Elena Seibert
Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath was born and bred an Englishman, but since 1971 he has written from the United States. He writes beautiful novels and short stories that often focus on psychologists and therapy.

Two of his previous novels are "Asylum" and "Spider." His new one, "Trauma," is a carefully crafted story centered on a therapist.

"I grew up in a psychiatric household. We were even near a mental hospital," said McGrath by phone from his New York City home. "My father was a psychiatrist. My interests quite naturally gravitated toward problems of mental illness, trauma and psychosis. I read widely in the field."

But his education at Simon Fraser University prepared him to teach kindergarten in Vancouver. "I had 20 very energetic little kids, and it was very difficult for me to maintain discipline in my classroom. That caused me to leave teaching."

He studied American literature at the University of London and became a fiction writer. "If I were to live my life over again," said McGrath, "I would seriously consider being a psychiatrist, because I think they do intensely valuable work."

The protagonist of "Trauma" is Charlie Weir, a Manhattan psychiatrist who counsels traumatized war veterans who have recently returned home from serving in Vietnam, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Charlie possesses that rare quality of serenity that allows him to connect with his patients. But he has trouble connecting emotionally with the women in his own life. He also carries serious baggage in the hostile relationship he has with his older brother. When he discovers that the woman he is involved with is having an affair with his brother, he explodes.

Although Charlie is very good in counseling others, he has trouble applying the principles to himself, and he chooses not to go into therapy with another psychiatrist. The physician "cannot heal himself."

In McGrath's words, "Charlie has been deeply traumatized, but the nature of that trauma is hidden, repressed, hard to get at. He has profoundly painful memories, and his mind refuses to confront them."

To learn more about trauma, McGrath studied Judith Herman's "standard work" called "Trauma and Recovery." "I didn't appropriate the actual cases cited in her book, but I got the idea of the sorts of problems that occur with traumatized patients and how good psychiatrists deal with it. Then I invented my own case histories."

As a writer, McGrath takes ordinary problems and "ratchets them up to depict experience as crisis. Everything becomes more dramatic. The worst always tends to happen. By and large real life doesn't rise to such intensity," said McGrath.

Part of the problem in McGrath's story line is the younger brother competing with the older brother, "who seems to get everything. Charlie, in this case, is dealing with his demons. He even entertains thoughts of suicide."

Charlie left his wife, Agnes, seven years ago when her brother, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, killed himself. Since Charlie was treating the brother, he felt responsible for his death and decided to make Agnes' life easier by leaving her. In fact, the break-up had the opposite effect. From her viewpoint, he left at her very hour of need.

"Leaving her was a deeply destructive decision for both of them," said McGrath. "There is little surprise that she bitterly resented it for years. Women have experienced the selfishness of men far more than the other way around. It seems deeply imbedded in our male genes to leave the den or cave and head into the forest at the first sign of trouble. The woman is literally left holding the baby," said McGrath.

In a novel, McGrath tries to show the development of maturity as people grow older. "All social life is performance. You want to show that in a novel as well, slowly revealing the nature of your characters."

Soon, Agnes realizes that Charlie "is missing something, which is a symptom of trauma. He has no ability to feel joy, to feel loved or to enjoy an ordinary emotional life. The poisonously buried trauma stunts the progress of a person affected by it. There is a lack of full humanity," said McGrath.

McGrath is married in real life to actress Maria Aitken.

"I would recommend being married to an actress to any novelist," chuckled McGrath. "We are basically doing the same thing. We're looking for good dialogue, plotting and characterization as tools of the trade. Her instincts in my work are absolutely flawless. She can quickly analyze why a scene is not working. We make a good team. It's a rich aspect of our marriage. We've worked together on script writing, too."

McGrath is constantly pursuing "the music in the prose." At all costs, he wants to "avoid boring language. The prose must be pleasurable and not predictable to the reader. That's why it's a slow business. You go down a lot of blind alleys. This is the first book in which I have had only American characters, and being American is not bred in the bones. You always know the culture best where you grew up."

When McGrath found that he was making Charlie sound too much like an Englishman, he took out all the modifiers. "Then he seemed more like a New Yorker. I tried to make the language as clean and uncluttered as possible," said McGrath.

Although McGrath admitted there are elements of a horror story in his work, he dislikes being labeled. "You lose readers when there is a label attached to your work," he said.

McGrath keeps going back to the books of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville for inspiration. Contemporary writers he likes include Richard Price, whose recent book, "Lush Life" he "devoured in a weekend." He also loves Peter Carey's new book, "His Illegal Self."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com