Cover image for Group : six people in search of a life
Group : six people in search of a life
Solotaroff, Paul.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Riverhead Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
339 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RC480.5 .S636 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
RC480.5 .S636 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Six bright, successful, and remarkably self-destructive people enter into a course of dynamic group therapy in an effort to recognize and overcome their compulsions, addictions, weaknesses, and family legacies. Granted unlimited access to the sessions and the patients' lives, journalist Paul Solotaroff captures an utterly compelling real-life drama as it unfolds. Against a ticking clock--the prescribed period of treatment is ten months--a wide range of human tragedy and comedy plays out, imbuing Group with the pacing of a thriller as we learn, finally, who triumphs and who is beyond help.Under the aegis of a charismatic, maverick psychiatrist, this engaging and diverse group of strangers commiserate with, badger, and urge one another along toward the goal of finding their "true story"--that is, the life they were meant to lead, their path to happiness--rather than accepting the "false story" they were handed in childhood and are unhappily living out. Accompanying the revelation of their fears, their hopes, their setbacks, and recoveries, come the doctor's psychologically acute insights and prescriptions on dilemmas common to us all. Group is, from beginning to end, an utterly absorbing journey along the often-excruciating and revelatory path of self-awareness and emotional healing.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A nonfiction account of six New Yorkers' group-therapy sessions over a single year's time? One's first impulse might be to throw such a book across the room--but what an error that would be. This is a fabulous story, in the root sense of making a fable for our time. Solotaroff, whose own panic and anxiety were cured by working with a therapist he calls Lathon, has created an absolutely riveting narrative. He asked for and received permission both to sit in on group-therapy sessions some years after his own and to interview the participants individually. He sets the scene and introduces the dramatis personae, from Jack, a 59-year-old producer recovering from coke, alcohol, and a string of marriages; to Lina, who runs a community clinic for children in the South Bronx and is being terrorized by her domineering husband; to Dylan, an aging rock 'n' roller with a booze problem. While making these people vivid, Solotaroff edits and shapes enough so that the outlines of pain and the paths to solace become resolved for us as they did for the group. All of the people in this book are real, with names and attributes altered, and it is a tribute to the author's muscular, journalistic style that they never drift into sentimentality or stereotype. (An epilogue brings the story up to the present, explaining how the group members have coped, or not, since therapy ended.) Therapist Lathon, a man with demons of his own, proves as fascinating as his patients, and his methods--of defining the difference between pain and suffering, of finding your own story instead of the ones others make up for you--seem eminently sensible. Great reading and a convincing argument for the efficacy of group therapy, now falling out of fashion. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this perceptive account of how a group of strangers came together over the course of a year to regain a sense of equilibrium in their fast-track lives, journalist Solotaroff provides an inside look at the "talking cure." The occasionally combustible cast of six patients, afflicted with a laundry list of private demons, childhood traumas, addictions and phobias, duel with one another and with their volatile group leader, psychopharmacologist Charles Lathon. (According to the agreement hammered out between Solotaroff and Lathon, who reluctantly allowed the author to monitor the meetings, verbatim exchanges between the group members appear in the book, though names and identifying information have been altered.) The eclectic group includes an emotionally withdrawn former model, an obnoxious Wall Street whiz with a yen for coke, an overwhelmed children's rights activist in a bitter divorce fight, a boozed-out rock musician, a wimpy accountant and a slumping Broadway producer with an embezzlement rap haunting his comeback. Lathon's approach, based on "rational optimism," spurred the group members to challenge their self-imposed barriers and to accept the possibility of eventually mastering their frantic lives. Pulling back with an impassive eye, Solotaroff lets the reader experience the highly charged exchanges between these damaged soulsÄand their well-earned epiphanies. Raw and surprisingly candid, these are real individuals fighting some of life's harshest battles; not everyone survives emotionally to tell the tale. The wealth of surprises at the book's conclusion will keep readers riveted up to the last page. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a result of negative stereotyping, the popularity of group therapy for treating mental health problems has waned considerably among psychotherapists. Reflecting on his own successful experience with group therapy, journalist Solotaroff presents a fascinating account of the triumphs and risks of this method of treatment. His journalistic instinct led him to approach his former psychiatrist, requesting permission to observe the workings of a group; members would also allow personal interviews. In return, Solotaroff promised complete anonymity. The six group members consisted of a Broadway producer, a songwriter, a fashion editor, a young Wall Street shark, an inspired children's rights activist, and a very shy accountant. Solotaroff's book is not meant to be scientific; nor is it a self-help text. The narrative reads like a juicy novel and sustains the reader's interest through the emotionally wrenching stories of each member. Recommended for large public libraries.