Monthly Archives: December 2016

Holden Caulfield would understand

 

Final day of 2016. Possibly the last time I will focus on my most recent novel, the one featuring my most cryptic of titles, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole.

“What the hell is a prairie vole?”, complained one reader, who further implied that he didn’t like obscure metaphors in popular art–that is, until I pointed out that his favorite book was Catcher In The Rye, and that his favorite film was To Kill A Mockingbird, and that his second favorite was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Fine, you’ve made your point,” he conceded, only to add, “But pretty please, so I don’t have to bother Wikipedia—what the fuck is a prairie vole?”

“Fine,” I replied. Fine, I think finally: I will explain more pointedly, more comprehensively than I have before, my oh-so-obscure metaphors. I guess I’ll start with the second one: a prairie vole is a monogamous rodent. I’ve written that before and left it at that, feeling cheekily evasive. But there’s more, of course. I learned about prairie voles a couple of years ago, from the book The Compass of Pleasure, a non-fiction about addictions, whose author, David Linden, wrote with similar cheek about creatures that didn’t fit the masculine stereotype of wanton promiscuity—hence a passage about prairie voles, who not only put a ring on it and devote themselves to one partner, they behave aggressively towards other females who impinge. How romantic. What real men prairie voles are.

The latter trait doesn’t necessarily pertain to psychologist Daniel Pierce, my recently widowed and ever faithful protagonist—at least, not until he meets Lira, a former prostitute antagonist, with whom he engages with tense debate, contesting her careless feminism, which underlies her effort to expose one of Daniel’s patients, who is accused of child abuse, among other things. Because of Daniel’s resistance to her, Lira presumes his solidarity with masculine license, and is only mildly convinced by his grief-stricken diffidence, and much less by his ethical stance on privacy. Still, over the course of the story his reluctant attraction to Lira becomes evident, adding to the air of sacrifice in his character.

Which leads me to the other metaphor, the less obscure term, Venus. No one has asked me about the meaning of this one, which is disappointing on the one hand, and mildly gratifying on the other. I guess that readers get the idea. I think. Anyway, though I believe most readers are aware that Venus is Roman mythology’s answer to Aphrodite, and means goddess of beauty and love, what may not be entirely clear is the term’s relevance to the story.

Well, firstly, and most sentimentally, Venus is a reference to Mary, Daniel’s recently deceased (from cancer) wife, who is “looking down” upon her ever faithful husband, lovingly. You’d think this alone might render Daniel likable, or at least sympathetic, and thus gird him from the wrath of readers who might (like Lira) upbraid him for not later doing the right thing, from an average point of view. Because the average view is that therapists and other mandated reporters can and should, if they have the information, violate their patients’ privacy if said information might help the investigation of child abuse and thus yield the protection of children.

Daniel rejects the simplicity of this argument and therefore represents, as my hero/anti-hero, what I imagine to be one of, if not the most unpopular position that any responsible adult might take in today’s society: the protection of a possible sex offender’s privacy. I was acutely aware when I was writing Venus of how this might affect a reader’s sympathy for my central character.

And as a male writer with a male protagonist, I position center stage the opinion of women, especially. What does Venus, the symbolic everywoman, think of Daniel? Would she think him a hero? Probably not. Merely decent? Maybe. Look down on him, so to speak? Would it be enough for Daniel, to be considered decent? Is being decent enough for men? For Women? It seems to me that many in our culture are reappraising heroism: what counts as heroism—who gets to be a hero. Women seem to feature in more traditionally heroic roles in cinema these days (note the deliberate effort in the Star Wars series, for example), so a millennial, unlike a traditionalist, might chide Daniel for being cowardly, but not rely upon him, necessarily. Lira, for instance, will pursue her cause with or without Daniel’s help. She might not need men anymore, though—and here’s my truly final (not to mention obscure) spoiler—she might join them.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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Longing to matter

 

End of the year. These are the shortest days as time tumbles towards the new year, and in that compressed space it seems time to add a parting note or two about my last novel, Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. Written mostly in 2015, published in the shortest days of last year, I now feel it slipping from my mind, no longer living a constant, parallel life in my head. I imagine many writers, the successful and the (like me) unsuccessful, are like this. We are fickle. We skipped well upon rocks over water when kids, and are prone to moving on in certain areas of our lives, losing interest before others do, assuming that interest is there in the first place.

