Thursday, February 7, 2008

How being a shrink is like writing a mystery

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’m at a stage in life when about half my friends are reaching retirement age—specifically, those who have been doing the same thing, such as teaching or working for the government, for thirty years or more. Having managed to reinvent myself several times over the course of my adult life, I’m farther from retirement than ever. And that’s okay.

Each new manifestation of who I am and what I do has in some way built on the choices that I’ve made in the past. Without going into all the ideologies and isms I’ve traveled through, or the lifestyle choices and personal roles, I can say that the overall movement has been from writer to therapist to writer. Along the way, I got sidetracked into various publishing jobs in the mistaken belief that they would help me be a writer. (Okay, they did make me a demon editor, which helps.) Similarly, I’ve performed various functions as a social worker and administrator that did not exactly add up to being a therapist. But the heart of what I’ve wanted to do has remained the same.

Writer SJ Rozan talks about the mystery (or crime fiction in general) as one of the great ur-stories in our culture. It is a story of righting wrongs and seeing justice done, and that is why we want to hear it over and over, says Rozan. If publishers and film and movie makers won’t give us good stories, we (the reading public, the media consumer) will take bad stories, so great is our hunger to see things made better, villains caught, safety restored, unfairness exposed and punished, and everything put back in place. We’d like law and order in real life, but too often we’re offered only a tarnished simulacrum. So we’ll take it however we can get it: in the stories we tell and hear.

Therapy is also about righting wrongs. It can’t enforce the law or get wrongdoers, in most cases, to acknowledge and correct their faults. Therapy doesn’t work that way. But to those hurt by the acts and deficiencies of others, it can provide corrective experiences. Those who’ve been rejected and abandoned can experience unconditional love. Those who have repeatedly chosen abusive partners can learn to select and sustain healthy relationships. Those who have internalized harsh parental criticism can come to accept and nurture themselves. It may not sound like an exact analogy for investigating, discovering whodunit, and putting the culprit in the slammer. But in a way, it’s close.

I’ve found that what I do as a therapist—listening—is a lot like what I do (fate and the publishing industry willing) as a writer—being heard. EM Forster’s famous tag, “Only connect,” sums it up for me. In both roles, I am seeking the human connection. I am trying to make contact with another human being, whether it is the client who pours out his or her soul without knowing much about me beyond my capacity for empathy and compassion, or the reader to whom I pour out my own soul and the fruits of my imagination without knowing any more of him or her than their willingness to open my book.

Being a therapist, like being a writer—and a reader—is a way of opening the door to a secret garden. One of the greatest rewards in both is the closeup view I get of other people’s lives. Both legitimate my elephant’s-child curiosity about others’ innermost feelings, passions, and motivations. When I write fiction, I even get to make the other people up, so that I can explore all the possibilities my imagination can reach. At the same time, I make myself vulnerable to every reader who sees my work. That is both scary and exciting. Back in my poetry days, in a poem called “Secrets of the Therapeutic Relationship,” I wrote:

between therapist and client
more tender intimacies are shared
than if we two lay touching on a bed

The same is true of writers and their readers.

1 comment:

Julia Buckley said...

A very interesting post, Liz! And I love the Forster quote.