The Rumpus Interview with Dr. Matthew McKay


Forty years ago, Matthew McKay, together with Pat Fanning, founded New Harbinger Publications, a fiercely independent Oakland-based publisher of psychological self-help paperbacks. If you have a problem with anger, or anxiety, or self-esteem, or if you wish to work on any number of personal “issues,” then you want to turn to proven therapies that are safe and effective—therapies based on cognitive-behavioral theories and research. Today, New Harbinger is the leading publisher in this field.

I say fiercely independent because New Harbinger remains independent to this day. Rather than sell out, Matt and Pat sold to their employees. Matt is now the publisher and just another owner-employee of this innovative company.

Through the trade paperback movement of the ’70s and ’80s, New Harbinger led efforts to liberate important psychological information from the tight control of experts and deliver it inexpensively to those in need. In doing so, New Harbinger played an important role in removing the stigma associated with psychological counseling. Among the cohort of early contributors to the press, Matt was the most successful. His 30+ books have sold over three million copies worldwide and have been translated into over a dozen languages.

Along the way, Matt also co-founded Haight Ashbury Psychological Services (once part of the Free Clinic) and Berkeley C.B.T. Clinic. Later, he became a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. As a psychologist in private practice, Matt specialized in treating trauma. He has helped hundreds of patients around the San Francisco Bay Area, each in need of help in their own way. Perhaps no author better understands the vast range of human suffering.

As a writer, Matt branched out from self-help to songs, poetry, screenplays, and fiction. I interviewed Matt about his most recent novel, Us—a psychological thriller about a woman suffering with multiple personalities and the man who loves her (them?). We explore his transition from nonfiction to fiction writing, and look closely at dissociative identity disorder and what it means to love someone with this and other mental illnesses.


The Rumpus: You’re a best-selling author of a lot of psychological self-help titles, very successful and they helped millions of people over the years. And then you’re also a published poet. I’m wondering how you got interested in novels and how you graduated from psychological self-help into the writing of fiction.

Dr. Matthew McKay: With all the self-help books I’ve written, and there are maybe thirty of them at this point, I was developing examples of people struggling with different kinds of problems and how they used psychological principles of self-help to actually change their lives. These were pieces of fiction. But I began to hunger for a chance to turn what were brief examples into stories, and allow those stories to really have a vector, a direction.

I think one of the reasons I’m here in this world is to help people by teaching certain things that feel important—principles of living and loving and caring for each other. And in some ways self-help is just not adequate to wrestle with those deep questions, and be able to show how those principles really work. So fiction became another vehicle for teaching.

Rumpus: When you write novels with this strong psychological element, how do you begin? Do you start with a specific psychological problem, or do you start with character?

McKay: Well, in the case of Us, I’d had the experience of working with several people with dissociative identity disorder, and I had learned how complex and challenging their struggle is. I’d also written a novel, Wawona Hotel, that looked at the issue of what happens in a relationship when one person really sees the other person and rejects them.  And with Us, I wanted to look at the very opposite. In a relationship when someone is really psychologically damaged, tremendously harmed: what happens when that person is completely seen and yet accepted. In the case of Us, this is someone who doesn’t want to get better, who doesn’t want to change the core struggle that she faces. Essentially she says: “This is me. I’m really in pain, and I struggle, and I need you to accept me as I am.”

Rumpus: Right. Both of these novels, in a sense, are love stories. They’re not traditional love stories, but they are, in a sense, looking into what love is. And I think when you get to the fundamental nature of humans, the human condition, you have to turn to that question. Of what love is. What are your thoughts on the role of love in your novels and in life?

