Book Clubs as Therapy

by Julie Rains on 25 February 2011 1 comment
Photo: Maurice Svay

Regrets, uncertainty, and conflict rarely surface during normal conversation. An in-depth book discussion, however, can bring to mind an enormous range of experiences and create a forum for previously unexpressed, unexplored, and unresolved pieces of your life.

Many book-club participants love talking about symbolism, writing styles, and character development. I have enjoyed a different approach with my book club. Members compare and contrast their own experiences with those of fictional and real-life characters. From this dialogue, we can gain insights into appropriate and inappropriate responses to various situations, come to terms with past mistakes, get better understanding of family and work relationships, develop courage to tackle new challenges, and more. (See also: How to Start a Book Club)

Discussion Topics

We pick books based on potential for generating discourse rather than providing therapeutic benefits. We discuss topics that allow us to explore struggles emerge naturally.

Family Issues

Nearly any book you choose will bring to mind family issues; that is, most books will prompt discussion about parents and siblings as well as the growing-up years.

For example, In Cold Blood led to discourse about family circumstances. The story is the recounting of the murder of Kansas farmer and businessman Herbert Clutter and his family. No one in my group grew up with a picture-perfect family that became victims of violent crime. But, like the Clutters, you may have grown up on a family farm in an isolated area, away from neighbors who could have alerted law enforcement about unusual activity.

In this case, the book selection served as a springboard to examining how immediate surroundings can shape family relationships, encourage or stifle growth, and influence life decisions. To a lesser extent, the depression suffered by the mother (Herbert Clutter’s wife) was a starting point for conversation about mental illness and its effect on family relationships.

Challenges of Learning Disabilities

Many books have a protagonist who has an unusual outlook or way of conducting himself compared to social norms.

One of my favorite picks was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the story of a brilliant but slow-thinking, socially awkward teenager who has been diagnosed with a learning disability. Painstakingly and painfully, he unravels family secrets: his mother’s affair and disappearance; his father’s murder of the neighbor’s dog. I especially liked this book because, like the main character, I often miss standard social cues but detect meaning and deception in unusual word choices and subtleties of behavior.

As a group, this book caused us to consider how learning differences affect not only the child but also the parents, their marriage, and outside relationships. We recognized that advocating for your child is crucial but can be frustrating and confusing, especially when positive results are not guaranteed.

Overcoming Economic and Cultural Influences

Most books have a main character and a supporting cast who face obstacles or a series of challenges caused by outside influences.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, a young girl in rural, Depression-era Japan is sold by her impoverished father to a family that enslaves her as a geisha. My friends and I talked about the near impossibility of making the right decisions and extracting yourself from a terrible situation with no trustworthy counsel, no money, and limited information, all within the tragic convergence of dire economic circumstances, cultural influences, and family betrayal. Though I have never encountered these extreme challenges, I could see how certain circumstances can temporarily interfere with life plans. Just as significantly, this story made me understand how others can struggle without a support system.

Inspiration to Make Life Changes

True stories of people who have made a world-changing difference are inspiring and revealing in terms of accomplishments as well as personal drive and sacrifice.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Greg Mortenson, who established a non-profit to build schools for girls in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This discussion took an interesting turn when one member expressed the desire to align her personal and career choices more carefully with her values. Family concerns had led to more traditional decisions, but the book influenced life changes.

Other things that may come up:

  • Breaches in relationships due to unresolved conflict
  • Ways that people can change
  • Personal cost of defending the less privileged

How To Encourage Therapeutic Discussion

To start a new group or reshape an existing club that can benefit your mental health while stimulating your intellect, consider these tips.

Talk with People You Can Trust

Not all book clubs will be safe havens. Those that offer support will most likely be comprised of friends or acquaintances who have proven trustworthy. Test reactions by sharing a small element of your imperfection. Shocked reaction reveals danger whereas elaboration from others means empathy; proceed accordingly. Sensitive information should only be shared with a close friend or a counselor.

Pick a Great Book

Choose a book you have read, loved, and think will prompt interesting discussion. Find sources of recommendations that you trust and prove to be reliable, such as book club recommendations or bestseller lists. Most selections will be novels, but don’t ignore non-fiction.

Give Plenty of Time to Read the Book

Choose books a month or more in advance so those with busy schedules will have time to locate and read the book. Longer books require more advanced notice, as will more difficult-to-find books.

Ask Open-Ended, Conversation-Starting Questions

Craft your own questions, find a list online, or use discussion guides printed in certain books.

Allow Tangential Discussion

Conversation will flow in a good and therapeutic book-club session. Questions should serve as the starting point for deeper reflection. Let people bring in related stories. These tangents may often be much more interesting than the book, just as truth is often stranger than fiction.

Bring Discussion Back to the Topic at Hand

Exploration is exciting, but too much “me” discussion is tiresome. Find ways to link talk back to the book’s meaning or simply move to the next question.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist and urge anyone with concerns to speak with a professional provider about treatment options.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I really like the idea of using book clubs to get into deeper discussions. A movie group could be great as well -- I love having unexpected conversations with friends after watching a film together.

Is anybody else currently part of a book group like this?