Tag Archives: addiction

The ultimate risk of addiction treatment

 

In the field of addictions work, so-called, it is common for practitioners and later patients who integrate ideas to cast addiction as a problem of emotion.

The addictive personality is one who is pleasure and novelty seeking, and risk taking, it is said. Risk-taking except in the area of intimacy, wherein he/she is likely avoidant. Psychoanalytic theory, attachment theory, and a host of techniques derived from either, are supported by neurobiological research, which affirms that unconscious process, communication that occurs implicitly, via eye contact, body language, and voice prosody, is mediated via the prefrontal orbital areas of the brain, and nurtured (or not) in human beings during early childhood development. The role of the therapist in our society, not unlike that of the early caregiver in some respects, is to serve as an auxiliary ego, using words, reflection, tone and physicality: to connect.

Addicts and trauma survivors would appear to have something in common: a penchant for disconnection, or dissociation, as trauma researchers indicate. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory in the latter half of the twentieth century, offered that psychoneurosis derives from protracted separation anxiety: that children deprived of maternal care first protest, then despair, and then finally exhibit detachment, which is characterized by dissociation, a state of disembodied escapism. What latter day research indicates is that infants and toddlers’ levels of the steroid hormone cortisol maintain elevated levels when a caregiver is either absent or insensitive. If such a child is deprived of all caregiving, cortisol levels stay chronically high and therefore children will develop passive parasympathetic strategies of dissociation. Habituation of the brain to the opioid-releasing state of dissociation thus becomes a “default mode” of affect regulation. The result: a predisposition to addictive behaviors, and insecure attachment in the form of an unresponsive, intimacy-avoidant personality.

This perspective is a paradigm shift for many seeking treatment for problems of substance abuse, sexual acting out, food addiction, and such, because society’s inclination is to externalize the problem of addiction: it is the substances that are addictive, for example—not so much that a predisposition within an individual exists. Meanwhile, sex addiction is a term used by some to exert an alternative, moralistic argument against sexual promiscuity, or alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than an assessment term that draws attention to a mood or mind-altering use of behavior. Food addiction is a label that is likewise criticized for being a thinly veiled attack upon the obese, especially obese women. The problem with labels is that they elicit persecutory anxiety, especially in those prone to what Melanie Klein once termed the paranoid-schizoid position, a primitive stage of childhood development. The benefit is that labels, like any succinct form of communication, draws quick and urgent attention to problems that merit just that.

The reason why the paradigm shift is important is so that preventive measures can flourish. Education is of course important, but education in the cognitive, Socratic sense is only the beginning, not the end of the intervention. We can, as we have for decades as a mental health community, provide appropriate medical care for those whose dependencies (to opioids and alcohol, for example) merit such monitoring and focus; we can concurrently and thereafter dogmatize that the consequences of addiction (jails, institutions, and death, to quote 12-step programs) are prohibitive; we can gingerly (or not) shame addicts into realizing that their behaviors are self-centered and immature, and we can impose various consequences based upon the premise that imposing limits will alter behavior (actually, limits are a good idea, but are mostly beneficial for friends and family—not as an agent of change in treating addiction). But for real change, the following is necessary.

Consciousness. Structure. Honesty. Time. Consciousness comes first. Not consciousness of the problems outlined in the last paragraph. There’s plenty of consciousness-raising about that already. Consciousness of feeling states, beginning perhaps with bodily sensations, as mirrored, amplified, and sometimes spoken to by an observant other, perhaps a therapist: someone who will monitor the moment-to-moment reactions of the patient; modulate closeness, sensitive to the fears that may manifest as withdrawal, whether the person is aware of their defenses or not. Structure comes in the form of routines: go to therapy, 12-step meetings, work and family obligations, etcetera—those necessary things to do to support growth and recovery. Time: the re-building of this afflicted self takes time, patience, and ongoing consciousness, about things like bodily sensations, feeling states that are felt and not—about that which has been driven underground, into the unconscious, and otherwise discharged via behavior.

This recovery process is another kind of risk. The biggest risk of all: to re-attach.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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How do I…?

How do I…?

  A question that emerges after the story has been told, the problem outlined. A man doesn’t trust himself: he has a plan to stop doing what he’s been doing for a long time, perhaps his entire life. He’s determined; the stakes are higher than they have ever been before, which usually means that others will be affected. Guilt will be key. The guilt stems from the prospect of failure, a background of it, and the implicit knowledge that there is something inside that demands expression.

 How do I…?

 As a therapist, I attend to the question on its own terms, responding with an outline’s semblance. First I mimic the crowd, who also knows the story, the history of the problem, and the stakes. Those stakes are reiterated. Regular reminders about the consequences of problem behavior: the impacts upon self and especially others; the damage to health, career, family. To hear some, you’d think that nothing more than such interventions are called for in the prevention of self destruction. I think that therapy supplies the subtext: people care; the man, despite himself, and despite the observations of some, cares also Further, reality can be cruel. Fate is indifferent.

 Implicit is the call for fellowship. The man in question has been isolating, not talking to others, getting lost in himself. Where is the accountability? I ask. I’m quick to explain: I don’t mean he should answer to me, or that he owes anything to anyone. At an early stage of therapy, I avoid stepping into dynamic roles wherein lines of authority are unconsciously laid. I mean something subtler; having something like structure, containment—that there is someone to speak to, to be honest to, when mania has run its course.

 How do I…?

 Continuity. How do you keep it up, your motivation? A woman changes her mind, doesn’t want what she wanted last month, has forgotten what drove her in another mood; what seemed different. The next twisting, turning switch must be explained while the past is denied. A therapist is memory—an aspect of containment. Something changed. Why? The question doesn’t compel answers as much as it does thinking, the protraction of curiosity, and slowing down. Very little has to happen “right now”.

 How do 1…?

Needs. A subset of the why question: why do people do what they do, especially if what they do generates guilt? Why doesn’t guilt itself motivate change? Why doesn’t remorse always do what courtrooms think it should? People do what they do in spite of guilt, in spite of shame, guilt’s less confident twin. Truth—that something within—hurts; it hurts self and others, and it always will. It needs out. It needs to be released, titrated in the spirit of compromise, for if it can be discharged without anyone knowing, then no one gets hurt.

 How do I…?

 Hope. When continuity has broken down; when the relapse once cast as a mere change of mind has returned the individual back to square one, a knowledge of pain lingers. The day after is another appointment. The fellowship, in all likelihood, is still there. People still care. The questions are still worthwhile. Curiosity is resilient. The therapist is in his office, waiting.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

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Memory of skittles

 

Do you remember going to movies as a kid, expecting colorful, fun adventures; a gripping, if not especially meaningful story? And do you recall those films whose lulls in exciting action, featuring longwinded dialogue (by my youngest standards, that meant all dialogue besides the phrases “look out!” or “we’re running out of time”) that left you confused, or bored, or possibly disturbed? Some stories, books or films, deposited ideas that I failed to grasp when I was young, but they left residues that my mind later absorbed, reorganized, and therefore put to different uses. Like…

I’ll eschew a Jungian pretense, a scholarly attempt to know the cross-cultural and time immemorial derivatives of modern storytelling. If Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the first ever film my parents took me to see (that I recall) is based upon, or is meant to parallel some Biblical or otherwise mythical antecedent, I was and still am ignorant of such information. When I saw the film when I was four, or maybe five, circa 1972 or 73’, I came away from the experience, like many other children I think, delighted by the color and mischief of the story. The rainbow images were childlike psychedelia, and an apt reflection of the candy ephemera I and most kids seem to fall in love with. The characters and story of Willy Wonka seemed fun and mildly comic; I was inclined to smile, laugh or even squeal at the playful action. At the same time, however, I recall feeling oddly disoriented by the menacing character that was Willy Wonka, and vaguely concerned for the sympathetic hero, the “honest” Charlie Bucket.

