Monthly Archives: April 2016



No essay, just a link. Check it out…


and read the following blogs: “Ever since I was a young boy”, “Your mind must learn to roam”, “You didn’t hear it. You didn’t See it”, “Listening to you”

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About reviews, popularity

Ever get the feeling someone’s trying to tell you something by not telling you something? Psychotherapists (that identifier feels awkward for some reason) have to learn to interpret the unsaid, by thinking about non-verbal information: everything from muted sighs to averted glances at a hidden clock, to I’m-running-late text messages, belated vacation or business trip announcements; e-mail terminations. Relationships in some people’s lives end with tumbling regularity. Exchanges are transient. Promises are easily given, and more easily withdrawn or better yet, forgotten. If you wrote it down, good for you. Kudos for the documentation, signifying that something meaningful happened.

I don’t spend a lot of time documenting psychotherapy, largely because it makes for dull reading, the type of notes one is meant to write for nosy overseers. It makes for good stories however, not that I can lift them directly from my clients’ shares. Instead, it’s an exercise in grabbing at pieces, tossing them at a blank page, worrying later about the links. For my first four novels I’d picked sketchily from my clients’ backstories, preferring to represent moments, unidentifiable fragments of individuals’ lives, maintaining everyone’s confidentiality. Except mine, of course. It’s several years since my first effort, the much somethinged Living Without Blood, about somebody named Eric Metcalf and his friend Richard something else, coming together after years of gradual estrangement in order to…actually, I’ve forgotten what they did together. I loved LWB at its time of publication—2009. It was my first-born: a sloppy, muddled beginner trying to find its legs after a nine-month labor, but occasionally standing tall, inspired by a self-consciously prosy flow. Skip to 2012: the release of Crystal From The Hills, a picaresque adventure that I’d conceived as a 600-page novel, only to split the story in half, releasing its follow-up, The Situation, two years later. Crystal took three years to write, in sporadic bursts in between semesters of my post-graduate training program at the Masterson Institute. Written three times, suffered over like a still-birthed thesis, it was my best effort thus far I thought, and I was confident enough of its value to submit a manuscript for review, with Kirkus magazine, a reputed den of literary cognoscenti.

Kirkus didn’t like Crystal From The Hills, calling it “sprawling”, “meandering” (a reference to its many flashbacks, childhood background material to make John Bowlbyesque sense of my protagonist’s disturbance). I got my first real taste of a reviewer’s, and presumably an average reader’s distaste for disrupted narrative, impatience with detail. I learned that some might find my prose difficult to read, for it was “ponderous”, “stacking of clauses and syllables”; containing way too much minutia. Gee, had they ever read David Foster Wallace? There wasn’t much complaint (from Kirkus) about the plot as such, or about character development—rather a suggestion that readers prefer heroes to be heroes, or at least charming, as opposed to being self-absorbed underdogs, or as one reader put it, losers. Ironic, for the novel’s underlying theme was empathy, so I did indeed fail in my task. I absorbed the criticism graciously, I think, noting that for my modest investment I’d received more honest feedback in two paragraphs—indeed more feedback, period—than I’d received from most non-paid (friendly or not) readers over the previous three years. Seriously, outside of the odd sympathetic review posted on Amazon, my readers, which include one loving family member, plus a rough crossection of my friendship circle, have given me little interest over the years. Some of them don’t care for psychodrama, preferring sci-fi, fantasy, non-fiction, or pleasant yarns about dogs or foreign travelogues. I think some struggle with the opening pages of my books, are left sucking oxygen within minutes having regarded my prose as if it were like the text of vacuum cleaner manuals. Most think that theme is subordinate to plot, which I agree with to some extent, except that some just don’t register ideas, only action. And some just don’t read. Period.

Oh well.

