Among the satisfactions of reading mysteries—along with solving a puzzle through deductive reasoning, getting to know characters and their friends and families over the course of a series, and seeing wrong punished and justice done—is learning about some occupation, culture, place, or idea that we might otherwise know nothing about. For example, Dick Francis has taught us all about horses: how they are raced, bred, cared for, invested in, and transported. Nevada Barr teaches us about the beauties, delights, and dangers of America’s National Parks. For the writer, a mystery is also an opportunity to pitch a point of view that may broaden readers' perspective and maybe knock some of their biases on the head. For instance, Judy Clemens tells me not only more about dairy farming than I dreamed existed, but also that bikers who ride Harleys are not all outlaws and Hell’s Angels and in fact include some pretty darn nice people.
One reason I write is that as a therapist and an addictions professional, I have a lot to say about alcoholism and codependency and also about recovery and personal growth. My forthcoming mystery, Death Will Get You Sober (2008) gives me a chance to say some of these things, I hope entertainingly, through my characters and their adventures. So let me tell you about Barbara, my codependent character. Barbara’s an addictions counselor who lives to help others and mind everybody’s business. It makes her a great amateur detective, even better because she’s always getting into trouble.
Barbara means well, but she can get a little preachy. I originally meant her to be my protagonist, along with Bruce, the newly sober alcoholic. But I demoted her to sidekick at an editor’s suggestion. Now she preaches to Bruce and his best friend Jimmy (who’s her boyfriend) instead of to the reader, which is a good thing. She also apologizes a lot. That’s a codependent—self-righteous, sure she’s always right, and at the same time sure she’s always wrong.
When I first started talking professionally about codependency, most people had ever heard of it. Now the term is used so often that some people are sick and tired of it. I still think it’s a useful way to describe a body of attitudes, feelings, and behavior that cause a lot of misery and confusion. To define it broadly, codependency is a tendency to get your identity and your self-esteem from somewhere other than inside yourself.
Many codependents come from alcoholic or other kinds of dysfunctional families. Many love or have addictive relationships with alcoholics, addicts, or otherwise needy and unavailable people. But beyond that, our whole culture gives us messages that can foster codependency, like “love is never having to say you’re sorry” and “stand by your man.” Codependents are programmed to rescue and control (or try to). This makes them a perfect fit for such occupations as doctor or nurse or therapist—or cop or PI or amateur sleuth. They want to set things right, and they’re afraid if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. At the same time, they’re people-pleasers who worry a lot about what other people think. Underneath, they want desperately to be loved. Think dogs—not cats. On the outside, codependents can be bossy or clingy. Either way, they’re marshmallows inside.
Can you think of characters in mysteries who sound like codependents? Have you met any in real life? Do you struggle with codependency yourself? Let’s hear about it. Though please remember--a blog is not an online therapy session. ;)
Or if you'd rather talk about mysteries than codependency: What worlds and occupations have you particularly enjoyed entering through books, especially mysteries?