The morality aspect was not lost on me, even as a four or five-year-old. I was, after all, supposed to be downloading guilt around about this time, so a timeless cautionary tale about honesty or greed was actually, uh, well-timed, developmentally speaking. I recall the theme of gluttony being most impactful at the time. This may have been because I was at a movie theater, where candy snacks will have been (as they are still), with no sense of irony, sold in oversized portions to parents and children. I may have been more conscious, via experience, of greed and gluttony issues. Lying or treachery versus faith and honesty were likely not yet my cutting edge concerns. Maybe for me life was more about what I could do, when I could do it; when it was time to play, to stop playing; when is it time to notice too much of a good thing. The theme of patrimony, of passing down a legacy—notions of continuity and mortality—to a worthy heir, was lost on me.

It isn’t today, of course, but as I watched Willy Wonka recently over the holidays (it somehow seems an appropriate Holiday feature), I considered that the themes that resonated with my five-year-old self, that were implicitly deposited then, and which lingered thereafter, are still the ones that resonate most today. An addict is someone who is drawn by a figurative candy store; is seduced by an anticipation of pleasures: if not color or adventure, then of joyful affiliation, like-mindedness and play. The consequences of eating too much, of being self-centered, entitled or arrogant, are observable, but more so by onlookers, not the actors, save for a hero, the one survivor who will be redeemed, and rewarded with a happy ending. As a kid, I didn’t fully understand Charlie Bucket’s happy ending—that piece about inheriting the kingdom, whatever that was about. I just thought he’d been rewarded for not being too greedy. I might have looked at my mother to see if she were directing my attention, hoping I’d get this message, and thus I’d pick up my empty wrappers and not ask for more.

When people taste freedom for the first time, or for the first time in a while (going off to college, life after a separation), there is a sense of loss, one that may be felt palpably or tacitly, like the original losses. Buried. Not Buried. This is when the candy store opens its doors.

 

Graeme Daniels, MFT

 

 

 

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As dark as it gets

 

“Around ten o’clock, Andrew revealed a surprise: he’d been in therapy before, as in before he’d ever called me. And not even therapy, but analysis: for two years. He left because he didn’t like what he started to feel, a parallel between his drug addiction and emerging sexual compulsion. Though tired, I perked up, sensing something coming. Andrew spoke theoretically, about chasing highs, going back to an original experience. It felt like a prefacing explanation, his talk of addiction, its bedrock principles. Then he told me about his first time, the predictable, clandestine grope with an older girl, when he was eleven, she fourteen. The dreams of that girl, and his lust for teenage girls in general had never gone away, but he wouldn’t tell me more, not while there were legal issues pending, files not yet written. With that stuff looming, I wondered why he’d tell me anything, but then, I am ever struck by the desire to be known, by someone. Andrew’s loneliness gripped my heart, even as he retreated from memory, back to theory. He had an idea about pedophilia, he said, lowering his voice. It related to that original experience, that primal desire to be a child, experience pleasure as a child—natural, he argued. Shortly thereafter, his face broke, as if the pain in his soul had just hit him: that unsolvable clash between ancient fantasy versus the demands of growth.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

Several points here, will touch on just a couple for starters. In this chapter, Daniel Pierce, my troubled protagonist and therapist, has serendipitously reunited with a patient he’d A.) thought he’d lost after a bad intake session, and B.) is the man whose privacy he is being pressured to violate by a rogue former prostitute and later, lawyers. Check out my novel and you’ll find out why.

The above conversation happens in the “privacy” of a shared room in a sober living environment–both men’s retreat. What Andrew (alias Derek) reveals here he would likely not have in the structured, orthodox forum of the therapist’s office. The thoughts Andrew shares are of a kind that few, in my opinion, share unless a near-profound alliance has been established. The reference to analysis, as distinguished from therapy, implies the depth divide between models of care, and further suggests what Daniel and Andrew tacitly have in common: they both tend to leave before the going gets tough.