The effort to engage strangers moved on. The Situation received a warmer review from Kirkus, as in lukewarm, with concessions that it contained less of its predecessor’s flaws, as in less background material, less “meandering” plot. This was a somewhat hollow non-criticism, as the novel was a sequel and therefore did not require much backstory. However, other elements, like theme, the relatively fast pace or crisp prose, plus what I thought were clever plot devices (For example, Crystal’s opening, “He’s dead”, regarding a referenced character named Weed, is mirrored by Weed’s opening line of Situation: “I’m alive”. Reaction from Kirkus: nothing). Clarion/Foreword reviews didn’t notice this and other plot tidbits either, but otherwise offered a glowing review of The Situation, giving me four stars out of five, and remarking that my text was “captivating”, my writing assured; the story humorous, adventurous and fast-paced: gratifying, if not quite redemptive of the story as a whole. Kirkus’ reticence continued to irk me. I held the impression that their reviewer was holding something back, thinking my novel worthwhile but not wanting to say so.

This idea was reinforced earlier this year by their latest (and likely the last I’ll solicit) review, for my new novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I was cautiously optimistic this time, half thinking my third submission would be the charm, otherwise simply believing my latest novel is pretty damn good. Alas, it was not to be. Upon providing a typically competent synopsis of the plot and a begrudging recognition that I was “drawing attention to an important issue”, Kirkus then complained that my protagonist, the sarcastic, at times pathetic Daniel Pierce, is not likeable. No kidding. According to them, he is pompous, contrarian (like that word, actually), and anti-feminist—a problem, apparently. Actually, as a therapist he’s resolutely neutral: a Bionion depository, as he puts it, “lacking memory or desire” (a famous Wilfred Bion quote). Outside his office he’s not so much anti-feminist as anti that which co-opts platitudes for self-serving aims, which is why he might be unlikeable. I suppose that negativity is not likeable, which I further suppose depends upon point of view. Anyway, it should tell me something, this reaction: something I’ve known at least since high school: in this world, in nearly all endeavors, it’s not enough to be good. BTW: my novel is damn good! But here’s the thing: you have to be liked.



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Names matter, don’t matter


They do if you give them up. Daniel Pierce is a seasoned psychologist, presumably trained to maintain the confidentiality of his patients, or clients as he sometimes calls them. It’s the most important thing he does, he says, and he doesn’t do much. He gives the reader his name, plus that of some others, people who don’t require or deserve the privacy, but otherwise names are a problem. People’s names, place names: they don’t matter, or they are anonymous. My novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, places confidentiality at the center of a host of themes underpinning its plot: that of a jaded counselor taking an impromptu hiatus from his practice, but thwarted in that effort by a stalking ex-prostitute who wants information about a patient whom she says has sexually abused a child. BTW: this ‘thwarting’ was a main reason the novel was originally called Blocked. The blockages are all around: her blocking of his escapism; his blocking of her social intervention; the internal blocks that Daniel Pierce suffers from, that…well, maybe you get the idea.

Daniel is reluctant to give it up, this information she seeks, but he strings the woman along, hopeful of a diversion to juice up his drunken life; or perhaps he’s intrigued by a strange opportunity. See, he’s met numerous people over time who are similar to Lira, the seductress who takes him to a bar, then to her home, and then upon a ride-along through an alternative world-view, that of an activist. Like many unctuous members of society, she wants Daniel to violate his neutral position, the trust that one of his patients has placed in him, in the service of protecting society, and specifically children. But it doesn’t work like that, Daniel rebukes. In fact, he declares that such cavalier heroics will do more harm than good, impinging upon efforts to prevent child abuse rather than the reverse. He articulates, of course, something I believe: that if our profession is going to help understand child abuse, we have to give its perpetrators reason to speak to professionals. And I mean speak to us, not comply with us. That means maintaining privacy when hearing that which turns the stomach. As far as authorities are concerned, it means not naming names.

Daniel Pierce wasn’t always so inclined to protect devils in order to further understand them. One of his background jobs was that of a group home director—a man in charge of delinquent boys, who keep secrets as well as any therapist, and punish violations of confidentiality more severely than the board of behavioral sciences ever does. A passage depicting efforts to out the identity of a house assailant reveals Daniel as a kind of one-time policeman: a house heavy and dad, lecturing young criminal minds about the importance of standing by the innocent; about not protecting wrongdoers, by giving up their names to those in charge. Daniel’s youthful adversaries managed to disillusion him, by reminding that for many, loyalty is more important than justice; that protecting friends and other loved ones is more compelling than doing right. Now it’s sometime later and Daniel Pierce is not so sure about who is innocent and who isn’t; about who are the abusers, or the oppressed. This is partly because he feels like one of the oppressed, which is hardly surprising, topically speaking. His political leanings unclear, he could be a supporter of either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders: marginalized, confused, and looking to blame either a subset of society or its entrenched institutions for the messy world he’s a tiny part of.