ÄElizabeth Goeters, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Dunwoody (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One january There may be fancier enclaves in New York City than University Place between Eighth and Twelfth Streets, but few, if any, with its recessed calm and heterodox self-possession. Bounded on either end by the blare of Greenwich Village--to the north, Union Square, and its big-box consumerism; to the south, the sprawling mosh pit of Washington Square Park--University Place is New York unplugged, downtown with the volume turned down. It is slender as avenues go, a double lane going north, and is largely spared the cab and truck squalor east and west of it. The shops on the street are quaint, if precious, an array of retro jewelers and one-off designers and rococo antique stores. And the buildings that house them are proportionate in size, spruce Tudor limestones and red-brick dowagers that seldom exceed six stories. It is that rare city space in which you don't feel dwarfed, a sweet spot of scale and horizon.     That late January evening, I was keenly aware of the block's amity, perhaps because I was so unsorted. I was on my way to talk business with Dr. Lathon, and felt preposterous, and out of my depth. A post-therapy relationship with your former therapist is always a ticklish thing. There is the vast inequity in power and intimacy, and the sense that you are still, in some ways, a supplicant, the one who does all the talking. Then there is the question of which self to present. Do you show up as the patient, earnest and in-looking, the teller of your own truths and feelings? Or do you show up as the person you are with relative strangers--facile and outgoing, nervously skimming the surface? You shudder to sound false to one who knows you so thoroughly, and yet it is impossible to pretend a deeper acquaintance, knowing next to nothing about this person. It is more complex still if you are in his debt--and to Lathon, I felt I owed everything.     His office was an L-shaped studio apartment in a prewar co-op off University. You walked into a room that broke left at the window and down two steps into a modest half parlor. This smaller space, screened off by a portiere, held two tan suede recliners and ottomans, and was where Lathon did his one-on-one work. Beyond the bronze screen, the larger portion of the room was furnished in a kind of men's club deluxe. There was an assembly of leather armchairs in a cube formation, two on each side of the square. Along the near wall ran a block of buried maple: Lathon's desk and cabinets and a line of low bookcases. On the shelves, side by side with the pharmacology texts and the abstracts on child psychiatry, was a set of boxed editions of Pound and Eliot. And on the walls and credenza and practically every flat surface was art of all manner and provenance. There was a pair of early drawings by Rauschenberg, and a Reinhardt print that was like a hymn to the next galaxy, a lucid set of grids in tones of black. There were Zulu death masks and Russian tramp art and a Chinese wine vessel from the fifth century.     Wherever the eye went, it found something gleaming, from the pickled blond floorboards that gave back the sun, to the bronze and silver swords above the desk. Here, the room announced, was not just a doctor or aesthete but an adept at the pomps of power. The room further declared that life was an art, an art that could be taught, like a tea ceremony. Tastes might differ and aptitudes vary, but anyone could be helped to make dignified choices and craft a self more in line with one's wishes. Last, the room said, this was no place for hushed voices, for the therapy of implication. Rather, it was a theater of action and incident, and anyone seeking caution would be best served elsewhere.     This was to be my third preliminary talk with Lathon. At our first meeting, we had discussed the terms and ground rules. I was to be present, with my notepad and tape recorder, at each of the scheduled sessions. The tape recorder would be placed on a table inside the square, and I some ten feet beyond it. There, I would be able to mark cues and gestures without being in anyone's sightline. In all other ways, I was to be as absent as possible, to merge into the middle distance. The concern the members expressed wasn't about my being present, but of being reminded of it during session. Therefore, no comments or questions at any time, and a minimum of coughing and throat-clearing. Any expression on my part, voluntary or otherwise, would be construed as a comment on the proceedings.     On the subject of side interviews, Lathon was equally firm. I was to see members alone, in the privacy of their own homes, when spouses and children were out. If that was not practicable, I could meet them in public, but without my pad and recorder. At these one-on-one meetings, they would tell me things that they hadn't brought up in group. More, they would ask me questions about each other, and about Lathon himself. I was to respectfully decline and convey none of what I'd heard, either through word or gesture. They had agreed to tell their stories in the hope that they'd be useful, a template for others stuck in suffering. They had also been lured by lesser motives--by exhibitionism, in a couple of cases, and by desperation in some others. In exchange for their participation, they had been moved up on line, a waiting list of a dozen people. The gain was appreciable, particularly to those in crisis; the next group wasn't scheduled until June.     