Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Blending Careers: Therapist and Author

By Dennis Palumbo, guest blogger
Author Night Terrors

I must admit, I’ve had an interesting career journey. 

For many years I was a Hollywood screenwriter, after which I became a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. Now, after 24 years listening to hundreds of people’s most intimate stories, I’ve fulfilled a life-long dream and begun a series of crime novels. The first, Mirror Image, featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, appeared in 2010 from Poisoned Pen Press.  This was followed by Fever Dream, and now the latest, Night Terrors.

Which begs the question: what, if anything, do a psychotherapist and a suspense novelist have in common? Actually, quite a bit.

For both a therapist and a crime novelist, it’s the mystery of character itself that intrigues, puzzles, and continually surprises. As a therapist, I’ve borne witness to the awful suffering, painful revelations and admirable courage of my patients---many of whom have survived unbelievable abuse, neglect and loss. Not to mention those whose lives have been marred by substance use, violence, and severe mental illness. 

How people cope with these issues and events, how well or poorly they meet these challenges, goes directly to the heart of the therapeutic experience. My job as their therapist is to help identify self-destructive patterns of behavior, and to empower them by providing tools to address these patterns and, hopefully, alter them.

So much for my day job. Moonlighting as a suspense novelist, I find myself doing pretty much the same thing with my fictional characters. As a mystery writer, I believe that crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from conflict. Kind of like life. Which means the secret to crafting satisfying thrillers lies in exploring who your characters are (as opposed to who they say they are), what it is they want (or think they need), and the lengths to which they’ll go to get it.

Moreover, using my experience as a licensed psychotherapist, I’ve woven many of the situations and people I’ve encountered into my crime novels. I’ve also used aspects of my personal life as well. Although my practice is in Los Angeles, the novels take place in Pittsburgh, my home town. In addition, Daniel Rinaldi shares a similar background to my own---from his Italian heritage to his love of jazz to his teenage years spent working in the Steel City’s sprawling produce yards. (Though, as each novel’s narrative hurtles Rinaldi into a vortex of murder and conspiracy, he reveals himself to be a lot braver and more resourceful than I am!)  

But there’s another connection between my role as a therapist and my role as a mystery writer. Namely, the fact that issues and trends in the therapeutic community can often inspire the stories themselves.

For example, in Night Terrors, Rinaldi is asked by the FBI to treat one of their recently-retired profilers. After a twenty-year career inside the minds of the most infamous serial killers, Special Agent Lyle Barnes can no longer sleep through the night. He’s tormented by a cascade of horrifying though indistinct images, along with intense feelings of dread and imminent danger. Until, sweat-soaked, heart pounding, he wakes up screaming...

He’s not alone. Once considered primarily a pediatric diagnosis, more and more adults are currently being treated for night terrors. As researchers report, a nightly experience of disturbed sleep can result in chronic fatigue, emotional fragility, a weakened immune system and reduced concentration.

Why the upsurge in night terrors in adults? Many clinicians---including therapists like myself---are blaming the increased uncertainty of contemporary life. The economy, terrorism. Even natural disasters, like tsunamis, earthquakes, and super-storms. The daily anxiety suppressed by adults during waking life, now invading their sleep.

Most experts believe the condition is caused by a sudden disruption in the central nervous system, usually triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, or substance abuse. With such a broad range of potential causes, treatment options are limited to medication, hypnotherapy, stress management techniques, and good old talk therapy. That is, as long as you have something to talk about.

And there’s the problem. Patients suffering from garden-variety nightmares can usually recount the content of their dreams, which perhaps leads to interpretation. Often, once the meaning of a patient’s dream becomes clear, the therapist can aid the patient in working through its various themes.

Unfortunately, people with night terrors can’t find the same solace, for the simple reason that, unlike nightmares, they don’t occur during REM sleep. Typically, night terrors erupt during Stage Four of the sleep cycle. Which means the sufferer doesn’t remember the dream images, giving both patient and therapist very little to work with.

In my novel, Rinaldi’s approach is to get the retired FBI agent to open up about his years as a profiler. His thousands of hours of contact with the most heinous and notorious serial killers. Since Barnes’ work was his life, Rinaldi believes that the best way to address his nocturnal demons is to get him to open up about the real-life demons with whom he spent most of his career.

Not an easy task, since Lyle Barnes is also the target of an unknown assassin who’s already killed three others on a seemingly-random hit-list.

A fictional reminder that in crime novels---as in life---the real terrors occur when we’re awake.

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). He  blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).  His acclaimed mystery thrillers (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, and the latest,  Night Terrors), feature Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police.  All are from Poisoned Pen Press. For more information, please visit


Anonymous said...

Hi Sandy, small world department! I'd invited Dennis to be my guest several months ago and just wrote my intro of him yesterday!!! Maybe we should agree on " great minds! " He is a fantastic person! Read my blog on him Sunday, June 2! Thelma Straw, MWA-in Manhattan

Sandra Parshall said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Dennis. Your new book is receiving a lot of much-deserved attention from reviewers, and I hope it will bring you many new readers.

Jeri Westerson said...

Welcome, Dennis! Thanks for dropping by. I urge readers to pick up Dennis' fascinating books.