“Psychoanalysis is not and has never been the fashion in Texas,” begins Diane Lawson’s debut novel, A Tightly Raveled Mind. “It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-your-cowboy-bootstraps kind of place where psychiatrists are only for crazy people.”
That’s the professional opinion of psychoanalyst protagonist Dr. Nora Goodman, a Chicago transplant in San Antonio working through a busted marriage and a pervasive sense of alienation. See, Nora’s husband, Richard, a shrink (natch) who has become a local celebrity, comes from old money and knows all—and only—the right people. “I have a place in this community, Nora,” he tells her. “Unlike you.” Nora’s handful of patients have all arrived courtesy of Richard’s connections, all are deeply troubled, and all take their frustrations out on Nora. There’s the former sniper who suffers from Vietnam flashbacks; the spoiled heiress who chastises Nora for not knowing how much a 10,000-square-foot house costs (“What do you know about the real world?” she barks); an otherwise unassuming man who frequents a transvestite hooker and lives in a home packed wall-to-wall with pornography; and a professor at Trinity University who blows himself up in his chemistry lab on an ordinary Monday morning, “the kind of everyday day that feeds our communal delusion that everyone we care about will live forever.”
The explosion is officially ruled an accident, but Nora believes that the professor was murdered, or, worse (for her self-esteem, at least), committed suicide. When another patient falls to her death from an office building a week later, Nora begins to suspect that she is being targeted, somehow, through her patients. Enter hardboiled private eye Miguel Ruiz, just cynical enough to get the job done, and just attractive enough for Nora to take notice.
Like Nora, writer Lawson is a therapist in San Antonio, via Chicago, which allows her to analyze Texans from an outsider’s perspective, often with amusing results. One character, “having grown up in West Texas, came by his lack of emotion honestly.” About another Nora reflects, “Texans must get a homing microchip implanted in their brains at birth. I’m not talking about everyday nostalgia for one’s hometown. I’m talking about some primordial imperative for return.”
And once Ruiz takes up the case, Lawson gets to have some fun with class and race. Nora, caught up in her rejection by her ex-husband’s social circle, says to Ruiz, “San Antonio is a small town, in case you haven’t noticed.” Ruiz counters, “Not so small by my count, but I include the brown people.” And when a hoity-toity widow is introduced to Ruiz—in San Antonio, a city of nearly 1.4 million—she tells him, “You’re not at all familiar. You must be from out of town.”
This incisive humor, coupled with Lawson’s innate sense of pacing, keeps her debut moving along sharply; the book can be read in just a handful of 50-minute hours. And Lawson wisely limits the psychobabble, reserving it mostly for key scenes in which Nora self-analyzes by anthropomorphizing both the Freud action figure she carries in her pocket and the Freud bust she displays in her office, the latter of which, “brows elevated,” points out Nora’s mistakes during sessions.
It’s a shame, then, that the book’s ending is so uninspiring. After a skillful and steady buildup of tension, enough suspects to keep readers guessing, and, yes, a tightly raveled plot, the climactic scene is a groaner. Lawson’s intention, I believe, is to comment on her motif of Freud’s famous claim that there are no accidents. She doesn’t quite pull it off.
But this third-act letdown isn’t enough to leave a sour taste. A Tightly Raveled Mind is an engaging piece of fiction, suitable for fans of mystery novels and psychological thrillers, as well as any reader who enjoys potshots aimed at uppity Texans.
Perhaps the only people to whom I wouldn’t recommend A Tightly Raveled Mind are Lawson’s real-life patients, who would no doubt drive themselves mad searching for identifying hints of their own behavior in Nora’s clientele. How would it make you feel if your therapist cooked up a work of fiction about a therapist and his/her patients?
Wait, what the hell am I saying? No self-respecting Texan has a therapist.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.