At our second meeting, Lathon explained why he had agreed to participate. As a practicing psychiatrist for fifteen years who had run groups for close to eight, he was increasingly convinced that group was the way to effect deep and expedient change. In the form of these six other people in the room, there was a moral force to be harnessed, a power quite apart from his own. Properly utilized, it had the capacity to pierce resistance, enabling him to trim the course of treatment. Where once he viewed group as a genteel marathon, allowing it to keep its own pace for years until it ran out of gas or interest, he'd since redrafted it as a ten-month sprint--twenty sessions, two and a half hours each, over a term of forty weeks.     "What excites me now," he said, "is how quickly I can tap that power. You don't have to wait around months for it to develop; you can actually coach it in a matter of weeks. Basically, it's the same thing I taught your group, namely, the practice of `serious listening.' What I've done is condense it into a set of skills, and teach it to my patients during the one-on-one work. How, for instance, to tell `pain' that's genuine from `suffering' that's false and avoidant. How to turn a `suffering conversation' into an effective and truthful one. And how to break down pain into its particulars, so you can take action to heal the wound."     At those first two meetings, I didn't ask many questions, or press Lathon for further details. The fact is, I was spooked, and brainlocked. However unprepossessing he may be, it is a weirdness of a high order to be addressed by your former therapist as a peer and collaborator. And whatever else one could say about Lathon, he was far from unprepossessing. He was a very large man, an ex-nose tackle in college who at six-two was probably nudging two-seventy. What remained of his blond hair had receded at some point into a patchy widow's peak, making his sizable skull seem that much bigger, and, if possible, more imperial. He had deep-set eyes under a jutting forehead, and they tracked you from a pool of shadow. When you said something that galled him or tried his patience, they glinted like blue steel bearings. Even in neutral, his eyes could dominate a room, presiding with their hawkish intelligence.     Then there was the matter of his attire. Most big men are fashion paupers, resigned to the hand that's dealt them--the broad-in-the-beam suits and blocky sport coats cut like Chrysler K-cars from the eighties. Lathon, on the other hand, dressed like Pat Riley. He had a man down on Mott Street who made him stitch-for-stitch knockoffs of Armani single-breasteds in size fifty. He was partial to banker's colors, a palette of charcoals and navies, but expressed in a range of rich fabrics. For shirts, he favored jewel-toned broadcloths in whitewashed shades of pastel. In a small concession to comfort, he dispensed with a tie and wore his collar open. Nonetheless, he looked like a man with his own Learjet, or the maître d' at a restaurant you couldn't afford.     All things considered, then, what greeted you at the door was a person of outsize presence. Even seated across from him, you had the sensation of looking up, of somehow being smaller than when you entered. As I sat and listened, though, jotting notes to myself, it occurred to me that Lathon had changed. There had always, in his manner, been an odd convergence of severity and flamboyance, a tension between the observer and performer. In the past, he'd resolved it in favor of prudence, saying less instead of more when chance allowed. Now, however, extravagance had the upper hand, and not just in his diction. In his laughter and gestures there was a kind of preening, a projecting to the back of the theater. It was as if, after years of directing, he had decided to act, or, like stars of a certain stature, to do both. And that, I suspected, was why he'd agreed to this book. It enabled him, albeit masked, to take the stage. Having scarcely said a word, then, in my first two visits, I showed up for the third with a list of questions. It was pushing nine o'clock and Lathon was just knocking off, after a grueling twelve-hour day. He saw me glance at my pad and was eager to get started himself, but wanted to refresh me, first, about "true" and "false" story. We all start out, he said, in other people's stories, a character in a narrative that predates us. From the moment of our birth, the players in that narrative are busy telling us who we are. First, there's our mother, with her lush projections, spooning out a sense of self at every feeding. Next comes the family and its drama-in-progress, in which our part is often scripted before we can talk. Then it's the church, or the school, or the community, muscling in with its demands and judgments, so that by the time we're capable of asking who we are, there are already firm opinions on the subject.     "False story begins in the first year of life, when we learn that doing `X' gets Mom's attention. It may be smiling up at her, or reaching out to grab her finger, or crying when she goes to answer the phone. We want something from her and don't have words to ask for it, and so we adopt a series of behaviors to try and get it. Soon, though, we discover that there're two kinds of attention--Mom's approval and Mom's disapproval. She likes us when we're quiet and eat all our peach sauce, and allow her to get us changed without a battle. But, oh, she's angry and withdraws her love when we wake her for the fifth night in a row, or hurl that nice, new bowl from Mikasa halfway across the kitchen from our high chair. We desperately crave the nice Mom, and hate and fear the mean one--literally see and think of them as two different people --and so we devise new strategies to woo the nice one. In so doing, we begin to learn to work the room, to play to the sensibilities of the audience--"     His phone rang, the fourth time in fifteen minutes. Reaching back for it, he dialed a code in that sent the calls to his service, then continued with his thought.     "Now, so far, no problem, because that's a skill we'll all need, particularly as we enter the world of other people. But what happens if Mom doesn't respond to our ploys? What if she's needy herself, or too young or damaged to react to out cues and give us the attention we need? Or what if Dad dearly wanted a boy, or is working two jobs and weekends besides, and can barely keep his eyes open after dinner? What if, to paraphrase Winnicott, we don't get `good enough' parenting, and have to find new ways to get attention? Become bratty and destructive, say, and do harm to Mommy's things, or withdraw and funnel the anger inward? That's when the ploy becomes false story; when, in our quest for nurture, we corrupt ourselves, and do injury to the truth of who we are."     "So then, is a false story something we tell other people," I asked, "or is it something that's instilled in us? For instance, the mother you just mentioned, whose baby threw the bowl--what if she blew up at him and yelled, `You idiot , how could you? You're a bad, bad, bad little boy'--is that how a false story gets started?"     "Well, no," he said, "not from that one episode. Understand that kids are resilient characters, and can deal with a certain amount of rough handling. But if that's her tone with him, or the one she takes when things go wrong, then, sure, it'll pollute his identity. It'll go down on the master tape in his head, and replay every time he stubs his toe--`You idiot ... you idiot ... you idiot ...'"     He had much more to say on the subject of false story, and would be doing so in the group in weeks to come. For now, though, he wanted to close with two thoughts. First, he said, the false story proceeds from old wounds, and was a strategy to avoid the pain involved. Second, the pain avoided was almost always a sense of shame, which was the most afflictive of the pains to which we're subject.     "One of the things I teach in the first few sessions," he said, "is how to divide pain up into types. There's separation and loss, i.e. the death of a loved one, or the breakup of a family in divorce. There's physical pain, and the psychic kind that goes with feeling impaired. And then there's the pain of shame and humiliation, which stems from being rejected, or, as I call it, annihilated. It's the thousand and one cruelties, both of commission and omission, that tell someone, `Sorry, not good enough to be loved.' That's the false story I'm trying to dismantle here, and for which a group can be so impactful."     As a therapist alone with a patient, he said, he had only so much leverage at hand. He could correct distortions and make suggestions, point the patient in the direction of what was healthful. What he couldn't do was bring his own story to bear--tell the patient, for instance, that he, too, had crazy parents, and this was what he did to survive them. He couldn't chide patients for wasting his time, or upbraid them for being dishonest. And he couldn't make them heed his prescriptions, because, after all, he was merely the doctor.     A group, however, could do all those things. Run properly, it was part support meeting, part truth squad. It could confront idling members (or "hinderers," as Lathon called them), and tell them to start working or get out. It could draw out the truth by volunteering its own, and disempower shame by doing likewise. And with "ruthless compassion" it could pursue painful feelings whether the sufferer wished to or hot. It was under no constraint to mind its manners, to pick its way carefully around a problem.     "You said, I think, at the last meeting, that you couldn't predict who the hinderers would be--that everyone started off on equal footing, and revealed themselves as time went by," I said. "But now I get the feeling that you do know who they are, and purposely put a couple in every group."     Lathon started slightly and raised a cup to his lips, blowing on the coffee to suppress a smile. "Why would I want to do that?"     "As an irritant. A way for you to stir the pot, and keep the others from getting too cozy."     "Well, I mean, there's no way to be sure," he said. "People do surprise you, particularly the ones you know the best. But yes, I do have some inkling beforehand. I haven't spent these years just twiddling my thumbs."     "So then you know in advance who's wasting their time here, or at least have a good idea," I prodded.     He stopped and looked at me in reassessment, a smile still blinking on pause. "Ah, but there, you see, is the surprise," he said. "Some of my biggest success stories have been hinderers. In fact, for every hinderer who walks out angry, there's another one who takes the prize, who leaves here having made the farthest leap, and become a full-fledged, sentient adult."     I thought this over a moment, more than a little skeptical.     "Well, that's nice to know," I said, "although it didn't happen in my group. Out hinderer, Barbara, almost started a riot."     He gave an amused grunt, and drank the last of his coffee. "But it did happen in your group. There were two resisters. You were the other one."     Amused by my stupefaction, he put down his cup, and peered over the rim of imaginary glasses. It was his signature gesture, a rhetorical tweak for taking up his time with nonsense.     "You don't remember?" he said. "You fought me tooth and nail on everything . I was `arrogant,' a `bully,' I charged `twice the going rate'--you even gave me hell about the soap in my bathroom. I was too `cheap' to spring for the liquid kind and forced you to use bar soap, which exposed you all to viruses and bacteria."     I laughed out loud, the details trickling back. "My God," I croaked, "was I that big a dork?"     "Oh, you made quite sure I knew you were out there," he said. "You were clinging to an outdated act from college--the pissed-off writer who was too good for us lowbrows. In short, the very model of false story. And it took us a while to get it across to you that that act wasn't playing real well here. We had to beat it into you that no one cared about your credentials. What we cared about was the guy behind the behavior, and to your credit, you finally got that. Began to fill us in on what it was like as a kid, after your father walked out and left you alone with your mother, who was too depressed and damaged to hold a job. In fact, I remember people in tears here when you talked about being a boy and lying awake listening to her cry in the next room, or how you walked around for years after your father moved out, telling yourself, 'I'm ugly, I'm stupid ... I'm ugly, I'm stupid.' Those were memorable sessions, and, as I recall, they changed the flow here. Instead of you sitting there, rocking the boat, suddenly, you were up here rowing." By now, Lathon was fading and in need of refreshment, and I prevailed upon him to grab a bite with me. We went downstairs to the jazz joint Bradley's, and took a booth away from the piano. Ordering a couple of burgers from the cataleptic waiter, we fumbled for the thread of our conversation. There was some ambling chatter about the upcoming Super Bowl, followed by a sidebar about Lathon's practice. It was a relief to both of us when I opened my notepad and proceeded with my questions about his background.     Lathon was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and raised in a gulf town in Louisiana. His father worked a shift at a tool plant serving the oil patch; his mother taught art at a junior college. As a teen, Lathon fell in love with football and Kerouac, and aspired to become the first poet to play in a Pro Bowl. However, his father, a former sergeant in the Pacific theater, insisted he join the army and carry a rifle. This was 1966, and Lathon defied him by going to college, where he badly tore a knee playing springtime football. Relieved, at least, not to be eligible for the draft, he buckled down and took a degree at Auburn, then was admitted to medical school at Clemson. It was there, as a student inclined toward pediatrics, that he made a discovery that altered his plans.     "Obviously, this was a very different time and place," he said, "and years before anyone talked about patients' rights, but what I saw really appalled and shocked me, and that was that, almost without exception, doctors didn't listen to patients, and treated with them with all the sympathy of a garage mechanic."     Appalled by a culture of "grandiose deafness," Lathon resolved to become a psychiatrist and make listening the core of his practice. He graduated from medical school in 1976, got a grant to study folk healing in India for a year, then came to New York to do his residency in child psychiatry. It was while on a subsequent fellowship at the Cornell Medical Center that he made a second rude discovery.     "I was working at a nursery downtown," he said, "studying separation issues in kids with working moms, when I learned what people like Margaret Mahler have known for a long time--that a large percentage of parents don't listen to their children. I mean, here you had these four-year-olds bursting with the news of the day--how many blocks they'd managed to stack up, and which one of their friends they'd decided to murder--and their parents were utterly indifferent to it, focused on getting the kid into his raincoat. It was heartbreaking to watch, this pathology in the making--children coming to bitter terms with themselves because no one gave a damn about their story."     When he opened his practice, then, in 1981, Lathon devoted it to the treatment of children. Eventually, he expanded it to include the parents of his patients, but continued to do postdoctoral training in child psychiatry, and began taking notes toward a book. Originally a disciple of what he calls "Freudian mythology," he found himself drifting from the transference model, in whose formal restraint he saw a certain arrogance.     "At some point, listening is as inhumane as not listening, if that's all the patient gets from you," he said. "They're in pain and need relief, as well as compassion and guidance, not your two or three interpretive couplets. The sad fact is, a lot of the people I treat are functionally unparented, and what they want more than anything is some mentoring. Remedial instruction in how to respect themselves, and make mature, sensible choices."     And so, after five years in practice, Lathon stepped out from behind the couch, becoming a "hands-on coach in competency," as he put it. He taught patients how to identify their feelings and voice them effectively to others. He gave them a practicum on how to make good decisions and to rein in harmful impulses. He asked clients to name their goals and interests and assigned tasks in pursuit of these. And he challenged patients when he found them "hugging the shoreline," unable or unwilling to go forward. What fear was keeping them stuck in place, and how credible was that fear, under inspection?     At the same time, something else was happening that would significantly affect Lathon's practice. An early believer in the link between mood disorders and malfunctions in neurochemistry, he tracked the trials of the SSRI drugs, and the reports from doctors using them abroad. Virtually the day they became available for use on these shores, Lathon offered them to his more afflicted adult patients. The results, he said, exceeded his best hopes; in some cases, patients were literally transformed.     "Particularly in people with entrenched depression, what I saw was the emergence of a soul ," he said. "They'd been trapped for years in an inorganic story, with a mood and a worldview that were alien to them. They weren't morose by nature, or morbidly shy; what they had were flawed neurotransmitters. Now, I'm aware of all tire groaning about Prozac, et cetera, and the idea that these drugs are like psychic cheating. And in one sense, the complaint has definite merit--they have been wildly overprescribed. They aren't for people with mild depression, or anxiety about taking their law boards. They aren't to be handed out by family doctors whose only knowledge of them is the foldout circular. These are powerful agents with side effects, particularly when taken together. But for someone who's suffering from chronic panic, a drug like Paxil isn't an indulgence; it's the difference between living your life out there and living it in hiding.     