You Got It Wrong: We Don’t Do Freudian Psychoanalysis — What Authors Get Wrong About Psychotherapists

Mike McMahon: Portrait of a metal-loving therapist.

From Dennis Lahane’s Shutter Island to Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, psychotherapy frequently pops up as an important element in genre fiction. But authors don’t always get it right. Often they  draw on an outdated vision of what psychotherapy entails or otherwise manage to distort the process. My guest blogger, Mike McMahan, a licensed psychotherapist and  heavy metal music blogger, helps set the record straight.

By Mike McMahan

When asked “what do fiction writers get wrong about therapy?” the temptation is to say “everything.” But since no one wants a dissertation, I’ve narrowed it down to two key observations.

One: If you’re in the counseling field, you learn about Sigmund Freud. Period. He is the father of the field and his influence is not to be understated.

That said, almost no one practices in what might be considered in a Freudian fashion. We all know the cliché. You go into a therapist’s office, they have you look at some weird inkblots and nod and mutter when you respond to “tell me what you see.” You then free associate about your mother and whatever prompts the therapist gives you. He rubs his beard and then gives you probing insight into your psyche and whatever underlying, twisted, psychosexual traumas are driving your current challenges.

Except it’s nothing like that. Generally speaking, therapists these days are behaviorists, though there are many specific schools of thought. A therapist will generally draw from one philosophy, which is said to be their theoretical orientation. Most clinicians these days will help you consider behaviors in your life, and ask you to think about how feelings about events impact your reaction to those events. The key figure of behaviorism is B.F. Skinner.

I often use the example of a cube. If that cube in a sequence of events, a therapist should help you put that cube on the table in front of you and help you look at all six sides. You might have been seeing one or two sides, but there are probably more (six, in fact, to force this example).

Two: A good therapist will not give you advice. I often hear/read characters uttering the phrase “my therapist told me to do such-and-such.” A therapist’s job is to help you consider a problem from multiple angles and to collaborate with you to help you make your own decision. I have encountered situations where a client says to me “you told me to do this,” but that is rarely the case. Generally, they have misunderstood something I’ve said or heard what they wanted to hear.

Think of it this way: a therapist’s (somewhat contradictory) job is for you to have no need to come back and see them. If a therapist is telling you what to do, they’re doing you a disservice. Therapists are not like accountants, who see you once a year on April 14 or so. If you rely on a therapist to tell you what to do, you could become dependent on them, thus making the goal farther out of reach.

On top of that, a therapist only knows your life via what you tell them. How can we tell you what to do? You’re the expert on your own life. We’re just here to listen.

Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Texas. He posts regularly on his pop culture/psychotherapy mash-up blog Therapy Goes POP. He is also a contributor to the music blog Heavy Blog Is Heavy.


You Got It Wrong: Roger Doesn’t Have a Last Name — What Authors Get Wrong About the Military

This is the first of a periodic series where I ask other authors to discuss the mistakes they frequently see in fiction about their day jobs or former professions. If you write, I hope these help bring authenticity to your work — or at least point you toward sources that help you get close. My first guest, Stephen Kozeniewski, is a former Field Artillery officer and author of the novel The Hematophages, recently released by Sinister Grin Press. Be sure to check out his bio at the end.

By Stephen Kozeniewski

Stephen Kozeniewski is a former Field Artillery officer.

Did you ever dream you were falling and then suddenly, just before you hit the ground, you’re jarred awake? That’s the sensation I experience when I’m reading a book and a service member says “roger that.”

Radio discipline is something that’s hard to get right in dialogue if you’ve never actually had to do it. Roger, you see, doesn’t have a last name. “Over and out” is another serial offense. “Over” means “I’m done speaking” and “out” means “I’m done speaking and this conversation is complete.” “Over and out” is just extraneous. But, more importantly, you get yelled at if you say it.

You get yelled at for a lot of things in the military. Some are important. Most are stupid. It’s the important ones that keep you from dying, but it’s the stupid ones that mark an author as an amateur.

Another example of something that’s hard to get right is forms of address. I cringe when a soldier calls a colonel “Colonel.” It should be “sir” or “Colonel Smith” if you’re in the army. For that matter, calling an NCO “sir” or (almost even worse) “Sarge” is a big no-no. Of course, that’s all army customs and courtesies. In the Air Force it’s perfectly fine to say just “Colonel.”

I’ve done beta reads for several authors to check their depictions of the military. Honestly, though, I should really only check work that features the army between 2004 and 2008, which is the branch I served in and time frame during which I served. I worked with airmen and marines, so I know a little bit about how they do things differently, but I’m hardly an expert.

The Hematophages is Stephen’s latest novel.

You’d probably say I’m hardly even an expert in the army, with the limited length and scope of my career there. For instance we would’ve called “A Battery” “Alpha Battery” whereas during World War II it would’ve been “Apple Battery.” (Both start with an “A,” but the NATO alphabet we currently use didn’t come into common usage until after the world war.) So if you can, I’d recommend finding a service member from both the era and branch you’re writing about to see if they’ll go over your manuscript. They may only find small things, but every cringe you save a veteran will seriously raise your cool points.

Stephen Kozeniewski lives in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where, due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor’s is in German.

His latest book, The Hematophages, is the story of doctoral student Paige Ambroziak, who joins a clandestine deep-space mission she suspects is looking for the legendary lost vessel Manifest Destiny. The mission takes her to the blood-like seas of a planet-sized organism infested by lamprey-like monstrosities, and she soon learns that there are no limits to the depravity and violence of the grotesque nightmares known as… the Hematophages.