Tickling Our Minds: How Adam Phillips Changes Our Thinking

Adam Phillips Jillian Edelstein/Camera Press

If you look out of the third-floor window of the book-cluttered flat in Notting Hill Gate where Adam Phillips holds consultations with his patients, and does much of his writing, you’ll see a shop front for a sexy lingerie store, branded Strip.

Whatever this is—A command? An invitation? A threat?—it’s strangely apt. Visit Phillips, or read his books, and you soon find the human condition laid bare in the most seductive way. However well defended you might be on going in, you will probably come out feeing naked, but also exhilarated.

The 58-year-old man who sits opposite me in a small wooden chair by the window has sometimes, in younger days, had an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan. Today, it must be said, he is aging rather better than the author of “Tangled Up in Blue.” Phillips resists the title of literary shrink. In the U.K., where he lives and works, his reputation lies somewhere between a cult and a well-kept secret, a brilliantly articulate psychotherapist who (like Freud) uses his gifts as a writer to provoke our interest in the subtle mysteries of psychoanalysis.

He is instinctively discreet. Today, when we meet, Phillips answers my questions by looking away, scarcely meeting my gaze, perhaps because he understands that (if I did not know him better) I might become disconcerted by the awkwardness of his wandering right eye, a childhood trait. He is dressed like a graduate student in dark corduroy trousers, loafers, and a warm brown shirt. In some moods, he could seem like an inhabitant of Middle Earth; you might also mistake him for a professor, a poet, or even a wise man.

Phillips has been conducting the exploration of our unconscious desires for 20 years. He first came to prominence in 1993 with the publication of an essay collection entitled On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Since then he has continued his routine of writing one day and seeing patients the other four days, has published some 20 books, including On Flirtation, Monogamy, and Going Sane, and become both vanishingly elusive, but also discreetly celebrated.

His latest book, Missing Out, subtitled In Praise of the Unlived Life, will appear in the U.S. in February. Ostensibly, its subject is frustration (wishes unfulfilled, roads untaken, and desires sacrificed), but that’s only the top line of his concerns. Another way to look at what’s ­really going on in its pages is to consider Phillips’s own career. The record suggests he’s someone who has been inordinately talented in spotting his luck, or, in not missing out when it mattered.

Phillips was born in 1954, the son of second-generation British Jews of ambiguous Polish extraction. “There was a family joke,” he tells me, “that they came from Omsk,” a place that was sometimes Polish and sometimes Russian, depending on the flux of history. When his paternal Pincus-Levy grandparents landed in Wales, they were given the Welsh name of Phillips and settled in Swansea, later moving to Cardiff.

These grandparents, he says, were “typical Jewish émigrés. Moderately observant Jews, poor but lower-middle-class poor. My father’s father was a tailor and a traveling salesman.” Phillips’s own father, the eldest of three, was “the special one” who went to the local grammar school and won a scholarship to Oxford before the outbreak of World War II, a remarkable achievement.

OM02-McCrum-Adam-Phillips-second London tailors similar to where Phillips worked. Lee Tracey, Hulton Archive/Getty

Both these generations of Phillipses adapted quickly and with relish. His grandfather fought with the British Army in the Great War and was awarded a Military Cross. In the Second World War, his father served in a tank regiment in North Africa and also won a medal. He “hugely enjoyed” the experience, according to his son: “for the first time, he could encounter the kind of upper-class Englishmen he had not been able to meet before.”

Whatever else they were, the Phillipses were Anglophiles. His family had a strong commitment to the country, were eager to assimilate, and wanted their children to be English. Phillips paints an affecting picture of a close-knit extended family, sharing holidays, experiencing inevitable tensions, navigating the transition from émigré outsiders to respected members of the Cardiff community. There was no childhood trauma. “No one went mad,” he says, “no one fell fatally ill, no one got divorced.” He concedes, almost sheepishly, that his was a happy childhood.

At school, Clifton College, being taught English, Phillips had what he describes as “a conversion experience. English literature became the one passion of my adolescence,” he confides. He read everything: D.H. Lawrence, the metaphysical poets, Donne, Pope, Conrad, Blake, the Romantics—“the official canon we all grew up with.” There was, apparently, no teenage rebellion. Phillips says he loved being away from home and “really adored” boarding at Clifton College, a minor public school. So where did the psychoanalysis come from? Far from missing out, he had the experience of a vocation.

“I can remember being in Bristol—aged 16 or 17,” he says, “and I bought a copy of Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections. I read this, and I thought, this is the life I want.” The clincher came when he was at Oxford, with first reading D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality on publication. “I remember feeling an affinity. Then I knew that this was what I wanted to be.”

