Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hallie Ephron: When a Character Needs a Shrink

The following article appeared in the latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal: Shrinks and other Mental Healthcare Professionals (Volume 27:4). This issue is available for purchase. Hardcopy or PDF download. See the Table of Contents here.

Hallie Ephron writes novels she hopes will keep you up nights. Her latest: Come and Find Me. She is also the crime fiction book reviewer for the Boston Globe and author of the Edgar-award nominated Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.

Hallie Ephron: When a Character Needs a Shrink...

Agoraphobia. For many of those who suffer from it, the prospect of leaving the safety of home can generate a panic attack so severe that it feels like a heart attack. It's what Diana, the main character in my last novel, Come and Find Me, experiences whenever she tries to leave the safety of the fortress she's created within her home. There, she "lives" on the Internet and gets whatever she needs delivered to the house. She makes it through the average day with the help of Xanax and regular sessions with her therapist, whom she sees, of course, via Skype.

But even the arrival of the UPS man, whom she knows by name, can be traumatic.

Heart pounding, she peered through the peephole in the door. Wally's eyeball seemed to bulge back at her.

Opening the door can be terrifying.

As she opened the door, she felt as if an abyss opened in front of her, like an elevator door sliding open into an empty shaft. She grasped the door frame with both hands.

Fear keeps Diana in her house—until her sister goes missing. Then fear of what might be happening to her sister drives her out. In a sense, Diana is her own worst enemy; her own psyche is the villain she has to deal with before she can begin to confront her real enemies.

As I was writing the book, I need to learn as much as I could about agoraphobia. It helped that I was able to call on my former collaborator for advice, psychologist Donald Davidoff. Together we wrote a series of five mystery novels that were published by Minotaur. The books were set at a fictional version of Harvard's famed McLean psychiatric hospital where Don still runs one of the units. The powers-that-be have shown great restraint in letting Don keep his day job, even after we made the director of our fictional version of the MacLean an egomaniacal villain in one of the books. They understood that it was "just fiction." Really, it was.

It helps that the hospital has become accustomed over the years to being featured in books—The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, and Mount Misery, to name a few examples. And it's the setting of one of James Taylor's early songs. Sample lyric:

Just knocking around the zoo on a Thursday afternoon,
There's bars on all the windows and they're counting up the spoons...

Those spoons would have been silver back when James Taylor was a teenage inmate. Back then the healing grounds of the very rich, the MacLean had its own golf course and served tea each afternoon on silver tea service to patients who might be there for years on end. Its massive Victorian buildings still look as if mad women could easily reside in their attics, though with the arrival of managed care, few patients stay there for more than a few weeks.

I miss having a resident shrink for my characters, but fortunately Don still takes my calls. So when I was writing Diana for Come and Find Me, I called Don for a crash course in agoraphobia. I learned about its symptoms and about the medication and therapy to treat it. I learned that agoraphobia usually isn't triggered by a single traumatic event. Its victims have often struggled with it, to varying degrees, throughout their lives.

Today I'm working on my third solo suspense novel. One of the inspirations for this new story is a possibly apocryphal tale that Don once told me about the McLean.

As the story goes, the members of a wealthy family, despairing of getting their demented matriarch to accept the care she needed, had an exact replica of her house built on the grounds of the McLean. In the dead of night, the old woman was spirited out of her house along with her furniture, belongings, and cats. When she woke up the next morning it was in a bedroom just like hers in the replica. She lived out her years in that house on the grounds of the MacLean, never realizing she'd ever left home.

I've always loved that story, though Don refuses to divulge whether it's true or not. And I won't say how I use it in the new novel because that would be a spoiler. Let's just say that the main character in the book is old, very old, but things happen that make her wonder if she's losing her marbles.

My friend Don happens to be an expert on memory and aging, so these days, once again, I have him on speed dial.

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