Reading Scott Fitzgerald: Literature and the psychology of narcissism

Marzillier, J., 1997. Reading Scott Fitzgerald: Literature and the psychology of narcissism. Reformulation, ACAT News Winter, p.x.

Reading Scott Fitzgerald: Literature and the psychology of narcissism

John Marzillier

Her naivete responded wholeheartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality from the world's bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods, and had been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.

In Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender is the Night, Rosemary Hoyt, a young and beautiful actress, is taken up by a group of rich, glamorous Americans living on the Riviera in the 1920s. The centre of the group is the young couple, Dick and Nicole Diver. Through Rosemary's eyes Fitzgerald conveys the sense of specialness that surrounds the Divers and their social group; but, as is evident from the above quotation, there is more to the Divers than Rosemary is aware of. A "desperate bargain" has been struck and as the novel unfolds we learn what this bargain is and sec how it affects the various protagonists.

Why, apart from wanting a good read, should a psychotherapist turn to a novel by Scott Fitzgerald? What value can fiction have to an enterprise which is portrayed as the application of scientific knowledge to clinical problems? The founding father of psychoanalysis saw himself first and foremost as a scientist, even if his case histories have all the qualities of a good story. Yet while I strongly support the value of science to psychotherapy, I do not believe that science is the only source of important truths. There are many sources of knowledge. The philosopher Polyani directed our attention to the importance of tacit knowledge. In contrast to the objective, rational, ordered, public world of scientific experiment, some knowledge is directly experienced, empathic, holistic, non-rational and personal. Psychotherapists surely should know this better than anyone.

There is a long tradition within psychoanalytic circles of linking psychological and literary ideas. Some of the key concepts in psychoanalysis came directly out of the world of literature, notably Greek mythology - the myths of Narcissus and Oedipus, for example. Novels can contain powerful psychological insights. For example, Neville Symington has recently proposed some new ideas on narcissism, using Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" to illustrate how narcissistic relationships can sometimes be destructive, as in the case of Anna and Vronsky, or at other times reparative as in the case of Kitty and Levin (Symington, 1993). The best writers need to be good psychologists in the sense of having an empathic understanding of people and the myths or illusions that drive them. In good fiction characters and situations come alive and we become absorbed in their lives as though they were real people in real situations. Fundamental issues are portrayed - love, tragedy, happiness, family life, death, poverty. This wealth of psychological understanding should not be ignored because it is fiction; psychotherapists on the contrary would be wiser to study fiction for the truths that it reveals about real people.

A clinical example

My interest in self psychology in general and narcissism in particular is in part related to a young man whom I saw for a year's psychodynamic psychotherapy. "Matthew" had a constellation of problems including depression, panic attacks, derealisation, depersonalisation, and an addiction to fait machines. In the referral letter to the psychotherapy department there was also mention of doubts about his sexual identity and difficulty separating from his family. He was the youngest child of a middle-class family, with a father described as strict and authoritarian and a mother who appeared to be concerned but overprotective. Matthew had been expelled from his first school, had become a model pupil at his next and was seen as very bright and talented. But in his upper school he had got into conflict with his teachers, had fallen in with a rough crowd and had eventually left with very little in the way of qualifications. When I first saw him he was unemployed, having had only temporary or voluntary jobs, and was living in a house his mother had bought for him. He had few friends, no prospect of a job and his life seemed empty and unfulfilled.

Matthew regarded psychotherapy as a waste of time - 'just talking' he said skeptically. Yet he attended all our sessions without fail and was always on time. His manner was a mixture of being lively, charming and flirtatious on the one hand and moody and brooding ' oiq the other. He dropped hints about 'dark secrets' and experiences that had been deeply painful. But he would not say more. He struggled hard in his relationships with his family and with his friends but resisted struggling hard in therapy. At one point he told me that he could only come to therapy if he saw me as a brick wall' not as a real person. At another he said that the problem with psychotherapy was that he regarded himself as the best psychotherapist so how could anyone else help him? Yet he manifestly could not help himself.

