Thursday, October 22, 2009

Elizabeth Zelvin, Guest Blogger

Today, I'd like to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as guest blogger. Liz is the author of Death Will Get You Sober, and the new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him . Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist who has directed alcohol treatment programs and lectured widely on codependency, addictions, and relationships. Her author website is She currently treats clients online at Death Will Help You Leave Him is the second novel in her series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, which also includes three published or to-be-published short stories; one of these was nominated for an Agatha award. Thank you, Liz!

What next? When your fictional alcoholic sleuth doesn’t relapse

In 1935, when a failed stockbroker and a drunken doctor met in Akron, Ohio and founded Alcoholics Anonymous, it was well known that alcoholics didn’t recover. No treatment that worked existed back then, and for decades, the growing network of sober alcoholics in the church basements of AA remained pretty much a secret. The novels and movies of the time reflected that fact. Hard-drinking cops and PIs were the norm in mystery fiction.

The turning point came in 1982, when Lawrence Block’s detective Matt Scudder got sober. Over the next 25+ years, Matt has continued to go to AA meetings. He had a sponsor until the poor guy was killed by one of Scudder’s enemies by mistake. And he hasn’t had a drink in all that time. He’s cleaned up his act, gotten his PI license, and married Elaine, who goes to Al-Anon. But his cases are still dark, and he’s not exactly “happy, joyous, and free.” He doesn’t party with AA buddies, go to therapy, or find his way to other twelve-step programs.

When I created my protagonist, Bruce Kohler, who started out hitting bottom in detox on the Bowery in Death Will Get You Sober, I wanted to fill a gap in the annals of fictional alcoholics. Some terrific writers, including Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen, have protagonists whose battle with booze is never done. Other equally terrific writers, such as Peter Robinson and Reginald Hill, have characters who skate on the edge of what I’d call probable alcoholism, though they may not. And Block and James Lee Burke are masters of the character for whom sobriety is not exactly fun.

For many recovering alcoholics, not drinking is just the beginning. As they work the twelve steps, they grow more honest with themselves and make extraordinary efforts to change. Those who are lucky enough to connect viscerally with AA—usually not at once, but as their heads clear and they start to take in the unconditional acceptance and camaraderie of meetings—go from being terminal loners (yep, every one of them) to folks who value the community (or fellowship, as it’s usually called) of twelve-step programs. It surprises many people that there is so much hilarity in meetings. It shouldn’t. Comedy is usually based on someone’s foibles. And people in recovery who are working the steps develop an eagle eye for their own foibles.

Even my editor kind of expected Bruce to go on struggling with the booze after the first book. No way! The first step of both AA and Al-Anon, the program for family and friends of alcoholics, starts, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” In real life, even as a therapist and former treatment program director, I can’t make anyone in the world stay sober. But Bruce has to do what I tell him to. (Well, sometimes. As any fiction writer knows, he sometimes tells me what he will or will not do.) I’ll be darned if I’ll let him relapse.

So what next?

One of the dubious benefits of alcoholism is that it masks emotions and allows the alcoholic to skim lightly over the surface of relationships—or more often, embark on relationships and quickly screw them up. When Bruce gets sober, he has to deal with his feelings—rage, fear, grief, shame, the whole megillah—and form healthy relationships with other people. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, Bruce is not only drawn into trying to help others—Luz, whose abusive boyfriend Frankie is found dead in her apartment, and Bruce’s ex-wife Laura, whose new lover is also violent toward her—but into his own relationship addiction. Laura has no boundaries and no respect for Bruce’s. Self-destructive and emotionally labile, to use the shrink term for up and down like a roller coaster, she is not only going down the drain, but will take Bruce with her if she possibly can.

So does that mean Bruce isn’t just an alcoholic, he’s a codependent too? That’s exactly what I mean. In Death Will Help You Leave Him, I’ve tried to show what I’ve been telling clients and mental health professionals for years: addicts and codependents are not two separate sets of people. Most of any alcoholic’s relationships while drinking are with other alcoholics: drinking buddies who enable and sometimes exploit them, and whom they sometimes enable and exploit in turn. In fact, both Bruce’s father and his best friend Jimmy’s were alcoholics, so they also have to deal with the complex consequences of being children of alcoholics. For many alcoholics, once they divest themself of the alcohol coverup and start peeling away the layers of denial and avoidance, what comes after recovery in AA may be Al-Anon, the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) program, Debtors Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous.... Oh, and therapy.

Thank you, Liz, for taking time to discuss alcoholics in mysteries, and, in reality. Good luck with Death Will Help You Leave Him.

Elizabeth Zelvin's website is

Death Will Help You Leave Him by Elizabeth Zelvin. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN 9780312582661 (hardcover), 288p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very interesting interview! I enjoy reading mysteries where the detective's foibles create challenges and conflict alongside the whodunit puzzle.

I love that Bruce will move on to face new challenges and hadn't thought about the whole life-building aspect that must start after giving up alcohol.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

Bruce is my favorite part of these mysteries, Elizabeth. I'm rooting for him to succeed in each one. The current book definitely presents a major challenge for him.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Elizabeth, Bruce hadn't thought of the need to change his whole life either, and sometimes he's quite p.o.'d about it. ;) Lesa, thanks for having me on your blog. :)

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth, and I appreciate your time. I also appreciate Bruce!