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Lying on the Couch

By Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.
Ask the Therapist

Lying on the CouchWhat happens when a psychologist writes a memoir?

To tell the truth I have to lie.

To write a memoir these days you had better be telling the truth. When I met with the publisher about Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir, she specifically asked me if what I wrote was true. I hesitated, and a worried look crossed her face. Finally, I insisted it was all true, except for the parts I made up. She told me I needed to explain.

I told her that in essence, as a psychologist and a memoirist I serve at the discretion of both disciplines — the first devoted to understanding the human condition, the second to the condition of being human. Both employ methods of nonfiction writing to achieve their goal, but with a major difference: A psychologist must follow strict guidelines published by the American Psychological Association on how to talk about case studies of patients.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition advises three strategies to disguise case material without changing the variables of the phenomena being described. These suggestions may be helpful for other non-fiction writers as well.

  1. Alter specific characteristics
  2. Limit the description of specific characteristics
  3. Obfuscate case detail by adding extraneous material

One, two, or all of these techniques may be needed to achieve the goal. Depending on your choice you should inform readers that you have made these alterations. The Author’s Note for Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir, reads:

Out of respect for their privacy I have changed the names of some of the people who appear in this book. When referring to individuals I have worked with in therapy, I have followed the American Psychological Association’s guideline to protect confidentiality.

In Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir, I reflect on aspects of my life and how these experiences influence work with my patients. This is the life work of a therapist, called countertransference — how memories and feelings in our psyche often merge and intertwine with our clients.

One Comment to
Lying on the Couch

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  1. This is such an excellent post! It was so interesting reading your writing process. One of my fave lines is that you had to lie to tell the truth.

    The last sentence of your introduction about your cousin is really powerful – as seems this book. Thanks for sharing the process with us, and congratulations on getting it published!!

  2. I enjoyed this article. I wrote a non-fiction book ridht out of graduate school, but since have written humorous mysteries with a psychologist sleuth. The most common interview question I get is, “Do your characters come from your clients?” Luckily, I have enough “characters” in my family…
    Psychology is fun this way.
    I also use examples when I write for mysteryshrink.com, my sort of pay it forward fun.

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