REVIEW: The April Tree by Judith Arnold

Some time ago, I read The April Tree by Judith Arnold. I have been reminded of the novel recently because, like The April Tree, the manuscript I have just completed focuses on the aftermath of a tragedy and the struggle of survivors to deal with the loss.

In Arnold’s novel, four teenagers witness the tragic death of a young girl, a friend. As the years go by, the tragedy haunts them, changing each of their lives in very different ways, sending them on widely diverse paths as they grapple with guilt and grief. Ms. Arnold is wonderfully accurate in her depiction of change in her characters. Each survivor of any traumatic event processes what happened in relationship to their previous experiences, their personalities, and their beliefs. Some are shattered, some are made stronger, and some are moved to alter their journeys. The author shows remarkable insight as she follows each of her young characters over the years. I recommend this book highly for Ms. Arnold’s ability to explore the psychology of trauma.


Schizophrenia vs. DID

I just saw another TV program that confused schizophrenia with Dissociative Identity Disorder. If you’re creating a character with one or both of these disorders, you’ve got to know the specifics. Unless you want every reader who took Psychology 101 to snicker at your ignorance. So–here’s the nitty-gritty on those diagnoses.

First–“Split personality” is not a psychological term. Yes, the “split” word is used in a number of ways in psychology–too many to discuss here–but not as “split personality.”

People use it as a synonym for schizophrenia. This is a psychotic disorder. Individuals with this diagnosis hear voices and may respond to them,  mumbling and muttering so that people passing them on the street say, “That guy is crazy.” Crazy is not a psychological term either.

In addition to the voices and other auditory hallucinations, they may also see things or misinterpret every day events. Like, the word “grape” on a sign being a disguised threat of “rape.” It may sound amusing, but try living in a world where you can’t distinguish between real and imagined. And it all feels threatening. So threatening, that they may have to defend themselves against grape advertisements or other ominous objects. Kidding aside, it’s a scary world for people with schizophrenia, so DON’T MAKE THEM CEOs  OR COLLEGE PROFESSORS. Or even brilliant masterminds of sinister plots because, although they may distrust everybody, their thought processes are too jumbled to come up with a feasible plan. So don’t do it. Unless you want everyone to think you flunked Psych 101.

Now–DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder. You probably have heard of Multiple Personality, which is the obsolete name for this diagnosis. Persons with DID are NOT psychotic. Due to severe and early trauma, their awareness is divided into a number of separate modes or “alters,” each with specific and unique memories, with walls between that prevent the memories and knowledge from being shared with the others alters. Scratch your head or roll your eyes if you like, but this coping strategy was a brilliant tactic for surviving extreme circumstances without the aid of a protective adult. So they arrive at adulthood with accurate but disconnected memory files.

Think of it this way–When they open one file drawer, they can’t see into the file below it. Each memory “drawer” may take on a distinct personality, perhaps even a different name, continuing to add more memories to that personality–that drawer. Everything in the files is accurate, but if the alter that’s “out” can’t locate a particular file–“Which road gets me to the nearest post office?”– because it’s stored in another drawer, it screws up operations. Say, Dancing Queen nabs the car keys and heads to the bar for a late-nighter, even though Workaholic knows there’s a report due for the mandatory meeting at the office, 7 A.M. sharp,–well, there’s going to be hell to pay. Even so, people with DID know what’s real, they are often bright and certainly creative, and powerhouses of energy. So they can make great CEOs or other high-level professionals. If they could just get all the inside people on the same page.

They are not, typically, criminals, but they could be, if everyone inside agreed to The Plan. Which is not likely to happen. Even if Mean Monster buys the gun, Softie is probably going to drop it in the well.

Review of All He Ever Wanted: A Novel *****

All He Ever Wanted: A Novel by Anita Shreve is a dark tale of the depths to which a person will go when love is not returned. Set in a conservative college in the early 1900’s, the story conveys the pompous academic flavor of the era, but the pain family members inflict on each other is timeless. Excellent prose and plot. Good depiction of the way an obsession can engulf and alter a person until he loses the very thing he seeks to possess.

This novel is character-driven. From the first pages, we see that the protagonist, who narrates the story, is heading inexorably toward his own destruction. As a psychologist, I wanted fervently to step in and warn him that he was making things worse, he was making things worse! But, of course, he wouldn’t have listened.


Memory Retrieval

Today I was kissed by a buffalo. All right, maybe he was tasting me, but allow me my illusion. I walked my dogs this morning by the buffalo pasture up on the hill. The beasts ambled toward the fence and, despite the noisy protests of my little terrier, they pressed their massive heads to the wire squares. Blessed with an indefatigable case of arrested development, I immediately poked my hand through the fence. The largest buffalo swung his head around, stuck out his black, sandpaper tongue, and licked my palm. This was a much better reception than I’d gotten from previous herds who met my efforts at friendliness with a quick thrust of horn in an attempt to perforate any of my body parts it could reach. Which turned out to be none, given my dumb luck or spot-on reflexes. But today I got kissed. It reminded me of the years I spent nurturing my relationships with the cows in the neighbor’s pasture behind my childhood home. A solitary child, I often snaked through the barbed wire fence and skipped across the meadow, 20 or 30 cows sauntering in my wake, to the large maple tree. Where its branches spread out in thick arms, the neighborhood boys had built, then abandoned, a superb treehouse complete with a rusty tire chain for a ladder. From my perch there, I could break off tufts of juicy maple leaves, stretch down in death-defying postures, and entice the cows. They’d lick the offerings from my fingers, their pink tongues scraping and tickling my hands. We’d while away hours entrancing each other, the cows so thick below me I couldn’t see meadow. When it was time to return home for supper according to my Hop-along Cassidy wristwatch, I’d dangle down from the branch, using my legs to part the cows until it was possible to squeeze myself between their barrel bodies. After stepping on my toes to snuffle for any leaves I might still have, they’d walk me home as far as the fence, mooing, bidding me to return soon. Today, the buffalo reminded me of all those cows. I offered them grass, but they already had plenty of that. Tomorrow, when I walk the dogs, I’m going to take carrots and apples.IMG_0227

