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.