 

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Sexual Narcissism

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“I’m in porn.” He’d said it quickly, in a clipped voice, while looking away, like he’d wanted the words off him, shooed away. I gave him a stilled look at which he grinned teasingly, masking unease. “Well, alright. I’m getting into porn, I should say. I’ve been in one clip so far.”

“Uh-huh. What film? What’s its title?” Rick laughed again, and shook his head. I felt like an idiot, stalling with questions to conceal my blushes.

“What film? I don’t know, man. Who cares…what film? Big dicks. It’s called ‘Big dicks’. There. I just gave it a title.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Nah, it’s cool. I don’t know why I’m giving attitude, actually. I’ve got a name, if that means anything. Kane—Kane Able. How do you like it?”

“A play on…I suppose.”

“Sure.”

“That’s good,” I lied.

So I asked about plot. About the film with no name: I asked if his clip contained any plot, or acting, or even theme. Surprisingly, Rick, or Kane—was pretty sure I’d not make the shift on this one—said there was. Firefighting, he said, not surprisingly. His part, as in his role, was that of a firefighter who has entered a burning building to rescue a trapped woman, who is feebly crying out (I imagined the acting) until the hero arrives, ready to spare her. The room is very hot, about which the performers comment wittily, and then the room gets hotter, and soon they don’t care so much about the fire and…well, you get the picture.

“Any dialogue?” I asked. Rick looked at me as if I were reading from a book of stupid questions.

“I ad-libbed this one line as I came: ‘fire in the hole, baby’, I said.” This time I said nothing. “I know, don’t tell me,” Rick lamented. “Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Did she say anything, have any lines, ad lib or scripted?”

Rick shook his head, uttered a dismissive noise, like I’d asked whether the props spoke on set. I blew air through my teeth, and thought of Lira.

“That’s typical. It goes to show there just aren’t enough good roles for women these days.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

An example of parody in my mischief novel: the name Kane Abel is a play on words, of course, common to porn actors. My favorite from the real world of porn? Peter North. Subtle, right? Anyway, Kane is otherwise Rick, a young man whom Daniel Pierce meets while living at a sober living house, wherein he’s in retreat from a fraught personal and professional life. Rick’s day job is in a seafood restaurant, as a chef. There he causes trouble, disturbing his boss and Daniel’s temp boss, Jimbo, by stirring unrest, harassing female staff, flirting with nubile customers, doing very little cooking, it seems, while strutting his sex like a farmyard stud. Rick likely thinks his place in the service industry has layered meaning. He’s the kind of man who feels entitled to promiscuity, who feels offended, let down by another man’s diffidence, thinking that humankind benefits from the indiscriminate sharing of seed. He’ll try to re-ignite something in Daniel, provoke a libidinal return in the grieving, wilted psychologist. That last line, Daniel’s teasing of a feminist complaint, glides over Rick’s head, not so much because of stupidity, but rather self-absorption.

The role of women. What indeed is the role of women?

**image by Philip Lawson

 

 

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The Trauma Currency, Part Two

(Continued from part one)

Cermak’s intent was to present codependency as a legitimate focus of clinical attention, applicable to a variety of contexts. And so we have the Co-Addict Model, which draws attention to problematic behavior as a function of an underlying, pervasive disorder. While RT adherents may agree with aspects the co-addict corollary, their clinical focus downplays the pathologizing accent. Coping strategies, such as keeping busy with tasks, are instead normalized, cast as affect regulating under exceptional circumstances. Certain behaviors such as indiscriminate sharing of a sex addict’s behavior with friends or family, including children, are discouraged; however, these behaviors are framed as products of social isolation and episodic trauma brought on by an addict’s behavior, not an underlying or even associated pathology. The notable literature that represents this position includes Your Sexually Addicted Spouse (Steffens, Means, 2009), and Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts (Carnes, et al., 2012): the latter, in keeping with recovery tradition, outlines a healing process in stages: a pre-discovery stage, followed by phases of crisis/decision, and repair. In the crisis/decision stage the partner asks, “how did I get here?”, and comes to realizations like, “nothing in this marriage has been real”. Note the emphasis upon present or recent past events, not family of origin, early developmental or even adult developmental material.