The Perfect Sociopath

I have just finished reading and reviewing Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn has created the perfect antisocial character. By the way, antisocial in psychological terms does not refer to someone who hates parties. It has the same meaning as sociopath or psychopath. The telling characteristics are remorselessness and a willingness to manipulate or harm others for his or her own gain or pleasure. Sociopaths are often bright and charming, as is Flynn’s character. So they’re not all serial killers; they simply manipulate their victims most of the time to get what they want. Speaking of manipulation, Flynn has crafted her novel so eloquently that the reader follows her right down one blind alley after another.

Why do we STILL equate psychosis with evil intent?

I had intended to write a second entry on the nature of change, but I just finished reading a novel that I enjoyed. Until the ending. Which resolved the mystery by explaining that the long, convoluted plot for revenge was concocted and carried out single-handedly by a character so deranged that she was later declared incompetent to stand trial.

I keep reminding myself that this was entertainment. Just like all the tv shows that do the same thing. I can’t help but wonder, though, how much this misinformation affects the way we look at the seriously mentally ill. How much does it explain the dearth of quality care and the paltry rates that insurance companies are willing to shell out for mental health care?

All right. I’ll get down off my soap box for that speech, but I still want to say to authors and other interested parties that people with uncontrolled schizophrenia or other psychoses may indeed have voices telling them to do something illegal or harmful. The jails are full of the  mentally ill. But the acts they get arrested for are usually impulsive:  interrupting a court session, bad-mouthing a policeman, disrobing in public, even pulling out a weapon and shooting someone. But in full-blown psychosis, an individual’s thoughts are too disordered to conceive a plot, impersonate someone, perform at a job without raising questions, or even explain a complicated plan to an accomplice or a policeman. In all my career as a psychologist, I have NEVER worked with a psychotic patient who wasn’t his or her own worst enemy, and much more likely to be the targets of abuse rather than the perpetrators. Not a one of them could have begun to formulate such a plot as the one described in the novel I read.

If you are writing a story about a career criminal or a shyster involved in a tangled conspiracy, give your protagonist a personality disorder. (They used to be called character disorders.) Narcissistic, borderline, or, for the big guns, antisocial (also known as sociopath or psychopath) are accurate possibilities. They each have their own characteristics and would play out differently in your story. I’ll offer more details later. But please don’t depict people with rampant psychoses as evil geniuses.

I’m off to popcorn and a movie now. Take care!

The Nature of Change: Misery

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about change for a number of reasons. First, here it is March 1st, two months into the new year, and I have yet to implement a single one of my New Year’s Resolutions. But, better late than never. Actually, March 1 is a much better time to try for change. It’s a harbinger of spring, the season of beginnings. This is true despite the fact that we have been issued a severe weather warning yet again for tonight, a reminder that winter may never end this year. But, let’s assume that it will. And March 1 will usher in, not only spring, but also my New Year’s resolutions. Feel free to borrow my logic.

Secondly, now that my novel, THE HOUSE THAT TILTS is completed, I’ve been polishing up the synopsis, plus creating the synopsis for my next project, and a synopsis encapsulates the changes in a book’s main characters. I have to say that my characters are doing a better job of incorporating change than I am. Still, they’ve been through hell. I’ve made them go through hell because that’s the story. And because hell is the only thing that triggers change.

That brings me to the third reason I’m focused on change. Because I’m a psychologist. My clients come to me in order to change their lives. Or maybe not. I’ve learned that, unless we are absolutely miserable with the way things are, we aren’t likely to do anything different. And some clients, while unhappy, are not miserably unhappy. They’re not quite ready. That’s okay. We all get there on our own schedule.

One of my professors, a wizened, brilliant teacher with the personality of Eeyore, told this story:  There was a man sitting up to his neck in horse manure (however, the wizened professor did not say ‘horse manure’). Every time someone went by, he whined, “It stinks in here. It stinks in here.” Finally, one passerby turned and said, “Well, why don’t you stand up and get out of that?” To which the first man replied, “But it’s cold out there.”

That was our lesson for that day. Not everyone of our clients would be ready to give up the familiar and risk the cold in order to find a better space.  If WE really want to change, if we REALLY want to take up those New Year’s resolutions, we’re going to have to be pretty dang sick of the way things are. And if we’re writing a believable plot, our character has to have reached the end of her rope. Which does not bode well for my resolutions.

So, here goes. I’m off to ingest a totally nutritious, guilt-free dinner of steamed vegetables.

See you later.