Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ellen Kirschman writes from experience, counseling cops and fire fighters

HALLIE EPHRON: I met Ellen Kirschman a few years at Book Passage's mystery writing conference. I was impressed with her writing, and especially impressed with the experience she'd had as a psychologist and the two (now three) books she'd written about counseling cops and fire fighters. Her thoughtful insights into the challenges of serving for public safety were unique and fascinating.

She was also working on a novel, she told me. Making it up this time. That book, "Burying Ben," is just out and it's my pleasure to welcome Ellen to Jungle Red.

Ellen, why did you move from non-fiction to fiction? Did you feel you had to tell "Ben Gomez's" and "Dot Meyerhoff's story"

: I was delusional. I thought it would be easier to make things up. It isn't. Creating a story that engages readers from start to finish is a lot harder than writing a book readers can pick up and put down when they want to without losing the thread.

As you know, Burying Ben is about police suicide - that's not a spoiler, it's on the first page. What many people don't know is that suicide is the leading cause of death for police. Cops are two to three times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty.

It's an important subject that's no longer being swept under the rug. I wanted to show some of the real wear and tear of policing, which is very different from what you see on TV.

Fortunately,  I've never lost a client to suicide, but it's something I've always feared, so this was a chance for me to put those fears on paper. Not only does my protagonist, Dot Meyerhoff, lose her client, he leaves a suicide note blaming her.

Wow, that is very powerful. Tough. Serious stuff. Wondering if you had any fun writing it? Will the reader have any fun reading it?

ELLEN: Hard to believe, but this is a humorous mystery. I had a wonderful time taking pot shots at cops, my fellow psychologists, my ex-husbands, and myself. It was very satisfying.

HALLIE: So I can ask: Ellen, does your nonfiction and your novel "Burying Ben" spring from the same well?

ELLEN: I'm not nearly so gutsy, young or thin as Dot Meyerhoff, and I certainly never did the wacky things she does, like breaking and entering or assault with a deadly weapon. But we do share some of the same challenges.

For example, like me, she works like the devil  to gain officers' trust. I spent 25 years consulting at one agency and the day I left, there were still some cops who believed I had a video camera in my office that went right up to the Chief's desk.

Like Dot I've felt like a  fish out of water, both as a woman and as a civilian. Dot has even bigger problems. She is the  daughter of a student activist at Berkeley in the 60's. The memory of her father's mistreatment by the police creates causes her a lot of grief.

If you're asking whether certain aspects of this book really happened, the answer is yes and no. Some scenes, like the old man's death in Chapter One, really happened and I never forgot it. 

I also keep a record of the funny, off-the-wall things cops say. They go from my folder to Officer Eddie Rimbauer's mouth. He's a composite of many people, but he sounds so real, there's an on-line pool of cops trying to guess his identity.

HALLIE: What got you started counseling public safety officers, and briefly what are its special challenges?

ELLEN: I was working in an outpatient psychiatric clinic. Several of my clients were married to cops. Some of their home situations were very difficult. I'm a curious, hands-on person with a bit of a law enforcement background - I was once a probation officer - so I wanted to explore this world of work and how it influenced an officer's private life.

I did most of my research in the back of a patrol car. It was a lot more exciting than doing therapy.  Cops are way funnier than psychologists, even when they're depressed. I learned to appreciate  how complex their jobs really are, and how under-appreciated by the public  they often feel.

You've written another book called "I Love a Cop." Are you married to one?

ELLEN: No. Never even had a date with a cop. I keep my personal and professional lives separate. My husband is a remodeling contractor and photographer. Unfortunately, no one wants to read a book about a remodeling contractor.

HALLIE Will there be another Dot Meyerhoff mystery?

ELLEN: I'm working on it as we speak. It's a bit darker and more complicated. This is what makes writing fun for me, I'm not sure I know how it's going to turn out.  Dot will figure it out.  I'm just trying to get out of her way.

HALLIE: Ellen will be hanging around today. I know we have lots of writers out there, so if you questions about how cops and fire fighters and their families deal with the realities of their jobs, now is your chance to ask.

Ellen is giving away a copy of Burying Ben to one lucky responder.


  1. Phew . . . I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult your counseling work might have been --- I’d guess just about as difficult as some of the things those called to public safety service face on a daily basis. [And generally, they didn’t get shared in our family --- my now-retired husband never said much about his police work world except to tell some of the funny anecdotes.] I’d guess that most people don’t realize how complex the job is and how often the public doesn’t appreciate the work that they do. It’s a tough reality to deal with; I’m definitely adding “Burying Ben” to my must-read list . . . .

  2. Ellen, this is fascinating--I'm a psychologist as well. I remember a supervisor once telling us that sometime during our career, we'd lose a patient to suicide. I had some very close calls, but it didn't happen. But in my advice column mystery, DEADLY ADVICE, that's the advice that opens the book. It's a brilliant conflict--can't wait to read the book.

