Please welcome Keith Ablow, author of the stunning series featuring forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger!
Review and synopsis of Murder Suicide:
If you could erase the past, and all its messy emotional entanglements, would you? What about the people you would leave behind, having no memory of shared lives, what is your responsibility to them? Could such a betrayal and abandonment lead to murder? These are the kind of questions forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger attempts to answer in this latest of Ablow's wonderfully successful series.
Clevenger is asked to consult on the case of inventor John Snow, a man who has been murdered just before he was about to undergo surgery that would free him of his seizures, but at the same time erase his memory, in effect leaving behind his wife, two children, and his mistress. Could have one of them done the dastardly dead? Or was it his business partner who stood to lose a great deal of money by Snow's refusal to cooperate in some big money making deals? With plenty of suspects and no end to motives, Clevenger attempts to uncover the truth, and when another person dies who is close to the case, things only become more confusing, and dangerous, for Clevenger.
Frank Clevenger, one of the most interesting heroes in the genre today, once again engages and entertains. The suspenseful plot with its thought provoking questions is also highly compelling, and readers will be delighted to not only find themselves racing through the pages, but thinking of it afterwards. Another spectacular outing from Ablow, this is a summer must-read.
1. Tell us a bit about your series featuring Dr. Frank Clevenger, how it started, where it is now.
Frank Clevenger started (in DENIAL) investigating a serial killer targeting women in the Boston area. At that time he was also battling his own addictions to drugs, gambling and women. He was better at finding out the truth about crimes—being a relentless burrower for evidence--than finding out the truth about himself.
I created Clevenger to show that it is often the broken people who resonate best with the broken places in others, including the psychological underpinnings of violence in killers.
2. Frankly, he seems almost as neurotic as his clients, how did he get this way?
Clevenger is a good example of what can happen when you try to distance yourself from your emotional pain. It’s a shell game. He’s trying to cover the truth using alcohol, cocaine, women, gambling. We all do it in different ways—addiction to work, for example—when we should stop, face our problems and experience whatever suffering is due us. That’s the only way to be rid of it, and all neuroses. Clevenger gets better and better at it through the books, so that in MURDER SUICIDE he’s clearer in his thinking, less hampered by his own psychological demons and even better at ferreting out the truth about the “demonic” acts of others.
3. You have an extensive background yourself in the world of psychiatry, tell us more about this and how it influences your writing.
I have interviewed and testified about dozens of murderers and violent offenders as a forensic psychiatrist. I’ve had the chance to “get inside their heads” in a way few writers do. And I’ve given Clevenger the benefits of what I learned. First, you always want to honor the gut feelings you get interviewing suspects. If something seems not to fit, to not make sense, you always ask the next question. You keep burrowing until the story has thematic consistency. Second, you can assume that violent people are broken people. They’ve been through some kind of hell themselves that has destroyed their capacities to empathize with others, to feel the suffering of others. So you can get them to open up much more with a desire to understand them than with a head of steam to trip them up. People want to be understood. It’s seductive stuff. Third, Clevenger is willing to risk everything for the truth. He, like I, believes that the truth is everything. You can’t shut down any line of inquiry just because it’s messy or painful to think about or involves monstrous acts you wish you didn’t have to think about. You have to keep your eyes open in the dark.
4. Your view of criminals is refreshingly empathetic, explain to our readers why it is you feel this way.
I’ve never met a violent criminal, including the murderers I’ve worked with, who wasn’t shattered by events outside his or her control. People are basically good. Given a reasonable environment growing up, they won’t kill others. But people are also fragile, particularly children. Expose them to traumas that hurt enough, with no sense of control, and they turn off their sensitivities. They stop feeling their own pain, because it’s overwhelming, and then they stop feeling the pain of others. And, devoid of empathy, these people lack the psychological brake on their violence that the rest of us enjoy. You can do terrible things if you can’t imagine what those things would feel like if they were done to you.
It’s refreshing in a way to realize that there are no monsters in the world, no cases of primary evil out of the womb. Killers are made, not born. And when I sit with someone who has done a horrible thing and find out—again—that I’m just sitting with a broken child grown into a violent man, I feel grief for that person, rather than hatred.
That doesn’t mean I think killers should be freed. I’m very tough as regards keeping the dangerous people away from the rest of us. I just don’t take any joy in vengeance. Locking up a murderer or a rapist is no different than quarantining any other sick person.
5. Do you feel our criminal justice system adequately deals with criminals, or do you think there may be a better way?
There’s a better way. I’d close lots of prisons and open lots more locked hospitals. I mean really secure facilities. And I’d say to judges and juries, “Dole out whatever ‘sentence’ you would normally, but the defendants are to be placed in healing environments. We’re going to take the hatred out of the system.” We should stick with the facts. These are broken, sick people. They can’t be allowed to mingle with the rest of us, but we shouldn’t allow what afflicts them to infect us—namely, a lack of empathy.
It would be a bold experiment to try this with first time violent offenders. Place them in locked psychiatric units with really top clinicians. Then study what happens to them if they spend their sentences in these “hospitals” as opposed to another group of first time violent offenders who go to traditional prisons. I think with the benefits of healing psychotherapy, medications and addictions treatment, my group would have less recidivism. We’d actually be dealing with the underlying problems, instead of taking joy in simply “punishing.”
