Four psychotherapists, five opinions. Look for divergences and commonalities as Bay Area psychotherapist Ellen Kirschman moderates a panel of three local colleagues who have produced very different books.
“You have all these experiences and stories that sort of rattle around in your head,” says Kirschman about her fellow psychotherapists. “We spend a lot of time thinking about people and what motivates them. … We spend a lot of time alone behind closed doors; that’s what you do when you’re writing.” She hopes to explore these congruencies when she leads “Shrinks With Ink: Psychotherapist Authors,” at Palo Alto’s Litquake on Sunday, Aug. 17 at 4:15 p.m. at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
Gregory Bellow wrote “Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir,” a recollection of his loving but strained relationship with the Nobel Prize-winning novelist. The younger Bellow spent 40 years as a psychotherapist in private practice, working extensively with children and families. Retired eight years ago, he still works as a core faculty member of the Sanville Institute for Clinical Social Work in Berkeley.
Jan Harwood, a retired 83-year-old mental health counselor and psychiatric social worker, wrote “Dan-gerous Women: A Raging Granny Mystery” after she turned 78. The novel, based on Harwood’s real-life activism with her local Santa Cruz chapter of the left-leaning Raging Grannies, mixes rollicking social satire with the murder of an obnoxious talk show host. Harwood has written hundreds of politically charged lyrics for the “Grannies” to sing at “UnConventions,” challenging conservatism around the country.
Kate Levinson, the only panelist still in practice, has led workshops on the psychology of money. “Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship With Money,” is a self-help guide that asks readers to delve into their personal histories with the often-taboo topic.
Kirschman spent 30 years as a police psychologist and now volunteers for the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, which serves traumatized first responders. She is the author of three nonfiction books on counseling firefighters and police officers, as well as a mystery novel, “Burying Ben.”
Kirschman put the panel together, she says, because she “got interested in the relationship between being a therapist and writing, which is a very public act. Most of us as therapists tend to maintain a somewhat neutral persona. When you commit yourself to paper or open up your life, as Greg has, or lay out strong opinions, as Jan Harwood has, it’s risky as to how people are going to see you.”
Of the memoir about his father, Bellow says: “I was afraid that I was forgetting him.” That was the impetus for what he says will probably be his only published book. “Phillip Roth said after [writing] ‘Patriarchy’ that he had a nightmare about his father coming back and saying, ‘You never should have written that book.’ I wanted to write a book that wouldn’t give me nightmares.”
Bellow’s book paints a sensitive portrait of his often-loving yet distant and increasingly irascible father, who was lionized by acolytes and reviled by detractors. Bellow, who moved west from Chicago after graduate school to avoid living in his father’s shadow, learned of the novelist’s death through media reports, then watched one well-known disciple after another eulogize his father.
Does the memoir serve as a way for Bellow to own the narrative of his relationship with his father, despite these legions of literary sons? “That’s exactly correct,” he says.
Jan Harwood, mother of three and grandmother of three, started working at age 37 as a newly single parent, and spent the next three decades consumed with the day-to-day task of counseling patients and writing up cases. Enjoying a satisfying retirement, she sat down at the typewriter one day a few years ago and a story “just came out.”
“I always thought I couldn’t make up stories,” she says. “I didn’t think I had that kind of imagination.” But “the story just kind of took over, and people showed up.” Her second novel, “An UnConventional Murder,” has her “gaggle” of Raging Granny characters solving the murder of a shady real estate broker.
Harwood still revels in her songcraft, and sings a few verses from “Right-Wing Bolero,” set to Ravel’s famously sensual tune:
“We veto everything Obama desires
It’s a very simple creed —
‘No!’ is the only word we need!”
Despite her gift for political comedy, Harwood is the only non-Jewish member of the panel. Originally from Missouri, she says wistfully, “I always wanted to be a Jew.” Harwood and Bellow have both known Ellen Kirschman for about 40 years. Bellow, who lives across the street from Kirschman in Redwood City, even introduced her to her husband. Kate Levinson is a friend of shorter acquaintance, but she’s right on the money.
Levinson and her husband live in Point Reyes, where they own Point Reyes Books. She practices in San Rafael, focusing on financial issues in her patients’ lives. “Emotional Currency” is her first book, emerging from her workshops and from insights she gained writing a doctoral dissertation on women with inherited wealth who chose to work. Levinson elected to go back into therapy herself “to explore money in my life. I discovered that money had been a huge issue in my family between my parents.”
“Money carries a lot of emotion,” says Levinson, whether a family is rich or poor. In a culture in which “money is god … I’ve only met one person who learned that talking about money is a good thing. … You’re not supposed to ask your parents if they have a will or a trust, what are their plans for their money. We end up being really isolated. … We idealize, thinking that other people are very together about money. There’s a huge relief [for people] being able in a safe setting to talk about their feelings about money.”
“The first step is to get clear what it means to you and the dramas that collect around money in your life. Are you driven to make a lot of money? Think about all the memories, all the stories you have. … We inherit much more than money: We inherit attitudes and beliefs about money, and sometimes those are very subtle.”
“In the book, I talk about myself not recognizing that money represented life and death for me,” Levinson says. After this insight, her relationship with her finances became healthier.
“For years, I thought that therapy was kind of the golden road to knowing oneself,” says Levinson, “but I learned that writing can be equally potent as a means of reflection on oneself and one’s place in the world and one’s relationships to others.”
“Shrinks With Ink: Psychotherapist Authors,” 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free. www.paloaltojcc.org/litquake