Friday, June 05, 2009

The Psychiatrist as Writer

Victor sent a link to me from the NY Times: Therapists Wired to Write by Sarah Kershaw.

She tells about a New York City writers group composed of six psychotherapists who get together to write-- fiction, screen plays, all sorts of stuff. They've been meeting for 7 years, and like the Shrink Rappers, they sound like the group has become a source of connection and friendship. One of the group members had a Bat Mitzvah at age 67 and the others all went! Kind of nice. Kershaw writes about the group:

hey have also used the group as a safe cocoon to vet and write unpublished prose, a dissertation, writings on traumatized Iraqi war veterans and now a book on running a writing group for psychoanalysts.

The stuff of therapy is not only a lot stranger than fiction but also contains the ever-unfolding narrative of life, with its pain and pathos, feats and failures.

That is some rich material for a writer.

“Everybody comes in with their own stories, and they can be so staggeringly original,” said Bonnie Zindel, the psychoanalyst who started the writing group seven years ago. “We all need stories to make sense of our lives, we’re all wired to tell stories, and nature gave us that. For us, we wonder, ‘What is the story that our patients are telling?’ There are mother stories, father stories, ghost stories and the eternal universal story of a child trying to separate from its mother.”

So a few things. Does Ms. Kershaw want to do an article on 3 blogging/podcasting/twittering psychiatrists who like to eat together-- perhaps to coincide with the publication of their book on psychiatry?

But I'm going to tell you, as much as I enjoyed the article, what struck me even more were the comments people wrote in. The commenters expressed nothing short of outrage: psychotherapists shouldn't write, they may be manipulating their patients to get more interesting stories. One psychologist wrote in saying it's a very bad idea and impossible to be both a therapist and creative writer. I'm not sure if the outrage is at the idea that therapists are writing; I have the sense that it's more about the acknowledgement that patient stories are used. Someone does write in in defense of doing this, and cites the work of Oliver Sacks and Irvin Yalom who tell stories about their patients.

We've talked about this at length on Shrink Rap (See: The Blogging Psychiatrist). Generally we shy away from writing about our patients, and when we do, we disguise them and alter the stories-- leaving the message or the flavor. Education is important, as is demystifying and destigmatizing mental illness, and the only way this can be done is to talk somewhere about patients and what has happened to them. As fodder for novels? Well then only with disguise or distance, but no where is it said that when one signs on to be a psychotherapist there is the promise to never write creatively, to never climb rocks (--if you fall and get killed, this is not good for your patients), or to confine your activities or interests so long as they fall within the bounds of the law and certain stated ethical realms.

Mental health issues permeate the media and entertainment-- it's harder to find a movie with no psychiatric themes these days -- even Jack Bauer has an addiction problem in one season.

I don't know what happens in this particular group-- Maybe they'll invited me to visit? I'd love to come. I do, however, believe that one can be both a therapist and a creative writer. I don't write fiction about my patients; I don't offer this piece of my life to them any more than I discuss my religious or political beliefs, but it is a part of me.