” (1).

While I am not necessarily sure I agree with Dr. Yalom, I do not know anyone who would not feel anxiety reading the list of his four givens.  Since the book is written from his point of view, he also offers commentary on what he was thinking during sessions with the different patients and reflects on mistakes he might have made during the therapy.  It is interesting to hear how these sessions are also a learning experience for Dr. Yalom and not just the patient.  

Often the mistakes he makes are based on countertransference, or the therapist’s feelings about the client that stem from experiences in their own life (2).  It is somewhat refreshing to be reminded that Dr. Yalom is a person with his own issues just like the rest of us.  At time though, I did feel bad for the patients.  Dr. Yalom is extremely candid about his feelings of disgust and dislike towards some of his patients.  Usually as the therapy progresses and the patient begins to show their true self to Dr. Yalom these feelings disappear but they are still hard to read about.  

You come to care about the people described in the book and you share their happiness in the changes they make in therapy.  The cases Dr. Yalom chose to write about are really interesting and unique.  Each case is very different, but the way Dr. Yalom is able to describe his patients’ keeps the book extremely engaging all the way through.  

Even though the book was depressing at times, I really enjoyed learning about the therapeutic process and reading about how these patients gain insight into their own behavior.  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the therapeutic process.  I think it would be useful for anyone taking “The Brain and Mental Health” course to read this book as it provides a fascinating look at how psychotherapy works.  I definitely plan on reading more of Dr. Yalom’s books in the future.    


1.    Yalom, Irvin, D. Love’s Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.



Paul Grobstein's picture

Yalom and psychotherapy

Yep, popular (and "scientific") press notwithstanding, psychotherapy when well done can be quite effective. And, yes, it inevitably involves idiosyncracies of the therapist. For better or for worse. Maybe there's a general lesson about "mental health" in that? And perhaps in your discomfort with the list of "four givens"?

Yalom is indeed worth reading more of. For some other explorations by course participants see

I also recently finished/recommend When Nietzsche Wept. Yalom's latest is Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.