The transformative question not enough authors ask themselves: "What *didn't* happen to me?"
Understanding a human psyche—our own, others', and our characters'—requires paying as much attention to our negative spaces as we do our conscious thoughts and external circumstances.
I love popular psychology. No matter the subject, relevant to my lived experience or no, I always seem to find useful takeaways in empathic and well-written books on the curlicues of human behavior.
Most recently, I’ve been making my way through the work of Jonice Webb, a therapist who specializes in the long-term impact of childhood emotional neglect. Webb’s books have given me a valuable new framework for understanding why humans behave the way they do — one I suspect the writers among you will find equally valuable. Also: anyone else out there who is trying to parse their own feelings within the uncertainty, mess, and isolation of a creative career. Or a human life.
So, you know. Everyone.
(This isn’t spon con, by the way. Don’t know Jonice Webb. Don’t know her publisher. Just found her via BookTok like all the hip teens do these days.)
What on Earth can “everyone” get from a book about childhood emotional neglect?
Well, first you need to know that Webb uses that phrase to label something a lot subtler than it sounds.
Webb defines childhood emotional neglect as the opposite of parental abuse. Indeed, she says, it is the opposite of anything one’s parents or caregivers did. Rather, it’s what they didn’t do: healthy coping mechanisms they didn’t model; words they didn’t teach you for naming your experiences; structure they didn’t impose; attention they didn’t pay; laughter they didn’t encourage.
As you can imagine, C. E. N. exists on a huuuuuuuuuuuge spectrum: everything from The Full Tara Westover to the child of a loving and well-intentioned widower so consumed by his own stress and grief that he can’t help his kids process their own. Also kids of smartphone addicts. :nervous chuckle:
A full and satisfying human life requires a dazzling amount of external programming — millions of heuristics put into us by observation and family instruction about how reality works and how to connect with other people. Webb is focused on the lives of people missing key emotional heuristics — or just a lot of smaller ones — but all of us are missing SOME.
The transformative thing Webb has taught me is that human beings are shaped by the holes in our programming as much as we are by the programming itself.
In other words — to mix a metaphor here — she alerted me to the presence of psychological dark matter in every person. This dark matter orders our spacetime and affects our spiritual gravity no less than actual dark matter in the physical world. And it can be nearly as hard to get one’s mind around. That’s because it’s not a Trauma Plot, a buried presence; it’s an absence, something we can never make visible. The best we can ever do in adulthood is survey its boundaries.
Anyone trying to make a character come to life on the page — whether writing fiction or nonfiction — should have some ability to survey the boundaries of people’s emotional dark matter. Ditto anyone who hopes to feel unshakeable inner calm and self-worth as they, oh, I don’t know, try to sustain a long-term career writing books without spontaneously combusting into a spray of cortisol-soaked peoplebeef.
Now let me unpack for you exactly why you’ll find this framework so helpful.