McKay: I think love is a paradox in the sense that, to flourish, it requires complete acceptance. We have to really see and understand this human being who’s the object of our love. To see their flaws, to see their struggle, their pain, as well as all the wonderful qualities that attract us. To see it all and accept it as it is. And then the paradoxical part is, at the same time, we want things in that relationship. We seek, we hunger for things that sometimes the other person can’t give us. And there’s pain in that, and there’s a sense of loss in not being able to get everything that we’d hoped for in a relationship. So I see all of us struggling with that, with the need to fully accept and be accepted and, at the same time, to have our own needs and personal hungers. We hope for something in the relationship that sometimes isn’t there. And then, instead of accepting, we judge and blame our partner for that.

Rumpus: Love obviously is just as much a cause of pain as it is of happiness. Yet it’s a very, very important, powerful driving force. In the novel Us, the main character, Margaret, starts to experience, I would say, something of love and happiness. She was a tortured, aimless character for whom something happened that gave her a little focus and purpose in her life. All of us are in some sense tainted and damaged people, yet we can still find happiness. How do we do that? And is purpose a strong element to that?

McKay: I think that’s hugely important. And the book really looks at this. We crave to be seen and recognized, and for the other person to accept and validate who we are, what we feel, how we struggle in the world. And at the same time, we have our own personal mission here. It’s not just to find love. It’s not just to be seen and accepted. We’re here to do something and learn something ourselves, and that’s our purpose. The main character really is aimless and struggling, both because she’s a victim of trauma, but also because she really hasn’t found purpose yet. In the course of the book, she discovers something that can be a core purpose for her, a reason to live.

Rumpus: You spoke earlier about your own purpose, your own reason to be here. Could you say more about that, and how it relates to your work as a psychologist?

McKay: I think I’ve always carried a sense of how much pain there is in the world. And that so often the people in the most pain have the least help. That really hit home for me when I was a psychologist at Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, and I saw the trauma carried by so many of our clients. In ’79 I started, with my friend Peter Rogers, Haight Ashbury Psych Services to serve all the people in that neighborhood who were struggling but couldn’t afford therapy. I was the Clinical Director of H.A.P.S. for twenty-five years, and we helped more than 20,000 poor or working-poor clients during that time.

Rumpus: And how does that sense of purpose relate to you as an author?

McKay: More than thirty years ago, when I still worked for Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, I was asked to evaluate one of our clients. She was a young woman, with wild hair and nervous eyes, that paced the room. Within five minutes, she began talking in a little girl voice, begging me not to put her in the closet. And then she began to scream, “No, no, it’s dark.” She was no longer in that office, talking to me, but had dissociated to a time when she was six, and her mother was locking her in the dark. She was my first D.I.D. client. I was desperate to help her; she was in unbelievable pain. A short time later, she disappeared, but I wanted to learn how to help someone like her for the next time.

Us became a response to her, as well as clients who came after her, who had been victims of unbelievable abuse. I wanted to show their courage and pain. I wanted to show how they coped, how they survived. And I wanted to explore how the scars of their abuse affected their relationships.

Rumpus: So is Us trying to show or explain something?

McKay: Show something.

Rumpus: In Us, there are—I don’t want to call them “paranormal”—but there are phenomena that affect people. And specifically you might call it the afterlife or life on some other terms. I’m just wondering how you feel about a post-death existence, and I want to ask that also in the context of your son’s death, Jordan. I just feel like that has come more into focus in this new book—since Jordan has died.

McKay: Losing Jordan had an enormous impact on me. I already had strong convictions about the fact that we come back over and over again, that we do reincarnate, and each time we come back, we arrive with a purpose and a reason. I believe that the people who are closest to us in this life are often people who we have come back with again and again over many lives. And I certainly think that’s true of myself and Jordan. That conviction gets reflected in the book. Margaret believes that she’s reincarnated from a family that was wiped out by the Holocaust, and that she has lost a sister who is very important to her. She feels like she’s very connected to that sister, she writes her letters. And she believes she has a responsibility to that sister, even though they’re on either side of the barrier of death and life. I feel very much, in some ways, that sense with Jordan. There’s a barrier between where we live here on this planet and those who are not physically present, who live in the life between lives. But I feel it’s still possible to have a relationship with him, and in that relationship I feel like I’m still being affected by him, I’m growing and learning from him. That belief system finds its way into the novel.