OM02-McCrum-Adam-Phillips-third Clifton College, where Phillips studied. Associated Newspapers, Rex/Rex USA

And so he was. Phillips trained as a child psychotherapist at the Institute of Child Psychology under Masud Khan, a basically Freudian course of instruction. “Khan was wonderful for me,” he recalls. “Amazingly attentive, and very sympathetic. I found I really wanted to talk to him. He taught me that analysis could be fun, as well as profoundly interesting. ”

Why children? “What was the special appeal?” he muses. “I really don’t know. I do like children. I thought it would be interesting to start with children, going to the source, as it were. I thought that would be more fun”—that word again. “Also, I was still very enamored with Winnicott.”

Why write? He says he has never, consciously, had any ambition to be a writer. “I wanted to be a reader—I loved reading—and a child psychotherapist.” Timing is everything. He had started analysis at the end of a period, the 1960s and ’70s, dominated 
by R.D. Laing, when psychoanalysis was prestigious. Inevitably, there was a backlash. Laing became discredited. By the mid-1980s, psychoanalytic writing had become academic and turgid. So there was a vacancy.

It was at this juncture that fate stepped in, disguised as Frank Kermode, the editor of the Fontana Modern Masters, an influential series of short lives. Kermode, a distinguished scholar of English literature, invited Phillips to write a short book on Winnicott. The book did well. Commissions for essays followed. Phillips wrote “On Tickling” for the Nouvelle Revue de Psychoanalyse. He was hooked. “Once I started writing, I never stopped,” he says.

On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored was very well received. There was an appetite for Phillips’s ironic detachment and provocative paradoxes. He was taken up by the pragmatic English as a servant of the dark arts who could somehow translate the mysteries of analysis into brilliant, readable, and seductive prose.

What do his patients think? He pauses. “I don’t write about the people I see. There’s no loss of confidentiality. And yet—” Another hesitation. “Analysis is private,” he concedes. When he appears in some public guise, something has inevitably been compromised in the eyes of his patients. It’s a tricky subject, to which the obvious answer is that now, at least, everyone knows the terms of the deal. From time to time, Phillips will be out there publishing one of his books. I sense that he polices this side of his life carefully.

Briefly, in the early days, he lost control, and things went a bit haywire. In 1996 he published a little paperback of squibs entitled Monogamy, which, as he puts it, got some “very ambivalent publicity.” Phillips has always written quickly. A few short paragraphs for a newspaper article turned into some 120 paragraphs for a book about commitment and fidelity. Monogamy appeared on the cover of GQ. Many of the reviews were hostile. He was in danger of becoming the thing he despised, a media shrink. Monogamy, he says carefully, “took me into a realm I didn’t want to be in.”

Since then, he has taken control of his literary fate. He has always loved ­essayists—Hazlitt, Lamb, and Emerson are household gods—and now he embraced the genre with gusto. Many of his recent ­titles—Darwin’s Worms, The Beast in the Nursery, Houdini’s Box, Side Effects—have been collections of pieces. “I prefer essays to books,” he says, making a comparison between novels and short stories, and admitting to the influence of Christopher Isherwood and E.M. Forster.

Phillips’s work can sometimes seem frustrating. I put it to him that, having enjoyed a book like Missing Out, page by page, one might find it tantalizingly hard to summarize its message. It’s as though he wants it to mirror the ambiguities of the psychoanalytic session. Phillips is unfazed by this line of commentary. “I would like the experience of the read,” he says, “to be pleasurable, but not for someone to be able to say: ‘Phillips’s ideas are X, Y, and Z.’ When you read my books, you can have your own thoughts.” Slightly conscious of sounding grandiose, he adds, “I’m more interested in sentences than ideas. I don’t like theories.”

Missing Out is characteristic of Phillips at his best. It dazzles with epigrammatic lines (“The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?”) and affects to disdain theory. Actually, it’s quite polemical and is keen to recycle the idea of frustration as “a good thing.”

OM02-McCrum-Adam-Phillips-fourth Carl Jung (L), who inspired Phillips, and Masud Khan (R), who trained Phillips. Hulton Archive/Getty; Rag Birkett,Keystone/Hulton/Getty

Now that Missing Out is about to be published, he cannot evade his next commission: a biography of Freud for the Yale series “Great Jewish Lives.” Phillips’s life of the man who invented psychoanalysis will be short, “verging on the novelistic,” but he believes the time is ripe. “Freud’s now just a hero from a former age,” he says, “and people are no longer as obsessed with him as they used to be. I can make a different kind of narrative.”

Otherwise, he will carry on as before, seeing private patients and writing when he can. He has an 18-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and two young children, a boy and a girl, 6 and 9, with his partner, Judith Clark, a professor of exhibitions at the London College of Fashion. “Like everyone else,” he says, “I just have to live from day to day, taking one step at a time.”

So it goes.