Richard A. Grossman PhD

Subtext and Therapy

Many students from around the world have e-mailed me about becoming a therapist.  “What do I need to learn?” they ask.   One of the most important tasks of “insight” therapists is to understand and appreciate subtext.   What is subtext?  It is between-the-lines communication that conveys powerful messages indirectly.   Subtext affects all relationships, and is especially critical in child rearing.  Do you have an aptitude for subtext?  Does the concept interest you?  Here’s a simple exercise.  Consider the well-known and beloved Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

(from Immortal Poems of the English Language, Washington Square Press, 1969

Now, take a minute and re-read the poem, this time looking for subtext (between-the-lines meaning).

What did you find? 

On the surface the story is simple: a man stops by the woods, is enticed by the beauty and peace of his environs, and then moves on. A therapist, however, hears something entirely different.  In subtext, the poem is much darker: a man stops by the woods, thinks about whether to commit suicide, but ultimately decides to move on.

 What are the subtextual clues?  There are many:

  • The man knows he is not being watched.
  • The horse is confused why the man would stop in such an out of the way place.
  • The “darkest” evening of the year has a double meaning: lack of light and blackest mood.
  • The woods are “lovely, dark, and deep” suggesting the thought of ending his life is enticing.
  • “And miles to go before I sleep” is repeated twice. A poet of Frost’s skill would not simply repeat a line to fill space and maintain rhythm. The lines have two different meanings: he is a long way from home, and he has decided his life’s journey is not yet over.

Any one clue, by itself, would not justify an interpretation, but together they form compelling subtext.  Once understood, the poem literally snaps into focus.  Indeed, Frost suffered from serious depression his whole adult life, so it is not surprising that he would write poetry about suicidal feelings.   Of course, unlike Frost, clients are often unaware of the subtext of their own stories; therapists have to help them discover it.

Does this kind of reading (listening) intrigue you?  People often present the same kind of puzzle as Frost’s poem. Their words tell one story, but underneath, another tale, often darker and more compelling, lies in wait. If you are interested in discovering the subtext of people’s lives, you would probably enjoy the work of a therapist.

(Thanks to Walter Lundahl, my 12th grade English teacher in Huntington, N.Y., who introduced me to this poem and its interpretation.)