Rumpus: Okay. There’s obviously the thriller aspect to the book, which is very exciting, but there’s a lot of strong information about dissociative identity disorder and what it’s about. There’s a long dialogue toward the end where Margaret’s boyfriend has come to understand the different alters and can even talk to them. I think you described it, or you had one of the characters describe it, as a rather unruly family. I’m just wondering how true-to-life these conversations are. Is the novel representative of what it’s really like to be with somebody with D.I.D.?

McKay: Yeah. In the case of D.I.D., you have these dissociative alter egos and you can actually have conversations with them very much like in the novel. The alter egos have different functions. When a person goes through trauma as a child, one of the basic ways kids cope with traumatic experiences is to dissociate. To not be there, to literally leave the experience. And a very sophisticated form of dissociation is when you form alter identities. Some alter identities, or alters, hold the memories of the abuse, and that’s their job. It’s just to hold and retain the memory so that the child, her- or himself, doesn’t have to know and remember, and is protected from the pain of those memories. Other alters hold the emotions. For example, some alters hold anger. In the book one of the alters is very angry, and that’s…

Rumpus: Keg.

McKay: That’s Keg; he’s very reactive. But he also has an executive function, which is to protect Margaret from aggressors. When somebody is trying to hurt her, that alter comes out and attacks. So alters can have these different functions—to hold memories, to hold emotions, and also to function in ways that manage the person’s life. Sometimes an alter will just manage school or work. Some alters will help people deal with conflict. And some alters will help them express feelings and love and so forth. In Margaret’s case, one alter is just there to procure sexual contact. And so these alters all have different functions and roles. It’s very challenging, not only for the individual who’s struggling with D.I.D., but for the people in relationship with that person, to be able to relate to all of that at the same time.

Rumpus: That’s really the breakthrough in the story, when Walker learns that he’s not really dealing with one person—he’s dealing with a family. So just back to the D.I.D. before we get to the novel again: there’s a woman named Debbie Nathan, who’s written a book called Sybil Exposed, who challenges that diagnosis. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, and how you view the disorder.

McKay: I think a lot of the questioning of the D.I.D. diagnosis began with a psychologist, named [Elizabeth] Loftus, who really pioneered the concept of false memory syndrome. She showed that some people have memories of abuse—that they fabricate. They’re not really complete or accurate recollections of what happened. So the validity of the D.I.D. diagnosis starts with, Can we really rely on the memory of people who have been, or claim to have been abused? These may not be accurate or real memories.

Then along came people who said, “D.I.D, is really an invention of therapists who encourage clients to regard different emotional pieces of their existence as actual identities or alter egos,” and that the therapist is the one who’s really creating D.I.D. That’s the argument about Sybil. And I think sometimes that could happen. A therapist could get so involved in what appears to be a very separate self inside a client—a dissociated self—and get fascinated by it, and then build a treatment around that. But that doesn’t explain D.I.D. Anybody who really has spent any time working with D.I.D. knows how it follows certain patterns and rules that are very consistent. And if all this was just being made up or created by the therapist, or created by the client, those rules and patterns wouldn’t exist. Let me give you an example. When you have an alter who doesn’t want to come out, who doesn’t want to be present, if you have that alter’s name and you say, “I want to speak to Mia,” or, “I want to speak to John,” or whatever the name of the alter is, that alter will show up. And this happens across treatments and across many, many individuals. Let me give you more examples. With D.I.D., different alters wear different glasses. They actually require different corrections.  And this is well-known. By virtually anybody who treats D.I.D. D.I.D. clients will come in and say, “I just don’t know why, but I need all these different glasses.”

Rumpus: I really have a hard time believing it.

McKay: And yet here are these naïve clients, who don’t know anything about D.I.D., showing up and saying, “I don’t know why. I’ve got these three or four different glasses. Sometimes I don’t need glasses to drive, and sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t need glasses to read. Sometimes I do.” And they’re puzzled by the experience.