At long last, our burgers arrived, after a wait best described as geological. Anxious hot to embarrass myself, I cut mine in half, and poured some ketchup on the side. Lathon, on the other hand, slathered it on thick, heaping on pickles and cole slaw for good measure. Tearing at the contraption with prodigious bites, he sat there chewing with his mouth half open, the juices running down his fists. To mask my surprise, I resumed the questioning.     "In broad terms, how many of your patients ask for drugs, and how long do they typically stay on them?"     He dabbed at his chin and forehead with a napkin, sweating from the infusion of food. "It depends," he said, clearing his throat at length. "I've got patients who come for just therapy and get drugs, and patients who come for drugs and get therapy instead. As I said, there's a lot of silliness going on out there, people popping pharmaceuticals like they're antibiotics, and switching on and off at whim. But if you want my general take, here it is. For a small percentage of clients--those with chronic impairment--a serotonin drug is a long-term treatment, like insulin for a diabetic. Very simply, it makes life possible. But for a great majority--and I prescribe for about a third of the people I treat--the SSRIs are a short-term tool, something to help them out of the hole they've fallen into. Whether it's the end of a marriage or the loss of a career, there's a period of paralysis that goes with grief; a time when basic functioning is impaired. But with a short course of Zoloft, they can sort through the pain while they begin to put their life back in order. And that, to me, is the goal of good therapy: to get people better in the shortest time possible, and out living in life instead of in therapy."     This touched on a matter that caused me unease--the reduction of group to twenty sessions from its previously unfixed term. I broached my concern, and he responded with a speech that, for all its vigor, sounded canned. Our time here was short, he said, and meant to be lived with passion. Above all, it was not to be squandered in therapy, lamenting the wasted years and chances. What mattered now was not affixing blame or motives, but making the most of the time that still remained us. To that end, he'd set up a deadline for group, a ticking clock to convey how brief the days were. Since adopting the change, he'd seen marked improvement in the absentee rate, and in the level of intensity in sessions. There was a feeling of sustained purpose, a commitment among the members to put every minute to use.     He explained that he saw patients between three and six months before considering them for group. In private treatment, he established the nature of their pain and brought them through the worst of the presenting crisis. Once they were sufficiently better, he narrowed the bandwidth of treatment, focusing on a chief concern. Exploring that area closely, two themes would emerge: the arcs of true and false story. It was at this point that group became expedient therapy--when the struggle to evolve from false story to true warranted the support and pressure of one's peers.     "Again, if the aim is to get people better fast," he said, "then group can cut the process by half. What might take me two years to get across single-handedly, a group can drive home in one. Of course, it's important that you have the right people in group. Having tried the other ways of putting a group together--choosing people from the same age group or the same social class--I've found that what works best is an equivalency of mind. Choosing people at the same level of talent and intelligence, who can respect the caliber of the person sitting across from them."     "I see," I said, flipping my notepad shut, and pushing away my half-eaten burger. "And how would you rate the caliber of the people in this group?"     He sat back and smiled, his gaze straying in the direction of the piano, where the singer was about to resume his set.     "Oh please, I'm no fool," he grunted. "I've stacked the deck good. This is the smartest bunch of people I've ever assembled." There was one last piece of business to attend to, and for this, we returned to Lathon's office. Putting up his feet on a suede recliner, he gave me a primer on the group. Originally, it had consisted of three men and three women, but in the last week, one of the women had dropped out, having taken a new job that would entail travel. The resulting imbalance concerned him a bit, but he thought it would sort out all right. And given the set of circumstances--a writer in the room, preparing to make the private public--the list of alternates was short. Happily, the new member brought a rich dimension: the complexity of starting over at age sixty.     Here then, at admittedly thumbnail length, are profiles of the group's six members. Sara, thirty-seven, is the fashion editor of a glamour magazine, having risen through the ranks at Condé Nast. Tall and quite beautiful, she was a model for much of her twenties, laboring in the frenetic and largely anonymous middle rungs of the couture world in Europe. Eventually tiring of the fierce vapidity of the business, and the miracle diet of cocaine and Marlboros, she dropped out and came to New York to finish school, getting a degree from NYU. After several lean years as a freelance journalist, she bowed to necessity and took a job as an editorial assistant. There, her talent attracted notice and marked her out for stardom at the magazine.     "Sara is extremely bright, and locked-in, career-wise," said Lathon. "The twelve-hour workdays, that mix of charm and aggression--at the office, she's one of those people you wouldn't dream of saying no to. But away from there, she's very much a different person. She's depressed and withdrawn, afraid she'll never find a man, or if she does, he'll be cruel to her, like her dad was. And so what you have, really, is two Saras, or two sides of a false story. The real Sara is neither as brusque as the one at work or as defeated as the one that's moping at home. She's a bright, stunning woman who could have her pick of admirers, if we can correct some old ideas about herself."     Lathon had seen Sara, on and off, for several months. She was taking no medications as group began. * * * Rex, thirty-one, ran a risk arbitrage desk atone of the white-shoe banks on Wall Street. A month before group began, he resigned his position, citing a wish to devote more time to his family. His first child, a daughter, had been born on Thanksgiving, and he talked about staying home with her for six months. This would afford him the chance, he said, to reinvent himself, after eight-plus go-go years of acquiring wealth. He had a loft in Soho, a house in the Hamptons, and a cushion of three million in cash and stocks, if he opted out of the money chase for good.     Those, at least, were his stated reasons for quitting. The real reason, said Lathon, was that Rex had crashed and burned after an affair with an exotic dancer. Indeed, while his wife was in her ninth month of pregnancy, Rex was stalking his mistress in Chelsea, whacked on a two-day coke binge. In the course of the affair, he'd put everything he valued at risk--his health, his marriage, even his professional well-being, after a series of accounting errors at work. And though he'd pulled back from the ledge, having broken it off with the dancer and ceased his drug consumption, he was still running around with his Wall Street buddies, behaving as if the blowup were just a glitch.     "Rex is your standard golden boy--the rules simply don't apply to him," said Lathon. "He played hockey at Dartmouth, got A's without trying, and waltzed through Wharton Business School as the youngest in his class. But lurking under the glibness is an angry guy who's acting out all over the place. He grew up in one of those families that never talk about anything--the father obsessed with business and politics, the mother a veritable hive of fake cheer. For all his achievements, Rex never got their attention, much less their rightful applause. And so new he's discovered what a lot of neglected kids know--that you get more attention being a bad boy than a good one. But, of course, it's a false story, and a very dangerous one, too, if he isn't disabused of it fast. The way to get respect isn't to rub people's faces in it, but to open an effective conversation with them."     Lathon had been treating Rex for about six months. He had prescribed Zoloft for depression, but was in the process of weaning him off it. Dylan, forty-eight, was a former rock-and-roll sideman who in his twenties toured with bands like Yes and Kansas. He had an ear for melodies with pomp and sweep, and at thirty was induced to come down off the road and write theme songs for TV shows. His contact, Greg, was well established in the business, and their partnership was a fine success. The work poured in through their agent, Harold, and the three men became great friends. They were co-best men at one another's weddings, co-godfathers to one another's children, and fellow travelers at AA and rehab, going on and off the wagon more or less in lockstep. Finally, approaching forty, they sobered up for good, and bought houses for their growing families in Montclair.     And then suddenly, the year before, the earth split open. Greg, a reformed smoker who now ran five miles a day, dropped dead of an aneurysm as he sat at his desk. At forty-seven, he was a year younger than Dylan. Three months later, Harold found blood in his urine and was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Though the surgery got most of it, his prognosis was just fair, and he retired to focus on recovery. And in the third of a series of knockout blows, Dylan came home one night and was asked by his wife to move out. Her request wasn't entirely unexpected--they'd been in couples therapy since the spring--but the timing couldn't have been much worse. It was the week before Christmas, and their five-year-old twins were devastated.     "It's like he woke up in a war zone---the bombs just keep on dropping," said Lathon. "My fear with Dylan is he may be in too much pain, and overwhelm the group with his heartbreak. But if ever one of my patients needed a place to collapse, Dylan would be it, hands down. His career is a shambles, he misses his girls terribly, and he's living in a dive way over on Tenth Avenue, brooding about what he did to deserve this. I'm seeing him twice a week now, but that's mostly damage control. What this group can do better than I can is grieve with him and help make a new story out of the wreckage. Because the old story--the wife and the beautiful twin daughters, living in a dream house on two-plus acres--that story is gone forever. But when the mourning is over, there's a new story to be written. Dylan's a bright, gifted guy whose only part in all this was staying married to a woman he calls the Ice Maiden. And if we can just get him through the worst of the suffering, he'll find that there's a much better life to be made, for himself as well as his kids."     With and without his wife, Dylan had been in treatment for a year. At the moment, he was taking several medications: Effexor for depression, Ativan for anxiety, and Ambien for severe insomnia. Lina, forty-five, was the founder and director of a community mental health clinic in Morrisania. An advocate for poor children, she had hand-carried a series of programs into a particularly grim section of the Bronx. As a young case manager in the mid-seventies, she colonized an abandoned building on Southern Boulevard, converting it into a day-care center. She later raised the money to add an after-school program, hiring social workers and reading coaches and art and music teachers. Through years of state budget slashes, she'd somehow grown her clinic, such that she now presided over a staff of thirty, and again that many interns and volunteers.     