Q & A with Ellen Kirschman
What does a police psychologist do?
There are five domains to police psychology: assessment, individual and organizational intervention, consultation, and operational assistance. Most police psychologists do assessments: pre-employment screening and fitness for duty evaluations. I specialize in intervention and organizational consultation, with a brief foray into testing. Assessment is an important function in making sure law enforcement is hiring the best people. Just not my cup of tea. I prefer evaluating organizational climates and how well departments care for the well-being of their employees.
Why did you switch from writing non-fiction to fiction?
I got fed up with reality and mistakenly thought it would be easier to make things up. I was wrong. Maybe even delusional. The challenge of writing non-fiction is to get the facts right and present them in an understandable, readable package that anyone can pick up and put down at will. Fiction, on the other hand, requires the writer to get the reader to care so much about the story and the characters that she’ll bare her teeth at anyone or anything that interrupts her before she finishes the book.
What is easier: writing fiction or non-fiction?
Writing fiction is freeing. It allows me to say things that would be inappropriate when wearing my psychologist hat. Not to mention fiction gives me the opportunity to even a few scores. I have a lot of fun taking pot shots at my fellow clinicians, some cops who treated me like I had Bubonic plague, as well as a few ex-husbands.
Where do you get the plots for your mysteries?
My mysteries are inspired by real people, real events and the real challenges facing law enforcement. I want my readers to learn something new about police work so that the next time they see a cop they’ll see the person behind the uniform, think about what kind of day that cop is having and what their life might be like off-duty. Burying Ben was about police suicide. Most people don’t know that cops are nearly twice as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. The Right Wrong Thing was based on a client who killed a robber and wanted to apologize to the suspect’s family. As a woman, my client had been badly treated by her male colleagues. Now, after killing someone, she was a hero. The Fifth Reflection was inspired by another client, the wife of an officer who was investigating Internet crimes against children. Working with her, I learned from her how much his job was damaging their home life.
How much of Dot Meyerhoff is autobiographical?
I named Dot after my mother, Dorothy, and my maternal grand-mother, Rose Meyerhoff. She is younger and thinner than I am although we are both short and have gray hair. Dot does some crazy things I would never do, like impersonating a public official, breaking and entering, and assault with a deadly weapon. Our family histories are quite different. Her father was a student radical beaten senseless by the police. This complicates how she feels about working for the cops. My father was a law-abiding, card-carrying Republican. Her mother is an unrepentant flower child. Mine was definitely not. We do overlap in a few ways. Dot is spunky, ethical and never gives up. Neither do I. She cares deeply about her clients. Me too. We are both Jewish. Both women working in a man’s world and civilians working in a subculture where civilians can be treated as stepchildren. We’re funny and make people laugh . Both of us know heartbreak and have found love late in life. Here’s where things get close to real. Dot’s love interest, Frank, is a doppelganger for my wonderful husband, Steve, whose life I have shamelessly plagiarized.
What is your writing process?
I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t have one. When I’m on a roll I try to write every morning for two or three hours and leave the other stuff, email, marketing, grocery shopping, exercise and so on until the afternoon. Most of the time I’m not on a roll.
Do you outline your books before you write?
I’m a recovering “pantser.” I wrote Burying Ben without a plan. This made things very difficult and the writing took forever. In The Right Wrong Thing and The Fifth Reflection, I forced myself to at least know who did what to whom and why.
Part of the joy of writing is surprising myself. I remember getting off an elevator in a police department and announcing to the three cops who were waiting to get in that, between floors one and three, I had discovered that Dot’s father was a student radical. They rolled their eyes and shut the elevator door. For me, plotting is the most difficult part of writing mysteries and revision is the most fun. Knowing the end before I begin does make my task easier, although I will never be one of those writers who uses color coordinated spreadsheets. If I do any outlining, it’s after the miserable first draft. This helps me find any gaps in the story and is a chance to record details I may need for future books.
Are you still a working psychologist?
These days my psychology practice consists of facilitating workshops for police officers and their families, teaching peer support, consulting with clinicians who work with first responders, and volunteering at the First Responder’s Support Network (FRSN). My work at FRSN is intense. We take first responders who are suffering with post traumatic stress injuries to our facility in the Napa valley for a six day residential retreat. We start the day with check-in at 8:00 a.m. If we’re lucky we finish our work at 10:00 p.m. I love working with a team of therapists, peers (graduates of the program) and a chaplain. I can say with confidence that we change lives and prevent suicide. FRSN also sponsors retreats for spouses and significant others of first responders (SOS). You can learn more about the work we do at FRSN.ORG.
What causes PTSD in cops?
The most common cause of PTSD are incidents involving children. There are a number of reasons for this. The ordinary ways cops deal with tragedy simply don’t work. You can’t make a joke about a dead child or blame the child for their own misfortune. It’s also hard to distance yourself emotionally, especially if you have children of your own. Other causes are officer involved shootings, injuries, and co-worker suicides. Betrayal makes everything worse. When an officer feels betrayed by their department, attacked by the community, mis-represented by the press, or let down by co-workers, it makes bad experiences so much worse.
Why don’t cops shoot people in the leg instead of killing them?
Here’s something the public doesn’t know. Most officers will never shoot their guns in the line of duty except on the firing range. The greater majority get cooperation using only verbal commands. TV cops can shoot the weapon out of a crook’s hand. Real cops can’t. Police officers are trained to use lethal force to stop a threat. The best way to stop a threat is to aim for center mass. A wounded criminal can still kill a cop or a citizen. Consider the fact that many shootings occur in a mili-second, sometimes in the dark, while the officer is scared, and maybe out of breath after a long chase. Modern humans are wired like cave persons. When a threat appears we go into survival mode. Time slows down or speeds up. Our vision changes. Sounds are amplified or muffled. Digestion stops, blood rushes to our arms and legs. Our brains are awash in stress produced neurochemicals. After the threat, memory degrades. So does patience. Isolation increases. It’s hard to sleep or stop thinking about the shooting. Many have nightmares. Some suffer from moral pain. The client who inspired The Right Wrong Thing struggled for years to come to terms with having killed a person even though her shooting was deemed lawful.
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Interview: The Fifth Reflection Author Ellen Kirschman
VETERAN PSYCHOLOGIST REVEALS THE NOT-SEEN-ON-TV REALITIES OF LIFE IN LAW ENFORCEMENT