Philippa Perry: I want to show people the truth about doing therapy

Perry’s debut book Couch Fiction is being re-released after a decade. Here she talks about collaborating with her daughter Flo, and why her graphic novel demystification of psychotherapy still feels as relevant as ever.

A photo of Philippa Perry wearing bright orange glasses frames. Photo: Justine Stoddart
Photo: Justine Stoddart

Philippa Perry's new graphic novel, Couch Fiction, feels distinctly suited to 2020: the gradual acceptance of mental health as a crucial aspect of well-being over the last decade or so has culminated in a marked shift in the public perception of psychotherapy, and the current year has – for obvious reasons – been one in which many have made the decision to start seeing a therapist.

Yet, not 30 seconds into our Zoom call, the psychotherapist and acclaimed author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read is quick to point out that Couch Fiction isn’t ‘new’, exactly: “That’s a very old book! That was written in about 2008.”

Published in 2010 but newly illustrated by her daughter Flo for 2020 rerelease, Couch Fiction chronicles the evolution of the therapeutic relationship between new psychotherapy client James Smith and therapist Patricia Phillips over their year together. The entirety of the fictional story’s action unfolds in the therapy room, where James and Pat work together to get to the bottom of the psychological afflictions standing between him and a happier life.

Here, we chat with Perry about her accessible introduction to the world of therapy, why Couch Fiction had to be a graphic novel, and how therapy isn’t altogether different from hitting the gym.

'I wanted to make therapy accessible, so I wrote a book to show what it could do.'

What fuelled the decision to make this a ‘graphic tale’? Was the book always meant to be illustrated? 

Well, I have read a lot about psychotherapy, and I think there are some very good books of case studies, and text books, but I felt that there wasn’t a book that explained it without being patronising, and in a way where the information could come over more quickly than delving into a tome.

So it was about being informed and yet entertained – that’s what I wanted Couch Fiction to do. I didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh I have to read about this serious subject and it’s going to be boring’. I wanted to make therapy accessible, so I wrote a book to show what it could do.

And I love comic books anyway; I love the graphic novel format. I was reading Harvey Pekar’s biography, American Splendor, and he got different artists to illustrate his graphic biography. I thought he just got such complex ideas across in such an entertaining way, with humour, and it just hit me reading it: I’ve got to do it like that.

It seems like people are newly curious about psychotherapy and asking ‘Well, what exactly is it then?’

When I first started seeing a therapist, before I’d had training, when I just wanted to feel better, I just didn’t know what to do [in sessions]! I thought, ‘Why isn’t she saying anything? What am I supposed to do, what am I supposed to talk about?’ Nobody told me how to do it! So I wanted to actually show therapists, too, how confusing it can be at first for the client. How are you supposed to find a therapist? It’s very difficult, all that stuff. I wanted to show therapy’s imperfections, and one of the imperfections, to me, is: poor old clients, they’re not given much help in how to behave sometimes, or how to use it.

I thought: 'All my work is in private! Nobody can see what a great therapist I am! I’m going to show people how I work.’

One of the nice things about this book is how flawed Patricia is. It challenges the stereotype about psychotherapy that you go to have this ‘master of the mind’ examine you.

I didn’t want to idealise therapy in this book; I showed an imperfect therapist, because the person I’ve got the most experience of observing at work is myself, and I’m an ordinary, imperfect psychotherapist. The character of Pat is based on me and my usual faults, and how I miss the client and get things wrong ­– the usual mistakes I make. I wanted to show that therapy doesn’t have to be perfect to work well enough, and I hope I showed that.

Your career has changed considerably since you first wrote this in 2008, and published it in 2010. When you returned to Couch Fiction, were you surprised by what you found?

What I’ve been surprised by is what an amazing calling card that book was, for me, when it first came out. It was on the back of that book that I got a column in Psychologies magazine, and from that I became Red’s agony aunt, and those jobs were fantastic for me. I’ve now done radio and television work, and it’s because I managed to get that book published in the first place. It didn’t sell well, though. Hopefully it can get to a wider audience [this time] – I’m excited about more people reading it, discovering what psychotherapy can do, what it may be.

'[Therapy] is not that easy; it’s a process you have to engage in and work very hard at.'

What would you say is the biggest misconception about psychotherapy?

I think people think it’s like medicine that you rub in – you can ‘have some therapy’ like you ‘have some medicine’, or hand cream to make your hands stop feeling dry. But it’s not that easy; it’s a process you have to engage in and work very hard at. It’s also not really ‘doer’ and ‘done to’; therapist and client are in it together, rather than one person bashing the other one into shape. It doesn’t work that way – it’s what Pat sometimes tries to do in the book, and it doesn’t work at all. You have to work together.

It can be a bit like working out, physically. Sometimes it’s painful in the moment, and it can take a long time to see results, and if you half-ass it, the results won’t be quite the same.

And just like you don’t build a huge muscle up after one gym session, you don’t get your brain rewired in one session of therapy. James's story is sort of set over a year, but that’s a bit idealised, a bit more linear because I wanted to show the process of psychotherapy. Although Couch Fiction can be read as a story, as a graphic novel, for me the purpose was to demonstrate therapy, both for trainees and for potential clients alike.

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