For myself, of the various intermingling themes in Venus, freedom and loneliness linger with the most purpose. From the outset of the novel, the freedom of therapist Daniel Pierce is not a happy one. Estranged from his son, and grieving over the death of his wife, he plods through a daily task which reflects a more mundane aspect of his isolation: he struggles to communicate with a representative of an insurance company, seeking to get paid for his services. Intended to satirize the managed care industry, this exchange is bookended at story’s end, and lives in light juxtaposition with the novel’s more serious plot. Yet it highlights an unpleasant side of Pierce’s outsider role, one in which complaints go unheard; acknowledgement, and sometimes reward, is delayed, or withheld indefinitely. The result is helplessness: a sense that he is alone, vulnerable, and—treated as dispensable by a governing machine—fated to lose.

The idea was to set him up (and the reader) for a winning comeback. Daniel Pierce, a stand-in for mental health professionals who are underpaid, who are poorly represented by their associations; for whom laws (like AB1775) are written without their proper consultation, gets to be difficult. He gets to show an arrogant if well-meaning interventionist that he won’t enact hers or mainstream society’s notions of heroism. He gets to show lawyers, even a judge, that he won’t be at their beckon call, and further, that he won’t betray the principles of his profession just because they think there is a greater cause. For anyone who might listen, he (like myself), will expose hypocrisy, tautologies, and—despite the will of a legal and professional system—fashion his own ending.

It’s a fantasy, of course. Side note: I enjoyed a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock recently in which Martin Scorsese enthused about Vertigo, one of my favorite films. He loved the way the film indulged fantasy, dodging that which is plausible for the sake of compelling drama. Amen, I say. And so, Venus is a statement of my fantasy: a longing to matter when isolated and (at least sometimes) unheard. The story is ironic for me in so far as I am largely happy in my relatively isolated, private practice. Yes, I have the occasional problem with managed care, but in Venus I put a little on it for the sake of compelling drama. And yes, I have been subpoenaed and otherwise called upon to break the confidentiality of clients by an importuning authority, but I have not grandstanded as Daniel Pierce does.

The story is ironic for Daniel Pierce in so far as he isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his wrongdoing client. His default advocacy for a man accused of molesting his child is a serendipitous event, and Pierce defends the privacy of their session (the professional one, plus those which symbolically take place away from the confines of an acceptable setting) not because he thinks the man innocent, but rather because he’s concerned with principle: preserving the confidentiality of the therapeutic space, for everyone. If you think that a precious or overreaching cause, especially in the context of child abuse, then consider what I’ve previously written in entries like “Why child abuse isn’t as important as you think”. Why are psychotherapists mandated reporters of child abuse while lawyers and clergy (in effect) are not? Is it because our service isn’t dovetailing with legal rights? Is it because we are secular in our mission?

To address a secondary theme, Pierce isn’t necessarily sympathetic to his misbehaving client base. Though not nearly as hateful as Lira, his women and children’s advocate antagonist, Pierce is often jaded by the sex offending or sexually addictive men that he sits with. Many of them are indeed entitled, or misogynistic, or plainly self-centered, while others are less offensively lost—underdogs of another kind. In some respects, Daniel is like most therapists: trying to be neutral, but nonetheless stumbling into an advocate’s role at times, holding different sides of individuals, including that which is objectionable. As weary with them as he is any oppressive system, Daniel weighs his dedication to those wayward men against a sometimes-I-wonder-why-I-bother-with-you attitude.

I have bothered considerably with the ideas contained with Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole. I have, I think, one more aspect, or pair of ideas, to explain. Then it will be time to move on to another story, and perhaps another cause. On to lengthier days.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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The old scripts of Daniel Pierce

 

“We met on consecutive days, Aaron and me. I detailed events, spilling out everything I could think of, remember, while he filtered the present through the past. Did I mention that my mom left my dad when I was thirteen because she found out he wasn’t a prairie vole? Didn’t I? Well, Aaron did. He does that: remembers things like a bucket sat beneath my mind”

—a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole, about an exchange between a protagonist and his confidante therapist.

Self identities—strategies of being in relationship—are often fixed and rigid. Quantum phenomena collapses time.

