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Jonathan Kellerman Wants to Know Why Crime Fiction Has Such a Hard Time with Mental Health Professionals


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When I conceived When the Bough Breaks, the first Alex Delaware novel, in 1981, I had worked as a clinical child psychologist and medical school professor for several years and was astonished at the lack of anything close to an accurate portrayal of the mental health professions in fiction.

Back then, depictions of psychologists and psychiatrists in novels, plays, movies and T.V. shows tended to fall into two categories: evil, Svengali-like and often homicidal mind-rapers—think Dressed To Kill—or nerdy doofuses saddled with more tics, quirks and neuroses than their patients—think The Bob Newhart Show.

The absence of verisimilitude extended to the therapy process, which was typically presented as a cartoonishly Freudian enterprise, complete with goateed, Teutonic doctor sitting at the head of an antique divan and grunting enigmatically. 

There were rare but welcome exceptions: Judd Hirsch’s psychiatrist in the beautiful film Ordinary People, though also a smidge quirky, was masterful and illustrated that psychotherapy went well beyond the couch. But, the emphasis is on rare.

(Interestingly, the preoccupation with Freudianism that began in the post-World War II era, endures in contemporary fiction, though the proportion of therapists who adhere to a strictly Freudian point of view is extremely low. That is because Freud was all about sex and writers love to write about sex.)

Several years ago, I was asked to the deliver the keynote address at the national convention of the American Psychological Association. I’d been out of the field for years and hadn’t come into contact with other psychologists but for a few close friends with whom I’d forged relationships during my time working at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. People I continue to hang out with who seem so…normal. But maybe that was just my peeps and I’d missed something. So, I approached the convention with my habitual curiosity.

Up on the dais, I spoke to an audience of several thousand psychologists from around the world and actually got to meet and talk to scores of psychologists. And, again, my impression was how ordinary they were. Brighter than average, yes, but for the most part, regular folk who loved their job and took it seriously.

That same day, I also came across several examples of multi-generational psychologists:  grandparents, parents and children choosing the same profession. The kids spoke fondly of their parents and cited them as inspiration. This struck close to home, as two of my daughters are noted clinical psychologists and though I never actively encouraged them to enter the field, my satisfaction with psychology—with helping people—was obvious. So perhaps being raised by a shrink isn’t that bad!

When I conceived Alex Delaware and the notion of an accurate psychological thriller, I had no idea I’d get published, let alone create the longest-running contemporary American crime fiction series. The Delaware novels span four decades and nearly forty novels, an unforeseen result for which I’m immensely grateful to my wonderful readers. Perhaps part of Alex’s durability indicates that on some level there’s a desire to learn what it’s really like to be a working psychologist who’s not bad or crazy. 

That’s not to say Alex is perfect; no one is. His childhood was anything but ideal and he was forced to escape a violent alcoholic father and a nonfunctional clinically depressed mother. He’s dealt with burnout and trauma and relationship ups and downs. He is compulsively driven and has his share of sleepless nights. But he’s risen above all that and has evolved into a gracious, highly functioning, emotionally intact, and, most important, compassionate human being whose compulsiveness is channeled into bringing justice to victims. 

The same goes, of course, for Milo Sturgis. A gay cop—and back in ’81 they were invisible—but so what? Not the greatest dresser and yeah, he’s a got a tendency to bitch and moan. But he’s not venal, violent, or oafish. He’s a flawed human being with solid values and the noblest of intentions.

A pair of heroes. Not anti-heroes, just as I intended, because back in 1981, the anti-hero was a yawn-yawn-yawn cliché.

Given the longevity of the Delaware series, one might expect at least a few more accurate portrayals of mental health issues and mental health practitioners in crime fiction. 

But, alas. Perhaps I’ve missed something but seems to me the same clichés dominate: evil shrink/screwed-up shrink. Sometimes a combination of both.

Other book series purporting to feature psychologist protagonists make no attempt to get within a parsec of accuracy and created a comical, jargon-laden hash. And in some cases, the quirks and tics have inflated to the point of ludicrousness. Think Wire In The Blood, a well-acted British series that can be entertaining but features a lampoon of a shrink who indulges in a host of annoying, borderline-autistic mannerisms as he muddles his way through crime scenes. In real life, this guy wouldn’t be allowed past the tape. But, apparently, he’s got an ill-defined and ill-explained gift for ferreting out the truth. Or worse, the truly execrable Cracker, featuring a stunningly obnoxious and corrupt psychologist whose slovenly, downright nasty and utterly unbelievable character would repel any patient, let alone the police. But he’s got…a gift.

Perhaps we like our fictional doctors vulnerable and troubled because when we consult real doctors, we’re in a state of vulnerability. But I suspect that some of the shortcomings of modern crime fiction in depicting therapists stems from the flat-out laziness. Premise-based writing is a whole lot easier than actually taking the time to research and develop believable characters. And as our attention span is hacked away further by a world that prizes split-second “likes” and internet “influencers” it’s unlikely that will change.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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