A Novel Idea: Bibliotherapy in RO DBT – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

One of the things I love about working with clients who lean to overcontrol is that generally speaking, they are articulate, intelligent and due to their risk and social adverse nature, often very well read and creative.  Long before I began working in the RO DBT realm, I was a keen proponent of bibliotherapy.  Bibliotherapy is the therapeutic practice of assigning books, movies and other cultural repositories as homework and was particularly celebrated and endorsed by feminist activists and therapists.  Both recognized that much of what was offered in mainstream culture may not reflect the lived experiences of marginalized folks.  In a sense, bibliotherapy works to create tribe even if that tribe consists of authors of memoirs, fictional characters or poems. The idea is to share the cultural artifact and use it as a therapeutic tool for potential change.  And what I find most exciting; a cultural artifact such as a book, movie, blog, or poem can be accessed by the client long after we have said good bye.  In fact, books are often a parting gift I give to clients (shhh, don’t tell anyone- a therapist giving a gift is scandalous and may promote a sense of being cared for!)

Of course, the only book I was reading when I began training in RO DBT was the Skills Manual :-D)  I highly recommend it! But once immersed in the therapy and applying the practice to my own life, I began to look at cultural repositories through an RO DBT lens.  That is, my long-suffering partner would have to listen to me say “wow, that is so RO, eh?”  My RO skills co-instructor and I would “compete” to find You Tube videos, movie clips, and even songs that spoke to the pain – and joy- of being over controlled.  You can find many of these on the RO DBT resources site and the library continues to grow thanks to our global tribe!  While outside of the scope of this blog posting to review each and every one (although the OC in me is tempted to do just that), I will speak to one cultural repository that caught me off guard.

On the way home from teaching a RO DBT intensive, I had strict instructions from my partner to buy a book for pleasure to read on the plane.  If you are a regular follower of this blog, you will know that the art of non-productivity is a challenge for me but I keep practising.  So at the airport, I picked up Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  And two pages in, I was crying from laughing but also relieved – this was not non-productive, this was an OC protagonist who I shared a lot in common with.

The premise of the story (without giving too much away) is that Eleanor Oliphant is a “self-contained entity” (p.7) who eschews novelty, (follows the same schedule, eats the same thing every day, listens to the same programs) friendship (from her perspective, others have no people skills and are inarticulate) and chances to join in at the office where she has worked a long time. She says of her boss hiring her: “Perhaps he could tell that I’d never need to take time off to go on a honeymoon, or request a maternity leave” (p. 3), which hints early in the novel of her isolation. Indeed, her observations of her office made me uncomfortable because I could relate.  Take, for example, her comments regarding sharing the office kitchen:  “I decided to make a refreshing cup of tea before I got started.  I have my own mug and spoon, which I keep in my desk drawer for hygienic reasons.  My colleagues think this strange, or at least I assume so from their reactions, and yet they are happy to drink from filthy vessels, washed carelessly by unknown hands.  I cannot even countenance the notion of inserting a teaspoon, licked and sucked by a stranger barely an hour beforehand, into a hot beverage.  Filthy.”(p. 33).  I am sorry my workmates, but I will continue to eschew the dirty vessels; really do you wash your dishes at home like this?!

While reading this novel, there were times when I had tears streaming down my face for laughing so hard.  An elderly gentleman asked me: “Must be quite funny” to which I responded: “art imitates life.”  I wanted so much to share that the character demonstrates the deficits our OC clients have:

  1. Low receptivity and openness
  2. Low flexible control
  3. Pervasive inhibited emotional expression
  4. Low social connectedness and intimacy with others

Further, the novel exemplifies the bio-social in RO DBT where her overlearned habits set up many of the conditions of her ostracization and loneliness.  And these moments- from getting a bikini wax, buying a new computer, ordering pizza to having a drink with a potential friend- are all presented with the moral certainty of an OC individual but written with the dark humour that OCs might well recognize.

Of course, a major appeal of the book is not only its humour but Honeyman’s capacity to capture the shadow side of OC.  Like many of our OC clients, the protagonist has endured significant trauma that becomes more apparent as the novel unfolds; she also struggles with substance use and suicidal ideation.  Further, despite outwardly endorsing that she is “completely fine” Eleanor exposes the pain related to OC ways of coping, saying: “When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.” (p.51, emphasis in original).  Like so many people who lean to OC, on the one hand she is deeply judgmental of others, and on the other hand, she yearns to be with them. Such is the beauty of dialectics.  And like many of our OC clients, her lack of revealing herself to others results in a life threatening situation that can only be resolved through having a tribe, not independence.   But no spoilers here!

At a one-day RO training last fall, I had a delegate come up to me after and say: “Oh my gosh, have you read Eleanor?”  I thought it touching we were referring to a novel as a mutual friend, which speaks to the power of bibliotherapy.  Next steps?  Perhaps an OC book club…

About the author: J. Nicole Little, PhD, RCC

Nicole Little is completely fine in Victoria BC, where she practices RO DBT and re-washes the dishes in the staff room prior to using.