Thursday, October 6, 2011

Truth and Lies

Elizabeth Zelvin

Fiction writers get a kick out of saying, “I tell lies for a living,” or, “I’m a novelist—I make things up.” And on the copyright page of every novel, there’s a standard disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental. Paradoxically, the fiction writers I know best, ie crime fiction and mystery writers, put an enormous amount of effort into researching the details of their subject matter for accuracy. Let TV—CSI and its ilk—throw plausibility out the window with forensics experts who interview witnesses and get into danger, its computers that spew out fingerprint matches in 30 seconds and its labs that get DNA results back to the investigators in a couple of hours. Novelists get things right.

Or do they? Balancing the mix of truth and lies can be a challenge. Sometimes the writer has to balance accuracy against storytelling. So many of the conventions of mysteries and thrillers could not exist without suspension of disbelief. How many women would really go into a dark cellar without a flashlight or a cell phone when a murderer’s on the loose? How many cops would really go after a killer in a deserted landscape without calling for backup? How many attractive murder suspects really have a romance with the detective on the case? How many times does an ordinary person really beat the ticking bomb and save the world? And not even in New Jersey does a female bounty hunter really blow up a car every couple of months.

On the other hand, authors can take infinite pains to achieve accuracy. Crime fiction writers, if they didn’t happen to start out as cops or investigators themselves, love to attend workshops and conferences that give them technical knowledge about police procedures, interrogation techniques, and guns. The ranks of legal thriller authors include former or even current prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law professors whose expert knowledge gives them an edge in writing investigations and courtroom scenes. Doctors and journalists also bring their expertise to stories whose characters share their real-life careers. The rest of us constantly pick the brains of these experts to give our own stories authenticity.

But what about psychological truth? That’s a tricky area. Sometimes authors who’ve worked hard for accuracy in the areas I’ve mentioned blow it when it comes to their characters’ behavior. Readers of the Dexter books must suspend disbelief to an extreme degree, because psychopathic serial killers in real life are not sympathetic characters on the side. Admirers of Dexter are willing to do this; others are not. Such challenges to belief appear in cozies as well as psychological thrillers. I remember one that many readers loved in which the heroine, intelligent enough to have a PhD, rescued a strange man she found lying unconscious. He turned out to be a crook, albeit an attractive one, who stole her passport and had her kidnapped. If I lost my passport in a foreign country, I’d be close to panic. The first thing I’d do is report it. This young woman not only ignored the loss, she moved in with the crook. Hey, he was cute.

Authors are probably most sensitive to the need for truthful writing in our own areas of expertise. As a therapist, I had a hard time with the brilliant Reginald Hill’s highly praised new novel, in which the psychiatrist treating a man who’s been accused of dreadful crimes gradually comes to believe in his innocence. So far, so good. Her growing attraction to her patient is handled plausibly up to a point, in that she is portrayed as aware of the need for propriety. But the book ends with a strong implication of romance to come, and that’s where Hill lost me. Psychiatrists, doctors, and psychotherapists with professional training have codes of ethics. No matter how attractive the patient (or former patient, as in this case, or patient’s family member—I still haven’t forgiven Pat Conroy for Prince of Tides), no matter how powerful the attraction, a therapist with any integrity (and a desire to continue practicing without putting his or her license in jeopardy) has to say No! Whatever her personal desires, she has to put them aside and maintain her professional boundaries. There’s no ambiguity about this ethical tenet. Romance with a client is a road the therapist cannot go down. And if, for the purposes of the story, she broke that absolute rule, it would only be after and intense, conscious mental struggle. The fact that Hill ignored this truth didn’t spoil the book for me completely—he’s too good a writer—but the flaw interfered with my enjoyment.


Sandra Parshall said...

A writer can make me believe almost any character action if the proper emotional groundwork is laid first. Therapists aren't perfect, any more than the rest of us are, and I'll accept a fictional therapist who gets involved with a client -- but only, as you say, if a lot of attention is paid to the therapist's inner struggle over the attraction. These things happen in real life, to people we know nothing about, and we have to accept them because they do, indisputably, happen. Writers have to meet a higher standard -- we can't expect readers to simply accept what we write without justification.

lil Gluckstern said...

I agree with you. I think that there is a demand that if you care enough about a patient, you will allow your self to get involved. I am finding that as I get older, I am more and more careful about the interactions I have with patents outside the office. I live in a small town, and outside contact is inevitable. I have a handout that addresses my "rules and regulations," and I address those circumstances. This is not just a matter of my choice. California has some very stringent rules regarding dual relationships. I am very careful. For me, one of the parts that makes therapy work is the "uniqueness" of the place of contact. (Not the aisles of Safeway). It takes a lot to suspense my disbelief in novels who that ignore this.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lil, it's always nice to have the validation of a fellow therapist for my opinions about these things. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Love the cover of your next book, Liz! (Everybody, scroll back up and look left.)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Sandy. I showed it to an art director friend who pointed out it looks like an old-fashioned postcard--perfect for an extended vacation. ;)

Susan Oleksiw said...

It's been my experience that people outside the "helping" professions don't really understand the point of the guidelines or how uncomfortable professionals are when they find themselves approaching the line, even before crossing it. Getting that into a story would make for great tension and suspense.

A very interesting and fruitful discussion.