Compassionate cognitive behavioural therapist Annick Boudreau is the protagonist in Charles Demers’s new psychological thriller, Primary Obsessions. She’s sure of her treatment strategy, even though the work with her new patient is slow. Sanjay Desai suffers from a primarily cognitive obsessive compulsive disorder, less characterised by repetitive hand-washing or counting, and more by uncontrollable and distressingly violent thoughts. In his case, they involve his mother.
Annick is unfailingly encouraging, but Sanjay nevertheless believes that his constant thoughts of bloodletting mean he’s a monster. He’s so afraid of what he might do that he’s moved out of the family home in Vancouver to a low-budget apartment with sketchy roommate Jason, a bouncer in a gangster-owned bar and strip club. One of the women who works at the club is the roommate’s sort-of girlfriend, and they fight constantly. The man’s best friend is another bouncer there, not bright enough to hold down the job, probably, except that his uncle owns the place. These three make Sanjay’s home life miserable. To escape them, he dons his noise-cancelling headphones and turns them up high.
Shutting the world out, Annick tells Sanjay, is only a short-term solution, and she cautions him against what she calls ‘reassurance-seeking behaviours’ with friends and family. Instead, when he has his violent intrusive thoughts, she wants him to write them in his therapy journal for later discussion. But the needy Sanjay does seek reassurance from her. It’s her bedrock belief that primary obsessives do not act on their thoughts; she just has to convince him of that. “You are not a killer,” she reassures him.
Her conviction is shaken when Sanjay’s roommate is brutally murdered. The police are called, and they find Sanjay in another part of the apartment, wearing his headphones and washing his hands and arms up to his elbows. He says he didn’t hear a thing. But they find his therapy journal filled with his blood-soaked thoughts and come to the obvious conclusion.
These events are a personal and professional challenge for Annick, and the way she works through them, never losing sight of her principles, is a model of therapeutic empathy and a totally different kind of challenge that usually encountered in crime fiction. “Was it really enough to say that his psychological treatment was where her responsibilities began and ended if the treatment itself was being used against him?”
After some soul-searching she concludes that Sanjay is innocent, and she holds the key to proving it, if only she could explain about his condition and the diary. But she cannot tell anyone else why he was in therapy and the purpose of his journal unless he gives permission.
She keeps Sanjay’s secrets with her fellow therapists and her long-suffering boyfriend Philip, who figures out her behaviour change coincided with the well-publicised murder and puts two and two together. The dialogue between the two is always believable and often funny, and a good example of the high calibre of writing of author Demers, which makes the book both interesting and compelling.
Meanwhile, the murdered man’s best friend posts an intemperate, expletive-filled, all-caps Facebook rant against Sanjay, naming him and averring that Jason had been afraid of him. “THIS IS WHERE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDED US TOO WHERE MENTALLY ILLS HAVE MORE RIGHTS THAN A NORMAL PERSON.” That’s just the tip of the iceberg of his post, and all the Likes and Shares it gets are a chilling reminder of the continuing stigma of mental illness.
Whatever Annick believes, the police think they have their man and are not willing to investigate furthers. Annick waits in frustration for a break that will let her come forward, and enforced inaction prompts her to ask some questions herself. She starts with Mike, the Facebook poster with the permanent Caps Lock. Soon she’s in over her head, as her tentative investigations make her a target of the gangsterish club owners.
Author Charles Demers presents Annick with a number of compelling personal and professional dilemmas. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book is never ponderous and is, on the contrary, a pleasure to read.
Demers is also a comedian, actor, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist. He lives in Vancouver and uses his obvious admiration for that lovely city to bring it to life for this novel.
Douglas & McIntyre
CFL Rating: 5 Stars