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Sunday, 21 August 2011
By Pia Mellody
Has anyone yet written a self-help book about how to wean yourself off self-help books? If they have, I need to buy that book, because I’m kind of addicted to books with titles like, ‘Heal Your Inner Clown’ and ‘Constellation Therapy for the Shining Star Within’. I’m building up quite a collection of popular psychology books. I’m even toying with the idea of writing one myself. All right, so I don’t have any free time or formal psychology qualifications, but in my defence I would point out that I do a) write psychological thrillers, b) know lots of weird, screwed-up people, and c) have a title ready and waiting. My self-help book will be called, ‘How to Prioritize One’s Mental Health Without Looking Like An Idiot In Public’. Hm. Maybe the title needs a little work. It’s not exactly snappy. Still, it’ll do until I come up with something better.
I had the idea for my popular psychology book recently while I was reading a brilliant example of the genre: ‘Facing Codependence’ by Pia Mellody. (Irrelevantly, I really hope she has at least one child called Unchained. No, of course she doesn’t – this woman is in the business of promoting mental health, and her surname isn’t Beckham.) I didn’t know what codependence was until I read Mellody’s book, which was as full of fascinating connections, patterns and revelations as any great thriller. And now I know: codependence, indirectly, is the reason why almost every murderer in every crime novel I have ever read kills his or her victim or victims. Which makes ‘Facing Codependence’ a must-read for crime writers everywhere – and I’m sure I don’t need to point out that there’s a convenient opportunity for deception here. Your real reason for reading it can be a desperate desire to get to grips with your own curdling insanity, but if anyone asks, you can pass yourself off as a sane professional doing research – perfect!
‘Facing Codependence’ is, quite simply, the best popular psychology book I have ever read. There are five core symptoms of this (according to Mellody) potentially lethal disease: 1) difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem, 2) difficulty setting functional boundaries, 3) difficulty owning and expressing your own reality, 4) difficulty taking care of your own wants and needs, and 5) difficulty experiencing and expressing your reality moderately.
So - lots of difficulty, basically. Lashings of difficulty. But lots of answers and solutions too. Pia Mellody knows how to sort out not only my problems but my fictional characters’ problems for several thrillers to come, which is pretty impressive. I won’t attempt to condense her wisdom or paraphrase it, because you really need to read the whole book – four times, ideally – but I will just mention the one problem I had with the ‘How to Recover from Codependence’ section of her book. It’s the same problem I have with most popular psychology books, when their authors start to describe what action we must take to free ourselves of whatever our psychological problem happens to be. The problem is this: not everyone reading the book is American. My title - ‘How to Prioritize One’s Mental Health Without Looking Like An Idiot In Public’ – will be aimed very much at the UK market. The embarrassed market, in other words.
Let’s take an example from Mellody’s book: boundary violation. This is something we all experience to a certain extent, I would guess. People trample all over our external and internal boundaries – they pat our pregnant bellies without permission; they tell us how we ought to feel, what to think in order to make ourselves acceptable to them. If we let them do this, that means we have damaged boundaries and are unable adequately to protect ourselves; we have at least one of the five core symptoms of codependence. Mellody gives an example of two women who meet by chance. One tries to kiss the other hello, and the other, not wanting to be kissed, takes a step back and extends her hand instead by way of greeting. Now, imagine you’re that woman, not wanting to be kissed by this acquaintance for whatever reason (obviously, you don’t work in publishing or any other arts or media profession that involves kissing everyone you meet on at least fourteen cheeks, even if you loathe them). You’ve taken a step back, but she ignores your attempt to set a clear external boundary; she invades your space and her lips are coming your way, fully intending to kiss you. According to Pia Mellody, what you should do at this point is demonstrate that you are willing to defend your boundary by saying, ‘Stop. I don’t want to be touched.’ In theory, of course, this is quite right. I have often wanted to say that very thing, but I haven’t, because I’m English. On every occasion that I have ever not wanted to be touched by someone determined to touch me, I more wanted not to sound like a freak who takes herself too seriously, and not to cause any trouble or offend anybody. Hence the title of my own self-help book, the one I will almost definitely never write. I suppose I could try to be less embarrassed about boundary-setting, but even if, by some miracle, I could persuade myself to say things like, ‘No, I’m sorry, you can’t try a bit of my meal – I want all of it’, or ‘No, I won’t give you a cover quote for your new book, because I hated it’, that wouldn’t be the end of the embarrassment, not by a long way. Next on Mellody’s recovery list, after asserting one’s boundaries, is finding a ‘codependence sponsor’. Er…a what? They don’t have those in the One Stop on Hills Road, or even in the big John Lewis in town.
None of this is intended as a criticism of the book. I have learned a huge amount from reading it, and feel mentally healthier for having imagined my American alter-ego totally sorted, with firm but flexible boundaries and a top-notch codependence sponsor, not to mention a thoroughly disentangled want-need balance. I know the difference between healthy feelings experienced moderately and an overwhelming, out-of-control carried shame core, which I didn’t a few weeks ago, and I know that if the traditional English martyrdom-and-resentment path ever loses its passive-aggressive appeal, there are alternatives. Pia Mellody has done the world a huge service by writing such a wise and informative book.
Reviewed by Sophie Hannah
Sophie's latest book 'Lasting Damage' is out in paperback now! You can read my review of it here, and you can find a review of one of her previous books, 'Hurting Distance' here.
You can find out more about Sophie and her work on her website.