Rumpus: But it’s not just the eyes. I understand this happens with other medical conditions.

McKay: That’s right. You can have an alter that’s hypoglycemic. If that alter doesn’t get enough food, it gets low blood sugar symptoms. And a different alter in the same body will not have those problems. It’s hard to really comprehend and believe. One alter will have high blood pressure, and one will not; one alter may be psychotic, and others not; one alter has allergies, and the others do not. The client, naïve about D.I.D., will say, “Sometimes dust just drives me crazy, and other times I’m like, Dust—no problem.” They’re amazed by it, and they have no idea why it is. Yet this happens across case after case after case—that different alters have different medical conditions, different corrections, and different emotional reactions. One alter will react to something with surprise and interest; another one will be suspicious; another one will be angry. So, of course, anybody who’s living with somebody with D.I.D. is like, “What happened here? A minute ago you seemed very happy and loving and interested, and suddenly it’s like we’re in a different world. You’re reactive, you’re defensive. What happened?” In part, Us is about what happens in a relationship like that.

Rumpus: So the one subject we haven’t talked about yet that touches on both love and D.I.D. and happiness is sex.  The novel has some rough sex in it, I would say, and mainly because of a character who’s looking for some pain…

McKay: One of Margaret’s alters goes out and procures sex, and seeks people who are very aggressive.

Rumpus: Yeah. But I would like you to talk a little bit about how in dissociative identity disorder sex is—at the root of the problem. Child sexual abuse is usually the cause.

McKay: Yes. Always. Always.

Rumpus: Right. So, again, it relates to the issue of D.I.D. and love. Romantic love involves sex. And that’s exactly—the trauma of child abuse—what created the problem.

McKay: Well, part of the problem is this: people often confuse—and people with D.I.D.—confuse love with sex. And the feeling is: If I can be touched, if I can be held, if I can be kissed, if I can be close in a very physical, intimate way with someone—then that means love. And Margaret in Us is seeking connection. She’s alone. She has a profound sense of emptiness and isolation, like she has no friends. She’s cut off from everybody. Her alters make it impossible for her really to maintain any close relationships. And so she’s looking for love. She’s looking for connection and a sense of belonging. And the only way she knows how to find it is to go out and have sexual experiences. But these are very brief and often very painful experiences that she confuses with real contact. It’s the only contact she knows how to have.

Rumpus: She’s afraid, she doesn’t really want to get close.

McKay: To get close is to be damaged.

Rumpus: Right. Walker breaks through all that in some way and reaches her, and only he could do that. And once you know about his past, you know what is driving him to do that. It takes an incredible amount of patience, an incredible lack of ego, for him to accept her and to keep trying, even though she’s pushing him away.

McKay: Walker is a rescuer, and that’s part of his own dynamic. He has a mother who ultimately committed suicide, and he was trying to save her.  And so he is…

Rumpus: Repeating that in a certain sense.

McKay: Exactly—he’s repeating that with Margaret. But beyond that, he’s offering Margaret something. He really wants to see her. He wants to get who she is and the kind of struggle she has, and he wants to be a witness to that—an empathic, caring witness to what she’s going through. And that’s what draws her in. This is the first time in her life anybody has wanted to witness her, has wanted to really know her, has wanted to recognize all of the pain that she’s carried. And that is so seductive for her. It’s what, on some level, she’d always hoped for. And now she has Walker, who really is offering that to her. But the problem for her is that she’s carrying this deep sense that eventually it’s all going to fall apart. He’s going to run away; he’s going to reject her, because she’s been through that over and over again. So she…

Rumpus: Or he may become abusive.

McKay: Exactly. And so she keeps herself protected. And he’s trying to break through those barriers. The more he tries to break through, the more hopeful she is, and on another level, the more she’s threatened. She fears he’s going to see so much of her that is flawed and damaged that he’ll never come back; he’ll abandon her. So she’s just living in that terror.

