By Michael Hendery


It appears I have forgotten my pants. Of course I remembered my nose hair trimmers, but not my chinos. Blast. I only have -- twelve minutes to get to the clinic from the gym. Too little time to go home. Maybe Glenn brought an extra pair. He was on the StairMaster. No, not even dentists would do that.

     Let’s see, Mrs. Gurley is my first patient. She never makes eye contact. Even if she fixates on the fresh-cut dahlias I put out yesterday, in time she will surely notice my bare legs. They are a kind of shocking-pale white that would stand out even more against my brown leather club chair. I should have gone with the linen swivel. It came in eggshell.

     I have a throw blanket on the couch, but it’s itchy and draping it across my lap would require an explanation. She might think I peed myself. I could say I am chilly, but that might conjure up Mrs. Gurley’s hypochondriasis. She already fears she contracted Ebola from those college students with the clipboards at Forsyth Park. Plus, it’s August in Savannah. No one is chilly.

     So what if I show up to our session in my blue dress shirt, my loafers, and my little, neon-green running shorts? We could have a laugh. I’ve never seen Mrs. Gurley laugh. This could be a lesson in self-deprecation, in self-compassion even. She is deficient in both of these qualities. Maybe this would be a turning point in therapy for her. For months, she has elevated me to such an impossible standard. She wishes the world was full of people like me. If she saw how I am capable of making such an embarrassing oversight -- no, her husband just died last month. She still needs me to be indefectible.

"No one calls her at home, not since the days after the funeral, after she told everyone that she was not going to be divvying up Mr. Gurley’s estate anytime soon."

We could do a phone session, but it’s too late to reach her at home. She’s so damn punctual. And she told me she doesn’t have a cell phone. She said she has gotten along fine for seventy-three years without one, and all she’d subjecting herself to is texts from her kids and grandkids asking for money. That’s what they saw her as -- a printing press, as she put it. I think she meant a minting machine.

     No one calls her at home, not since the days after the funeral, after she told everyone that she was not going to be divvying up Mr. Gurley’s estate anytime soon. Her daughters were waiting for him to die, for months. They figured the occasion would be a big payday for them -- her youngest, Susie, in particular. Vultures.

     Mrs. Gurley is considering traveling to Europe in the coming year, now that she does not have to contend with her husband’s wheelchair and his loathing of airport security protocol. She wants to go to Venice first, then Zurich or London. Why does the word gondola refer both to the boats and the cable cars? she wondered last session.

     I have seen Mrs. Gurley for nearly a year now, twice-weekly. She pays in cash, full fee. She does not want these sessions to be billed through Medicare. It’s none of the government’s business what goes on between her ears. She asked me not to keep a record of her visits. I don’t keep a record of anyone’s visits, so that has been easy.

     The monthly revenue I get from Mrs. Gurley is almost exactly the child support payment I have to make to my ex-wife for my own little vultures. Those horse riding lessons are courtesy of Mrs. Gurley. Band camp, Girl Scouts, Irish Dancing, all paid for by Edna Gurley. We have never missed a session. We even met on Christmas Eve. She brought me an almond roll with a tiny plastic container of powdered sugar to sprinkle on top. It was a nice gesture, but I never eat or drink anything that a patient gives to me, not after learning Dr. Bruce was poisoned by a vanilla chai latte. 

     It’s not that I believe Mrs. Gurley is capable of such direct expressions of hostility. She prefers to punish others with her discontent. She was married for forty-four years to a man she detested. She dropped out of college soon after they met, cared for the kids’ basic needs, but never enjoyed their company. She did not want to give Mr. Gurley the satisfaction that she was a happy spouse or mother. I doubt she’ll make her way to Venice. That could be too gratifying for me.

     Her children ask her for money because she has nothing else to offer them. Her eldest moved to Atlanta and voted Democrat in the last election. Even worse, Susie moved to Asheville. She doesn’t talk about her. She believes the world has come unraveled -- there is not enough God in public spaces, and we have lost too many of our traditions in this country. We are not even allowed to be proud of our southern heritage. It has become a dadgum free-for-all in this country, she said once, before apologizing -- not for her sentiment, but for her passion.

     Eight minutes. It takes six to get to the office. I could skip the session and be out a hundred-and-forty dollars, but Mrs. Gurley is not the forgiving type. Who knows how much this would end up costing me?

     Glenn is over on the treadmill, and his locker looks open. I envy dentists -- they can stick their hands in a patient’s mouth when they don’t feel like talking. And they could position themselves to only be seen from the waist up.

     Glenn and I are about the same size. His inseam might be an inch or two longer. Mrs. Gurley would hardly notice.

