“I always wanted to be a writer,” retired forensic psychiatrist Mark Rubinstein told Westport Sunrise Rotary last Friday. “People were telling me stories all the time … that’s partially why I went into psychiatry.”
Now he’s the storyteller, enjoying his second career, recalling 42 years of “listening to people’s tales of woe,” and working on his fifth novel.
Storytelling, he said, “makes us who we are … the novelist seeks to capture the reader, to take him from his prosaic world to one that gives him an experience he couldn’t hope to have in his daily life.”
Rubinstein spoke to his audience about his practice, about his genre, thrillers, and about writing.
As a forensic psychiatrist he often served as an expert witness, for criminal and civil cases, from the mundane to “some of the most horrific of human behaviors.” He evaluated and treated over 300 survivors of 9/11 — people fleeing, seeing dead bodies carried down the stairs, and firemen rushing up into billowing smoke, and “knowing, retrospectively, that these men never survived.” He helped survivors of air crashes from 32,000 feet (yes, “there are survivors”), of concentration camps and from the Vietnam War, as well as victims of rape and false arrest.
He mentioned divorces in which both sides told him the other was an unfit parent. “It makes it difficult to believe that these people were married, were in love, had children, made a life together. The accusations they hurl at each other are beyond anger, beyond rage, they qualify as hatred bordering on murderous impulses.”
This took him to “the thin line between love, obsession, hate and even murder … love is a state of mind with which we are all familiar. Obsession is something else, but there’s only a thin line separating them,” as we learned from the recent Jodi Arias case and the older one of Herman Tarnow and Jean Harris. Obsession became “love gone awry.”
He moved on, talking about his genre. “I write thrillers!” Thrillers are different from mysteries, Rubinstein said. Mysteries are “who done its,“ thrillers keep the protagonist in imminent danger and the reader on the edge of his seat in the well written ones.
Popular culture is rife with thrillers, with depictions of murder — of love turning to obsession, then murder, as in movies including “Fatal Attraction and “Misery,’” and novels like “Sophie’s Choice,” “a horrible kind of story about the most inhumane and inhuman things that can happen to people, beautifully written in the gorgeous style of William Styron.”
While thrillers get a bad rap, as “fluff,” he noted that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were thrillers — “You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
He brought his newest novel, “Love Gone Mad,” a story about a young doctor and a nurse who met casually, fell in love, then were put in danger by their personal baggage. It is their downward spiral that puts the reader in suspense, takes him out of his everyday life, and keeps him turning the page. But it’s not a mystery, Rubinstein said, because it’s obvious early on who did it. But, sorry, no spoiler. Buy the book to learn what happens.
Talking about writing, Rubinstein said, “The only way a book can hold me is that I have to keep wondering what’s going to happen next … it has to have some element of suspense, where is this story going — where is the human tug?”
He added that as a psychiatrist he “turned the meter off as soon as I went out the door of my office … however as a novelist my meter never goes off.”