Stories That Heal: Self-Help Fiction as a Genre

By Janina Scarlet, author of Dark Agents, Book One: Violet and the Trial of Trauma

I will never forget the day I learned that Sherlock Holmes died. I was nine. My mother was working late, and my father was making mashed potatoes for dinner. The story’s ominous title, “The Final Problem,” sent chills down my bones and I had a very bad feeling while reading it.

I could kind of hear my father calling me to eat, but my heart was beating so fast that his voice blended into the background. I raced to finish the story, all the while, filled with both dread and terror about what would happen to my favorite character. When I read the final paragraph, I began to sob.

My father walked into my room, surprised to hear me crying, “What happened?”

“Sherlock died,” I managed between the sobs.

My father stared at me, confused. “Umm. Well. The potatoes are getting cold. You should come to eat.” And with that, he walked back to the kitchen.

I had no appetite. I was just as confused as my father was. I could not understand why I was grieving over the death of a fictional character. All I knew was that I wished that I could have talked to Sherlock’s best friend, Dr. Watson, so that we could share this grief together.

I did not realize in that moment why I cried for nearly an hour. I was inconsolable. It felt like a friend of mine had passed away. Or a family member.

Thinking about it later, I realized why Sherlock Holmes’ death affected me as much as it did. Two years prior to this event, my paternal grandmother passed away. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. On that day, I swore to myself that I would support my dad through his loss and that he would not see me crying over her death. I was holding on to unprocessed grief for two years and when I read about Sherlock’s death and read about the pain that his friend, Watson, was going through, the wall that I had built two years prior, had collapsed.

Throughout my life, I have loved stories. I found that fictional stories tell the truth, the kind of truth that we often don’t talk about it. Fiction can present themes of grief, loss, heartbreak, trauma, and mental illness, as well as political themes related to oppression and prejudice. These topics are often highly charged or too challenging for some people to discuss.

Worse, many people are shamed for their emotional experiences and/or political views, and thus do not feel safe expressing them to others. Through the lens of fiction, these topics can be brought to light in a safer medium through which conversations can start.

For years now, I have been utilizing fiction in my work with clients who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as anxiety, depression, grief, and chronic pain. Using stories, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Avengers, and Batman, just to name a few, has allowed many people the permission and the freedom to discuss their mental health. It has allowed them the vocabulary to talk about their experiences. For example, when working with active-duty service members who had recently returned from deployment and lost dear friends in combat, I found it extremely challenging to ask them to find a word for how devastated they must have felt when it occurred. Because there are no words to describe that level of emotional pain. Not in any language. No word can possibly do it justice. But I found that many of the service members I worked with would use fictional examples:

“You know how little Bruce Wayne felt when he saw his parents get killed in the alleyway? Years before he became Batman? That’s how I felt.” 

And interestingly, these examples were much more powerful when learning to understand their grief than any emotion-related words we could come up with. Why is that? Because many of us feel alone in our pain. Suffocating, and alone. But fiction—it can give us a voice; it can allow us to have the vocabulary to express what we might want to shout from the depth of our suffering when we just don’t have the words.

In seeing how fiction can help us tell our stories when we are struggling, I have started using fiction to talk about mental health. This is called self-help fiction. Self-help fiction books are fictional in nature but utilize self-help skills, demonstrating to the reader how a particular character might manage their own mental health struggles.

Seeing how much fiction has helped so many of my clients and people that I know and interact with, I wanted to put together a self-help fiction series, “The Dark Agents,” in which all Greek Gods and legends are real and current. Every year, Hades, the god of the Underworld, accepts eight recruits to the Underworld Intelligence Agency (UIA) to learn to become a Dark Agent—someone who can keep a balance between the Underworld and the world of the living. Throughout the course of their training, the recruits have to learn psychological flexibility skills such as mindfulness, acceptance, and self-compassion, in order to complete their training.

Each book in the series (eight in total) will be from a different character’s perspective, but the story will continue. The first book in the series, Violet and the Trial of Trauma, will focus on Violet, a young witch, whose parents were murdered by a necromancer when she was a small child. Violet joins the UIA in order to make sure that he never hurts anyone again. But in the process of her training, Violet comes face to face with the monsters of her own past.

My hope with this series is to create a medium that can take the stigma out of mental health, and can make learning mental health tools both educational and fun. My hope is that this series can teach the readers to “embrace the dark and guard the light.”

Young girl holding a ball of energy with a city in the dark behind her

Janina Scarlet, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, an award-winning author, and a full-time geek. A Ukrainian-born refugee, she survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution. Scarlet immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve with her family, and later, inspired by the X-Men, developed Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has been awarded the United Nations Association Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award for her book, Superhero Therapy. Her other books include Harry Potter Therapy, Therapy Quest, and Super-Women.

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