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Friday, February 02, 2007


Fiction therapy

Chris asked a good question in the previous thread, and I'm very interested to hear people's answers, so here it is, in the prominent position it deserves:

That's a good point about fiction helping people to work through bad events, but then it really has to be something special. For example, "The Quiet American" is spell-binding stuff, with Greene making so many points it dazzles you. On the other hand, while a film like "The Day After Tomorrow" does try to warn us about global warming and be entertaining, I just came out of the cinema thinking, "So, they really can do anything with computers." For me the film completely missed the target (notwithstanding that that might just be my fault!).

Does anyone have any examples of good fiction that can help/has helped people through the trauma of bad events?

I'm trying to think of examples myself, but it's actually kind of difficult. Fiction can act as a kind of emotional work-out, making you feel empathy and perspective, which may make you better able to deal with things life throws at you - but that's fiction read before a bad event, rather than after.

The only example I can think of, a bit tangential but still recommended, is the movie Citizen X. It's a based-on-fact-but-not-entirely-accurate-for-narrative-convenience film about the years and struggle it took to catch the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, in the face of Soviet insistence that serial killers were a decadent Western phenomenon and couldn't happen here, so no you can't have more resources to investigate these fifty-odd murders. I don't know how it would affect anyone whose loved one had been murdered, but it did give me a sense of restored faith in humanity, the opposite effect to the one we were discussing in the last post.

In the wake of Thomas Harris (the high quality of his early work notwithstanding), there's been a tendency to view serial murder as a kind of performance art; lots of really tacky stuff where the murderer does all sorts of baroque and frankly lame things in the way of mutilations, cunning clues and drastic scenarios, as if killing people was a bold and brilliant means of self-expression - naughty, but somehow full of genius as well. Citizen X, on the other hand, tells a story I've seldom seen told so well: without self-righteousness or self-congratulation, it follows the desperately hard, frustrating, necessary struggle to catch the man who's doing these things. The tag line says a lot of it: 'You don't want to know what he does. You just want to know when he's caught.' The point is not the coolness of either the killer or the detective - the killer is a pathetic loser and the detective is a rumpled, determined, ordinary man, who's trying to catch Chikatilo because he has to be stopped, no other reason. It gets its priorities right. It always made me feel better to think that at least someone can treat of so gruesome a subject without being ghoulish.

That's artistic reassurance as much as real life reassurance, though. Has anyone got a better example?

I think I saw that movie. It was about as far from the usual "serial killers are glamorous and sexy" movie as you can get.

Maybe fiction therapy is just too personal a subject to talk about. I remember that the collected short stories of Philip K. Dick got me through some bad times, but I think they achieved that by being as far removed from my problems as possible. Anything that rubs the raw spots, I avoid. I can't stand Tracy Beaker, for reasons I won't go into. I just want to reach through the screen and shake some sense into her.
Literary therapy is a field that is sadly overlooked and under-researched in our world. I'm an undergraduate student doing some research into expanding literary therapy - sometimes referred to as fiction therapy - because I think that stories are powerful. Mythology, folklore, fiction, even nonfiction can inspire, warn, encourage, etc. I think that guiding people to genres that compliment their personality types and life events can not only encourage critical thinking and introspection, but also give hopeless people role models and courage.

I've been through some tough times in my life. I remeber Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS to be very helpful to me in recognizing my own flaws and learning to correct them, along with Peter S. Beagle's THE LAST UNICORN reminding me the value of emotion and sacrifice in humanity. The Bible, even for the non-religious, can often be encouraging. I don't know. I think it's a delicate therapy, and one that needs dedicated research and determined effort before it can adequately flower. It's hard to think that by trying to help, I as a literary therapist could also do so much harm.
I was once a psychology major, and made a detailed study of the books on relationships, communication, and parenting suggested in my classes and by grad students I knew. Because of that background, I write therapeutic science fiction. I suppose there is some risk of it being the reverse, but what I try to do is have main characters who learn to be honest and open in their communication as the story goes along. In therapy, a therapist [and those qualifications vary with the degree] uses his or her view of therapy to help the patient. But, say you need someone with a humanistic view [a therapist who concentrates on the whole person in the here and now] and you feel you need to concentrate on what happened in your childhood [as a Freudian therapist would do a regression]. If you expect one kind of approach, it can make for a difficult match. What I try to do is not to impose many of my views that are specific to my religion, or what kind of therapy was my favorite in college [family-centered therapy]. Instead, I concentrate on what many therapists teach, regardless of orientation: healthy communication and assertiveness. It is hard to accidentally harm anyone with this: my main characters demonstrate good morals [and so would appeal to people in non-Christian belief systems] and try to be honest and loving with each other. I avoid profanity because some cultures abhor it [including mine]. I also avoid graphic sex or prolonged violence. There has to be conflict in a story, or there is no story; but I like to write about healing and concentrate more on what happens after the trauma and how the characters cope. Hopefully, it's a formula that's entertaining and self-helping at the same time. Did I get there? At this point, I don't have a lot of readers, but when I show my book to libraries, everyone's eager to see it on their shelves! Don't take my word for it. I posted excerpts on my Web site. I also have a money-back guarantee, in case someone thinks my book isn't therapeutic.

It is my hope that many of us writers will join together, and try to make fiction more than just an entertaining read.

On my blog, wwwlmarksinthemargin.com, I have written about fiction therapy. It is a widely ignored technique and has enormous promise in my view. But you really have to be knowledgeable in both literature and therapy to be skilled at it.

The blog posting is at http://marksinthemargin.blogspot.com/search/label/Fiction%20Therapy

Richard Katzev
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