Group by Christie Tate is a Messy Misrepresentation of Group Therapy

ARC of Group by Christie Tate was provided by NetGalley and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis:

The refreshingly original debut memoir of a guarded, over-achieving, self-lacerating young lawyer who reluctantly agrees to get psychologically and emotionally naked in a room of six complete strangers—her psychotherapy group—and in turn finds human connection, and herself.

Christie Tate had just been named the top student in her law school class and finally had her eating disorder under control. Why then was she driving through Chicago fantasizing about her own death? Why was she envisioning putting an end to the isolation and sadness that still plagued her in spite of her achievements?

Enter Dr. Rosen, a therapist who calmly assures her that if she joins one of his psychotherapy groups, he can transform her life. All she has to do is show up and be honest. About everything—her eating habits, childhood, sexual history, etc. Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: “You don’t need a cure, you need a witness.

So begins her entry into the strange, terrifying, and ultimately life-changing world of group therapy. Christie is initially put off by Dr. Rosen’s outlandish directives, but as her defenses break down and she comes to trust Dr. Rosen and to depend on the sessions and the prescribed nightly phone calls with various group members, she begins to understand what it means to connect.

Group is a deliciously addictive read, and with Christie as our guide—skeptical of her own capacity for connection and intimacy, but hopeful in spite of herself—we are given a front row seat to the daring, exhilarating, painful, and hilarious journey that is group therapy—an under-explored process that breaks you down, and then reassembles you so that all the pieces finally fit.

Please note that I will be discussing this book in detail with specific examples as well as providing trigger warnings below. I do not recommend reading this book at all but if you’re interested in not being spoiled now is the time to click off the post!

Trigger Warnings: Suicidal ideation, self harm, eating disorders, infidelity, discussion of death of a baby, discussion of death by drowning

I want to preface my review by saying that this book represents the author’s own experiences in regards to mental health and therapy and this is all valid. I’m glad that she was able to get the help that she needed to in order to live a fulfilling life. However, the experiences within this book feel misrepresentative of the typical process of group therapy and there were many instances of unethical practices. I will also say that I am not a therapist nor am I licensed in any way to facilitate group therapy but I have spent my fair share in therapy. Over the years I’ve been in individual therapy, group therapy, inpatient programs, and outpatient programs and while each of these has been wildly different in terms of treatment if I had ever set foot into a setting like the one created by Tate’s therapist Dr. Rosen I would have never gone back after the first meeting.

When I first requested Group for review I was looking forward to reading about another person’s experiences with group therapy. I was interested in seeing how it differed from my own experiences because I don’t know anyone in my personal life who has ever attended group therapy. Since I have also spent most of my life struggling with my mental health I also always enjoy when other people speak candidly about their mental health. I thinks it’s important that people continue to be open about mental health because the stigmas surrounding it run deep.

So Group started off fine, I wasn’t immediately hooked but I had enough intrigue to continue on. The writing itself was difficult at times to keep me entertained and I feel like it could have benefitted from a slightly more casual style. As I read on the more I wanted to put the book down and never pick it up again. I was appalled by what Tate chose to share and was even more appalled with how Dr. Rosen conducted the groups that Tate attended. The amount of red flags left me worrying about the impact that this book could have on people who are hoping for a miracle for their mental health. It made me nervous that someone may end up seeking out unhealthy therapy in order to try and “fix” themselves. A bit that stood out to me at the end of the book was when Tate described herself as a “lifer” amongst Dr. Rosen’s patients. This ended up being the final straw that had me wracking my brain wondering how anyone was getting real help from these groups.

Now you may be wondering why I had such a strong reaction to someone being in therapy for a lifetime and honestly if I hadn’t read this book I would be wondering the same thing! The short of it all is that I felt like Dr. Rosen created a codependency in some of his group members and it seems like Tate would be unable to function without them. And before I go on I want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with spending a lifetime in therapy. I mean, the further into my own time in therapy I’ve realized that a balance between individual therapy and medication is the best way to care for my emotional well being. When it comes to each group therapy program I’ve been a part of, the goal is to “graduate”. Some have a set amount of time I’ll attend and the others have had more of a general estimate. I’m aware that this may be different from programs elsewhere and also differs from things like AA but I’ve generally found that group therapy is used as a means to learn skills and talk with peers in order to foster healthy relationships and reactions in the wider world. I also know that many people will attend individual therapy for specific things that they are dealing with in their lives and work through these issues with their therapist in order to move forward. Therapy is supposed to help you learn how to function on your own, not become so reliant on a group of people that you can’t make decisions without them.

Initially I really thought that Tate would be discussing her eating disorder in depth and how she uncovered underlying trauma and then learned how to cope and move on in her life. The biggest struggles she had seemed to relate back to her binge eating disorder (her own description, as far as I know she was never formally diagnosed with anything). It took me until I was about 60% of the way through the book when I finally accepted that this was not the case. This entire book was essentially a “woe is me” tale of a privileged woman who just wanted a relationship. Can therapy help you learn how to have healthy, long lasting relationships? For sure! But being in a relationship is not and will never be a magical fix. The fact that Tate’s only goal for therapy was to end up in a relationship felt very weird to me and that Dr. Rosen accepted this as her goal was even more odd. He essentially guaranteed he could get her into a relationship instead of doing something like redirecting her thought process and suggesting goals that would lead her towards having healthy and long lasting relationships.

