I started my writing career with non-fiction and I’m still at it. Along the way I’ve earned awards from The California Psychological Association for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology and the American Psychological Association for Outstanding Contribution to Police and Public Safety Psychology.
After my third book, I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to make things up. It isn’t. In fact it’s harder although it’s more fun because it gives me the opportunity to take pot shots at nasty cops, unethical psychologists and a few of my ex-husbands.
I’m a transplanted New Yorker. I’ve been living in Northern California since the summer of love. When I’m not writing, teaching, or volunteering as a clinician at the First Responders Support Network, I’m at the gym, in the kitchen, or traveling. I blog at Psychology Today, serve on the Northern California board of Mystery Writers of America, and belong to Sisters-in-Crime, Public Safety Writers Association, The American Psychological Association, and psychological services section of The Association of Chiefs of Police.
I’m indebted to my clients and colleagues for inspiring me with their stories. And to my husband, the photographer S. Hollis Johnson, for my website photo and for letting me plagarize his entire life for Dot’s love interest, Frank.
Photo Credit: S. Hollis Johnson
“I’ve been thinking of Sue Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.”
Q & A
What does a police and public safety psychologist do?
Most police psychologists do assessments: pre-employment screening and fitness for duty evaluations. Assessment is an important function in making sure law enforcement is hiring and keeping the best people. It’s just not my cup of tea. The bulk of my work involves treating trauma and helping police and first responder families care for themselves and strengthen their relationships. Most cops get only a few hours of stress management or resilience building training in the academy and virtually nothing about how policework will spillover to their personal lives and what to do about it. First responders are exposed to more tragedy in the first few years of their careers than the rest of us see in an entire lifetime. Suicide is a major issue in law enforcement. Cops are two to three times more likely to kill themselves than to be killed in the line of duty. Telling them to suck it up, doesn’t work. They deserve the best help they can get to do a job most of us could never do. Cops think needing help means they are weak. I think it means they are human, struggling to cope with the overwhelming challenges they face at work on top of the common place problems we all have. Because it is so difficult for officers to overcome the stigma about asking for help, when they finally do, they may be desperate. It’s crucial they get the help they need from someone who understands what they do, why they do it, and the subculture they work in.
Are you still a working psychologist?
Writing and traveling doesn’t really allow me time to have a private practice. These days my 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 and highly effective. We take six first responders or their spouses and significant others to our facility in the Napa valley for a six day residential retreat. The clients are scared. Brave as they are in their jobs, walking in our front door to confront their traumatic stress injuries takes a lot of courage. We start the day with check-in at 8:00 a.m. If we’re lucky we finish our work by 10:00 p.m. What I love most about the retreat is working as part of a team of therapists, peer supporters (most of them graduates of the program), and a chaplain. Everyone from the cook—that would sometimes be my husband Steve—shares parts of their lives to help others. You can learn more about the work we do on my resource page.
What causes post-traumatic stress injuries (PTSI) in cops?
Why do I call this PTSI instead of the more universal term, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Because a disorder sounds like a life sentence. With the right help, people recover from PTSI, just as they do from other injuries. PTSI begins when something out of the realm of normal experience happens to a person. (You can find a detailed description in I Love a Cop or Counseling Cops). It can be complicated by poor coping or a past history of emotional problems or abuse. The most common cause of PTSI for cops are incidents involving children. There are a number of reasons for this. The ordinary ways cops deal with tragedy simply don’t work when the victim is a child. You can’t make a joke about a dead toddler or blame a baby for it’s own misfortune. It’s also hard to distance yourself emotionally, especially if you have children of your own. Other causes of PTSI are officer involved shootings, injuries, co-worker suicides, and betrayal. When officers feel betrayed by their departments or their co-workers, it feels like being stabbed in the back by the family who once swore to protect you. Equally devastating betrayals happen when an officer is attacked by the community, mis-represented in the press, or betrayed by friends and family.
Was it hard to switch from writing non-fiction to fiction?
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. My non-fiction books are full of stories that add punch to the psychological concepts they illustrate. But I’d be exaggerating if I said readers can get swept away in the same way they do when reading a novel. When I made the switch, I had to teach myself an entirely new craft. How to entertain, not teach. How to plot, not structure. I had to give myself the freedom to use my imagination instead of holding myself responsible for sticking to the truth. I still bounce back and forth between genres, happy to have the opportunity to share my behind-the-scenes knowledge about policing and psychology with vastly different readers.
Where do you get the plots for your mysteries?
After 30 plus years working with cops, I have literally hundreds of stories that need telling, all of them inspired by clients. My hope is that readers will learn something new about police work so that the next time they see a cop they’ll see the person behind the uniform, not a made for TV character. My characters are so real that one department I worked for set up a competition to see which of them was the prototype for Officer Eddie Rimbauer, my bumbling, politically incorrect, alcoholic cop. None of them were, of course, all my characters, except Dot’s love interest Frank, are composites. My second mystery, 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 suddenly everyone’s hero. She found this turnaround repugnant; if killing someone was what it took to join the old boy’s club, she wanted no part of it. The Fifth Reflection was inspired by the wife of an officer who was investigating Internet crimes against children , one of the most traumatizing assignments in law enforcement. Working with her, I learned how much her husband’s job was damaging not only their relationship but his relationship to their children.
How much of Dot Meyerhoff is autobiographical?
If you read my bio above, you’ll know I named Dot after my mother, Dorothy Kirschman, and my maternal grand-mother, Rose Meyerhoff. You’ll recall she is younger and thinner than I am although we are both short, have gray hair and wear glasses. Not to mention, she does some crazy things I would never do or I’d lose my license to practice. 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. Both of us know heartbreak and have found love late in life. And both of us know how to laugh, even when things turn deadly serious.
What is your writing process?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t have one. When I’m on a roll I try to write every day for two or three hours and leave the other stuff, email, marketing, grocery shopping, and exercise until I run out of steam. Most of the time I’m not on a roll.
Do you outline your books before you write?
I’m a combination of plotter and pantzer (writing by the seat of my pants) so I guess that makes me a plotzer. I wrote my first mystery, Burying Ben, without a plan. This made things very difficult and the writing took forever. Now I force 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. I have similar insights in the shower. For me, plotting is the most difficult part of writing mysteries and revision is the most fun, at least the first dozen rewrites. I will never be one of those writers who uses color coordinated spreadsheets or 3 x 5 index cards. If I do any outlining, it’s after the miserable first draft. This helps me find gaps in the story and is a chance to record details I may need for future books.