Wednesday, 26 August 2015

From Couch to Crime Bookshelf

What kind of novels would Sigmund Freud have written had he turned his mind to it? Something along the lines of Fifty Shades of Sexual Dysfunction? Social Outcasts and the Deathly Hallows?  His theory of personality involves the inner struggle for power, the control of errant desires and impulses – fine fodder for a fiction writer.

We’ll never know where fiction may have led Freud, but it raises the question: how easy is it for a Psychoanalyst/therapist to become a crime fiction author? What psychological and semantic terrain do they share? Plenty, I believe. Especially, if like me, you write psychological mysteries and suspense. But shifting from psychotherapy to crime-writing isn’t simply about taking an obscure psychological disorder and building a story around it, or using a psychotherapist as your main protagonist. The crossovers are far richer.

One obvious link is the fascination with the human mind. As a Psychotherapist, working with ex-offenders from infamous high-security institutions, I came face to face with the criminal mind. My private practice, too, gave me a unique insight into an individual’s sense of self; fully-functioning, as well as disturbed and unstable. Not many people have had this privileged position; the complexities of mental processes is an area that is rarely openly discussed.

For me, that’s where the excitement lies. I love secrets and hidden motives and desires. I saw myself as the most private of Private Detectives, honoured with a passport to wander inside another person’s head. Once I gained access, I could take a look around, try to piece together how a person made choices, what drove them, what they were most afraid of. From there, I got to witness the step-by-step leaps their mind took from A to B; to discover how they ended up with blood on their hands or why they risked everything to prove a point.

At first I used this information to help people see how they ran into life’s cul-de-sacs. How they sabotaged themselves or had faulty thinking. I helped them challenge old patterns in order to guide them towards better choices for their futures. Then, as a writer, I wanted to bring this material out into the open, explore it from different angles, play around with it, add bits, take bits away, develop it. Discovering, first hand, the musings of a serial killer becomes a rich source for a novelist and that’s where we come to a solid block. “You haven’t written about me in one of your books have you?” comes the nervous cry from my client.

Absolutely not - I can’t reveal a thing.

As a therapist, I was bound by professional codes of confidentiality. I couldn’t simply recount material on the page that I’d heard in the consulting room. This is where free-fall imagination comes in; using ideas to trigger new ones, transforming and enriching material (and not merely switching the client’s gender), so much so that no one would ever recognise themselves in any of my stories. And by the way, I was never thinking about my novels when I was with a client! That’s another no-no. My focus had to be entirely on the person in front of me, not on what was going on inside my own head. But psychotherapists are usually adept at compartmentalising.

Another obvious crossover between the two professions is language. Psychotherapy is a spoken therapy; it uses words. Moreover, it uses images and metaphors to describe nebulous, will-o’-the-wisp feelings. Take a common one; depression. It’s such a broad and difficult emotional state to describe, so people inevitably turn to symbolism to help them out: ‘a black cloud’, ‘the black dog’, ‘a bottomless pit.’

Sample of art therapy from my self-help book The Self-Esteem Journal: Alison Waines

Depression has different colours, forms, is external, internal, it shifts, it hangs around, has qualities of weight, size, duration. Words can convey all that. In therapy, words help us understand each other and ourselves a little more and lead to that magical moment of being understood – that moment when someone really ‘gets’ what you’re talking about. I’m not referring to vacant nodding, or saying ‘I see what you mean’, but true empathy - when someone takes what you’ve said and uses their own words to describe what you meant, to a tee. It heals and it’s one of the core elements of therapy. There’s a similar deep satisfaction in reading: imagery that sparks heartfelt recognition, similes that bring a fresh insight; a sentence you come across that rings so true, but that you’ve never been able to put into words so succinctly.

I love words. I’m fascinated by synonyms and etymology. I love the way we can each describe the same thing – the loss of a loved one, an episode of Eastenders, a telephone box - in so many different ways. Take flash fiction, for example. ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’, attributed to Hemmingway. How’s that for impact? Six words; a myriad of emotions.

Finding the ‘right’ word is absolutely key to both the therapeutic process and the novel. There’s a resonance; a perfect match between a feeling and the correct word to describe it. Dr Eugene Gendlin explains it in his philosophy, ‘Focusing’; the sudden fusion of intellectual and ‘gut-knowing’ that brings emotional and physical release. When this moment of atunement occurs, Gendlin calls it ‘a knot inside coming loose’. Something shifts, expands.

Words are the way by which we navigate our inner emotional worlds. Words become stories, another crossover. Clients create narratives about themselves and their lives, stories about what has happened to them, who they are. There is no taking turns in therapy in the way usual conversations bat comments backwards and forward like a game of tennis. Deeper than conversations with friends, therapy offers a client time and encouragement to explain themselves in detail, to discover more than they knew before.

In therapy, it is the client, however, who is the story-teller and the therapist has to make what she will of the narrative. Is the story true? How skewed is it by the client’s interpretation? Is it only half the story? In this way, the client becomes the reliable or unreliable narrator.

As a crime writer, I switch seats and fully inhabit the world of ‘the client’, as either victim or perpetrator, to create my narrative. My stories contain clues, questions, red-herrings and a set of problems for both the protagonist and reader to solve. This is all there, too, in the consulting room, only it is the therapist who sets about gathering clues - in this case, about how the client’s mind works. She shows him his blind-spots, points out factors he has dismissed, looks beneath the motives. The therapist assists the client in turning the next page of his life-story. Both vehicles embody a process of gradual revelation and unravelling.

This inevitably leads to problem-solving. In therapy - whether this focuses on depression, addiction, low self-esteem or criminal behaviour – the client wants to feel better, to move towards resolution and contentment. In my psychological thrillers, characters, just like clients, struggle with external problems and internal demons; family secrets, moral dilemmas, hidden compulsions, fears about consequences. The author takes the reader through this angst to a similar place of resolution. In the therapy room, the problem-solving is done by the client, nudged and supported by the therapist. In the novel it’s done by the reader in the search for clues and patterns, nudged by the voice of the narrator.

Instead of a therapy couch - my work space is now a desk!
My interest in both professions goes way back. I love puzzles. I love the half-seen, the unknown.

What made me change profession after fifteen years?

The answer is probably the emotional overload that comes with being a receptacle for other people’s woes for so long. There is also secondary trauma involved in reliving tortuous or despicable acts through the eyes of a client; some being offenders, others victims. At first, I wanted to use my ability to listen and to observe from a distance, to analyse and organise that information in order to help others. Gradually, I became filled up with others’ suffering and had nowhere to put it. Now I use these skills as a novelist. Both areas of work have their frustrations and rewards. Both require dedication, focused concentration and the courage to see it through to the end, no matter how complicated or tangled the threads may be. A therapist helps the client make sense out of chaos – the writer, with a pile of notes and plot-sketches tries to do the same. I find it a chilling irony that my spellchecker sometimes tries to change the word ‘therapist’ to ‘the rapist’...

This article first appeared at in July.

AJ Waines is a No 1 International Bestelling Author
All books can be read in any order 
(Inside the Whispers (Bk 1) and Lost in the Lake (Bk 2) also form part of a series)
  •  Over 400,000 books sold worldwide
  • Girl on a Train  #1 Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015 & 2016) 
  • No Longer Safe  30,000 sold in the first month & #1 in 'Crime Noir'
  • Awarded Kindle KDP Top 10 'most-read Author' in UK 2016 & 2017