Rumpus: Yeah. When I first read the story, I understood her very clearly. But I had more of a problem with Walker. Then the more I thought about it, the more I understood Walker, because he gets back to this concept of purpose, because she became his purpose.

McKay: Yes.

Rumpus: Breaking through all this created happiness for him.

McKay: But you’re right. His purpose is to see her and know her, to love and support her, no matter how much she struggles or how much damage she’s suffered.

Rumpus: And heal her. And heal her in a way that is not the conventional way. He tries the conventional way, right?

McKay: He tries to send her to a shrink.

Rumpus: And that’s not going to work in this situation.

McKay: She doesn’t want to get better. She doesn’t want to give up her alters.

Rumpus: But he keeps trying, and they work it outsomething that works for the two of them. Tell us a little about the narrator and what’s going on there.

McKay: The narrator is this very lonely, disconnected guy who sees Margaret and sees her pain, because he works at one of these clubs that she frequents. He becomes fascinated with her. He’s a guy who lives on fantasy; that’s his psychological bread and butter. Nobody pays any attention to him. He’s afraid of really reaching out toward other people. And so he copes with his emptiness by imagining relationships, by imagining certain people as the object of love. He’s not a guy who’s interested in Margaret so that he can stoke his sexual desire; he’s really hungry for someone to love. But he doesn’t know how to do that; he doesn’t know how to reach out. And he begins to follow and observe Margaret. As events unfold, he eventually, while following her, dies. But he continues to be conscious, and his fascination with her goes on. He takes residence in her apartment, watching and observing all of the events that take place in the novel. The key thing for him is that he is learning how to love.

It’s not only Margaret who’s struggling to figure out how you connect to somebody, and how you love somebody when you have all of this pain and all this trauma.  t’s not only Walker, her boyfriend, who’s trying to figure out how to love and accept Margaret for who she is. It’s also the narrator, who is watching everything, and who has been so alone his whole life, so isolated. Now he’s a ghost. He can’t touch. He can’t speak. No one can hear and understand him. As he watches, he’s trying to learn how human beings really connect to each other, because he didn’t know how to do that before. His whole life incarnate was holding people at arms’ length and being afraid of them. He was alone and hungry all the time. And now, in watching Margaret, watching her struggle and watching her relationship to Walker, he begins to learn things that he never knew. He begins to contemplate the possibility that love is not about getting things, about having somebody provide for you or fill up a need, but that love is really about attending to the deep reality of who this other person is, actually seeing them, getting them. His whole arc is about learning this; learning what love is.

Rumpus: You know, I would say the other thing about the narrator, though, is that he’s emotionally damaged, too.

McKay: Yeah.

Rumpus: And he does figure that out. I think he really, in some sense, figured out what it is to love somebody else. But most of that occurs after he dies. So I want to ask you: what is your archaeology of the ghost world? How do spirits live? How do they feel? How do they know? Because he’s not omniscient. But he can interact with dreams, the dream world of people, and, in fact, has an important part to play that affects the real world.

McKay: I think the narrator gets stuck after his death because he hasn’t finished his work in this life. His life ended prematurely in an accident, and he stays in the world because there are more lessons for him here and in his relationship to Margaret. Where normally I think after death we go to the life between lives, and we return to our soul group and to the people with whom we reincarnate over and over again, there’s something that keeps him in the world. He’s not done. So he stays with Margaret, observing her life until he really has learned the lessons that he came here to understand. I believe everybody comes here with a certain purpose. Each lifetime. And sometimes we don’t live a long life. But each life has an objective, even if it isn’t a long one, and there’s something we came here to do. The narrator has not finished his work, and so he lingers; he stays for a while to finish learning.

Tom Southern is publisher of Boaz Publishing and director of the Fabri Literary Prize. For twenty-five years he has traveled the book trade, with stints at Beaufort Books, Methuen, Princeton University Press, and Ten Speed Press before founding Boaz. More from this author →