‘Therapists have crumbling lives like everybody else’
Bev Thomas never expected to set her first novel in the world of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Having worked for many years as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, her first attempts at writing included forays into historical fiction. But eventually she found herself writing a novel set in her professional domain. “I’ve always been interested in what people do and why they do things,” Thomas says. “That’s why I trained as a clinical psychologist. When I began writing it was fundamental for me to think that the characters made psychological sense. It’s a psychological drama rather than a thriller.”
A Good Enough Mother is about grief, motherhood and the complexities of the therapistpatient relationship. The novel’s narrator is Dr Ruth Hartland, a highly respected psychotherapist and director of a trauma unit whose private life is unravelling: her teenage son has gone missing, her marriage has fallen apart and her relationship with her daughter is strained. When a patient resembling her missing son arrives at the unit, the boundaries between Ruth’s professional judgment and her personal trauma begin to blur, with devastating consequences.
Part of Thomas’s motivation was, she says, to humanise therapists: “The reality is that therapists have crumbling lives like everybody else: marriages that don’t work, children they can’t manage very well… They are not perfect people but that doesn’t stop them being fantastic therapists.”
The novel is immersed in the world of therapy: there are discussions about transference and counter-transference, and references to Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, who first introduced the idea of “the goodenough mother”.
“You’re opening a door on to an intimate world,” Thomas says. “My aim is that people who are not necessarily ever going to have therapy might find the concepts useful outside the therapy room: that it might change the way they work with a colleague, or how they understand what their child might be feeling.”
Alongside an exploration of therapy, the novel examines the aspirations and limitations of motherhood. “[The novel] enables you to grapple with all sorts of dilemmas,” Thomas says. “What does it mean to get it right? What do you do if your child is struggling? How much do you bear letting them find their way? I think it’s a real challenge. And I think there’s such a lot of pressure at the moment to get it right.”
Integral to Ruth’s narrative is the experience of loss, which, as Thomas observes, is universal. “It’s something that finds its way into the therapy room in all sorts of guises. I don’t just mean bereavement, but loss of identity or loss of a family member through drugs or alcohol or mental health issues. Loss is such a human condition.”
These universal themes led to
A Good Enough Mother being the subject of a five-way publisher auction. But Thomas’s route to publication has involved “18 years of hard graft”. She has, she says, become “an Arvon junkie”, attending multiple creative writing courses. She likes the collective work done in creative writing groups. “Getting that feedback has definitely altered things I’ve written. If you feel supported and contained then I think you can do your best work.” Writing groups mirror her current role as an organisational consultant, helping mental health teams collaborate and communicate more effectively. “I do love groups. I think it’s fascinating how group processes get played out in organisations.”
Thomas now plans to combine writing with her clinical work. “For me, the leap from therapy to writing wasn’t quite such a leap as it might seem,” she says. “Part of what therapists do is help people tell their life stories. And you write in order to engage and have some kind of connection. So to now have this opportunity to connect with readers through a psychological book is fantastic.”