Thursday, January 25, 2007


Elizabeth Zelvin

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?


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Liz, Congrats! Nice Blog with great companions. Terrie Moran, SinCTriState

Anonymous said...

Wow, here I come to check out your new blog and find you even mentioned me! How fun!

I was fortunate to read an early version of SOBER and can't wait to see the new product. Congrats on your book and your new blog. Have a great time with both!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely, ripe field for conflict. You're going to end up with the uneviable problem of too much material for your characters.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, your book sounds fascinating. And regarding free therapy, since I'm a deadly daughter, I can have it, right? :)

Sandra Parshall said...

The most blatant example of co-depedency in popular culture right now is the relationship between Dr. House and Dr. Wilson on House. This is one sick relationship. We know what's motivating House -- he's a user, always has been, always will be, feels no shame about it. Indeed, he feels entitled to use others because he's brilliant and they aren't. And he uses Wilson mercilessly. Although Wilson puts up a feeble fight now and then, he always gives in -- and he seems to secretly enjoy House just the way he is. Think about the last scene of the last episode before the current break, when Wilson says, "Nothing's changed?" and House echoes, "Nothing's changed." And Wilson, who has been through hell because of House's behavior, turns away with a slight smile on his face. These two should be the subjects of clinical study!

Lonnie Cruse said...

I've gotta chime in about House. I love the show, but I get agrivated over his popping pills. He'd never stand for a patient doing that. Sort of an "above the law" stance. I had the same feeling towards the character Robbie Coltrain plaid in Cracker. He had serious emotional problems, which he took out on others, co-dependant on his wife and mistress, but totally unsympathetic when others did the same. Great comments from everyone!

Lonnie Cruse said...

Sigh, in my haste, I mispelled words in my comments. Anyone have a dictionary handy?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I haven't watched House (though I enjoyed Hugh Laurie in the Blackadder series with Rowan Atkinson), but when you tell me he's addicted to pills, I'm not a bit surprised that Wilson (his sidekick?) enables him. Sounds like codependency to me. :)