The framework of RT appears to contraindicate a neutral therapeutic stance, becoming partner-centric, especially upon discovery of sexual betrayals, because the proposed de-pathologizing shift only applies to partners. There’s nothing in the RT paradigm that contests the assessment of sexual addiction. Indeed, the scope of questions for the revised version of the Sex Addiction Screening Test (or SAST) has widened in recent years, to address not only changes in technology—the broader means of acting out available to sex addicts—but also the impact upon partners of sexual betrayals. Notice, for example, a question on the 1989 version of SAST, “Does your spouse ever worry or complain about your sexual behavior?” (Carnes, 1989), versus a question on the revised 2008 version: “Has your sexual behavior ever created problems for you and your family?” Notice the slant has shifted to query problems identified by the would-be addict, instead of that which is externally identified by a partner whose perspective might be denied by the would-be sex addict, or distorted by a co-addict disorder.

The RT model calls for sex addicts or acting out partners to be identified as perpetrators of trauma, and this term—“perpetrator”—seems close enough to the connotations of “offender” that observers may be surprised that APSATS hasn’t called for the inclusion of more sex addicts on public sex offender registries. In the RT model, partners are validated as victims of a relationship-specific betrayal, and thereafter supported to integrate this experience in a way facilitates a healthy re-emergence in life, comprised of self-care, fellowship with a strong support system, realistic observation of sex addict behavior, but also renewed trust in humankind. The approach suggests that observation of predisposing pathology and validation of traumatic experience are mutually exclusive goals, which may lead to facile, short-term interventions, tailor made for practitioners presenting brief, intensive programs of care. While this may be an appropriate shift in the paradigm with respect to many partners or with all partners of sex addicts in the immediate aftermath of discovery, I wonder about the pathology that will be overlooked in the service of trauma validation, especially amid follow-up treatment episodes wherein identified-patient premises collapse over time.

In cases of sexual betrayal, a therapist working with acting out and non-acting out partners functions as a container for memories and emotions that cry out for expression, or disavowal in the case of those struggling to cope with the past. This Winnicottian task dovetails with reparation efforts—a Kleinian concept before a sex addiction treatment strategy—which hinges upon individuals’ capacity for mourning. Klein (1975) wrote that grievances we harbor towards parents for the wrongs they have committed, and for having denied those wrongs, elicit feelings of hate and desire for revenge. Durham (2000) has argued that the capacity for making reparations in the internal world is the basis on which empathy for others is established. When individuals defensively split, they attach to a narrowly defined narrative: therefore (borrowing the RT Model identifiers) a victim’s anger and hatred is rigidified in the face of a perpetrator’s denial, which represents an evil system built upon a primitive intrapsychic structure. A working through of splitting, into mourning, requires the perpetrator to own his destructiveness so as to experience mourning; then, if the victim is sufficiently open to an awareness of “good enough” qualities in the perpetrator, a re-internalization of that individual as a good object might occur, which in turn enables the victim’s own work of mourning.

