Interview: L J Jenner Author of The Wrong Story
What inspired you to blend your extensive background in psychotherapy with fiction in "The Wrong Story"?
There’s a huge fascination in the world of therapy and mental health at the moment and I get asked a lot about how it works. Of course I’m limited as to how much I can share about what actually happened in the therapy room because of client confidentiality, but I still wanted to find a way to introduce talking therapy to people who know nothing about it. I’m very passionate about how helpful it is even though I no longer do that work. It’s at least as helpful as medication, if not more so, and yet much harder to access.
To reach people who were unlikely to pick up a non-fiction book about counselling, it had to be fiction, with a storyline that drew you in and characters that readers really cared about. If people don’t want to keep turning the pages, then the psychoeducation in the book becomes redundant anyway.
Maggie, as a character, seems to have a lot of depth and complexity. How much of her is drawn from personal experiences or people you've encountered in your professional life?
Professionally, there was a lot of me in the character of Maggie; she responds as I genuinely responded to clients and that was very important to me. I wanted the dialogue to be authentic and to show what really happens in therapy.
Her professional development - from self-doubt and struggle to a confident, experienced therapist - mirrors my own too and that aspect has led to the book being an unexpected hit with student and newly qualified counsellors. I’ve been delighted with their feedback that they find The Wrong Story very validating.
Personally, Maggie is a blend of me, some clients and some friends. There are some cameo bits of my personal experience hidden in the book too, such as Maggie’s travelling adventures.
The themes of identity, grief, and healing play pivotal roles in your novel. What do you hope readers will take away from these explorations?
I would love readers to really think about their own identity and the stories they tell themselves about who they are. Unpicking negative self-beliefs is often the main task of therapy. We come to conclusions about who we are when we are far too young for such an important task, when are brains are not even fully formed and while we are still very ego-centric. We then carry those conclusions for life, usually without critically examining or truth testing them. I really hope that The Wrong Story makes people consider their own stories and the conclusions they have come to about themselves.
My motivation for including grief and healing was to play my part in the movement to encourage society to get more comfortable with talking about these things. I think we are better at talking about mental health generally these days, but still only at headline level. In terms of talking about the nitty gritty of how we’re actually feeling, and sharing some of the thoughts that go with those emotions, we still have a long way to go. And yet grief is one thing that we know is going to affect us all. It’s quite bizarre that we struggle to talk about it.
Can you talk about the significance of the title "The Wrong Story"? What message were you hoping to convey?
Each of the characters in the book, including Maggie, is in some way re-examining their past and the conclusions they have come to about themselves and the kind of person they are. In the end they are each able tell themselves a different ‘story’ about who they are (or to put it another way, their self-beliefs change). Effectively they learn that they have been telling themselves the wrong story about who they are for a long time.
The novel offers a rare glimpse into a therapist’s mind. How did you manage to balance the professional and personal sides of Maggie, making her relatable to readers?
It was incredibly important that Maggie and her clients were relatable if I were to achieve my aim of demystifying therapy. In terms of the clients, I wanted readers to be able to see themselves in those characters and realise that counselling clients are people just like themselves. People who come for counselling are not somehow more broken or damaged.
As far as Maggie was concerned, I wanted to explode the myth that counsellors always have their lives completely sorted and never have any issues of their own.
Achieving this was actually easy – I focused on Maggie as a human-being first and a therapist second. In other words I just made her real.
It’s been fascinating to hear the varying responses to the people pleaser aspect of Maggie’s character though: Many women tell me they relate to her strongly and recognise themselves when, for example, she apologises even when something’s not her fault. Others just get very angry with her for exactly the same thing.
Your previous work and personal experiences seem to have a profound influence on the narrative. How did you decide what real elements to include and what to fictionalize?
My rule was that if it was my own experience then I could include it, if it was someone else’s experience then I couldn’t because those aren’t my stories to tell. Obviously I couldn’t use anything that was directly linked to a past client (although they all inspired me indirectly) because of client confidentiality. But actually I used the same rule for family and friends too. For me that’s about respect. There was one exception where I used something that happened to a family member but I did get explicit permission from them first.
How do you think your background in leadership and working with business leaders informed the way you approached the story?
My work with business leaders showed me that there is a real interest in psychology beyond the counselling room. Educating leaders and leadership teams in the psychology of performance - the elements that we all need to thrive and bring our best selves to work - helped me to realise that the more people who know about the psychology behind behaviour the better. That inspired me to primarily aim the book at people who were unlikely to consider therapy for themselves but who never-the-less might be interested in this subject.
The novel touches upon the idea of distorted memories and how they shape our personal narratives. In your professional opinion, how common is it for individuals to hold onto skewed perceptions of their past?
Very common, in fact we all do this to some degree. Because we try to explain the events that shape us, when we are still children, we hold very immature interpretations of those events. Those interpretations and conclusions not only affect how we remember events, they also impact how we experience future events too.
