In my last blog I briefly touched upon the use of fiction novels in bibliotherapy. I know sometimes the idea of fiction being used in therapy seems a touch odd. I mean, you don’t hand a client Silence of the Lambs and tell them to try and get something therapeutic out of it. Silence of the Lambs is dark. It’s gritty. It’s got a cannibal in it for goodness sake, who ate a man’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti!
But this concept of fiction in therapy is particularly poignant to me, since it was a fiction novel in the first place that really aided in my conversion from Paganism to Catholicism. And get this: it was a dark book that did it too.
I was already in the early stages of conversion at the time and going to the occasional mass with my parents. One day after a weekday mass with my father, we stopped to get breakfast at a local café. While there, we talked about the faith and I tried to wrap my brain around the implications of converting. It would be hard. There are a lot of rules. I couldn’t go do the fun sinful stuff I enjoyed doing so much. Did I really have to go to mass every week? Geeze-louise.
As we were finishing up breakfast my father suddenly said: “You should read The Screwtape Letters. I think you’d really enjoy it. It’s a novel about a senior demon telling a younger demon how to tempt humans.”
That sounded right up my ally. When I was Pagan I was into all kinds of the occult. What could be better than a book about demons trying to plot the damnation of all human kind?
So I curled up one stormy Florida morning with a cup of coffee and got to reading. The novel chilled me and jarred me into wakefulness. I’ve never forgotten the very passage that made me realize the direction I was taking my life by constantly cringing away from truly giving myself to Christ. I was content to just say I was a good person. I was content to say that I was aware of God but God was fine where he was and I was fine here on earth not slaughtering people or committing big crimes, and sure I was a little sinful and I really had no interest in prayer and mass, but I was at least a good person. But then, this passage…
“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestone, without signposts.”
This passage pierced through my fog and gave me clarity. I spent the next few days really thinking about what I was doing that was separating me from God. I had contented myself to a life of little sins, happy to be blissfully unaware of the gentle slope I was wandering down. That passage was my signpost that made me turn in a new direction. And because of that passage I converted, I cleaned up my life, and to this day I continue to review the book on occasion and challenge myself to see in what ways I’m turning away from a truer path.
That is the magic of fiction novels. Because as humans, sometimes we turn away from people that try to help us. People can be bossy. People can sometimes have the best of intentions, but then they use the wrong inflection in their voice and it gets under our skin because it sounds like they’re being know-it-all’s or implying we obviously need help. And the fact of the matter is: people don’t know what we’ve been through. They don’t know small nuances of our lives that have hurt us and shaped us, and people will never understand the reality of what we’ve faced. As counselors, we try to empathize, but sometimes a person’s guard is up too high to allow us to lead them to change.
When people try to approach us and try to change what we’ve been comfortable doing for so long, then we instantly put up our walls, because people have hurt us before and they might do it again. People sometimes have suspect intentions.
Fiction, on the other hand, is safe. Fiction is innocent. Fiction is sincere. Fiction we can trust our self to open our heart and mind to, because good fiction does not look to criticize a person or to devalue them. Fiction can’t use the wrong tone of voice and it doesn’t seek to say ‘I told you so.’
Rather, good fiction can help us get into the mind and perspective of someone else, someone who maybe hasn’t endured the exact same trials as us, but perhaps something similar. We can follow a fictional character around at their best and worst of times and we always root for them, always want them to succeed, and because we bond with this character and admire them, we open ourselves to their influence on us. Why a fictional character and not another person? Because this fictional character doesn’t call us out and they don’t tell us or imply to us we’re doing something wrong and we need to change.
Rather, they lead by their own example. Sometimes, they model for us what needs to be done. Sometimes, they challenge us with their own experiences and growth. Maybe it’s a challenge to look at previous beliefs or assumptions, like my belief that my life was perfectly fine full of small sins and not really fostering a relationship with God. The Screwtape Letters challenged that, and my defenses weren’t up to arguing with it. Because I felt safe with the book. The book didn’t approach me with the obvious agenda of persuasion, but it persuaded me nonetheless. It’s the same way Snow Flower and the Secret Fan recently challenged me to consider alternative worldviews, to get into the mind of a Chinese woman and drop my preconceived notions of that culture and it’s perspectives. Maybe I do not agree with all of them, but I certainly respect them more than I did before and some I can even see myself trying to value.
Books like Lord of the Rings can call us to bravery in the darkest of times and can model for us true friendship. Fantasies like Abarat can give us permission to be in wonder of oddities and can show girls with broken families that they can be joyful and courageous, even if their own father fails to stand up against evil. Weaveworld can compel us to see miracles in the smallest of places. Most every fiction novel has something it can offer us, something good that can be taken and learned from, and we accept that because it comes to us with genuineness and without misunderstanding.
Nonfiction can help us too, don’t get me wrong, and is a big component in bibliotherapy, but I think sometimes fiction is overlooked. I’ve heard people say before “I don’t enjoy reading fiction because I’m not learning anything.”
Fiction novels offer us so much more than we give them credit for. They put our minds to work, and they have such a depth to them that people can’t help but to drop their defenses, to feel safe, and that allows themselves to be open to the influences offered by these sincere characters. Like good advice, readers can take what they want and leave the rest. For counselors especially, we need to keep our minds open to different options and be able to adapt our treatment to our clients. Not all clients will want to go through a Self Esteem Workbook, not all clients are going to want to read about overcoming their addiction or how to stop being depressed. Let’s face it; sometimes nonfiction is a little dry. But they might love a good novel. Maybe we’ll realize their story rings familiar to something we’ve read before, or perhaps we can ask them what character from a book they’ve read they feel like they relate too. What character do they really wish they could be like?
Maybe one day we’ll get a female client in who struggles with self-esteem, who struggles to feel strong, who has experienced loss, and as silly as it might sound, maybe Clarice from Silence of the Lambs is exactly what she needs: a powerful female role model that she can look up to.