Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington


The Use of Fiction in Psychotherapy:
A Contribution to Bibliotherapy

by Sofie Lazarsfeld

(Originally published in the "American Journal of Psychotherapy," Vol. III, No. 1, pages 26-33, January, 1949.)

Abstract: Fiction may be used in psychotherapy to assist in the revelation of the patient's total personality and his obscured goals. The portrayal of the individual's problems as he imagines them can extend the analyst's understanding of traits and provide a means of illumination leading to the patient's self-understanding. The fiction test may consist of (1) discussing those stories, either recent or remembered from childhood which the individual considers particularly impressive, and (2) prescribing certain titles and analyzing the patient's reaction to them.

Sofie Lazarsfeld (1882-1976) was trained by Alfred Adler in Vienna in the 1920's. She first practiced in Vienna, later (1938) in Paris, and moved to New York City in 1941. She was the author of numerous articles and books, focusing mainly on women's issues, and was the mother of sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld.

The extent to which people read fiction to answer their own emotional problems arrested my attention from the day I began my work as a psychologist. That was a quarter of a century ago. The trend has grown steadily in our time among the entire reading public. I found it equally prevalent in Europe and the United States.

"Have you read this or that book?" has been a habitual query by individuals, usually the less articulate ones, who sought me out for help. "Because if you haven't, please do so now! There you will find exactly my problem," they would assure me confidently.

Seldom did I find "exactly" their problem in the pages to which I was referred. While fiction supposedly mirrors life, what is seen in the mirror depends upon the eyesight of the person who looks into it. But, though I did not find my client's precise counterpart, I did find his personality and his problem portrayed as he imagined them and that was immensely valuable--so valuable that the "fiction test" became for me an important instrument of my scientific approach. In many cases it drew a straight line to the revelation of the individual's total personality and his obscured goals. The client's conflict material came to the surface during our discussions of the literature with which he identified himself; and however unrelated in content and quality his selected books might seem to me, a diligent search always brought to light the common denominator in the various fictional situations and the client's own situation.

After having appraised the utility of "book discussions" in my collected case histories of twenty years, I am convinced that people who like to read can make strides toward discovery of their real selves by accompanying one trained in psychological techniques upon a few conducted literary tours.

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