Charles C. McCormack Author Interview
Hatching Charlie: A Psychotherapist’s Tale is a frank autobiography centered around the theme of the pursuit of happiness and a meaningful life. What was the inspiration that made you want to write a memoir?
I was inspired by two of my children and some of my patients. My oldest daughter, Keeley, once presented me with a book that asked questions about me. The idea of the book was to have it for the grandchildren in posterity. I liked the idea of leaving something for the grandkids but didn’t like the venue. I didn’t think that telling them my favorite color was particularly pertinent to letting them know who I was. Then my son Chandler, several years later, prospering greatly in both his business and personal life in his mid-thirties asked me, in somewhat of a despondent tone, “Is this it?” He was kind of like the hero in the Myth of Percival who after garnering great fame as a killer of Dragons asked a similar question. I translated my adult children’ questions into “Who am I?” and “What is it [life] about?” My patients also played a role in that I often use stories from my life to illustrate points I am trying to make and also to normalize rather than pathologize the struggles they are having. In turn, they have found these stories very helpful and even entertaining and often suggested “You should write a book of these stories.” These three factors percolated in my mind for several years until one day they bubbled up and I just started writing.
There is a lot of reflection on life events in this book. Is there anything that was hard for you to write about?
My relationship with my first wife, Jane, and my own struggles in relationship. My first wife came to fight mightily with mental illness and I was extremely concerned with writing anything that might upset her. However, when my editor received the manuscript she noted immediately the presence of the absence of much to do about that relationship. I explained the problem and she respected the restraint feeling that many people make the book the all of everything without concern for its impact on others. At the same time, she pointed out that the readership would have a difficult time in empathizing with either Jane or myself with such sparse information. I was thus pushed to confront this issue and did so after several sleepless nights by writing the chapter on Jane and then sending it to her with complete and total veto power. To my surprise she responded with praise for the chapter, thought it was beautifully written and wouldn’t change a word. That felt so healing.
Other chapters that were difficult to write were the ones several reviewers have picked up on including yourself. Those are the chapters on the kids. They were indeed somewhat of an afterthought in that they were written later after my kids asked me why there wasn’t much on them or the grandkids in the book. On thinking about this, I did think it was an oversight driven by the difficulty in deciding what to write and the impact this could have on them. At the same time, even though somewhat an appendage to the book, I decided to go forward with it in that I thought, particularly as a family therapist, that there were valuable lessons to be learned within them for both adult children and parents. So, though I agree the book may seem to lose focus in these three family related chapters, I still thought they added to the lessons I wanted to share with readers and pertained to my ongoing hatching and self-discovery, as well as sensitizing me to the shadow my history cast on the lives of my offspring. In addition, with these chapters I was able to discuss the challenges of the life cycle and I older readers, those from my generation, have expressed particular appreciation for them.
Finally, just writing about my romantic relationships and failures in them were difficult to write because I find them embarrassing and felt some shame about them, particularly in that I’m a marriage and couples’ therapist. Yet, I didn’t feel I could tell my story with integrity and walk the walk of my talk if I avoided them. As I note in the book, you can’t lead a self-examined life if you cheery pick what you look at.
In this book we get to witness many peoples lives, loves, and tragedies. What do you hope readers take away from this book?
First, that we are all human and imperfect and to be okay with this. In saying this I don’t mean to imply we should shrug them off as “typically human,” but recognize the losses, or mistakes and/or harm we have done and to learn about ourselves and grow from them. I believe it is incredibly important for people to keep learning and growing till death do us part and that if we stop doing so we are more likely to become despairing as we’re caught in the smothering quicksand of stagnation. Second, that we have to live our lives, there are no short-cuts and that the attempt to not deal with our lives through avoidance and denial only leads to bringing about that which we fear. Finally, I wanted to posit a belief I’ve come to as a therapist and as a human being in the last several years. It was a realization that struck me as as an epiphany. That is, “Each of us is as happy as we can stand.” Isn’t that a concept worth thinking about? Here I’m not talking about people with psychotic illness or intense mental illness of any kind, but more so what I call the normal/neurotics who have been primarily affected by issues of nurture rather than nature that comprise the majority of the human race. The ultimate limiter of our happiness is we ourselves. We are each encompassed in habituated mental/emotional states that resist change, even when or perhaps even especially when, those changes are for the good. I won’t rewrite the book here but the how and why of this alone, in my view, is worth the read.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?
I don’t know the answer to this although it is a question I have been asking myself. Writing is hard for me. I don’t do it for fun unless I feel inspired, then it is one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life. So, I’ve been looking inward, trying to discern what is moving out of sight within the fathoms below. It has not yet come into view but I do feel its stirrings.
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If you’ve ever wanted to read someone’s diary, be a fly on the wall during a private exchange, or wondered what someone, possibly your therapist, really, really thinks, then Hatching Charlie will roundly satisfy that curiosity. It’s a fascinating read if you just leave it at that, but, in doing so you’d miss a rare invitation to be guided through elements of your own personal story on a parallel plane. An emotionally charged, inspirational, thoughtful and humorous book filled with wisdom, psychological insight and relationship truth Hatching Charlie: A Psychotherapist’s Tale is both an autobiography and a quest story. In spellbinding fashion, it interweaves the incredibly interesting life journey of Charles McCormack with his becoming a counselor and psychotherapist. Born into an abusive home and spending early years in the racist Jim Crow South where he witnessed segregation first hand, Charlie at age eleven is then involuntarily exiled to a Catholic boarding school in France even though he doesn’t speak the language. There he is again abused. Cut off from family and friends, isolated from those around him and under the rule of sadistic authorities Charlie spirals downward in the grip of anxiety and depression. Disoriented and confused he feels a determination to make sense of his life, his world, his relationships, and his place in them, core questions that will shape the rest of his life. But the going is not easy. Charlie acts out, flounders, is a mediocre student, fails high school, is expelled from college, and goes on an odyssey to Mexico where he meets a psychologist turned auto-mechanic who plants an idea in his mind. After this encounter, Charlie pursues a career as a counselor and psychotherapist. He returns to school, finds he’s a natural, and eventually earns a master’s degree in psychology and then another in clinical social work. Subsequently, working on a long-term psychiatric locked door inpatient unit he suffers PTSD following the suicide of a patient, begins writing, becomes published, and encounters career success. He is invited to join the faculty of the Washington School of Psychiatry, promoted to Senior Social Worker of Long-Term Adult Inpatient Services at a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore, is named the Clinical Social Worker of the Year in Maryland, and writes a book on how to treat “difficult to treat” couples entitled Treating Borderline States in Marriage: Dealing with Oppositionalism, Ruthless Aggression and Severe Resistance that is well received. Yet, as his career is evolving his personal life is disintegrating. He is forced to confront mental illness in his own family, divorces twice, suffers a return of anxiety and depression, and leads him to question the impact of his early relationships on his own capacity for love and loving, and of being a father and grandfather. Throughout his journey Charlie repeatedly travels to his own interior, his internal world, where he continues to grapple with those early questions, “What is life about? What’s the point? How can one be happy? How can one be secure in relationship? What is love? What is loving?” In so doing Charlie “truly covers the full gamut of human experience – warmth, love, friendship, loneliness, unhappiness, violence, despair: life and death.” (Literary Titan) His insights and answers will surprise you. “Hatching Charlie: A Psychotherapist’s Tale” is an inherently fascinating, thoughtful, and thought-provoking read from beginning to end.” (Midwest Book Review)