Guest Post on Bibliotherapy & Doris Lessing: Spending Time in The Four-Gated City

A wonderful portrait of Doris Lessing by
Fernando Vicente.

This is a guest post by Marcy Sheiner, published author and blogger at BookBuster and Dirty Laundry. Marcy got in touch with me recently to discuss her newfound interest in bibliotherapy, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post for the blog on Doris Lessing, an author I’ve always wanted to read more of.

With Doris Lessing’s recent death in November 2013, I feel this post couldn’t be more timely, and I hope you enjoy reading Marcy’s thoughts on the author’s work as much as I have. Lucy.

Spending Time in the Four-Gated City by Marcy Sheiner

“A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement. Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings.”– What is Bibliotherapy?

Wikipedia’s definition of a library as “a healing place for the soul” didn’t strike me as a piece of startling news, but the existence of a therapeutic method based on novel-reading did. The theory behind bibliotherapy is that reading, like other kinds of therapy, can resolve complex problems in people’s lives. Supposedly it’s been around since the 1930’s, but I never heard of bibliotherapy until recently—yet I instantly recognized that I’d unknowingly done it myself. In this I am probably not alone.

Although typically considered escapism, reading requires a more nuanced way of thinking than most avenues of escape. Think of poker, video games, television and movies, to name just a few escapist activities: surely reading differs qualitatively from these. It probably doesn’t even matter which genre the reader happens to choose: if we accept Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” then a Superman comic book makes for better brain candy than a TV documentary on the history of superheroes.

Doris Lessing, author of The Four-Gated City. Image source.

In mentally sorting through my reading experiences to determine which might be classified as therapeutic, several qualify; but the one that stands out the most is Doris Lessing’ s The Four-Gated City, which I’ve read four or five times over the past 30 years. So powerfully and reliably does this book speak to me that I’ve turned to it when feeling deeply isolated.

The Four-Gated City is the last volume in the Children of Violence series, five books in a bildungsroman that traces the life of Martha Quest from adolescence to old age. Lessing always claimed her novels weren’t autobiographical, but the more I learned about the writer and her work, the clearer it became that Martha was a stand-in for Doris.

The Four-Gated City opens with Martha Quest’s arrival in London after World War II and ends in a post-nuclear commune of survivors, some of whom were born with various mutations from nuclear fallout. In the years between, Martha undergoes one transformative experience after another, many of which closely match my own life experiences.

Having abandoned, like Martha, a conventional life, I frequently found my thinking and perspective very different from that of other people. Like most non-conformists and artists, particularly writers, I was misunderstood and judged by my family and even by close friends. Thus I often felt isolated and confused; each time I chose to re-read Four-Gated City I was at a low point. I doubt that a majority of readers would call FGC sad or even emotional, yet I sobbed my way through it, intensely identified with Martha and her passages through life.

Reading Lessing dissolved my painful sense of isolation: with Doris Lessing I found someone who articulated my thoughts and feelings, and by so doing explained me to myself. As I wrote in my recent tribute upon her death, when reading Doris Lessing I felt I was in the presence of Truth writ large. I always emerged from FGC with a renewed sense of clarity and confidence in myself. This is what made the reading experience therapeutic.

The Four-Gated City. Image source.

Thinking back on the people to whom I’ve recommended The Four-Gated City, I’m astonished to realize that none ever followed my recommendation. Very few read any of Lessing’s other books, either, though many had already read the ubiquitous Golden Notebook. Here and there someone might pick up The Summer Before the Dark or The Fifth Child, both of which are more conventional than FGC, at least on the surface (The Fifth Child can be read on a multitude of levels, including as a simple family story).

Several friends told me they tried to read Lessing’s more challenging work, but just couldn’t connect. This I understand: it took me three attempts in as many years before I finally managed to complete my first Lessing novel, A Proper Marriage (#2 in Children of Violence). I don’t know why I kept trying, but I’ve always been grateful that I did: in time I became so attuned to Lessing’s wavelength that I’d be hooked on a new book by the bottom of Page One.

I used to worry about her death, but when it actually came a few weeks ago, I realized she’d left enough books for me to return to, and I immediately re-read The Sweetest Dream, a relatively recent novel I’d only been through once. If I read nothing but Doris Lessing’s books for the rest of my life (re-runs all) I’ll run out of time before words. This gives me an enormous sense of comfort and security. Therapy indeed!

Like Marcy, have you also found reading to be therapeutic, whether it be Doris Lessing’s work or that of another author? How did you respond to Doris Lessing’s death?

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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