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Trapped by the Unspoken: Trauma, Secrets, Lies, and the Psychological Thriller

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I have always considered my childhood to be rather idyllic, complete with family bike rides, Monopoly marathons, my dad reading from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe after dinner, my mom making me into my bed on laundry day. Yet, even as a child, I knew my family had skeletons in the closet—things which, without anyone having to say so, were clearly to be kept quiet: my uncle’s mental illness and subsequent death by suicide, my grandfather’s tendency to drink too much in the small bar area he called “purgatory,” that stood between his workroom and my grandmother’s kitchen, the fact that the sound of ice clinking in a glass signaled my own father had arrived home.

I also knew my family was not the only one with secrets. My best friend’s parents fought incessantly at home yet played the happy couple to a tee in public. One of our neighbor’s sons hung himself in his bedroom closet with his dad’s belt, but the official story was he’d suffered an accident. When a girl I knew in high school got super thin and disappeared, I only heard the word anorexia mentioned once, in a whisper.

So, at age nine, when my teenage foster sister, Clara* wanted to do things to me when no one else was around—even if she hadn’t said, “you can’t tell anyone about this, they’ll make me leave”—I would have known instinctively not to tell a soul.

In part because I was confused; after all, I was nine (and then, ten). Clara claimed the things she wanted from me were ways of showing love, and my parents had emphasized before Clara arrived that she’d had a rough life, with very little love, so we all needed to give her lots of love. Moreover, though Clara was big-boned and a head taller than me, I knew she was fragile. She threatened to kill herself more than once when my parents weren’t home. And though this frightened me, my little brother, and my middle sister (the most vulnerable members of the family upon whom Clara often prevailed for pity) we also knew she had ample cause for her despair. We knew she’d lost her own parents to suicide, and she’d told us horror stories about her previous foster families. “Making her leave” meant sending her back to all that.

And yet, another part of me knew something was wrong about what Clara wanted of me; it didn’t feel like love. It felt like guilt and shame. But again, without being told, I knew to bury these feelings and bury them deep. Very deep—I didn’t tell anyone for decades. In fact, wanting to spare my mom and dad any guilt over bringing Clara into our home, I didn’t tell anyone in my family until after my parents had died.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized, like most buried secrets, what Clara did to me in the name of love was like a virus, trauma stored in my psyche as a memory of shadows on the yellow walls of the front upstairs bedroom. Despite therapy and loads of forgiveness and empathy, to this day, there are times when I am touched in a certain way and the shadows descend, making it impossible to feel anything but shame and guilt. Only after an off-color joke made by a male dinner companion triggered something deep inside, leaving me crying uncontrollably in a restaurant bathroom, did I realize what carrying this secret was doing to me.

An unexpected trigger. A shameful secret. Shadows on a wall.

Though my debut book, Blurred Fates, is not, in any way, autobiographical, I followed one of the most basic writer credos, “write what you know.” Which is to say, life experiences informed the writing of this book. I set out to write upmarket women’s fiction—a book club book—about trauma and healing, facing uncomfortable truths and betrayals, and finding the balance between taking care of others and protecting yourself. To a certain extent, I succeeded. But what I also ended up writing was about the power of the things we hide. How secrets can become lies, both of omission and commission, and how covering things up with more secrets and lies often compounds problems. How people sometimes find themselves caught in a sticky web of their own making—playing the role of spider and fly simultaneously.

Triggers. Shame. Shadows. Trauma, secrets, lies.

The most surprising thing about publishing Blurred Fates was when I learned from my readers that I’d unintentionally written a thriller. I’m embarrassed to admit that I disputed this at first. “It’s not a thriller,” I said. “It’s a story about a woman carrying a dark, shameful secret who’s convinced she’s unworthy of love. A woman who believes her only choice is to share her past and lose her family or keep her past buried and lose her mind. She’s a woman trapped by things unspoken.”

“True enough,” said an award-winning writer I’d asked to write a blurb. “But characters trapped by things unspoken are key to a successful thriller. Think Into the Woods, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

So, I did think of these books: a detective who hides his involvement in an decades-old unsolved case and finds himself investigating a current murder committed in the same spot, leading to the downfall of his personal and professional life; a cheating husband who becomes the prime suspect when his wife goes missing; a vengeful young woman (who’s vengeful for good reason) and a hardened journalist who become involved as they investigate a wealthy family willing to go to any length to hide a dark legacy of sexual abuse and murder.

And then I was reminded of an essay by editor Neil Nyren about P.D. James, in which he wrote of the famous mystery writer, “Her murderers are . . . psychologically dense, killing because they must, whether it be for one of the four Ls or because their secrets and lies have caught up to them, often within the family, often stemming from terrible events or betrayals in the past (emphasis mine).”

In Blurred Fates, secrets and lies are catching up to the characters. Secrets and lies “stemming from terrible events or betrayals in the past.” This is the stuff of psychological thrillers.

The things we do not talk about, the things we cannot bear to face, often go to the heart of who we are and how we have become who we are. We, as humans, are mysterious creatures. Unconscious, subconscious, conscious but buried—our memories and thoughts exist on several interconnected layers. Revealing these layers and connections, piece by piece, as a plot unfolds—this keeps the pages turning. These are the very things that resonate with readers because most families, like mine, have a skeleton or two to hide. Though we, as readers, are not likely to have witnessed and subsequently suppressed the deaths of two of our childhood friends in the woods or faked our own disappearance to frame our spouse or tattooed a rapist that controls our fate, we have lost loved ones, gotten in accidents, drunk too much, said something regrettable, endured illness, and found ourselves in situations that trigger us in ways we didn’t see coming.

And stories that allow us to survive trauma, uncover secrets, and reveal the truth—without taking any real physical risks—provide a deeply satisfying internal experience. As quoted by Bruno Bettleheim in The Uses of Enchantment, C.S. Lewis said fairy tales reveal “human life as seen, or felt, or divined from the inside.” Hearing about a child who has escaped a giant, outfoxed a fox, or outwitted a strange little man with an odd name, children take heart (often unconsciously) that unimaginable, unnamable fears can be overcome. In much the same way, through the reading (and writing) of psychological thrillers, we, as adults, are given the opportunity to not only vicariously conquer the worst of the darkness, but also to believe that when we get to the last page, we, too, might be capable of overcoming our fears. We, too, might be capable of stepping out of the shadows, speaking the unspoken, righting wrongs, and saving ourselves.

(* not her real name)



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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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