A year's psychotherapy made only a very small dent in Matthew's armour and at the end I wondered about what I might have done differently. I was struck in particular by Matthew's description of himself He said that he was a 'fallen angel' and in this insight he encapsulated something of importance: on the one hand, he saw himself as brilliant - an undiscovered genius, indeed almost a god; on the other, he was contemptible and evil - like Lucifer, he had sinned and had fallen from grace. I now recognise this as a central narcissistic configuration in which fantasies of superiority and omnipotence sit side by side with destructive contempt of oneself and others. At the heart lies an unbearable emptiness. In Tender is the Night Fitzgerald has Dick Diver say, ostensibly about actors but also about himself: "The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing... Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged. "

Narcissism and the Self

Self psychology is a development in psychoanalytic thought in which the formation of a cohesive and solid sense of self is a central component of the developmental process. Kohut (1977), whose name is most closely associated with this line of thought, recognised that narcissism need not always be a pathological process as some of the earlier theories had suggested. He proposed twin developmental pathways in which the primary narcissism of the infant can be transformed into either a healthy or a pathological state. The key is the receptivity of the environment and, in particular, the parental response. Under conditions of what he termed "optimal frustration" - a combination of admiration, empathic understanding and firmness - the child's narcissistic experiences are transformed into a cohesive and solid sense of self which can effectively regulate tension, increase self-esteem and aid the pursuit of ambitions and ideals in a healthy way. He termed this a state of healthy narcissism and saw it as the source of creativity, humour, wisdom and productive work. A significant developmental process is the individual's increasing capacity to relinquish selfobjects - Kohut's term for the way others are always experienced as part of oneself - and make an effective separation between self and others. Pathological narcissism occurs when selfobjects are not relinquished but retained intact so that grandiosity and idealisation persist and relationships with others reflect these states. Kohut suggested that pathological narcissism results from failures in empathic understanding and/or traumatic disappointments. Many of the psychological problems that are presented to psychotherapists can at heart be seen as due to disturbances in narcissism. It is possible to see Matthew's problems in those terms.

Kohut's theory is of course more complex than is presented here. His ideas were elaborated over a lengthy period and underwent several revisions as he sought to escape the bounds of Freudian conflict theory. Two features are of particular relevance: firstly, the recognition that narcissism is a state of normal development (and, Kohut would argue, the central source of developmental change), and secondly, the goal of development is described in terms of the formation of a sense of self. In his later formulation, the self was seen in structural terms as a supraordinate organisation over and above the ego in a way that is not very dissimilar from the Jungian archetypal notion. Thus, self psychology is very much a theory about how the self is formed in which the transformation of narcissistic experience is the central process.

Following Kohut, I suggest that a basic driving force in individual development arises out of the forced relinquishing of primary narcissism as a result of contact with what Kernberg once called "the intolerable reality of the interpersonal world". This is not a new idea. It is contained in the Jungian notion of individuation; it can also be seen in the writings of Otto Rank (1941). A key process in this is the need to preserve and promote illusions about the self so that the narcissistic state of mind is retained and reinforced. Kohut called this the retention of selfobjects. If narcissism is not transformed by interaction with the world, and if a sense of a cohesive and solid self is not developed, then an ever more desperate search after narcissistic gratification occurs. A highly graphical account is seen in Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose psychological meaning I have commented upon elsewhere (Marzillier, 1990). Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night also illustrates, in a less dramatic and less dark manner, the failure of what I call the narcissistic quest. I now turn to an analysis of Fitzgerald's story.

Tender is the Night

This is perhaps the best, certainly the most satisfying, of Fitzgerald's novels. The central character is a psychiatrist, Dick Diver, working at the time of "the great Freud" as Dick describes him (from the time of the First World War through the 1920s). Moreover, Dick is married to a former patient, Nicole, who, it emerges, has had a sexual relationship with her father. It is interesting to read how Fitzgerald uses the psychological ideas extant in the 1920s in the writing of his novel - transference, for example, is directly referred to in the feelings that Nicole has for Dick, the handsome doctor, when she first sees him at the clinic. Also of interest, to some at least, is the parallel between the story in the book and the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Thus Scott's alcoholism and Zelda's psychological break-down are mirrored in the story of the Divers (Berman, 1985).

The novel is in three parts or Books. The first introduces the reader to a small, exclusive group 'of rich and sociable Americans on the shores of the Mediterranean. They are seen through the eyes of an 18 year-old starlet, Rosemary Hoyt, who is on vacation with her mother. Rosemary immediately falls in love with Dick Diver, the charming central character in the group, and is taken up into his and his wife Nicole's magic circle of friends and acquaintances.