When it came to the therapy itself, Dr. Rosen seemed to be creating groups that are antithetical to everything I’ve experienced in group therapy. One of his major viewpoints is that “secrets are toxic” which is why this book was filled with personal and intimate details of each of Tate’s fellow group members as well as herself and Dr. Rosen. This also included detailed sexual encounters including some that Tate had with other group members. I felt beyond uncomfortable because even though Tate changed people’s names it all felt like an invasion of privacy. The first time I attended a group therapy program I was really nervous about opening up to the other members. In the end though I was so thankful that I had a group of peers that I could speak candidly to without having to worry about people in my personal life finding out what I was saying. And in listening to the other group members I found myself appreciating that they too trusted us enough to open up. By not speaking about what goes on in group to other people it’s not keeping secrets and it’s not toxic. It helps people build trust and interact with others who may have been through similar events. It’s a different experience than individual therapy in that it allows you to discuss mental health and other life stressors without potentially burdening or worrying people in your personal life. Holding this idea that secrets are “toxic” is really odd to me and the over sharing in the book cemented that in my opinion some secrets are just fine not to share with the world.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable while reading Group were the “prescriptions” that Dr. Rosen would give to group members. Many of these were highly inappropriate such as telling Tate to stay in an unhealthy relationship or telling her boyfriend at the time (also a group member) to perform oral sex on her. Instead of allowing group members to get advice or figure things out on their own, Rosen seemingly manipulated people to do things that may or may not lead to their desired therapy goal. This motivation of his was never explained which really rubbed me the wrong way because so many things that Rosen did were things that therapists should never do. At one point, Tate physically harmed herself during a group session and Rosen simply sat there and let it happen. Afterwards, he put some ointment on her wound and that was the end of that.

So not only did the overall group therapy experience that Tate had make me uncomfortable but I genuinely couldn’t figure out what the message of this book was supposed to be. Tate had numerous reasons to attend therapy and once again I’m glad that she was able to find the help she needed but she seemed completely naive to the benefits of therapy outside of her own experiences. She didn’t seem to learn anything from her time in group other than this magic resolution of her “happily ever after” relationship. Over the course of her book, Tate mentioned three things numerous times: the fact that she was first in her class at law school, her job at a prestigious law firm, and exactly how much she spent each month on therapy. Now mental health doesn’t discriminate and no matter what your life circumstances are you could experience mental health issues. The issue that I took with these three facts was that Tate never acknowledged the privilege that she had that even allowed her to get the health care that she needed. I won’t get into how incredibly expensive the group sessions cost her each month but she was lucky to be able to go at all. She grew up in a two parent household, she was well educated, and there were just so many advantages that she had and I’m disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of that whatsoever. There are far too many people who will never be provided with the mental health care that they so desperately need and I found myself feeling no sympathy over the fact that the chief complaint Tate held over the entire course of this book was that she was unhappily single.

It was very clear to me that this book was a memoir and a singular experience. However, with a title like Group and no pointed disclaimers of this being a memoir I worry that it could potentially lead people to seek out or stick with unhealthy therapy because it worked for Tate. I mean in the end Tate “fixed” her problems by achieving her goal of getting into a permanent relationship. I was so annoyed that there was next to no discussion of the larger arc of Tate’s mental health even though I feel like this should have been the main focus. Instead, Group focused heavily on Tate’s romantic relationships while she also happened to be attending this group therapy that largely didn’t seem like it was helping her. On more than one occasion she threw violent fits during sessions and then *poof* onto the next part. There seemed to be an utter lack of self awareness and instead of therapy helping Tate develop this she just relied on her group members and Dr. Rosen to fix everything for her.

Group was such a disappointment and the only reason I’m glad I read it is so that I can prevent other people from reading it. And as I’m wrapping up writing this I realized I never even touched on the problematic language used throughout the book. Since I did read an ARC and I won’t be seeking out a finished copy I can’t confirm whether or not any of it was changed before publication but if you’re writing about mental health don’t do shit like describe someone neatly making their bed as “borderline OCD”. It’s beyond disappointing that there are still people who aren’t actively working to erase problematic phrases and language from their day to day speech. And with that I think that’s everything I had to say about Group.

Oh, and as a little side note since this doesn’t technically have to do with that book. I found this out when I was perusing other reviews on Goodreads. Tate is none other than the mommy blogger who refused to remove content that involved her daughter after her daughter explicitly asked her not to include her in content anymore. I remember reading the articles when this situation originally occurred and it made me so sad for her daughter.

I’m going to sign off here before I start thinking of other things to rant about. If you made it this far, thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you in my next post.