John Marzillier discusses the origins of his highly acclaimed book, ‘The Gossamer Thread’

The Gossamer Thread: My Life as a Psychotherapist


Years ago I started writing a novel in which a recently retired psychoanalyst is interviewed by a young post-graduate psychologist about his life and experiences. I wrote 25,000 words before I realised that I was writing about my own experiences. This then morphed into my memoir.

It is not easy for a psychotherapist, even one no longer practises, to write about what happens in the consulting room. Confidentiality is an issue. Yet from Freud onwards therapists have written case histories, sometimes disguised, sometimes not. There is a value in describing what actually happens in therapy as there is always a gap between theory and practice. Following the ups and downs of a therapy is of great interest not just to those working in the field, but also to anyone who is interested in people’s lives. Therefore, I resolved to write about a few of the fascinating and challenging people I met in almost 40 years of professional practice and write it in such a way that anyone could read it.

You do not need to know any psychology or psychotherapy to appreciate my book. As I explained in the Preface I resolved the confidentiality issue by changing the biographies of the patients. I always started with a real example and always kept to the truth about what their problems were, what I did in therapy and what the outcome was. I then fictionalised. As I put it in my book, “The events I described happened but not necessarily in the way they are portrayed in the book.”

My memoir is also about me, how I changed from a brash, young behaviour therapist, believing in rationality and science, through various transformations to a reflective, psychodynamic therapist with an interest in narrative. I do not know of any other therapist’s memoir that shows such a journey. I know that readers have welcomed my openness and honesty, my willingness to show my mistakes, my failures as well as successes, my laid back, humorous style. I am pleased about that because sometimes psychotherapists take themselves too seriously. This is not to say that therapy is not a serious matter. I saw many people who were in deep distress. In my book I describe one patient who overdosed and cut her wrists, phoning me to tell me about it, and another who committed suicide. Lives can be fraught. But they can also be astonishing. I shall never forget the chronic agoraphobic, chain-smoking, rasping-voiced Mrs Hewittson on the Dog Kennel Hill estate in Peckham who fled to the Isle of Wight to escape my attentions.

'The Gossamer Thread', short-listed for the MIND Book of the Year Award

‘The Gossamer Thread’, short-listed for the MIND Book of the Year Award

One reason I had for writing this memoir was to show the importance of the therapeutic relationship, the gossamer thread of the title. There is altogether too much made of therapeutic techniques these days, whether it is a psychodynamic interpretation, a systemic intervention or a cognitive behavioural method. Long ago the psychotherapist Jerome Frank made the point that the non-specific aspects of therapy outweigh the specifics, the authority of the therapist, the hopes of the patient, the rituals of the therapy, the place of safety and, above all, the relationship between therapist and patient. I hope that those reading my book will see and understand that therapy is at heart a personal endeavour and that the personal qualities of the two man players, therapist and patient, matter most.

I am no longer practise as a psychotherapist. But I continue to read and write about psychotherapy. I am still committed to psychology as a valuable and increasingly relevant discipline. Nowadays my work is writing. The project I have most recently been working on is a book about the psychological consequences of major trauma, To Hell and Back: Personal Experiences of Trauma and How We Recover and Move On. It is being written around the stories that trauma survivors have told me, people who have been in serious rail or road accidents, those who have been assaulted or raped, some of the survivors of the 2005 London bombings, and those whose work puts them in harm’s way such as police officers, combat veterans and war journalists. I interweave their stories into my own analysis of what we know about the psychology of trauma, drawing upon the latest psychological theories and research. Like my memoir I am writing the book for a general readership, people who may have come across major traumas either themselves or through friends and family. There are many more of these than one might think. As many 70-80% of people will experience a major trauma in their lifetime. About half of us will experience more than one. This is over and above expected losses and bereavements. What caught my interest and led to this book is the way an event, sudden, frightening, unexpected, unwanted, can derail a person’s life so that nothing is quite the same again. In my work as a psychologist I saw how lives were completely transformed by a trauma and that how sometimes this led people to do things they would never have done. We see this is in very public traumas like the murder of Stephen Lawrence that propelled Mrs Lawrence into a major role in seeking to counter racism in our society. You will find details of me and my book on my website,

John Marzillier

Marzillier, John; The Gossamer Thread: My Life as a Psychotherapist, Karnac Books (2010)


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