Frustrated at my failure to attain elite distance-runner status and support myself via professional running, I left Virginia and drove back across the country to poor old New Mexico, “so far from heaven, so close to Texas,” as we liked to quip. I took nothing but the manuscript I’d written in Virginia, my first novel, Leftovers Again. It had nothing in common with the short story I wrote in college, but I liked the cynicism in the title, so I recycled it; I’d become derivative even of myself. Written in longhand, over six hundred pages in a loose-leaf binder, I clearly needed to learn that less was more. Everyone except me seemed to know that already.
Leftovers Again was about a twenty-three-year-old Christian Scientist whose mother died of Huntington’s disease after he failed to pray her well. When the protagonist manifested the early symptoms of the genetically inherited disease, he traveled cross-country, had misadventures and flashbacks to his coming-of-age years in New Mexico, and planned either to pray himself healthy or blow his brains out. An exploded head would scream, “See what happens when God ignores you?” When his symptoms worsened, he placed the shotgun barrel into his mouth. Then his girlfriend appeared, having tracked him down to give him the lab results he’d refused to look at.
Wait for it…
He blew his brains out. He splattered his gray matter against a tree, and then the reader learned he didn’t even have the genetic marker. It was a scientific fact that he’d never develop Huntington’s disease. His symptoms were only psychosomatic; he had manifested what he feared most. He would’ve been “healed” had he lived another minute, had he listened to his female rescuer. It was my experience of the Christian Science paradigm, complete with a feminine savior (Mom, Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science itself) and Christ as the masculine savior. It was dark but more realistic than having the protagonist’s girlfriend save him in the nick of time. I didn’t want a Hollywood ending; it was more of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Later, I decided that the ending was too cynical to get past an anonymous agent or editor, the unknown people I wanted to please. It was colicky. So, I changed it: the protagonist heard the test results, stayed his trigger finger, kept his brains inside his skull, and his symptoms immediately ceased. He was indeed healed; the healing wasn’t medical or spiritual but rather, psychological. I liked the twist but feared that the happy ending was hackwork. As the story bubbled up from my subconscious, I didn’t realize that I had a deep interest in human psychopathology even before I suspected I’d ever become a psychologist. And yes, it’s cool to have decades-old writing to look back upon and view my thoughts then from my perspective now as a middle-aged psychologist.
For example, I reread Leftovers Again for the first time in twenty-five years, and although I liked what I just described above, I couldn’t become engaged in the story. The protagonist was motivated by psychological distress, but there was a distance that kept me from caring about him. He came off as inauthentic and more of a caricature than a real person, similar to his creator at the time. So, my story didn’t resonate with the reader, or in this case, not even with the author. I’d written a fictional case study of a chameleon who changed his color to mimic the disease symptoms of the person he wanted to move toward, his spiritual mentor: his mother. It could end with a bad resolution, such as suicide, or a revelation of his chameleon behavior, leading to psychological growth. Today I think the latter is not hackwork but preferable.