For example, a child whose main caregiver can’t show affection for whatever reason may conclude that she is unlovable. This belief then acts as a filter for not only her memories but also for events going forward. The child (and the young person and adult she becomes) will selectively notice anything that confirms this view and fail to notice evidence to the contrary.
This filtering is something we all do. As Anais Nin says, we don’t experience the world as it is, we experience [and therefore remember it] as we are and so our perception of the past is always a little bit skewed.
Can you shed some light on the therapist-client relationship, which is a central theme in the book, and how it affects both parties involved?
All the research says that the relationship is the single most important factor in determining how successful the therapy will be. It’s more important than therapist knowledge, experience, skill, technique or the particular model or theory used.
Therapeutic relationships are very deep and very special. The trust and emotional intimacy needed are extraordinary and the therapist will work very hard to establish the conditions for this to flourish.
I really wanted to showcase the therapeutic relationship and especially to show how it is experienced by the therapist. There’s definitely a belief amongst some clients that care they feel from their therapist is somehow fake and I wanted to demonstrate that it really isn’t. Therapists are affected - and changed - by clients too.
The character Robyn mirrors Maggie's younger self, leading to some intriguing dynamics between the two. How did the idea for this character and relationship come about?
It came from a tried and trusted therapeutic technique. Imagining what you might say to someone else in the same position is often used in both therapy and coaching. Generally we are much harder on ourselves and much more critical than we would be with someone else. It means that as Maggie is watching Robyn go through the same things that she did herself, she starts to see things much less critically and learns to judge her own historical decisions less harshly. This is the mechanism through with Maggie re-writes her own wrong story.
You mentioned being influenced by the trauma of your son's near-death experience. How did writing this book serve as a therapeutic outlet for you?
It was extremely therapeutic. I can’t say too much about how or why without a major plot spoiler but I can say that this experience is also why I became a therapist.
My son, then age 4, went from happy and well to needing life support in the space of about 6 hours. He recovered but I was left with what I later realised were classic post trauma symptoms; I had flashbacks and became hypervigilant, struggled to let him out of my sight (which meant leaving him at school was tricky) and, crucially, needed to tell the story of what happened endlessly on repeat. This is a common trauma symptom and, together with flashbacks, is the brain trying to process what happened.
Friends tried to help me move on, but it was too soon for me and they couldn’t understand why I needed to keep talking about it. I retrained as a counsellor soon afterwards and vowed to be the person that would listen, for as long as it took.
Many authors mention that their characters teach them something new during the writing process. Did any of your characters surprise you or teach you something unexpected?
Many people are surprised to hear that I actually didn’t know about any of the research on memory when I started writing the book. I knew I wanted to explore the link between memory and identity and so the character Stephen, who has global amnesia, was born. I started researching and then stumbled across the work of Elizabeth Loftus who I’d never even heard of. I knew our own memories were skewed by the filtering that we all do - that was an important part of my training - but I didn’t know anything about the possibility of false memories being created so easily.
I find that idea quite astonishing and her research has actually become very controversial because it has been hijacked by perpetrator support groups and used to discredit genuine victims. I think that we have a big challenge going forward in terms of how to support victims as well as people who may be falsely accused.
Your book highlights the importance of revisiting and revising our personal narratives. Do you have any advice for readers on how to embark on this journey of self-reflection?
Revisiting and revising personal narratives is only useful if it improves the present and future so I would say start by becoming really aware of your self-talk in the present. Notice what you say to yourself and how you explain events in your life; what assumptions are you making about what others think, what are you making solely your fault when it might be more complex than that, for example?
Journalling is a great way to do this and there is lots of advice online about how to start this practice. Look for patterns; is there a particular self-criticism that keeps appearing or a theme that emerges. See if you can hold that self-belief or criticism more loosely by gently considering the possibility that it’s not actually true.
Obviously if at all possible, talking this through with a counsellor or coach really helps as they can prompt you and challenge your thinking.
Given the current focus on mental health in society, how do you envision "The Wrong Story" playing a role in these conversations?
I really hope that The Wrong Story helps to start conversations about therapy and how it works. As people talk about the book, I hope some of them then share how it compares to their own experience of seeing a counsellor (as one or two Amazon reviewers have done). That all helps to normalise asking for help so that seeing a therapist hopefully becomes as logical as seeing a doctor if you break your leg. No-one would think about waiting to see if a broken leg might resolve itself without intervention and yet with other health issues - and particularly mental health issues - we often do. Early intervention is much better as with many things: I remember a couples’ therapist once being asked what advice she had for anyone experiencing relationship issues and she said ‘come for therapy sooner.’ I think that’s true for many problems that therapy could help with.
Finally, are there any upcoming projects or books that you're currently working on that you'd like to share with your readers?
I love the writing process so yes, I’m currently working on a second book with the working title “Too Close to Judge.” It’s based on a concept we learnt in training which is that it’s hard to judge when you’re up close. I’ve found that to be so true; the closer I get to someone, the more I understand them and the less judgemental I become.