Telling the Truth in Fiction

June 1, 2005

An author discusses the similarities he has found between creating believable characters and stories and his work as a psychiatrist.

Psychiatric Times

June 2005

Vol. XXII

Issue 7

Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth.

--Pablo Picasso

During 1996, I began writing mysteries featuring a forensic psychiatrist named Frank Clevenger. I created Clevenger to symbolize the importance of pursuing the truth (hence, Frank), even when that pursuit is invasive and painful (hence, Cleave). His particular gift was an evolving ability to keep his eyes open to the darkest chapters of his own life story and the life stories of others.

Clevenger was far from perfect in that regard. In the first novel, he used addictions to cocaine, women and gambling to modulate how much of his own reality he allowed to mingle with the disturbing realities he was observing in the world (Denial: A Novel 1997; Pantheon Books):

My eyes fixed on the two-story, pink neon greyhound outside the Wonderland Dog Track. I knew stopping would be the wrong thing to do. A lucky bet would be another drug--and I didn't have time to waste getting high. But insight doesn't necessarily produce self-control. Sometimes, you just see your destructiveness more clearly. I pulled off Route 1A, lined my car up next to a thousand others and bought my two-buck program on my way to the betting windows.

But as the novels have progressed, Clevenger has too, putting down alcohol and cocaine, refraining from trips to the track, striving for real love, struggling to parent an adoptive son named Billy Bishop (Psychopath 2003; St. Martin's Press):

He always seemed to be searching for the perfect alchemy to respond to Billy--how many parts reassurance to how many parts discipline. It was hard to know whether the broken parts of his character would heal best if rigidly splinted or gently bathed in warm waters. He wanted to do the right thing by him, to be the right father for him, but it was tough, especially because he'd never been fathered much himself.

Clevenger becomes better at solving crimes only as the facts about his childhood and adolescence come into clearer focus for him and he learns to accept them. His value to others in delivering the truth is in direct proportion to how much he values the truth about himself (Murder Suicide 2004; St. Martin's Press):

Clevenger opened his eyes. He felt a great weight of sadness in his gut--for Baxter, for Snow, for the countless others who try to break free of what they are, only to find themselves sinking into the quicksand of the lives they so desperately want to leave behind. 'Every piece of the puzzle fits now,' he said.

I could have recognized from the first page that I wrote about Clevenger (but I didn't) that the skill he was perfecting as an investigator, and the one I was developing as the creator of his life story, was no different than the work I do as a psychiatrist and as an expert witness in cases involving violence. In each instance, what is being sought is a cohesive plot--one that satisfies, that leaves a jury or reader or patient feeling that the main characters have acted in understandable (if not laudable) ways, that loose ends have been tied, and that the future is a little more predictable because of it.

I have learned that what I thought were separate vocations for me--psychotherapist, expert witness and writer--are one and the same. I am a storyteller. My patients want no more and no less from me than the customers who buy my books or the defense attorneys who retain me to humanize their clients. They want me to probe deeply enough and listen carefully enough to formulate stories they and others can resonate with, ones that feel authentic.

In every venue in which I work, what people pay me for--and seem to want more and more of--is what psychiatrists develop in residency and their own therapy and continue to refine during practice: empathy, the third ear, the tuning fork in our minds and, even more, in our hearts that tells us whether something we hear rings true or whether we must carefully, but determinedly, edge still closer to a patient's pain, dig still deeper.

Juries, judges, readers, patients want one thing, as powerful as it is evasive: Truth. And, almost without exception, the truth they crave is about the ways in which people suffer and can overcome that suffering. They want refuge from the unreality of our world, the great lie that everyone is having a good time, that with the right deconstructed jeans or the right novelty watch, or the right designer drug, or more sex, or another island getaway, their lives will turn around. Because they don't really believe any of that, just like they don't believe a character in a novel who does not struggle, who does not confront the painful realities in life, who does not have to take a big risk in order to grow.

In a real world with politicians who can't be trusted, a stock market still bleeding from Internet overblown valuations based on nothing, giant accounting firms using fuzzy math, Enron and Martha Stewart, people want to plant their feet firmly on what they know in their souls, even if they have to find it in a work of fiction: That we are more alike than different in our needs and fears and much more alone than we need to be.

No wonder creating the story line of a novel feels more like honing in on psychological fact than telling tales.

Often, in order to create authentic stories, I need to go back to the back story of a character. I need to ask myself what happened to specific characters developmentally that would determine how they will respond in the present. And, of course, in so doing I am doing nothing more than therapy on the characters I have created.

If readers do not understand the motivations of specific characters as growing out of the early life experiences of that individual, they will not "buy" them. Readers will feel that the characters are strangers to whom they cannot relate and they will be very dissatisfied with the story. They will not empathize with their plights. They will not be moved.

The same is true of patients living their own stories. If their back stories remain impenetrable to them, if they cannot understand why they do what they do, then they will lose passion for themselves and grow dissatisfied, depressed or anxious--or even become fully detached from reality.

One of the special joys of creating fiction is that, invariably, my editor and agent come to have very strong feelings about whether certain thoughts and behaviors of Clevenger's read as true. They argue vigorously that Clevenger would do this, would not do that. And in so doing, they are echoing not only what I do in developing characters for novels, but what I do in coming to empathize with the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of my patients. They are my co-therapists to my characters.

They help me find the core truth around which the story is developing. And all the better that the stories I write are mysteries. What story isn't?

When my editor and agent weigh in on the veracity of what I have written, they echo, in fact, what the late James Mann, M.D., my own therapist, did for me (and taught me to do for myself and others). It was only five minutes into our first session together when he cleared his throat, shifted slightly in his seat, and said, "Do you ever get the feeling, as you're talking, that you're completely full of crap?"

I thought about that. "Sometimes," I said. "Yes, I do."

He shrugged and smiled that magical, forgiving, loving, demanding smile that had turned the keys to long-locked doors on so many life stories. "It's your time," he said. "It's your money. And it's your life. You want to waste it, go ahead."

It was the first moment I realized how much I did not want to waste my life, and how much avoiding that possibility would rely on finding out the truth about myself and telling the truth to others.

I think of Mann frequently as I write. I also find myself thinking about other supervisors of mine during my residency who taught me so much about listening for the truth and then turning it into stories that move people.

I have nothing else to offer my readers, the courts, my patients--or myself.

Dr. Ablow is a forensic psychiatrist, novelist and television commentator.