Rosemary's relationship to the Divers, Dick in particular, is the central theme of Book 1. Dick at first treats her 'love' for him lightly and refuses her dramatic offer of her body. But then he fmds that he has fallen in love with her and he is thrown off balance, the careful balance he has set up for himself. Book 1 ends when Rosemary (and the reader) discovers Nicole's secret, finding her acting in a deranged manner in a hotel bathroom.

Book 2 is about Dick in his early years, first poised at the age of 26, in "the very acme of bachelorhood", on the shores of Europe, about to make his name as a bright young psychiatrist. He returns to the Swiss clinic where Nicole had first seen him and is encouraged by Franz, his friend and colleague, to help her work through the transference that she has developed to him. He is also told about her seduction by her father. He becomes attracted to her and, when he acknowledges this to the head of the clinic, it is decided it is best for him to leave. However, he meets Nicole again on a trip to the mountains when she is much recovered and they kiss and thus step over the doctor-patient boundary. Despite opposition from Nicole's older sister, Baby, they marry. Nicole comes from a very rich, distinguished upper class family, so Dick becomes very wealthy although he struggles to maintain some vestiges of his financial independence.

The central theme of Book 2 is the relationship between Dick and Nicole. Nicole has recurrent breakdowns - only briefly alluded to in the book. They have two children. They travel. Dick sporadically and ineffectually tries to write. The problems in their relationship become apparent. There is a horrifying episode where Nicole causes the car in which she, Dick and the children are travelling, to crash by wrenching away the wheel. Dick begins drinking. Dick goes off on his own for a while and meets Rosemary again, now 'grown up', and their affaire is consummated in a sexual union. But the balance of power has shifted between them and this section ends with Dick in Rome, getting horribly drunk, fighting with a taxi-driver, punching a policeman and being held in jail. Quite a contrast from the cool, poised and clever man we first met on the Riviera.

In the final section of the novel we see Dick's decline - his continued and increased drinking, his departure from the clinic and, most significantly, the break up of his relationship with Nicole. In fact,

Nicole leaves him for another man and we then lose sight of Dick as he leaves Europe and returns to America, drifting into obscure jobs and relationships in various small towns.

Illusions about the self

I want to use the story of Dick Diver as a means of illustrating some psychological themes which may be summarised as 'the search for self. Dick's story is one of promise unfulfilled, of grand ideals and aspirations that give way to a sad and mundane reality. This is a common theme both in literature and in life. What makes this story interesting is in part the brilliance of Fitzgerald's writing - the characters, events and places all shimmer with life - but in particular the psychological insights that inform and drive the story. Fitzgerald reached those insights intuitively and ultimately they are best appreciated in their original form by reading the novel. My analysis is designed to illuminate and clarify psychological ideas, using the novel, and to make links with our own understanding and practice.

We are first introduced to Dick through the eyes of Rosemary, the young starlet. She sees Dick and his group of friends on the beach and recognises something special, magical, about him and them. There are two distinct groups on the beach - Dick's, and another group around Albert McKisco, a would-be successful writer. This emphasis on difference is not accidental. Just as a sense of self is dependent on creating a boundary with a sense of other, so a sense of specialness requires others to be deemed ordinary. Rosemary's 'falling in love' is very like the transference-love that Nicole experienced for Dick in the clinic, i.e. it is an illusion, fostered by the charm, attentiveness and specialness of Dick:

He seemed kind and charming - his voice promised that he would take care of her, and that a little later he would open up whole new worlds for her, unroll an endless succession of magnificent possibilities

At this point Dick's relationship to Rosemary is mostly parental. The incestuous, parent-child motif runs through the book. Dick takes Rosemary under his wing and allows her to join in the illusion of his specialness. Fitzgerald understands well that this is a powerful and attractive illusion:

But to be included in Dick Diver's world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.

The creation of the illusion of specialness is of course an integral part of narcissism. Dick and Nicole want to be special and in one sense they are - rich, charming, beautiful people - the envy of others, notably the McKisco group. Rosemary too is special. She has just starred in a successful film - significantly labelled Daddy's Girl' - and is recognised as the star in the making. But, unlike Dick, Rosemary is not taken over by the illusion of specialness and this is due to the good sense and influence of her mother who has "made her hard - by not sparing her own labor and devotion she had cultivated an idealism in Rosemary, which at present was directed toward herself and saw the world through her eyes. So that while Rosemary was a "simple" child she was protected by a double sheath of her mother's armor and her own... "

Although Rosemary's chosen profession - film star - is totally bound up with creating illusions, she knows that it is a job of work. Thus she recounts how she dived many times into pool for a shot despite being ill and got pneumonia. Rosemary, the actress and star in the making, is committed to her career and her 'love' for Dick is simply the infatuation of a teenager. Significantly, Rosemary's mother encourages her in her feelings for Dick, recognising it as a necessary experience on her way through life, i.e. that it is an illusion that can be lived through but ultimately relinquished.

