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Literature as therapy

Liz Lerner

I’ve often thought that writers in general make poor candidates for psychiatric therapy. This isn’t primarily because most writers I know are skeptical, but rather because the goals of writers and therapists are diametrically opposed. It has long been the belief of most therapists that “talking out” and directly confronting emotional and psychological issues is the best ways of handling them. For writers, though, it’s just the opposite. As Norman Mailer once replied when asked why he didn’t try therapy, he said, “I’m afraid it might cure me.”

This sounds like a flippant remark, but I think he was quite sincere. A writer who has experienced a traumatic episode in his or her life is more likely to hold onto it than to confront it; he instinctively knows that it can be put to better use in his writing. It’s a cliché (but nonetheless true) that for a writer, “It’s all material.”

Moreover, the use to which a writer puts his psychological trauma is more often indirect than direct and involves displacement rather than confrontation. As Emily Dickinson put it, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.”

There are several examples of this in the work of Cape Cod writers and none more telling than Henry Beston. His iconic book, The Outermost House, is usually read as a celebration of the natural world, notable for its lyrical style and sunny outlook. Oh, there are dark moments in the book, such as his account of the wreck of the Montclair, and elsewhere he mentions, almost

as an afterthought, that once, during an ocean storm, he “nearly died.” But in general, death and destruction play but a small part in his account.

Few people who have read the book are prompted to ask why Beston spent a largely solitary year on the Cape’s Outer Beach. In fact, he preempts and finesses the question at the beginning of the book, where he writes, “I went to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.”

In other words, he asks the reader to believe that he was seduced by the magical nature of the beach, pulled toward it, rather than running away from something. Like most readers, I took Beston’s comments at face value, that is, until I read Daniel Paine’s pioneering biography of Beston, Orion on the Dunes, which was published in 2017. I had known that Beston had served as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, which he wrote about in an earlier book, Volunteer Poilu, which is a rather white-washed version of his wartime experience. It wasn’t until I read Paine’s biography that I realized how traumatized Beston was by his experience. His little dune shack on Eastham’s barrier beach provided Beston with solitude and a sanctuary, not to escape those memories and not to face them directly, but rather to use them to create a retaliation to the death and mayhem he saw in France.

After reading Paine’s account, I went back to The Outermost House, and I began to see hidden or cloaked references to that trauma in his book. At the very beginning of his book, Beston uses the language of war to describe his “remote and unspoiled” beach: “Age by age here the sea gives battle to the land; age by age, the earth struggles for her own, calling to her defense, her energies and her creations, bidding her plants to steal down upon the beach, and holding the frontier sands in a net of grass and roots which the storms wash free.”

Beston’s year-long sojourn on the beach and the book it inspired provided a catharsis for his own traumatic memories and a paean to the natural world as an antidote to human destruction. It is no wonder that, by his own admission, having exorcised his demons, he was never again to write such a powerful book.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.