As a kid I was fascinated by a comic strip about a bumbling cop, Fearless Fosdick, most famous for his habit of pursuing bad guys by “firing a warning shot into the crowd.” In one series of strips, there was a sinister murder weapon that was killing people off — a sheet of paper on which was written a joke that was so funny that anyone who read it would die of uncontrollable laughter.
Thus was planted in my adolescent brain the possibility that a thought could literally kill a person. (And of course, an undying curiosity to read that joke. Kind of the Fosdickian equivalent of Odysseus panting to hear the song of the Sirens.)
Later I discovered that various writers of thrillers had attempted to plumb the depths of this concept. Two of the most famous were Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris. Harris, in The Silence of the Lambs, included an episode in which the evil psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter persuaded a man in the next cell, “Miggs,” to commit suicide by swallowing his own tongue. (Lecter is generally good at mindfucking, but this is his most notable example of having a non-drugged victim literally kill himself.)
In her novel Curtain — Poirot’s Last Case, Agatha Christie creates a villain whose skill was in getting others to kill by means of psychological manipulation. A string of murders are all committed, seemingly by a collection of unlikely suspects; in each case the “killers” had been manipulated into performing the deed by this third party, labeled “X” for much of the book. Generally, “X” needed only a brief, seemingly casual conversation to launch the “bolt” through the other person’s actions. It’s often pointed out that “X” is a kind of Iago on steroids.
This is a fascinating topic. But a moment’s reflection might reveal that the idea of being manipulated into doing something horrendous is not far removed from our everyday experience. Seductions abound, whether it’s someone using sex or wealth or “best foot forward” lies to get us to marry (or at least sleep with) them, or advertisers conning us into buying the ten dollar shampoo when it cleans no better than the cheapest brand. Much in our lives is about being, or resisting being seduced into doing things that may be against our self-interest, whether as individuals or “demographics” or entire nations.
The problem, for me, was that these literary examples seemed to lack convincing detail. For instance, what specifically could Lecter have told Miggs that would have convinced him to use such a horrific way to kill himself? We don’t get the transcripts, just a news bulletin that Lecter went to work on him verbally and Miggs eventually cracked. And how about “X” — what exactly happened to make his murders by proxy effective? Christie’s details, those that she shares, never seemed all that compelling to me. In fact, it’s precisely because we all, every day, must lash ourselves to the mast as we sail past multiplicities of Sirens beaconing us to the rocks (“Call now! Operators are standing by!”), that I became skeptical.
But there was one place where I knew that words can be very powerful inducers of emotional pain and turmoil, and even self-destructive behavior: the psychoanalyst’s couch. In theory, this is never deliberate, and all analysts are supposed to be the “good guys.” (Whether you think they’re effective, we must assume they are at least well-meaning, and deeply believe in the effectiveness of what they do.)
But… but… I also knew something that analysts generally avoid talking, or even thinking about: a surprisingly large percentage of psychoanalytic treatments have injured people. This has been written about in the field for decades — even Freud admitted that psychoanalysis could be harmful. (A good source on this is a wonderful book by Theo Dorpat, called Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis.) And I knew first hand that not only was my own “training analysis” often pretty painful, but that many colleagues had gone through the same ordeals. Friends talked about spending literally years struggling with and even hating their analysts, and one prominent analyst at a major institute told me that she estimated “about half” of her analytic colleagues had been traumatized by their analyses. (Some research has confirmed this, such as a study done by my colleague Sue Nathanson Elkind. Elkind surveyed therapists who had been patients themselves and found that many had been injured, and that that a sizeable percentage said that they would never go into therapy again because of the pain or frustration or injuries they had experienced there.)
Thus was born my plan: to write a novel in which psychoanalysis was the murder weapon. And not in some vague way, like just asserting it happened — I wanted to see if I could convincingly demonstrate the process. My goal is to show how we can be injured, or even destroyed by the definitions other people might impose on us. A therapist, teacher, parent, or classmate calling you “eccentric,” might be more harmful than for them to tell you, based on the same evidence, that you are “creative.” Especially if their real agenda is to get you to swallow your own tongue.
So the book, guided by my great agent, went out to editors this week. Fingers are crossed. But I’ll talk more about the concept of psychoanalytic murder, and how one might weave important and (hopefully) constructive concepts into fiction, in future posts.
[A related post on my other blog: The social intelligence of TV shrinks]