Her home life, however, was another matter. She was locked into a bitter and, thus far, futile struggle to obtain a divorce from her husband of twenty years. The scion of a wealthy family, Anton was engaged in a stall, the purpose of which was to break Lina financially. As she'd learned in the course of her two-year battle, this was a ploy much in vogue with rich men these days--to inflict huge legal fees on their cash-poor wives through a series of delays and adjournments. Exhausting their funds, and faced with sizable debt, the wives often settled for pennies on the dollar merely to bring the ordeal to a close. Thus far, Lina had refused to crack, but new fault lines were sprouting every day.     "She has two kids at home, a son and daughter," Lathon explained, "and they're getting more freaked out as this drags on. The son, who's fourteen and was an honors student, is running with a real bad crowd in the park, drinking beer and cutting class, and so on. And his sister spends all of her time online, concocting some weird fantasy self in one of those chat rooms. Meanwhile, Lina has dropped thirty pounds, and is prone to bouts of sobbing at her desk. She feels tiny and powerless, thanks to her husband, Anton, who's skillfully wrecked her confidence with years of insults. And one of the things we'll look at is what kept her so long with a man who disrespected her. But first, we need to do some crisis management--relieve her of some of the pain she's in, and help her put out fires at home and work."     Lathon had been treating Lina for nine months. She was taking Serzone for depression, Buspar for anxiety, and Ambien for insomnia. Peter, thirty-eight, was a senior analyst for one of the Big Five accounting firms. He'd come in the previous spring in a deep depression, after the collapse of his three-year marriage. He was from an old Scots family that traced its roots to the tenth century, and his divorce was the first in the clan's annals. In this and other ways, he felt he'd let down his parents, whose opinion was of the highest importance to him. Owing to his shyness, he was stuck in place on the corporate ladder, despite years of ardent service to his company. He'd made very few friends since his transfer from Boston, and spent most of his evenings alone, watching a ball game. Above all, he felt invisible and weightless, locked out of the life of the city.     "You're not supposed to play favorites in this business, but Peter's someone I root very hard for," said Lathon. "He's a sweet, gentle guy who's basically been ignored by the world, and he's determined to see that attention is paid. To improve his prospects, he went to night school at Fordham and got his MBA with honors last summer. He goes into the office on Saturdays and does other people's work, so that management can't help but take notice. And though it took him some time to work up to it here, he finally felt comfortable responding to personal ads, and met a lovely woman in the process. I won't spoil the surprise now, but Peter really hit the jackpot with Kara. He'll be the envy of all the group, when they hear the details."     The upturn in his love life aside, however, Peter had much to work on. He was paralyzed by a fear of being humiliated, which kept him from pursuing a job at another firm. He lay awake worrying about what people thought of him, and kicked himself for his tongue-tied fumbling. And he was loath to make a move without consulting his mother, a matron who presided in stony silence.     "Peter's taken the first steps to becoming his own man," said Lathon. "Now what he needs is a solid push, some pressure from his peers to cut the cord. There is such a thing as being too good a son. Particularly if he plans on getting remarried."     Peter had been seeing Lathon for eleven months. He had taken Zoloft, then Serzone, for depression, but had been able to cycle off after a six-month course. Jack, fifty-nine, was a former Broadway producer with almost two dozen shows to his credit. A jut-jawed character with leading-man looks and the kind of charm that opened doors at twenty paces, he had a string of hit musicals in the seventies and eighties, enriching himself and his partner. But by the end of the decade he'd either lost his touch or was hamstrung by addictions to cocaine and alcohol, and began kiting money from his shows. The amounts in question were never substantial, and were replaced as soon as his next profit check came in. Nonetheless, these "loans to himself" were viewed by prosecutors as embezzlement. Through the good offices of his lawyer, Jack managed to avoid jail but agreed, as part of a plea deal, to cease being a producer for seven years.     "When I first started seeing him, I was in fear for his life," said Lathon. "He would hole up for months and not take calls or leave the apartment, other than to go cop drugs. His wife once raced over here in a state of panic, saying she'd found a book on how to kill yourself and make it look like an accident. It wasn't so much the loss of his career that crushed him, though he loved every facet of producing a show, and from what I gather, was brilliant at it. No, what broke his heart was the loss of his story , that tortured set of `facts' we call identity. He still hasn't recovered from it, though he's been sober for four years, and has worked very hard to get his life back. But what he's up against now is the essential question, and one I'll be putting to each of these people--who are you, beyond the job you report to, and the people you share a roof with? What signifies you, what makes you happy? At what are you most completely yourself?"     Jack had seen Lathon, on and off, for five years. He took no medications of any kind. Copyright © 1999 Paul Solotaroff. All rights reserved.