    And hope you will come back again and talk about the hearts and minds of cops...

  3. I just keep going back to what you said, Ellen: "Cops are two to three times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty." Two to three times! That's stunning.

  4. Thank you for sharing here with us, Ellen. I've done a lot of counseling as an outplacement counselor at firms like Drake Beam in NYC- and there is often a thin line between being fired and the dark sense of needing to end one's life. We get so much info re cops from TV - you are the real deal. How do you keep a good cop from suicide - I look forward to your books now... Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  5. Good morning. It's 7:30 AM here in California and I'm working on my first cup of coffee. Seeing your comments is a great way to start the day. Joan's husband is not unusual. Many cops draw a bright line between work and home. In my experience most families don't want or need all the "gory" details, but do want to know what's going on with the person they love when they come home with the "face." It's not a matter of tell all or tell nothing and the rules of communication need to be negotiated between both parties.

  6. Here's what I know about preventing police suicide: the police culture needs to change so that asking for help is NOT seen as a sign of weakness; departments need to provide peer support, accessible, free, confidential and culturally competent counseling (meaning the shrinks know the culture and what cops do), chaplaincy, debriefing services, family counseling,and supervisors who are trained to spot officers with emotional difficulties. For small agencies this is a tall order.

  7. You're right about cops having a keen sense of humor. My husband has worked with them as part of his job for years. Those who have become our friends are funnier than hell! Your book sounds great.

  8. Hi Ellen--Just bought your book. It's going to be my weekend reading.

    Since I write about cops, I figure this is "required reading" of the very enjoyable kind! Not only that, but my husband was a cop for ten years, and lost a good friend who was also a cop to suicide. Of course it was a complicated situation--but then I expect they always are... Can't wait to meet your counselor and your cops!

  9. I can't imagine how difficult a counselor's job can be! Bless you all.

    Hi Ellen, I love your haircut! :-)

    BURYING BEN is on my TBR list now.

  10. Thanks Deb. Suicide is a very complex situation often involving a relationship loss and/or substance abuse along with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

    Thanks Marianne. Lupe has been cutting my hair for years. (Thanks to my Aunt Lil for good hair). She also reads my books, her husband is a fire fighter, and came to a reading I did. How's that for a full service salon?

  11. Thank you, Ellen. "Burying Ben" sounds as if it will open the reader's mind to a part of life that we do not easily have access too. And humor too? The book is on my list.

  12. I lost a close friend to suicide several years ago. She had a husband, young children, nice home, career, friends, etc. It was a shock to everyone--except friends who knew about her lifelong struggle with depression. I was shocked but not surprised, if you will, and believe she convinced herself everyone would be better off without her problems. What her family went through...very difficult. But at least they knew she was troubled and, I hope, believe they did all they could for her.

    This is all preamable to the premise of your book, that the suicide comes without warning or prior attempts. The shock of that, I can't imagine. I don't think I want to, so I applaud anyone who works with people in trauma--whether the person is an officer helping someone in need, or the person helping officers in need (aka, you Ellen.)

  13. Cops and firefighters and EMS folk see us on the worst days of our lives and always give us their best. That kind of dedication has to take a toll. We also give little thought to these amazing people until we dial 911, then we want them there instantly to fix things.
    It's no wonder that the burdens these fine folks carry sometimes get too heavy to bear alone.

  14. Ramona: I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. My book is fiction, in real life suicide can be a total shock but many have made prior attempts or threats. It is a fable that those who threaten suicide won't actually do it. As you know, suicide leaves a legacy of pain and unanswered questions, sometimes lasting for generations. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  15. Hi S.E. You got it! When people ask me what they can do as citizens I have a simple answer. When you pass cops on the street, smile and thank them for their service. If first responders come to your home, write a note of thanks. Attend a citizens academy. Go on a ride-along. It really helps to show your appreciation and support to these brave men and women.

  16. Ellen, your book sounds like a must-read. You render a valuable service, and I'd like to thank you for that. Your suggestion to thank cops, firefighters and EMS personnel is an excellent one, and it's something I've been doing for years now. I attend loads of sporting events and concerts and always make a point to thank the cops who're assigned to the venues. They're startled every single time, without exception.

  17. Police work runs in my family. It became a compulsion when one of our uncles was killed arresting a burglar in Boston.

  18. Sometimes they kill themselves slowly - with alcohol! I am looking forward to reading Ellen's books...Dee

  19. Thanks everyone for your comments. I enjoyed our cyber- conversations.

  20. I hadn’t thought about it until reading this post, but I spend very little time in the frozen food section anymore: just vegetables really, and sometimes sweet potato fries when I really have the urge for them and don’t feel like going out for “real ones.” I won’t mention some of the stuff I had around when the three kids were still here, but they survived and eat well now – and cook much better than I do.

    One frozen product I really LIKE to have around are English Toffee Crunch ice cream bars. Yum.

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