Stephen Mitchell (1988) wrote of the importance of illusion; there is a psychological value in the capacity to create illusions and to play. But he also stressed the need to know that they are illusions and to avoid conflating reality with illusion. While Rosemary can do this, Dick cannot. For him the illusions are his reality - the wealth, the glamour, the specialness. Why might this be the case? Psychological theories of narcissism would suggest that the sustaining of narcissistic illusions - archaic grandiosity and idealisation in Kohut's terms - occurs because of empathic failure. There is an assumption that such narcissism needs to be tempered by optimal frustration in the context of empathic and loving relationships (normally that of parents). If that fails to occur, or occurs in a partial way only, then a cohesive sense of self is not established. There is an inner emptiness and shame which is then defended against even more strongly by narcissistic beliefs and behaviour. For some people the illusion of specialness has a defensive function for it hides an underlying sense of emptiness. That is why it becomes impossible to separate illusion from reality and why the pursuit of illusion is so persistent.

The vulnerability of narcissistic illusions

Let me now turn to Dick, the psychiatrist, making his way in the world (the opening of Book 2). At a superficial level Dick is very successful. He has been a Rhodes scholar. At the age of 26 he has written a book - Psychology for Psychiatrists. He is popular, charming and well liked. The world is at his feet. But there is a sense in which his success is not properly integrated into his view of himself. He describes himself as "Lucky Dick, you big stiff' - we can note the sexual imagery - and an arrogant grandiosity sits side by side with a lurking self-doubt. This sense of grandiosity is wonderfully captured in Fitzgerald's description of Dick in Vienna:

At the beginning of 1917, when it was becoming difficult to find coal, Dick burned for fuel almost a hundred textbooks that he had accumulated; but only as he laid each one on the fire, with an assurance chuckling inside him that he was himself a digest of what was within the book, that he could brief it five years from now, if it deserved to be briefed. This went on at any odd hour, if necessary, with a floor rug over his shoulders, with the fine quiet of the scholar, which is nearest of all things to heavenly peace - but which, as will presently be told, had to end.

This image of the scholar burning books because he is too clever to need them is striking in its evocation of grandiosity. The sense that it is all there contained within oneself and that external wisdom can be got rid of, burned, is a powerful image, presaging another, more horrifying form of book burning which was about to appear in Europe.

This passage is shortly followed by a different reflection by Dick on himself:

And Lucky Dick can't be one of those clever men; he must be less intact, even faintly destroyed. If life won't do it for him it's not a substitute to get a disease, or a broken heart, or an inferiority complex, though it'd be nice to build out some broken side till it was better than the original structure.

This 'broken side' turns out to be Nicole, the damaged psychiatric patient. Although Dick is apparently very successful and on the brink of further possible success, there is something lacking, an awareness of the full reality of himself. In psychological terms Dick can be seen to be denying the reality of his own 'broken side, his Shadow, in order to foster the illusion of specialness. He projects it elsewhere - into Nicole in particular.

Dick's involvement with Nicole, and his eventual marriage to her, reveals a great deal about the arrogance and the vulnerability of narcissistic illusions. Before returning to the clinic he had received some 50 letters from Nicole and, in a light way, replied to some of them. He falls in with his colleague Franz's, suggestion that he should help the patient by cultivating the transference. He is attracted to Nicole by her beauty and her vulnerability (and perhaps too by her being an American in Europe like him). But when this becomes obvious and Franz warns him about it, Dick says that he has only one plan "and that's to be a good psychologist - maybe the greatest one that ever lived". At this point Dick has the chance to regain the ground he has lost and "work through the transference" or turn his attention elsewhere. But instead he allows the relationship to develop as though he had no capacity to do otherwise. "By no conscious volition the thing had drifted into his hands", the "thing" being Nicole's falling in love with him. At an, unconscious level we might presume that Dick wants her love for him to flourish since it sustains his own narcissistic illusions of self-worth. He says casually to Dr Dohmler, the head of the clinic: "I'm half in love with her - the question of marrying her has passed through my mind", as if his mind were merely a passive object, a recipient of passing thoughts and fancies.

