Researching my seventh psychological thriller, Kind of Cruel, I realized I was psychologically illiterate. The plot of Kind of Cruel involves hypnotherapy, and I’d never been hypnotized. I was planning to go for one session, but the hypnotherapist took one look at me, decided I was a little on the screwed-up side, and signed me up for fifteen sessions of “hypnoanalysis.” I quickly became aware that, dysfunctional as I undoubtedly was, I was far from fluent in the language of psychological dysfunction. I’d fancied myself an expert, and yet I didn’t know how to recognize a textbook narcissist, or an emotional energy vampire. I didn’t know what enmeshment was, or codependency, or emotional incest syndrome, or enabling, or triangulation. So, while I wrote Kind of Cruel, I simultaneously read lots of books with titles like Healing the Shame That Binds You, Trapped in the Mirror, and Toxic Parents and How to Survive Their Hurtful Legacy. (I had to hide that last one when my nearest and dearest visited, for obvious reasons!) All of these books were fascinating, and they taught me a lot. For forty years, I realized, I’d done my best to make myself understood from a position of psychological illiteracy. I’d relied on phrases like “Whenever I’m with her, I feel as if I’m suffocating” and “There’s something kind of off about him.” Suddenly, I had a whole new vocabulary at my disposal. I could identify people who posed a psychological threat, and I often found that I knew the right word for the threat they posed.
Imagine if we could all recognize a codependent narcissist as easily as a knife. If someone runs at you holding a knife, you’re immediately aware of the danger. You have the concepts and vocabulary you need. You think, “Knife—help—imminent, hideous death!” and you run. Also, you can be confident that the police will be familiar with the language of physical threat and understand the implications of “He came at me with a knife.” Everyone knows what a knife is, means, and is called. Same with a bomb. If someone lobbed a bomb at you and you thought, “What a pretty round thingie,” and didn’t run away, you’d get blown up. That’s the situation most of us are in, psychologically. Say to the world at large, “He came at me with enmeshment,” and you’ll meet with baffled looks. Most of us don’t know what that and other such terms mean, and I’d guess that a lot of people suspect they mean nothing, that American shrinks have made them up. As a skeptical Brit, I firmly believe that this is not the case. I’ve known enmeshment in Edinburgh, codependence in Coventry, narcissism in Newbury, triangulation in Truro. Okay, I’ve altered details for the sake of alliteration, but the point is still valid. This isn’t something that applies only to people in L.A. From Dagenham to Doncaster to Dundee, diagnosis is the key. Believe me, nothing scares off a damaged and damaging psyche as quickly or efficiently as the threat of diagnosis.
I’m currently reading Healing the Child Within. Partly as research, and partly because I’m still only at kindergarten level when it comes to diagnosing psychological dysfunction. One day, I hope, I’ll be an expert!