When I first encountered Carl Rogers’ seminal work as an undergraduate, I didn’t fully understand what “becoming a person” meant. If counselling created a person, who or what would she have been before? Forty years on, there’s a nod to the founding father of humanistic psychotherapy in the title of my first short story collection, Becoming Someone. Although none of these forty-two pieces is explicitly about therapy, they’re all about a character’s journey to personhood, or being blocked along the way. Furthermore, although none of these characters is me, my anthology reflects some of my own process of becoming, through psychology, therapy and fiction.
The psychology syllabus I followed in the late 1970s was suspicious of introspection; if it couldn’t be observed by a white-coated experimenter with a clipboard, it didn’t exist. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) That suited me fine: if I’d had to be examined on my ability to look inside myself, I’d have failed my degree. Yet I wasn’t immune to adolescent self-absorption. Far from it: I’d been keeping a diary since I was six. And scribbling stories for an equivalent period, but, apart from my sister, I was far too shy to share them with anyone.
Most of the fiction I wrote as a student is lost to posterity, and rightly so. But a fragment from those days has made it into the collection, as part of the story “After Icarus”:
If you want to know something about me: well, I’ve got two eyes, a nose and a mouth. I live in this city and my name is … No, let’s leave that for now, shall we?
Although I can clearly recall where I was when I wrote that line, I’ve no idea how I felt about it. But I doubt I understood it as clearly as it speaks to me now about the fear of being seen.
Of course, the other side of fear is desire but I managed to keep that hidden, even from myself, for decades. While my training in clinical psychology provided opportunities to re-examine my assumptions about my childhood, I wasn’t obliged to dig deeply into my formative years. In the ongoing tensions between the scientific and humanistic sides of the discipline, personal therapy was not required, or even encouraged, at the time.
With early promotion to a consultant position, I didn’t need therapy, or so I thought. I wrote case reports and academic papers instead of fiction; helped clients tell their neglected stories instead of addressing my own. When a particularly stressful time pushed me to book some sessions with the workplace counsellor, I didn’t opt to continue long term.
I was surprised when she sought parallels between my family of origin and the dynamics of the mental health trust that employed me, but also intrigued. That might have been the beginnings of my interest in psychoanalytic approaches to organisations that led me to an MA at the Tavistock, and the uncomfortable discovery of the limits of the intellectual defence that had hitherto served me extremely well. But it also showed me the value of vulnerability both for the psychoanalytically-orientated consultant and for the writer who wants to give her fiction emotional depth.
Once again, this course didn’t require therapy, but it did immerse me in a culture where psychotherapy was the norm. Not that friends hadn’t been urging me in this direction for years but, with a degree from the Tavistock under my belt, I finally felt able to take the plunge and arrange a therapy assessment.
Well over a decade of weekly psychoanalytically-orientated psychotherapy supported me through a complicated bereavement, attending to my writing ambitions, early retirement through redundancy, and the publication of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails. But, perhaps more importantly, my therapy mined the truth of my childhood damage, excavating deeper hurt within the trauma I knew about, as well as emotional neglect neither I nor my therapist suspected when we first met (or even for a long time after). This proved painful yet liberating, enabling me to finally embrace the whole of me, including the scars that might fade but never completely disappear.
While it’s impossible to unravel how much my current well-being is thanks to therapy – as opposed to getting older, escaping employment and working at something that’s a better fit with who I am – I feel more integrated and convinced therapy works. Which is partly why I get impatient when fictional therapists get it wrong. But they do get it right sometimes; I particularly identify with Jamal Khan who says in Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureshi (p81):
[therapy] doesn’t make people behave better, nor does it make them morally good. It may well make them more of a nuisance, more argumentative, more demanding, more aware of their desire and less likely to accept the dominion of others. In that sense it is subversive and emancipatory.
Most of the stories in my anthology were conceived during the time I was in therapy and, collectively, they go some way towards answering the question posed by my students self about what becoming a person entails. Although described as an identity “annethology”, there’s a lot about how hard it can be to find oneself and the potential roadblocks along the way.
There are versions of me in several of the stories: the nun afraid of her creativity; the woman who mirrors everyone’s emotions but her own; the girl whose path veers off in an unexpected direction; the burnt-out Dr Jekyll who becomes a part-time Mr Hyde; the man unable to tell whether his unprocessed trauma is a mountain or a molehill; the woman seeking perfection who learns to love good-enough. The collection also contains fragments of who I might have been, the me of my dreams, nightmares and fears: an unwittingly murderous mother and characters for whom reality is too much to bear.
In keeping with my studies of object relations theory, most of my characters find their identity through relationships. In the light of one of the psychotherapy world’s most ubiquitous clichés, readers shouldn’t be surprised to find stories about parents, with themes not so far removed from Frederick Starks’ typical working day summed up in John Katzenbach’s The Analyst (p9):
listening to people complain about their mothers. Thoughtless mothers, cruel mothers, sexually provocative mothers. Dead mothers who remained alive in their children’s minds. Living mothers, whom their children wanted to kill.
My stories might be deep, but they aint heavy. I hope therapists will find something of interest within them, but most of all I hope readers, whoever they might be, will find themselves entertained.
What shapes the way we see ourselves?
An administrator is forced into early retirement; a busy doctor needs a break. A girl discovers her sexuality; an older man explores a new direction for his. An estate agent seeks excitement beyond marriage; a war photographer withdraws from an overwhelming world. A woman reduces her carbon footprint; a woman flies thousands of miles for sex. A widow refuses to let her past trauma become public property; another marks her husband’s passing in style.
Thought-provoking, playful and poignant, these 42 short stories address identity from different angles, examining the characters’ sense of self at various points in their lives. What does it mean to be a parent, child, sibling, partner, friend? How important is work, culture, race, religion, nationality, class? Does our body, sexuality, gender or age determine who we are?
Is identity a given or can we choose the someone we become?
Anne Goodwin writes a regular post on fictional therpists for the Counsellors Cafe. After a twenty-five year career as a clinical psychologist, and extensive personal therapy, she 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, will be published on 23rd November 2018. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
Katzenbach J. The Analyst. London: Bantam Press, 2002.
Kureishi H. Something to Tell You. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.