On balance, his biases are progressive, but above all he’s isolated, seeing hypocrisy, shallow rhetoric and contrived solutions on all sides of the grand social split. He’s alienated, fed up, and tired of social advocates in particular: bleating feminists on the left, blow-hard paternalists on the right. Grieving the loss of his one and only love of his life, and estranged from his son, his only child, he’s in collapse, sliding along a path towards a bottom out drinking experience until this one woman appears, like a seraphic breeze with a provocative mission. She says Derek Metcalf, Daniel’s patient, has committed a horrible crime, and that Daniel can and should help him to confess, if not report that event if it’s already occurred. Daniel is non-committal, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Lira’s plan, or its premise, and privately holding that he doesn’t know much. Like many troubled drinkers, he doesn’t remember much. Actually, he doesn’t even remember (partly due to his alcoholism) ever seeing a patient named Derek Metcalf. The profile Lira gives him sounds a bit like a man named Andrew, who came to see him once, flitting in on a bicycle, discussing a sordid life of street drugs and prostitutes, appearing and later proving elusive, for he too is on the run, escaping from his life, operating incommunicado, living anonymously, having sex anonymously; explaining that his name, where he’s from, where and who he is at any time doesn’t matter. Only it matters.



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Introducing Venus


Time to fulfill a promise. Last year, about nine months ago now, I previewed a novel I had then nearly completed and which now has been available for about three months online. At the time it was called Blocked, not that names matter, and I wrote that I’d comment on the novel, its various themes and other elements, leading up to and beyond its publication. Alas, that didn’t happen. Sorry. I know you were waiting with baited breath. Anyway, I got distracted, like my protagonist Daniel Pierce often does; became sarcastic, as I still am, though he is less so. Among other things, my object relations explicating Tommy article got accepted for publication in an academic journal (I’m quite proud of that, in case you can’t tell), and random events occurred, concerning dogs, graphic novels, the politics of evidence-based psychotherapy: all happening with Bionic (as in Wilfred) meaning.

So the novel’s called Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, which is a meaningful title, but you’d have to read the novel to learn fully its point. I know. What a typical, asshole-self-important author thing to write. Well, I’ll give a heads up on a couple of things, hopefully make this labor of my last two years interesting for you. Venus is a reference to women, which shouldn’t surprise. A prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. There. Figured it out yet? Oh well, let’s take it one step at a time, one day at a time, which should clue you into one theme of the story, at least. So, the first chapter (about five pages, I think), will introduce you to Daniel Pierce, a lonesome psychologist (actually, the reader doesn’t really learn his name and vocation until chapter two) who is talking to an insurance representative, seeking payment for a claim that’s gone awry, but also flirting somewhat. There’s some foreshadowing in this comic opening, but mostly I’m introducing a voice—one that’s flippant, like this blog entry—and a theme of subjugation to a system or machine. Daniel suffers and doesn’t “forgive” systems, but he latches onto individuals, like his clients, and also like the angelic-seeming, barely English speaking helper on the line. She’ll listen to him, he hopes. She might really listen. No one else does, he explains sourly.

There isn’t much to help a reader feel sorry for the self-pitying Daniel Pierce, but a troubled, flaky son, and a deceased wife give some cause early on. Later, as he becomes dogmatic, contrary, awkwardly humored, if self-deprecating, liking him might get even harder. But try, won’t you…he needs help. As to his crises, the reader first learns about Ryan, his early twenty something son: absconded from Daniel’s home after completing a stint in rehab and winning from him the reward of an inherited car—a bad move, Daniel concedes. You’ll learn that it’s one of many mistakes he is making in his life, though hereafter they will relate mostly to his working life: his poor boundaries, and at least questionable ethics. In the early pages, Daniel’s wife, Lisa, is introduced as “sleeping”—a figurative trick, for she is really gone. She and Ryan are spectral figures in this tale: oblique motivators, sources of regret, or in Lisa’s case, an overseer of sorts.

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