One of my first and most important lessons learned as a forensic psychologist came during my internship, where I evaluated children and families, answering questions regarding the termination of parental rights and parenting capacity. My supervisor began every interview exactly the same way.
“Tell me how it is that you came to be here today.”
It sounds like a simple question. It is a simple question. But, I have come to understand that the simplest and most ambiguous questions can often elicit the most useful information. Some interviewees approached the question concretely: “I drove here in my car.” Others took a slightly more complex approach: “CPS took my kids away and told me that I have to come here to get them back.” Still, others were even more insightful, emphasizing the series of mistakes made to warrant an evaluation at our clinic. The answers always varied in emotional tone, capacity for self-understanding, and length. And inevitably, every answer told me something about the person sitting across from me. I began to think of that question as a verbal Rorschach inkblot, the ultimate projective test that would reveal a glimpse of what lies underneath the façade most individuals present during a forensic evaluation.
I still use that question. When I come face to face with life-term inmates to assess their risk for violence, there is much to be gleaned from an open-ended inquiry. Answers range from, “I shot this guy in a fight, and he died” to “Well, it all began when I was a boy. The things I experienced back then influenced me to become a violent person…” to “I refuse to discuss the crime on the advice of my attorney. I’m appealing my case.” After asking the same question hundreds of times, patterns start to emerge, and outliers become glaringly obvious. For example, most inmates don’t answer the question in one sentence. When one does, it’s worth noting.
Try it yourself sometime. Put on your psychologist hat, and ask a few people the same open-ended question. Listen to the variations in the responses you receive. Pay attention–not only to the spoken words but also to the style, the manner of responding. What secrets have you learned about the speaker? How do their answers compare?
Before I embarked upon my journey as an author, I never thought too much about the ambiguity presented by a book. I didn’t read reviews, and I wasn’t a critical reviewer myself. If I didn’t like a book, I simply didn’t finish it. But, after writing the Legacy series, and reading a lot of reviews (of my own work and that of others), it still amazes me how a book can be a lot like my favorite interview question.
“I have found this book to be absolute drivel.”
“In the course of a few years, I have read this wonderful book ten times.”
Would you believe those quotes describe the same classic novel? As readers, we cannot help but bring a part of ourselves with us, when we open a book. Though the words don’t change, their meaning is interpreted through the lens of our vastly different experiences. It’s never easy to receive a negative review, but understanding the ambiguity has given me comfort in the face of a single, sad, lonely star. As famed artist, Edgar Degas, said, “Art is not what you see but make you make others see.” Presented with an inkblot, some see a butterfly and some see blood spatter.