Dick is very vulnerable to the influence of others, particularly where there is some attraction or challenge to his sense of specialness. He admits: "I got to be a psychiatrist because there was a girl at St. Hilda's at Oxford that went to the same lectures." This is "lucky Dick" again, someone who has a sense of his own specialness, which does not require any conscious volition, but in fact is very much influenced by the actions of others.

Dick is in fact seduced by Nicole and there is a close parallel to the original sexual seduction of Nicole by her father. After the death of her mother, Nicole crept into her father's bed and it is Nicole who challenges Dick's resistance on the terrace of the hotel, resulting in their fateful embrace. Both men - the father and the doctor - fail to take charge and resist the seduction.

"The narcissistic illusion paradoxically often prevents the person from achieving their apparently cherished goals just as Dick never becomes the great psychologist. It is not really a paradox of course for an illusion must be sustained as contact with reality will threaten it. So defensive structures are invoked in order to sustain the sense of specialness, of grandiosity and entitlement. Dick's marrying Nicole can be seen as a defensive structure acted out in a dramatic way. For in marrying Nicole, Dick has placed his broken side' elsewhere, outside of himself, and so he can see it as not part of himself but a part to be looked after in someone else (a form of projective identification).

Dick remains Nicole's doctor, constantly watching over her, checking to ensure she does not break down again and being there to help her when she does. In this way he is always in control; he retains what Fitzgerald revealingly calls "his self-protective professional detachment". This also means that he has a vested interest in Nicole remaining vulnerable, or broken down, for it sustains his narcissistic sense of self: Dick needs Nicole to be in love with him, to be dependent on him, but he cannot afford to let himself really love her, at least not in the sense of losing control of

himself, losing his carefully cultivated professional detachment. When Dick does fall in love - with Rosemary - it is noticeable that he loses all his sense of poise. It also signifies the beginning of his decline.

The search for self

The attractiveness of Dick Diver, and the power of the novel, is that Dick's struggles are struggles that all of us undergo. When, at the outset of the novel, Fitzgerald refers to the 'desperate bargain with the gods', we could take this simply as referring to Dick's marrying Nicole and his need for constant vigilance because of her madness. Rosemary cannot guess at this since she is taken up into the illusion of specialness that seems to possess the Divers as though of right. But beneath it all lurks something wild, something mad. If, taking a psychological perspective, we see Nicole as a projection of Dick's own self, the part that cannot be acknowledged as part of himself, the broken down' side, the aspects of self that point to emptiness and despair, then the psychological message of the novel can be seen as the failure of the narcissistic quest. The illusions of specialness, difference, entitlement - embodied in wealth, class distinctions, Riviera beaches, glamour and beauty - are unsustainable unless there is some acknowledgment of the darker side of life and of the self. In the relationship between Dick and Nicole Diver, Fitzgerald brilliantly describes the way people use others to sustain their own narcissistic illusions. The shimmering, brilliant, magical world of the Divers disintegrates as the illusions give way to shocking effects of harsh reality.

Fitzgerald's story contains significant psychological truths which is what helps to make it such a consuming and attractive novel. I have concentrated on one aspect: the way narcissistic illusions come to be taken as reality to the eventual destruction of the individual's capacity to relate to the world in any effective way. Such a process seemed also to be operating in Matthew who was unable to relinquish his grandiose sense of self and relate to the world around him because it would mean acknowledging the shameful parts of himself. It also helps me understand the difficulties he had in making use of the psychotherapy that I offered for to do so would be to give up his illusions and confront a state of inner emptiness and despair. The "gateway to nothing" did indeed have the strongest guard.


Berman, J. (1985) The Talking Cure. Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis. New York University Press, New York.

Fitzgerald, F.S. (1934/1986) Tender is the Night. First edition with further emendations. Penguin Books.

Kohut, H. (1977) The Restoration of the Self. International Universities Press, New York.

Marzillier, J. S. (1990) The Picture of Dorian Gray: The narcissistic quest for immortality. Changes. 8, 162-172

Mitchell, S. A (1988) Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis. An integration. Harvard Universities Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Rank, 0. (1941) Beyond Psychology. Dover Publications, New York.

Symington, N. (1993) Narcissism. A New Theory. Kamac Books, London.

This paper was delivered at the Third ACAT Conference, February 1995

John Marzillier

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