Whether or not labels of victim, perpetrator, addict, or codependent are necessary, harmful, or inhibitive of this process seems ambiguous. Assessment and diagnostic nomenclature informs psychiatric intervention; enables the placement of individuals in appropriate levels of care, including hospitals when necessary; generates short and long-term treatment planning goals. Informing patients of their diagnoses gives informed consent to treatment based upon an understanding of conditions that are the focus of clinical attention. At the same time therapists know the stigmatizing risk associated with assessment and diagnostic labels, particularly those whose prescriptive measures are not clearly defined, or subject to a range of treatment alternatives, despite the attempts of some who promote protocols in response to diagnoses. The advisability of informing a patient or client that he or she has a substance dependence, for example, seems predicated on particular factors well understood across professional disciplines, and by the general public: that the problem can be accurately assessed in a short time frame; that prescriptive measures can be readily understood by those potentially receiving services (such as recommendations of abstinence, or attendance at 12-step meetings); that a person may be at grave risk of illness, injury, or even death if immediate intervention does not occur.

Are these factors true with respect to sex addiction, or codependency, or personality disorders? Maybe in some cases, but of the forty five questions on the revised SAST, for example, only one pertains to behaviors that place afflicted individuals in dangerous situations. In my training I learned to refrain from using diagnostic or assessment labels when addressing clients about their problems, unless the applicable term or terms seem critical for intervention, or unless prescriptive measures based upon the nomenclature can be articulated succinctly and concretely. Otherwise, confusion and/or resistance typically follows, with clients left thinly understanding conditions, floundering to make sense of new identities imposed by expert opinion. I often experience this when clients meet with me for the first time, having been diagnosed by a previous practitioner with, say, Narcissist Personality Disorder. They’ve been given an article to read, or a DSM criteria sheet to examine. Afterwards, they exhibit disorientation, manifest with awkward attempts to describe their freshly assigned disorder. When devising a plan, they offer that they need to learn to empathize with others more. Woodenly, they report feeling instructed, and branded, but not understood.

This is often true with individuals who are told they have a sex addiction, or a codependency problem, and while many can wrap their minds around the concept of sex addiction, the assessment still bears much explanation and holding of emotion. As for codependency: from an object relations point of view, that umbrella term represents a whole multitude of dynamic relational configurations, replete with intersecting projections and introjections. So no wonder partners of sex addicts are flummoxed and invalidated by the term, regardless of what betrayals they have felt. Aren’t many or even most shocked to hear that they may have enabled another’s addiction? Won’t many be confused to hear they may have contributed to another’s disorder by an overly close, or conversely, a distant involvement? Doesn’t it jolt the senses, the unconscious, one’s entire being, to hear that one might have a sex addiction, and that an important aspect of that concept is its impact upon intimate partners? Ultimately, what seems important is to hold the idea of a complex problem, brought to light by acting out behaviors, but not reducible to those habits, necessarily. Might it not render the divide between rival models of treatment moot to consider that our clients deserve to not be hamstrung by labels, or denied what is useful in our nomenclature? Rather, they should feel held by our open minds and fuller understanding.

 

 REFERENCES

 American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA. American Psychiatric Publishing.

 Bergner, R. & Bridges, A. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners: research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28, 193-206.

Black, Claudia (2009). Deceived. Hazelden. Center City, Minnesota.

Carnes, P. (1989) Contrary to Love. Hazelden.

Carnes, S., Lee, M. A., Rodriguez, A. D. (2012) Facing Heartbreak: Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts. Gentle Path Press.

Cermak, T. (1986). Diagnosing and treating codependence. Minneapolis, MN: Johnson institute

David J Ley (2012, September) “Abusing the Term Trauma”. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/abusing-the-term-trauma/

Durham, M.S. (2000) The Therapist’s Encounters with Revenge and Forgiveness. In “Psychological Repair: the intersubjective dialogue of remorse and forgiveness in the aftermath of gross human rights violations”. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Volume 63. Number 6. December 2015

Glass, S. (2003) Not just friends: Protect you relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal. New York, NY. The Free Press.

Klein, M. (1975) Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945. London: The Free Press, 2002.

Steffens, B. A., & Rennie, R. L. (2006) The traumatic nature of disclosure for the wives of sexual addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 247-267.

Steffens, B. A., & Means, M. (2009) Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal. New Horizon Press.

 

 

 

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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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