You spend your working hours dealing with violent psychopaths and their deeply traumatised victims. What do you do with your time off?
Immerse yourself in all things happy and positive? Hide under the bed covers? Do anything you can to forget, at least for a while, the dark, horrifying side of human nature?
In her ‘free’ time, clinical psychologist and author Leah Giarratano likes to create fictional psychopaths and write about what they do to their victims. Her terrifying crime thrillers are populated by characters she describes as “Hannibal Lecter’s peers”, more disturbing for having been drawn from her real life dealings with psychopaths and other heinous criminals while working in jails.
“I actually wanted to be a fantasy writer,” she said during a crime-writing session at the Perth Writers Festival this weekend. “But my job as a clinical psychologist pretty much made me have to download or dump all of the terrible things I’ve seen in the past 17 years working, primarily, as a trauma psychologist.
“I have seen just about every hideous thing that one human being can do to another. Writing, for me, is a catharsis and it has been a way of my processing what I do.”
Fascinated by the workings of human nature, Leah studied the impact of severe trauma on children and the adults they became.
“Some children who have been through such horrible childhoods grow up and they are able to flourish and thrive,” she said. “Some children will turn that hate inwards on themselves and develop drug and alcohol disorders, anxiety disorders, and they will go through a series of destructive relationships.
“There is a very small group who absorb the hate that is done to them and they direct it outwards so they become anti-social. And a very small group of those become what we know as psychopaths. So the study of trauma led me to be interested in psychopaths and I always wanted to meet a psychopath – until I did.”
As part of her doctorate studies, Leah worked in a secure unit of a New South Wales jail, where she met her first psychopath, among other heinous people.
“It was a jail within a jail and it was for people who were highly suicidal, acutely suicidal, they would self-mutilate, or they were there because they were so horrible that they would be murdered in the main jail because of what they had done,” she said.
“When I came out of that jail experience…I literally vomited out a scene which is the first scene of my first novel Vodka Doesn’t Freeze. I had to download this information.”
Leah has recently published her fourth book, continuing to ‘download’ the horrible acts and personalities she encounters in real life.
“All the characters in my books are based upon people that I’ve seen in my day job but I’ve plaited them together so that they’ll never recognise themselves in the books,” she said.
Despite her expert understanding of the evils people are capable of, Leah doesn’t want readers to hear the psychologist in her novels.
“I want them to read a kick-arse book they can’t put down,” she said. “I try not to educate or get on a soap box or let themes important to me out in the book. I really just try to write great crime and great characters.”
But she acknowledges the writing is a form of self-treatment, an application of the ‘exposure therapy’ Leah uses with her clients, where a traumatic event is examined and discussed closely, repeatedly, until the client starts to ‘digest’ the information into their own narrative and to heal.
“For me, writing is a bit like that,” she said. “So these four novels that I have written have been a way of me really trying to process, understand, make sense of, come to terms with some of the patients that I’ve seen.”
And she has just signed a publishing deal for her first fantasy novel – so the therapy worked.
Leah Giarratano is a clinical psychologist who has worked in psychiatric hospitals, with the defence force and in the corrections system. In 2009, she delved into the psyches of some of Australia’s more fearsome criminals on the Channel 7 program ‘Beyond the Darklands’. Leah participated in a panel session on criminal writing and conducted a workshop on creating nasty villains as part of the Perth Writers Festival.