Frank slouches in the chair, one leg extended as the other pumps wildly. He’s entirely blue, in work denims and a blue shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket. His thinning hair is plastered to his head, and his eyes shift as he scans the pictures on my wall. Across from him, Linda, his ex-wife, sits ramrod straight, never touching the chair back. The dark circles under her eyes belie her smile. She wears a smoky gray suit and a stylish scarf. Her skin looks almost yellow from tanning.
Linda glances at Frank. “I didn’t think she’d let you come,” she says, referring to his current wife. Frank sighs deeply and shifts his weight, leaning away from his wife. Between them, sitting cross-legged on the couch is Pamela, 13, who wears a black T-shirt that reads “Don’t Be a Dick.” Her white-tipped, straight-black hair slides across her face, shading her blue eyes rimmed in purple mascara. She has a ring piercing her nose and dozens of bracelets on her arms. Looking blankly at me, she dares me to speak to her.
So it begins. Although a first family therapy session, it could just as easily be the first scene of a novel. Both begin when a group of individuals are brought together under circumstances that affect their lives. Both require continuous involvement in the most important questions we ask ourselves: Who am I? How do I make sense of things? How do I make and sustain relationships? These questions are fed by themes that go to the heart of what it means to be a human being—love, loss, betrayal, risk, change, belonging, fear, hope, trust, failure, success.
I was an academic writer for years, but more recently, I’ve become a novel writer to satisfy my own need for a self-defining “something more.” When I sit at the computer, I start a process that’s easier to do than to explain. The words flow through my fingertips as if they had a life of their own, growing into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and, somewhere along the way, maturing into a story. I often wonder where they come from.
In therapy, there’s nothing better than listening to a good story, no matter how painful, because of the experiences from which it grows. When I write, there’s nothing better than telling a good story. In both activities there’s newness, creation, and possibility.
I ask the family what happened that made them decide to see me. “She was out all night and got herself in a big mess,” says Linda with pursed lips as she glances at Frank. “I don’t know what else to say,” adds Frank, looking away. Meanwhile, Pamela is texting a friend on her Blackberry. “Put that away,” says her mother halfheartedly. There’s a hint of a smile in the right corner of Frank’s mouth as he looks at his daughter.
In his wonderful book How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood says, “In life as in literature, we navigate via the stars of detail.” Making a story come alive requires infusing it with so much detail that, beyond mirroring reality, it creates it. The main character of one of my novels could tell the reader that his mother had died when he was a boy, or he could describe what it was like to find a pool of blood on the kitchen floor the morning after, and how he cleaned it as best he could, including the two drops that blemished his mother’s white, patent leather shoes. The first version provides the facts of the matter, but the second puts you in the scene. That’s the kind of detail I want from Pamela and her family because to help them, I feel I must enter the scene; I must understand their reality from the inside out. So I start with detailed questions—What happened? What time was it? Who was with you? What happened first? What happened next? Who did you tell? How did your mother find out? What about your father? Did they talk to each other?—and so on, until I can close my eyes and be there.
Pamela explains best: “I told my mother I’d be at Jenny’s house, and Jenny told her mother she’d be at my house. And so we walked along the canal in the middle of the night, because no one would see us. It was cold as hell, but we were having fun and laughing, and the moon was out. We wanted to see Jeremy, who lives about three miles away. He’s like 15 and has great hair and is just mad cool. His parents don’t really care what he does, and by the time we got there, they were sleeping. He was so sweet to me; he talked real soft and put his arm around me and rubbed my back. I mean, no one ever treats me that good. Jenny got all jealous and pissed, and we had a fight. She said she was gonna go because she knew what Jeremy really wanted. Jeremy just laughed at her and said he was glad she left. We talked like forever, and he kissed me. And, I don’t know, he wanted to do it, and I thought, Well, I have to do it sometime, so I had sex with him; no big deal.” Pamela’s parents hold their breath at this, and Frank looks at Linda, as if to say, “Where were you?”
Pamela: “But then he turned into a total prick; I mean he told me to leave ’cause it was so late. And I didn’t know where the hell I was; I mean, I couldn’t go back along the canal, it was way too creepy without Jenny. So I just started walking down this road. I didn’t know how to get to my mother’s and, well, next thing I know, some cop is, like, shining this spotlight at me. And now, she won’t speak to me,” she says, nodding at her mother. “Whatever,” she concludes.
At the police station, Pamela called her father, who came to get her. It was 2:30 a.m., and Frank was in his pajamas, which somehow made Pamela feel he loved her: “I mean, like, there he was in his ratty, old, striped pajamas; just standing there. I can’t believe he did that for me. And, like, he didn’t even yell.” Frank’s eyes fill with tears when she says this.
Linda’s face is white. I say to her: “Must’ve been hard when you found out Pamela had called her dad.” Her head bows. “You must’ve been petrified,” I add. With this, she shakes her head and begins to cry. I give the Kleenex box to Pamela and suggest she share it with both her parents.