“Stop talking like a psychologist!” It’s a long time since this was said to me and, although we’ve repaired our relationship, I’ve never forgotten the hurt and confusion it evoked. Was I talking like a psychologist? What did it mean if I was? How did it differ from what I thought I was doing, just being a friend?
In fiction, the role of confidante is a useful device for articulating the protagonist’s deepest hopes and fears. A fictionalised therapy would be an obvious way of exploring this, but not all writers have the skill or confidence to recreate a session on the page.
Casting the therapist as friend or family member would be a good compromise, enabling psychological depth without the risk of misrepresenting therapy’s nuts and bolts. Yet I’m a little surprised to have come across this relatively infrequently among my convenience sample of over 60 fictional therapists. Let’s take a closer look at these three friends, three partners/spouses, and a grandmother, who, while adding an extra layer to the novels in which they feature, most protagonists don’t quite trust them enough to bare their souls.
In Ann Leary’s The Good House, the reader sees psychiatrist and therapist Dr Peter Newbold through the eyes of the narrator, Hildy Good, the estate agent from whom he rents his office. Perhaps through knowing him since childhood, perhaps through her own mistrust of experts on the psyche, Hildy is far from in awe of his profession:
"I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions." (p1)
In some respects, her own intuition, honed through a party-piece she learned from a “clairvoyant” relative, is more accurate than Peter’s, except, perhaps, regarding her own problems with alcohol, and, in the final analysis, where it really is a matter of life or death.
The therapist who befriends Winifred Rigby in Marie Gameson’s zany The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd (Deceased) is a fascinating character, even off duty. Does she fail to notice, or merely overlook, Winnie’s evident problems, and what is she thinking when she proposes Winnie see her and her partner separately for sex without strings?
Stella and her husband are both therapists – she a clinical psychologist, he a psychiatrist – having met at work. A couple of years later, she’s a quivering wreck afraid to leave the house, barely seeing anyone but him. But he’ll have her best interests at heart, won’t he? Not necessarily, when Don’t Stand So Close is a psychological thriller about vulnerability, betrayal and trust.
In my own psychological suspense novel, Underneath, the creepy narrator, Steve, persuades Liesel, an art therapist in a secure mental health unit, to move in with him. Their relationship, initially idyllic, starts to crumble when Liesel wants to start a family. Having grown up without a father, and in denial of the impact this has had, Steve cannot face the prospect of fatherhood himself. Yet he’s dismissive when Liesel tries to help him explore his fears:
“I think it’s connected to what happened to your own dad. Deep in your unconscious you believe having a baby would wipe you out.”
I felt sorry for her in a way. I imagined her spouting this nonsense in her interview and the panel covering their smirking mouths with their hands. I imagined her being ridiculed by the prosecution for trying to convince the jury that some thug hadn’t meant to throttle his wife, he was acting out some pre-conscious childhood trauma. I imagined her sitting in the pub, chewing over my private business with Jules and Abigail. “It’s the woman who carries the baby,” I said. “Even in the middle of the Kalahari a hundred miles from a health centre, neither pregnancy nor labour poses a risk to the father.”
Liesel drew back her legs and rested her hands on her knees. “Perhaps I’m the one who’s mad wanting to start a family with a Neanderthal.”
You’ll be sleeping on your own tonight if you’re not careful, Steve. “You’ve got to admit,” I said as gently as I could, “it’s not very logical.”
“The unconscious doesn’t work on logic,” she said. “But a child feels responsible for whatever goes wrong in his life. So you’ve grown up believing your dad died because of you …”
“Even if he died before I was born …?”
“Especially if he died before you were born,” said Liesel. “Because it’s not rational, you don’t get a proper reality check. The idea gets buried but it doesn’t go away. You grow up assuming babies murder their dads.” (p151)
Kay is another fictional therapist frustrated at her partner’s reluctance to seek help for his difficulties. But husband Alex, the narrator of Peter Cunningham’s thoughtful novel The Trout, is sufficiently sensitive to recognise the possible roots of her vocation:
an analyst told her that she had spent her life, including her childhood, caring for other people. With her father dead and her mother unable to face reality, the responsibility had all fallen to Kay. It was as if she was in a role she could not change, facing a future she could not resist. Eight years later, she qualified as an analyst, and ever since, she has been listening to the problems of others (p186)
although she might have preferred an “artistic life with like-minded friends [and no] baggage from someone else’s life” (p181).
How does having a therapist in the family impact on the child? We get a glimpse of this in Jessie Greengrass’ novel Sight in which the unnamed narrator’s grandmother, known to everyone as Doctor K, was a psychoanalyst for whom the analytic stance seems to have infiltrated family life. As a young child, the narrator’s mother was interrogated on her dreams at the breakfast table until she gave up having any; the narrator, on her annual visits, is invited to sit under her gaze for half an hour every evening in the consulting room, only the presence of drinks and the absence of the sign on the door differentiating it from therapy. But, as the narrator recognises, if you strongly believe in the benefits of the examined life, wouldn’t you want to pass that on to your family? And she does give a persuasive account of what analysis is about:
The analyst … is not a tour guide, leading their client through those vast and vaulted galleries, the cloisters of the mind, and nor is it their task to point out shadows, but rather they must provide instruction in the mechanics of such shadows’ investigation. It is only … when a person has gained the skills necessary to explore the territory for themselves, to unpack their own minds and begin to understand the contents, that they might start the work necessary to make their experience, their behaviour meaningful; and then at last they might start to become transparent to themselves. (p80-81)
Finally, Kati, a fictional therapist in Philip Teir’s novel, The Summer House, brings me back to the uncomfortable scenario with which I began this post. Reading this, I felt a sense of solidarity when a new friend acknowledges that it feels like she’s working when she talks to him, which is far from her intention (p171). Fortunately, both a little wounded by life, they were able to support each other. As friends and family, whether therapists or not, should.
Have you encountered any therapists as friends or family members in fiction? Do they enhance or hinder the protagonist’s goals?
*This is part of a series of posts on fictional therapists, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see addressed, do let us know via the comments. We'd also be interested to know if you’ve come across any fictional therapists in your own reading; you can check whether they’re already in Anne's collection here.
After a twenty-five year career as a clinical psychologist, and extensive personal therapy, Anne Goodwin now explores issues of mental health and well-being in fiction. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, is scheduled for publication in November 2018. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter.