Crime Time favourite Sophie Hannah (her latest novel is Lasting Damage, with Kind of Cruel due in February 2012) talks dark pyschology…
If you were walking down the street and you saw a knife-wielding maniac running towards you, you would know instantly what was happening and what it meant. You would think, ‘Knife, sharp, dangerous, could kill me.’ If you could, you’d run away. You’d probably head straight for the nearest police station, where you would report what had happened. This wouldn’t be a problem for you, because you would have – you do have – the necessary concepts and vocabulary. You know that knives can wound horribly, scar for life, as well as kill. Whether it was the kind used for hunting or the kind more commonly found in a kitchen, you would know as soon as you saw any of the many varieties of knife that it was called ‘a knife’. Of course, you are unlikely ever to be the victim of a knife attack, but imagine how much more at risk you would potentially be if you didn’t know how to recognise a knife, or what it was called. If you were attacked with a knife and survived, imagine how much trickier it would be to explain to the police what had happened to you – why you were bleeding all over their carpet – if you didn’t have the word ‘knife’ in your vocabulary, or if you were unfamiliar with the concepts associated with knife-hood. And if the police also didn’t know the word or recognise the description – trickier still.
An exactly analogous lack of recognition, concepts and vocabulary is, I believe, a serious problem most of us face with regard to the psychological dangers that lie in wait for us in our personal relationships. If someone we know and who claims to have our best interests at heart is constantly attacking us with co-dependence, with attempted enmeshment, with narcissism or with unboundaried bonding, we might not be entirely (or at all) familiar with those terms and their meanings, which would leave us unarmed and confused. We might be aware that someone’s behaviour was making us feel uncomfortable, aware that we’d like to get away from them, but would we know that they were behaving in a known and diagnosable dysfunctional way? Would we know that they weren’t just a one-off weirdo or git, that it wasn’t something we did to provoke them, that they suffered from a well-known psychological dysfunction that follows clear patterns? And if we weren’t familiar with their particular dysfunction, whatever it was – if we’d never even heard its name before – we wouldn’t know that we could and should Google, for example, borderline personality disorder, or that if we did so, we could have in front of us within seconds a checklist of symptoms and an explanation for why a particular colleague or relative had always alarmed and intimidated us to the extent that they had. We wouldn’t be in a position to scroll further down the page of search results to the list of lasting, life-wrecking problems that spouses, children and friends of those with borderline personalities are likely to suffer, or to the advice about how to overcome those problems and how best to deal with the borderline person in our life.
Most of us are, to put it bluntly, psychologically illiterate. We suffer from anxieties and phobias that are irrational – spiders for me, air travel for you. Why, in both cases? We don’t even question it; we imagine that that is just the way we are and nothing can or should be done about it. Woman A is attracted to overbearing older men, Woman B to inarticulate, insecure toy boys. Why and why? Why does one public figure crave privacy and another the spotlight? We seem to have so little curiosity about these questions and others like them; most of us see psychotherapy as a last resort, only to be considered if we one day go properly bonkers and can’t function. In fact, everyone and anyone would benefit from psychotherapy. Perhaps the mistake is to call it therapy – if, instead, we were to call it psycho-archaeology, that might make more sense. We have been made the way we are by our psychological experiences – by the things that have been done to us psychologically. If we are perfectly happy with ourselves in every respect, that’s great. But most of us aren’t – most of us display symptoms we’d like to lose, but we make no attempt to diagnose ourselves or others in order better to understand our experience, better to protect ourselves psychologically in the future. If someone close to us had a stinking cold, we wouldn’t allow them to wipe their runny nose all over our clothes, or on the backs of our hands. If they had a stomach bug, we wouldn’t allow them to come round and puke into our breakfast cereal. Yet we allow friends, lovers, colleagues, parents and siblings to wipe their psychologically dysfunctional emissions all over our lives – because we don’t know the name of the thing they’re suffering from; we’re unfamiliar with the symptoms of their condition, so we don’t instantly recognise it when it walks into our house.
In the discussions in the media about the August riots, there seemed to be two schools of thought: one that believed poverty and joblessness were to blame (socio-economic reasons) and another that placed full responsibility with the individual (‘He robbed a telly because he’s immoral, whereas that equally poor chap over there didn’t because he’s moral’). I didn’t hear psychology mentioned once, which I found baffling. Surely it’s obvious that the reason one deprived and disenfranchised person riots and another doesn’t can only be that their psychological programming has been different. One thrives on rebellion because, as a child, his development towards autonomy was resisted and discouraged at every turn by a parent he resented and hated. He feels better when he sticks two fingers up at society and creates his own inverse value system in which wrong is cool – he will become a rioter. Another has been rewarded by a narcissistic father she loves and sees as her protector only when she has been good and obedient – she is far less likely to riot or break the law (assuming her narcissistic father is law-abiding).
Which brings me to psychological crime fiction – why I write it and read it. Crimes are not committed because people are poor and desperate. Plenty of poor, desperate people would never dream of breaking the law, and plenty of rich, privileged people would and do commit crimes that are in no way based on material need. So why does one woman murder her grandmother in order to inherit her fortune, while another with an equally monied grandmother doesn’t? Surely if the answer is not socio-economic, it has to boil down to individual choice, right?
Wrong. We have fewer choices than we imagine, because of our psychological conditioning, the land mines our past psychic traumas have planted in our minds over the years. Psychological thrillers – proper ones; ones that haven’t been mis-labelled – understand this, and show, via brilliantly imagined plots and characters, that what people (including the murderers themselves, often) take to be freely made choices are in fact dysfunctional compulsions we feel obliged to act out. Few of us feel any obligation to try to solve the mysteries of ourselves: why we are who we are and do what we do. Psychological thrillers tackle this psychological philistinism head on; by inviting us into the dysfunctional worlds of fictional murderers, they encourage us to explore our own dysfunctions, to sort ourselves out as best we can, and to arm ourselves against the psychological attacks of others.
Sophie Hannah’s Top 5 Psychological Thrillers
Half-Broken Things – Morag Joss
A Dark-Adapted Eye – Barbara Vine
The Memory Game – Nicci French
Before I Go To Sleep – S J Watson
Broken Harbour – Tana French (out next year!)
Sophie Hannah’s latest psychological thriller is Lasting Damage (Hodder, £6.99). Her new novel, Kind Of Cruel is published on February 16 2012. Both books are stuffed to the brim with psychological dysfunction. Sophie’s website is www.sophiehannah.com.