Daniel Pierce is a psychologist burdened by a question of ethics. A man in his practice—a man whom Pierce has seen once in a professional capacity—has possibly committed a horrible crime against a child. Or, the man is the subject of a cynical fabrication designed to leverage a judgment in a custody battle. Through serendipity, Pierce re-connects with this man, though not in the course of his day-to-day work, but rather, ironically, in the midst of his own troubles. They meet in a halfway house, as peers in addiction and mental illness, and through that meeting, Pierce hears a fuller yet still uncertain story.

In being a listener, a helper, Pierce filters what he hears though his own prejudices and back-story, as we all do. Along the way, he is influenced by a reformed prostitute, and now strident advocate of abused women and children. What is Daniel Pierce’s old script? He was a lonely kid, separated by strangeness, a habit of talking, sometimes singing to himself. Today he might have been diagnosed with ADHD, or tagged as being on the continuum of autistic disorders. His mother, now languishing with Alzheimer’s, once doted upon Daniel, admiring his childlike charm, the ‘twinkle’ in his eye that few others saw. She perhaps coddled him. Daniel’s present-day forgetfulness is half an organic condition suggestive of alcoholism, and half an implicit bond with this now absent figure.

Daniel’s father manifests the Oedipal failure: a man disgraced by his infidelities, he epitomizes the fallen, weak male reviled by the likes of Lira, Daniel’s antagonist and misandrist pursuer. Daniel had stayed closer to his now late father over time—physically, at least. Though his father’s caretaker in his final years, Daniel had always been different: most notably, a monogamist to his recently deceased wife, another doting figure. Unlike his father, he is a Prairie Vole: respectfully distant from other women. Still, his aloneness is a cost, leading him to practice dubious boundaries, as a therapist and as a storyteller. His crossing-the-fourth-wall sidebars (an example above), are intended to convey his isolation, his need to be understood. The story of Venus is based loosely on real events concerning child abuse, the knotty issue of child custody warfare; of mandated reporting requirements for psychotherapists; of confidentiality. Try to understand. Before you need someone someday to listen before blowing whistles, try to understand.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

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The old scripts

 

A man sits in a conference room, chatting collegially with a pair of co-workers, ostensibly leading a meeting. Technically, the man is in charge, but he prefers to keep things informal, not throw his weight around. Soon they will be joined by another man—everyone’s boss—who appears to not have such reservations. As a kid, he will have been a problem, this man: if not an out-and-out bully, then maybe just a nuisance; tagged as having attention deficit disorder, and needing a good dose of meds in order to follow directives, play well with others. Today, an observing psychiatrist might say he has poor audience; meaning, a blind spot keeping him from knowing where he treads. A less generous opinion would be that he doesn’t care. He walks into a room and simply expects people to drop what they’re doing and focus on him. It’s how he got to where he is, he might say. His turn to give directives, direct play. That is, if he notices.

The first man has had a different life. Until now, his once subordination to either bullies or the inattentive has been dormant. He’d worked hard, quietly achieved a certain status within the organization, and earned his graduation to civil society, mostly spared the obnoxious company of autocrats whom he’d suffered plenty enough as a younger man. When the boss walks in he begins talking louder than anyone else, instantly turning the heads of everyone present. That other collegial exchange is now relegated in importance, which immediately stirs in the first man a dreadful anger. What is this feeling? the man wonders…later. In the moment, his thoughts go blank as his adrenaline surges, followed soon by a chill sensation. Bad, implicit memories. Anxiety. The resultant compromise between states is a halting, passive, as in barely discernible complaint: “I guess we’ll postpone our talk until later.”

In models of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, espoused by the likes of James Masterson, treatment proceeds with the following assumption: that individuals develop self and other representations, based upon an accumulation of experience of ourselves in relationship with others, which in turn forms a psychological structure that is activated in times of stress. Our explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) understanding of ourselves and others is an aggregate of our object relations (experience with caretakers), derived from early development, and nurtured over time. The task of therapy is to make sense of one’s own mind and that of a therapist, even though manifest content tends to eschew focus on the therapist, especially early in the process.

Self identities—meaning, strategies of being in relationship—are often fixed and rigid by the time therapy begins. They constitute a way of getting by, but not of growing, or of being happy. A kind of quantum phenomenon collapses time, disorienting the distressed patient, who experiences new stressors with an old psychological structure, and therefore people are dimly reminded of unfinished business, though presented with fresh choices. Though I am few people’s idea of an autocrat, I might tread on toes this day, and look into fleetingly bewildered, scared eyes; hear the opening strains of quickly defended selves. I wonder what they’ll say.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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