Mindreading Matters, a Guest Post by H. A. Leuschel, author of Manipulated Lives

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When H. A Leuschel asked me if I’d like to read her series of five novellas contained in Manipulated Lives I jumped at the chance as I love anything with a psychological element to it, but unfortunately life has got in the way and I have only had time to read one from the collection and I am reviewing The Narcissist from Manipulated Lives today. Manipulated Lives was published on 28th June 20116 and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.

I’m thrilled that today H.A (Helene) Leuschel has also kindly agreed to write a fascinating guest blog all about the need for mindreading skills as an author.

Manipulated Lives

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Five stories – Five Lives.

Have you ever felt confused or at a loss for words in front of a spouse, colleague or parent, to the extent that you have felt inadequate or, worse, a failure?

Do you ever wonder why someone close to you seems to endure humiliation without resistance?

Manipulators are everywhere. At first these devious and calculating people can be hard to spot, because that is their way. They are often masters of disguise: witty, disarming, even charming in public – tricks to snare their prey – but then they revert to their true self of being controlling and angry in private. Their main aim: to dominate and use others to satisfy their needs, with a complete lack of compassion and empathy for their victim.

In this collection of short novellas you meet people like you and me, intent on living happy lives, yet each of them, in one way or another, is caught up and damaged by a manipulative individual. First you meet a manipulator himself, trying to make sense of his irreversible incarceration. Next, there is Tess, whose past is haunted by a wrong decision, then young, successful and well balanced Sophie, who is drawn into the life of a little boy and his troubled father. Next, there is teenage Holly, who is intent on making a better life for herself and finally Lisa, who has to face a parent’s biggest regret. All stories highlight to what extent abusive manipulation can distort lives and threaten our very feeling of self-worth.

Mindreading Matters

A Guest Post by Helene Leuschel

Does an author attempt to present life from a range of perspectives deliberately or unconsciously? Or should I ask the question differently: do we generally try and read each other’s minds deliberately or unconsciously? I would argue that mind reading is a survival skill in itself, that without it we would not even remotely be able to make our way in life within a community and society as a whole. Even if someone lacks empathetic skills, the person still needs to acquire the rudimentary basics of the universal language of human behaviour, probably for the simple reason that we all need each other. No one – however powerful, clever, multi-talented and wealthy – can make a simple decision without attempting to understand what may go on in another person’s mind or at the very least their own.

Fiction in my view is the perfect ‘playground’ for the exploration of other people’s minds. They may appear as real as live characters, live diverse ways of life and express certain opinions and thoughts. The readers may feel that they are simulating the story in their minds, imagining the way a character looks and moves, engaging with a protagonist’s likes and dislikes, then conclude whether these characters appear plausible within the context they are portrayed in. Equally so, when our next door neighbour gossips about a newcomer in the area, you compare it with your own encounter with the person, their initial attitude and your first impressions, then conclude for yourself whether your neighbour is just spinning a fairy tale or not. While in real life these observational skills can help us to assess someone’s insinuations, reading fiction may hone our imaginative abilities to slip into a stranger’s shoes so to speak so we can observe ‘what it is like’ to be in his or her position – a ballet dancer, truck driver or even a psychopath.

Fictional characters in novels are not people in flesh and blood but yet we sometimes speak of them as if they were. We may believe that we know them so well that when we watch them ‘come to life’ on a cinema screen, we are often disappointed by their looks, behaviour or the way they talk. Behind the black and white lettering, most of us seem to be able to conjure up an image of Dickens’s well-known character Oliver Twist for instance as if we were watching him in our ‘inner theatre’. We attribute realistic human traits to the young boy and imagine a specific setting, yet know that we do not share his circumstances. At the end of the novel it is the reader who will have followed a narrative whose depictions were deliberately set by the author yet depending on a reader’s level of vocabulary, age, attention and grasp of the plot, Oliver will ‘come to life in one’s mind’ in different ways. General characteristics such as that Oliver is a young boy, poor, an orphan and living in 19th Century London are added to the individual’s own way of imagining his attitude and looks.  Our ability to empathize further adds to this perspective taking capacity. We may feel fear with a character, cry when she is betrayed or laugh at a funny twist in the story.

The reason why we may often take these mind reading and empathising skills for granted is that scientists believe that as soon as a baby is born, it is able to exhibit an emotional response through the mirroring of other people’s facial expressions. She does so unconsciously. Then by the time the child reaches the age of 4-5, she can engage in perspective taking, is able to role-play, imagine to swap perspectives and as she grows older her skills will be honed into the awareness that there is a deliberate ability to imagine to be in someone else’s shoes. She may then also become aware that she is somewhat limited by her own personal experiences, character traits and also the socio-economic circumstances she grew up in when trying to understand another person’s intentions and goals.

Therefore, I would conclude that an author, as much as a person moving through the challenges of daily life, is led by deliberately as well as unconsciously making use of mind reading skills and benefits from the knowledge one acquires from the experience. Just as a child will learn from early reading and interaction with other people so will she as an adult apply the mindreading skills to more complex fictional stories as well as ‘real’ relationships.

My Review of The Narcissist from Manipulated Lives

A conman lies in a prison hospital bed and finds himself considering his past.

Gosh this is an interesting and powerful piece of writing. Although there were a couple of awkwardnesses in the phrasing, I felt these actually added to the deviousness of the character of the Narcissist as he holds himself one step removed from his actions.

The characterisation is totally convincing. The voice behind the protagonist in this story is so strong that initially I felt I wished to do him an injury! His story is almost like a con merchant’s handbook. I felt the fact that we don’t get his real name was crucial. He’s been duplicitous all his life so that to name him would be to reveal an identity he has spent a lifetime covering up.  However, Helene Leuschel cleverly reveals the truth behind the man and why he is as he is, as a result of his past. As the story progresses the truth becomes more complicated and when reading the Visitor passages I began to be unsure just who is manipulating whom in this psychological tale.

I liked the way the story was divided between the Narcissist, the Visitor and Emily so that they all have a voice in the narrative. It’s as if the reader is being manipulated as well as the characters because I felt all three were not entirely truthful. The story appeared rather like a a really clever case study to me and it made me wonder whether there was a link with the author’s own life. Reading The Narcissist reminded me of The Death of Artemio Cruz and made me question just who we really are almost as much as that text did when I studied it at university all those years ago.

I’m only sorry I haven’t had chance to read all five stories yet as I am intrigued by The Narcissist. It made me think and provoked quite an uncomfortable feeling at times. I shall be returning to this fascinating collection soon.

About Helene Leuschel

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Helene Andrea Leuschel was born and raised in Belgium to German parents.  She gained a Licentiate in Journalism, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. Helene moved to the Algarve in 2009 with her husband and two children, working as a freelance TV producer and teaching yoga.  She recently acquired a Master of Philosophy with the OU, deepening her passion for the study of the mind. Manipulated Lives is Helene’s first work of fiction.

You can follow Helene on Twitter.

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