Michael Hendery is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.


by Michael Hendery


To my great surprise a cab came with a Gentleman in it, and did not say to me what he wanted with me, drove me to Morningside Asylum. They have no witness to prove me insane.

- Letter by Catherine M. to friend, February 2, 1896

Hunched over, gripping her bony knees to her chest on the wholesale office chair across from me, Gloria was despondent, weary, repeatedly muttering that her life no longer had meaning, not after her boyfriend left, taking with him their two-year-old daughter, off to God knows where. Gloria had been picked up in the early morning by the county sheriff, who described her as shuffling like a tightrope walker along the white line of the interstate, facing oncoming traffic. She reported that she was trying to decide which large truck could put her out of her misery.

We sat together at the community mental health center where I was completing my pre-doctoral internship. I worked Fridays in the emergency services department, stationed in the shared office that was assigned to whichever clinician was on duty that day. The wall art was generic: a blurry beach scene with a seagull soaring above, a bouquet of muted-purple flowers, some framed Chinese characters. In the corner stood a fake ficus tree in a ribbed, beige pot. I held a clipboard with a crisis evaluation packet in my lap. My job was to determine whether Gloria should be sent to the state hospital’s inpatient psychiatric unit, and if so, to get her to agree to go voluntarily. I started asking her questions from the packet.  

The first page covered the basics: Caucasian woman, age twenty-five. Unmarried. One child. One cat. No alcohol/drug use. Referred by sheriff’s dept. Pt currently suicidal. 3 pvs attempts. Pills each time. Hx of bipolar disorder. One pvs hospitalization. No meds.

Mine would have looked like this: Caucasian male, age twenty-eight. Engaged. No children. One dog. Moderate alcohol use. Hx of panic disorder. Existential crisis since age 9. No meds.  

Page two got into more detail as I asked Gloria about the history of her relationship. She and her boyfriend often fought about sex. He wanted it. She did not. Ever. Not since June was born. He was fed up with her. Her mood swings were wild, unpredictable. A year ago she bought a horse, spent all of her savings. They couldn’t make rent on their apartment. He threw a lamp across the room. She took a handful of sleeping pills. They almost broke up. Last night, he gave an ultimatum. Either they would have sex or he would leave. She had been depressed for weeks, no appetite or energy. Her body felt foreign. She locked herself in her room. He left with June at midnight. She started walking toward the highway at dawn.

My hand strained as I recorded these details in the packet. Documentation, one supervisor had told me. Any patient could be a potential litigant. Document everything. I dutifully kept a record of Gloria’s suffering. It is easy enough to teach trainees how to keep extensive notes. Empathy is a more elusive lesson.

Gloria sat in her gargoyle pose, staring out at me from behind the strands of straight, brown hair that covered her eyes. I clicked my pen closed then asked about her relationship with her daughter. She dropped her head and looked down motionlessly at the floor. She was not crying. She seemed empty of tears. Click. I documented her lack of emotional expression.

In the ensuing silence, my mind drifted. I conjured an image of a 19th-century  asylum physician, so self-assured in his white coat and clinical dominion. This one is a slight lunatic. Perhaps a blast of hydrotherapy will do. This woman suffers from hysteria, clearly a moral failing. Let’s put her in restraints. The authority of the clinician, along with the will-breaking effects of such inhumane interventions propelled change in patients. Over the last century, we have learned how empathy is a far more powerful agent, but I offered Gloria neither authority nor compassion. I asked questions and wrote down her responses. I could have been anyone.

“I need to get home,” she said. “My cat is going to tear up the place if I don’t get back soon.”

I clenched my toes inside of my loafers and spoke in the hushed tone of a funeral director.  

“I can’t let you go home if I don’t think you’re going to be safe,” I said.

Gloria’s eyes widened. She sprang to her feet and began to panic, audibly sucking in breaths and gripping fistfuls of her hair as she paced across the worn, beige carpet saying “no, no, no, no.”  She stepped backward into the corner and knocked over the ficus before collapsing to the ground. She leaned her narrow shoulders forward then shot her head back in a blunt strike against the wall.

“I’m not crazy,” she said.

I tried to sell the state hospital as a place where she could at least get a few days of rest, to consider a treatment plan for her going forward, but Gloria refused to go voluntarily.

“They are just going to pump me full of drugs,” she said.

This was not far off. She would certainly be encouraged to get back on psychiatric medications. She would have to meet with a psychiatrist on site, a social worker, maybe join a therapy group. A strict schedule would be kept. Her room would be sparse, checked regularly for sharp objects. The rehabilitation plan would be far from the torture-like regiments that asylums employed in centuries past, but they would nonetheless emphasize self-control and treatment compliance as determinants for her release.

