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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Practicing Therapy Without A License

In the recent book about writing creative nonfiction, Keep It Real (Norton; edited by Lee Gutkind and Harriet Fletcher), I provided an essay about the new prevalence among nonfiction writers and biographers to "play therapist" when describing their real-life subjects' inner thoughts and motivations.

I don't believe that a writer can't do this, but only that he or she needs to be extremely careful. For those of you who might be interested in this topic, here's a slightly revised version of that essay. As always, I'd love to have your thoughts.


In his nonfiction best-seller, The Devil in the White City, Eric Larson delves deeply and convincingly into the mind of the serial killer H.H. Holmes. In fact, making use of newspaper accounts, trial transcripts and other source material, he goes so far as to refute aspects of Holmes' own autobiography, written in prison before his execution.

Larsen even challenges many of the killer's descriptions of his feelings and motivations, inserting his own analysis of Holmes' state of mind.

In his notes at book's end, Larson makes a pretty compelling case for his justification in doing this. But this technique does raise a fascinating question for creative nonfiction writers.

What are the dangers of such "psychoanalyzing" when depicting the inner workings of a real person's mind? Is this not practicing therapy without a license?

It's a charge frequently leveled at nonfiction writers, especially those like Bob Woodward and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who specialize in "re-creating" the thoughts and feelings of historical figures. In the past two decades, biographers of famous individuals have been even more liberal--some would say audacious--in their attempts at psychoanalytic interpretation of their subjects. Hence, we've seen speculation that Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt were gay, famed child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim was a pathological liar and Adolf Hitler was sexually abused.

The point is, today's nonfiction writers delve more intimately than ever into the lives and subjective experiences of the real people they depict. And while this approach has always been a crucial component of the fiction writer's art, there's a specific danger involved when the people depicted actually exist: namely, that much of the authority behind the nonfiction writer's voice (and opinion) derives from the reader's belief that what's being described is "true."

Does this mean there are never circumstances when the thoughts, feelings and motivations of people you're writing about can't be creatively imagined?

Not necessarily. Narrative requires that people do things, and, in life as well as in fiction, people do things for a reason. Even if it's only a reason that makes sense to them. To be deprived of the opportunity to extrapolate what these reasons might be is to sacrifice much of what makes reading about these people interesting and compelling in the first place. 

The danger emerges when the nonfiction writer assumes a false sense of objective distance from the inner world of the person being depicted. Whether reading the person's journal, scouring contemporary accounts of the person's actions, or talking with family members and intimate friends about the person's character and habits, it's important that the writer remember that he or she also brings something to the table; i.e., a wealth of personal experiences, prejudices and intentions of one's own.

For example, if you're interviewing someone about the details of his failed marriage, your own relationship experiences create a filter through which you see, hear and draw conclusions about what the subject is saying.

In other words, whether doing research about events that happened before you were born, or as a result of spending the past two weeks living in almost continual contact with your subject, you're bringing so much of your own history and beliefs into the mix that it's presumptuous to assume you're "seeing" things in a completely objective way.

(To take an extreme example, it could be argued that Richard Pollack's biography of Bruno Bettelheim, mentioned above, is undeniably influenced by the fact that Pollack's younger brother was a patient who died in Bettelheim's care under suspicious circumstances!)

Is there a way for nonfiction writers to explore the possible feelings and motives of their characters that makes narrative sense, is psychologically astute and persuasive, yet still respects the limitations of what the writer can truly know? The answer is yes, if done with skill and a real awareness of these limitations.

Among recent examples, perhaps the best is Sebastian Junger's, The Perfect Storm. Without much real information about the ship captain's decision-making process, nor the manner in which the ship was lost, nor even a clue about one single event that actually transpired during the fishing trip, Junger managed to convey his understanding of the physical and psychological rigors of sword-fishing, as well as the various navigational choices available to the crew as the storm approached.

He also presented a moving and vivid depiction of what the experience of drowning might have felt like. This was all accomplished by clearly stating that what he was describing was based on conjecture, the experiences of other fishermen he'd interviewed, and the utilization of his own imagination.

This presentation invites the reader to go on a journey into Junger's created impression of what might have happened. What results has the ring of truth, rather than the solidity of fact and is perhaps the more powerful because of it.

In other words, rather than practicing therapy without a license, the task for the creative nonfiction writer becomes, as always, about simply practicing the art of good writing.


Ron said...

mDennis Palumbo has the knack of hitting it out of the ballpark more often than not. Today's most interesting blog: "Practisiing Therapy without a License", ended with the words, "the art of good writing". And that's what I find consistantly in reading Palumbo. He accomplishes what other bloggers fail miserably at, being informative without being dry. Thank you for publishing someone who is both smart and highly readable.
Ron Bloomberg

moviedoc said...

By "therapy" I assume you refer to psychotherapy a term for treatment that requires participation of two or more individuals. None of the writers whose works you describe seems to pretend to treat anyone. They are simply describing their efforts to understand a character.

You allude to "speculation that Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt were gay, famed child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim was a pathological liar, and Adolf Hitler was sexually abused." None of this constitutes psychoanalysis or any other treatment.

Psychiatrists are ethically constrained from diagnosing someone without examining them under most circumstances. I don't see what you describe as practicing therapy without a license at all.

I would not want to discourage writers from helping us understand human motivation and behavior.

BTW: I disagree that there is always a reason for acting. Reason implies forethought which is often absent. I believe we do what we want to do, sometimes concocting a rationale after the fact.