Thursday, September 13, 2012

Therapy, Recovery, and Finding Out Whodunit

Elizabeth Zelvin

The Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, where I’ve participated in several panels on mystery and crime fiction as a member of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, was kind enough to invite me to give a talk that would combine my experience as a mystery writer and my “other hat” as a psychotherapist and mental health professional who has spent much of her career helping people recover from addictions, codependency, and other compulsive behaviors, such as eating disorders. My presentation on “Therapy, Recovery, and Finding Out Whodunit” took place earlier this week.

In a murder mystery, there’s a crime, a victim, an investigation, and a solution. In real life, when emotional problems or addictions become so painful that those who suffer from them are willing to get help and change, a similar process takes place. I find it both fascinating and moving to observe (and sometimes guide) adult children of dysfunctional families, as well as alcoholics, codependents, and people with eating disorders take this journey toward emotional health. It’s not surprising that I chose to endow my fictional characters, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, and his best friend’s girlfriend, world-class codependent Barbara, with these issues and this with this opportunity for growth.

Readers of a traditional mystery series love to track the development of their favorite characters from book to book. Some of us enjoy that aspect of the story even more than how they’ll manage to solve the next murder that they stumble into (assuming that, like mine, they’re strictly amateur sleuths).

Most of my clients, over a career or more than twenty-five years, come from the kind of families that we call dysfunctional. The literal meaning of “dysfunctional” is “doesn’t work.” Whether because of alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence, or some other reason, the parents in a dysfunctional family are unable to provide their children with nurture, safety, and support or foster their self-esteem and ability to grow by providing role models for expressing love, tolerating all human feelings, making the normal mistakes from which we learn, and creating an emotional environment that’s a healthy balance of connection and good boundaries.

Whatever their other problems or issues may be, my clients have one thing in common: a wounded inner child in desperate need of healing. I find “inner child” an expressive and useful way of describing how someone can go out of control, overreact, push people away, and find all sorts of ways to self-destruct because unconsciously, it’s not their rational adult self, but rather the frightened, angry, powerless child he or she once was who governs their thoughts, feelings, and behavior in moments of stress.

The traditional mystery structure has its parallel in the treatment or recovery process. The crime is parallel to the dysfunctional family: the “something” that went wrong at the beginning, causing trouble until it can be set right. The investigation is parallel to the work that takes place in a psychotherapist’s office or a 12-step program like those my characters belong to. The task is figuring out what happened, how it affects what’s happening now, and what has to be done to break the pattern and keep the wrong from perpetuating itself. In a mystery, the resolution is revelation and, if possible, justice. In life, the resolution is emotional health.

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