I explained to Gloria that, given the severity of her symptoms, I had no choice but to initiate an involuntary hospitalization, citing her own safety as the guiding principle. I was basing the decision on the legal and ethical standards of the field, but as gently as I communicated this to Gloria, I could not help but think of myself as one of those Victorian-era physicians in the white coats.

“You can’t do this to me,” she said. She rested her head on the wall and pulled the fake ficus tree upright.

I thumbed through the notes in the evaluation packet, searching the hurried transcription. It was a log of some of the most painful experiences in her life, culminating with her on the ratty carpet of a community mental health center, talking to a graduate intern in a Goodwill tie. I reached behind me and placed the clipboard on the faux-cherry desk next to the Zen Page-A-Day calendar. I then leaned forward towards Gloria and dried my hands on my corduroy pants. 

“Tell me about your cat,” I said.

Note: The patient’s name and certain minor details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Dr. Michael Hendery is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the psychology department at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Writing After Tragedy

by Michael Hendery


It starts with simple declarations. Active shooter on campus. Gunman attacks nightclub. Explosion near finish line. These alerts course through social media and across the chyrons of news channels. Think about how your body responds. Some catch and hold our attention, usually those with the most cinematic tension. Guns. Wreckage. Americans. As more news ekes out, we are looking at once for signals of a resolution and the sobering digits of a body count. The writing aims to convey basic facts, a sense of scale, and to capture the changing textures of emotion as they surface. Reporting is valued more for its immediacy than its accuracy, providing readers with evolving portrayals of terror, allowing them to participate in a shared traumatic experience via tweets and hastily-written news articles.

The following morning, after the initial shock has waned, the writing begins to take on a new purpose, one that attempts to identify the antecedents to the massacre. Key constituents are proposed; a gunman’s last Facebook post, his ideological ties, any of the clues that might have been seized upon had we only been more cognizant. As humans we look for this structure, a causal lineage that helps us rationalize and assess. Perhaps something preventative could have been done. This fantasy of control becomes the new focus, and in doing so, we begin to move away from the profound pain, sadness, and fear evoked by the exposed fragility of human life. This is the psychological turn. We are not feeling the harrowing helplessness of inaction. We are now in pursuit of remediation. We are no longer in awe or mourning.

The rush to find answers and initiate action has become predictable in the days and weeks following mass murder, but at what cost do we accelerate into such concrete ways of thinking? After decades of terrorizing gun violence in this country, there remains no congressional consensus on assault weapons policy. Opposing viewpoints are deemed delusional one way or the other. There has been no reduction in the number of alienated individuals willing to shoot strangers. The only significant development around this issue seems to be that we are no longer surprised when it happens. We have become inured. What role do writers play in this process? What stories can we tell that might disrupt the expected narrative, and ultimate fruitlessness, of the post-tragedy time period?

While language can expose and clarify our thoughts and feelings, words too can conceal our experience. Consider how language intersects with emotion. In response to stimuli, be it breaking news or banal interactions in our daily lives, our bodies react with sensations linked to fear, anger, and other core emotions before any words enter our consciousness. Our internal language—questions such as “what is happening in my body right now?”—can be used to welcome these emotions, an invitation to deeper, unfiltered experience that, though it may test the bounds of our comfort, can also deliver us a natural working-through of competing feeling states. This takes time and focused energy, two resources that most of us feel are in short supply in the modern age. And so, our language can also be used to distance ourselves from those sensations that seem too powerful, complex, or unsettling to bear. Questions like, “why is this happening?” or “what can be done?” act to disconnect us from our sensory experience, often inciting a new feeling of restlessness and a premature call to action. As meditators over the course of millennia (and more recently, psychologists) have taught us, a protracted suffering occurs when we cling to some desired outcome rather than more thoroughly experience conditions as they are, with all of the challenging, conflicting emotions that arise as we pay careful attention.

Articles written in the wake of tragedy too often engage in questions of Why? and What can be done? This form of writing creates spurious order by weaving together loose strands of presumed cause and effect into a discernible, yet illusive, tapestry. Meanwhile, a much-needed emotional gestation is overlooked, an organic mourning process that grapples with our inevitable mortality and colors the world in discordant hues. What if our writing acted more as midwife than pathologist, aiding in the delivery of untidy creations, soiled and screaming, but ultimately more closely connected to the authentic human experience? In those now-familiar period following a massacre, perhaps we can trade our fantasies of certainty and invincibility and give voice to the inescapable vulnerability that all humans encounter in times like these.

Dr. Michael Hendery is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the psychology department at Southern New Hampshire University. He is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.