6. Do you believe criminals are born that way, or are they formed by negative influences? Nature vs. Nurture?
I think criminals are the result of a “perfect storm” of negative influences. Some people are indeed born with vulnerable nervous systems. They literally don’t have hardy serotonin and norepinephrine levels. And when those people have the misfortune to find themselves abused or neglected as children, they’re going to experience more psychological and neurological damage than other people might who had “better brains” to begin with. Then you add in head trauma, which can make people impulsive. Then add in whether the person was short and asthmatic, and, therefore, felt vulnerable as a child while being beaten, or was larger and healthy and felt like he or she would get through it. Did the person have a teacher who was supportive, or not? A grandparent who loved him, or not? A parent who warned about the dangers of using drugs, or not? Everything gets thrown into the cauldron, and some people, without any light in their dark worlds, end up boiling over. But there’s no mystery there. It’s just emotional calculus. Add up the plus column, add up the negative column, and you’ll have your answer as to whether someone is going to break—and strike out.
7. What do you feel, as a society, we might do to help lessen crime?
Here’s a quick solution to a large percentage of violent crime:
Take the hatred out of the system. Build more “prison hospitals” dedicated to addressing the lack of empathy that violent people are afflicted with. Do the kinds of experiments I advocate above for first-time violent offenders.
Pass a Constitutional Amendment banning capital punishment as cruel and unusual, because it is. We have to tell the truth about our own impulses to be violent if we want to deal with the impulses of the criminals amongst us.
Give every violent offender a new form of “lifetime probation” that follows his or her jail time. The probation never ends, and it includes being drug tested every week, for life. We know that a great deal of violent crime is committed by people who are intoxicated. So, once you’ve identified yourself as at risk for hurting others, you can never use alcohol or drugs ever again. We catch you, you get hospitalized for five years. Period. No excuses. See, I’m not soft on crime. I’m very, very tough. But in a way that could actually make a difference, not just to be vindictive and satisfy a need for payback.
Legalize drugs, or at least roll back the crazy decades-long sentences the government is handing out to people caught with large quantities. When you send a 19-year-old away for 15 years for possession of cocaine, you have defined your society as violent, and you have lost your moral authority to solve the problem.
8. I’m sorry, but I have to ask this one; what do you think of Freud?
Don’t be sorry. I think he was a genius. I think some of his ideas about gender were misguided, but that he identified a whole world of thought and emotion that we were blind to previously.
9. What inspired you to write your first book?
I wanted to create a character who dramatized the fact that we all have one core decision to make in our lives: Whether to face the truth and experience the pain that comes with that, or whether to blind ourselves to our own suffering, and thereby project that suffering onto others. Clevenger is that man. He solves mysteries because I believe we are all mysteries. We all have to be Clevenger, find out how parts of ourselves were killed off. How do we become more whole? Who do we hold responsible? What’s the proper way to see those who have injured us? Where do we find the courage to keep our eyes open in the darkness?
10. What do you like to read in your spare time?
I love Harry Crews (A Childhood), Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air), Dennis LeHane (Mystic River), Thom Jones (The Pugilist at Rest), J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Larry Brown (Joe), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), George Rodrigue (Blue Dog), Raymond Chandler (The Simple Art of Murder), Arno Gruen (The Insanity of Normality) M. Scott Peck (People of the Lie), Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), R.D. Laing (The Divided Self).
In other words, I love great writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery, because we are all mysteries.
11. And finally, what’s next for Dr. Clevenger?
Next: Clevenger investigates a serial killer more brilliant and psychologically astute than any other he has faced. By far. It’s keeping me up nights—even when I’m not writing it.
KEITH ABLOW, M.D. BIOGRAPHY
Keith Ablow is a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in some of America's most highly publicized trials. In addition to his work as an expert witness, he continues to treat men and women across the country and in Europe who come from every corner of society—convicted murderers, the homeless, gang members, Fortune 500 executives, mental health professionals and government officials.
The root of Ablow's therapeutic work in psychiatry and the foundation of his writing is that all of us suffer, that none of us is born evil, and that we must be helped to confront the truth about our lives.
Ablow is a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts and a graduate of Brown University and the Johns Hopkins Medical School. While a medical student, he worked as a reporter for Newsweek magazine and worked as a freelancer for the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, as well as a medical editor and producer for Lifetime Medical Television in Los Angeles. He also wrote his first book, a guide to gaining admission to medical school and preserving one's humanity during the four grueling years that follow.
Following his studies, Ablow moved back to Boston to enter a psychiatry residency at Tufts/New England Medical Center hospitals and continued to write about psychiatry and social issues for publications such as U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. He also wrote three more books: How to Cope with Depression, To Wrestle with Demons, and Anatomy of a Psychiatric Illness. In 1990, Ablow's close friend and fellow psychiatry resident was murdered. This tragedy prompted him to write Without Mercy, a true crime book examining the killer's life and the use of the insanity defense at his trial.
After residency, Ablow served as medical director of the Tri-City Mental Health Centers, one of the country's oldest networks of community psychiatry clinics. He also was the medical director of Heritage Health Systems, a state-wide spectrum of medical, psychiatric and addiction facilities.
Today, Ablow is busier than ever. His best-selling psychiatric thrillers featuring character Dr. Frank Clevenger include Denial, Projection, Compulsion, and his latest, Psychopath. He has just signed a new two-book contract with St. Martin's Press to continue the series, with a new book every year. He is at work with co-writer Michael Schiffer (Crimson Tide, Colors, Four Feathers), on the screenplay for the film adaptation of Denial and Projection, tentatively titled, City of Sin.
Ablow also created and executive produced the hour-long CBS dramatic pilot "Expert Witness," starring Matthew Modine, based on Ablow's work as a forensic psychiatrist. John McNaughton (Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer) directed the pilot.
Visit Keith's website at : www.keithablow.com