Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pernicious plotting or literary license?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Sue Grafton’s latest Kinsey Millhone novel, U Is for Undertow, is a terrific read. Her masterful shuffling of past and present and of different points of view, with meaty characterizations and skillful handling of pace and plotting made me enjoy it more than most of the mid-to-late alphabet books. But. As a psychotherapist with many years of bearing witness to the consequences of childhood abuse and trauma, I was jerked right out of the story by the presentation of Kinsey’s client as a young man whose therapist had convinced him, without any supporting evidence, that his parents had abused him as a child. I understand the literary motive: Grafton wanted her character to be unstable and his family, whose reputation and peace of mind he had destroyed, to destroy his credibility in turn. But did she really have to play the so-called false memory card?

I’ve spent a lot of time on my soapbox ranting about how therapists are portrayed in fiction and film. Grafton’s therapist is a quack. Every profession has its quacks and con artists. But there is so much myth and misinformation about psychotherapy in our culture that this kind of portrayal can do a lot more damage than, say, the portrayal of a dishonest doctor.

My beef with Grafton’s scenario, however, is that in dramatizing the impact of a family torn apart by accusations of sexual abuse, she chooses the rare case in which the accusations are false. I feel the same when a novelist chooses to highlight an accusation of rape that turns out to be false. The victims of sexual violence, whether in childhood or adult life, have had a long, hard fight to be believed and treated with respect in our society. When novelists—and journalists—choose to keep the spotlight on the phonies, as if they were the norm, not only justice but our collective psyche takes a giant step backward.

I have a similar reaction to some of the current crop of TV series, notably United States of Tara, about a woman with multiple personalities, and Big Love, about a polygamist and his three wives. Some fine actors and other serious people are involved in these shows. Their intention is not to trivialize the issues. But they do. Tara is a high- functioning wife and mother whose alters include a Betty Crocker-like homemaker and a foul-mouthed male Vietnam vet—great material for a sitcom. But in real life, dissociative identity disorder is not cute and funny. A real-life multiple’s split-off alters are the result of a child’s attempt to distance from and survive severe abuse. If none of Tara’s alters is an abreacting four-year-old, cowering in a corner during a flashback of sexual torture, she’s nothing like the real thing.

As for modern-day American polygamy, it’s not cute or funny either. Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, in her Lena Jones series, tells us what it’s really like: domineering old men raping underage girls and keeping them pregnant and uneducated. And don’t say that the picture painted in mystery novels and films is mere literary license, without impact in the real world. Webb’s book played a role in changing legislation that eventually led to the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of notorious polygamist Warren Jeffs.

Believe me, I’m not arguing in favor of “political correctness.” I didn’t like the term when it was a Stalinist catch phrase back in the Fifties, and I still have no use for the thought police. I’m just saying, writers, when you have choices to make, think a little harder about the message that you’re sending.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Liz. Provoking. Understated. Powerful.


jenny milchman said...

You are a good person, Liz, to point to the social consequences of such portrayals in fiction. I am bothered by the same things, but mostly because they yank me out of the story. As someone who practiced psychotherapy for thirteen years, specializing in the treatment of children, I too get bothered by kids not reacting/talking/behaving as real children do; by the mentally ill being just a little too cute or droll instead of genuinely tortured by mental illness; and by therapists who tell their patients what to do or intrude upon their lives in ways most of us learned not to do. Truth as they say is stranger than fiction. There's no need to depart from reality to create an interesting tale--in fact, the opposite is true.

lil Gluckstern said...

Another post that is right on the money. as are the comments. I get awfully tired thinking about the long hours listening to genuine grief, and the awful pain that people have experienced, particularly children, to have them trivialized by so-called reality television or fiction. True reality is that therapy is arduous and difficult, dealing with confusions, and heart wrenching experiences, and often triumphing as folks overcome those difficulties. It's nice to hear from the other side...

kathy d. said...

I agree with everything on this post about tv (and some books) trivializing child abuse, mental illness and polygamy.

A lot of television sensationalizes and popularizes issues and tries to make serious topics humorous to get viewers and ratings.

Having seen adult friends' who were traumatized as children by one form of abuse or another and who spend years trying to overcome that, and who suffer, it is awful to see that trivialized in a book or on tv or painted as false.

And I can't even deal with the tv show on polygamy after the news a few years ago about the sect in Texas, and the abuse of women and girls, and even adolescent boys who are tossed out and abandoned.

It had taken years for the real story to come out and then it was covered up again in the news. It was courageous women who'd escaped who told the truth.

I see this on tv though; a totally improbable plot line about an extremely serious subject which stands reality on its head.

It's all about ratings and gaining audiences and having a "unique" plot in a book to pull in readers.

There is something to be said for "political correctness." It helps to inform viewers and readers about the truth about profoundly important issues.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

The fact is that the rare cases DO get the attention. Of course, as such, they will be used by novelists and others.

(who hates PC nonsense)

Strange Ways said...

Wonderful post and very thought-provoking.

I enjoyed the parts of United States of Tara that I have seen, but, based on things I've read over the years, I realize it is not very realistic. And it does rather trivialize the disorder.

As for an author picking one of the rare situations, like false memories, well, isn't that what we look for in our entertainment? The offbeat, the unusual? I'm not saying that is a good thing, but sadly, we have become rather jaded as a culture and it does seem to take more and more to keep our very short attention spans.

anyway, that's just one way to look at it :)

kathy d. said...

It's what done to sell books and get tv audiences, the plot twist, the unique. But too bad the realities get distorted as people do take in what they see and read and often think that is reality.

L.J. Sellers said...

Terrific thoughtful post. I hope you like the psychiatrist in my next novel. I always try to keep it real ... while still highlighting the unusual. It's challenging.