Who really wants to read about other people’s messes?
Sure, we like to live vicariously through fictional adventures and death-defying actions that overcome the bad guy. We identify with the flawed heroine who has enough gumption and integrity to still be likable.
But what about people with real internal messes? People who do things that repulse us, or people with mental health challenges? People with messy lives as a result of their own doing.
We might react in one of two ways: 1) think “Thank goodness I’m not like that” or 2) develop an overwhelming sense of pity that holds them at arm’s length.
I’m inviting you to a third option: empathy.
Empathy compels us to walk alongside someone in her messiness. Even if it means unveiling the mess within our deepest selves.
Similar to Camille Brooks in Afraid of the Light by Cynthia Ruchti. Camille helps messy people—literally. Hoarders. Folks with messy homes, rooted in internal chaos. But they aren’t the only tormented ones.
Afraid of the Light
Clinical psychologist Camille Brooks isn’t put off by the lifestyle of her hoarder clients and the distress of their families. She lost her mother to the crippling anxiety disorder–so she’ll go a long way to help others avoid the same pain.
Despite Camille’s expertise, her growing audience for her Let In the Light podcast, and the recognition she’s gaining for her creative coaching methods, she’s not prepared for the pushback. A client who looks uncannily like her mom catches her off guard and raises long-dormant issues. And the revelation that Camille has her own hoarding problem sends her spinning.
With the help of a cadre of unexpected friends, an enigma of a man who refuses to be discouraged, and the God who created and loves her, can she face her fears, pull back the curtains, and let the light into her own life?
This book was calling my name. Not because I know any hoarders personally, but because of how various mental illnesses have impacted my life through people dear to me. We need more stories about characters who wrestle with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health challenges.
Especially in Christian fiction. People in the church need to understand more about mental illness. They need to know how to come alongside families who struggle with it. We all need to overcome the associated stigma. Thus, Afraid of the Light plays an important role.
Prefacing the book is this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.”
Sometimes that fear is what you might find in yourself. It’s one thing for clinical psychologist Camille Brooks to help hoarders. It’s another thing entirely to face her own demons. Which explains her alarm and defensiveness when her assistant Eli Rand asks what she is hoarding.
Few trapped by a hoarding disorder would say, “I choose my possessions over you.”
They would insist it’s not true. Scream it.
Die on a hill of refuse trying to defend their claim
that their children and spouse and sisters and brothers matter more.
It’s an illusion darkness creates. But darkness is indefensible.
It hides and mimics and distorts.
Only light tells the truth.
Truth that Camille herself doesn’t want to face. Like her clients who keep the drapes closed.
If the door does open, it’s only a crack. You have to slide in sideways, then hold your breath before smells assail you: rancid food, moldy countertops, stuffy and suffocating air . . . like every memory and emotion Cam has stuffed into her heart, far from the light of day.
Eli tries to break into her heart the same way Cam tries to break down her clients’ barriers. It’s not just Eli’s questions that haunt her. Her client Allison Chase bears an uncanny resemblance to Camille’s mother. Camille grew up in a home surrounded by the stuff her mother hoarded.
In some way, Camille is aiming for a re-do. She was helpless to stop the disastrous course her mother took, but maybe Camille can help other families overcome and heal. But as Camille goes deeper into her clients’ lives and decisions, Eli presses her to go deeper into her own.
Meanwhile, Cam embraces her role in the ”possession obsession profession,” as she calls it. After years on the job, she has mastered her approach with clients:
“A little light. A tiny flame. Fan it too vigorously and it would die out.
Not feed it enough oxygen, and it would die out.
The never-ending balancing act.”
With each client encounter, Cam seems to manage this balance well as she asks questions, makes observations, affirms feelings. Using the right tone of voice. Every word matters when breaking down barriers. Step by step, offering hope. Understanding the addiction. Prodding them to make a good decision, even if the victory of the day is letting Cam borrow one of dozens of umbrellas to get to her car in the rain.
Cam is always walking on eggshells with clients. In the house of a hoarder, that might include literal eggshells!
She realizes logic doesn’t work with hoarders. Choices leading to consequences is a foreign concept, and “decision-making is tantamount to torture.”
Building trust is the name of the game. Strategy is the tool. Yet Cam’s best friend Shyla accuses Cam of not having an empathy gene. Cam’s show of empathy is all textbook.
And she hasn’t found the balance within. Her own apartment is so sparse, the room echoes when she drops a teaspoon in the sink. Not even a picture on the wall. Not a speck of dirt. Nothing out of place. Very few outfits in the drawers or closet. Buying a pillow for the couch was a huge ordeal.
Even her food habits defy any connections to hoarding. She eats clean, starting her days with a blueberry-kale-celery smoothie. She goes to great lengths to buy only a half container of cherry tomatoes instead of a whole one so she doesn’t have to keep leftovers. She buys the right amount of salmon and asparagus—enough for supper that evening. She throws away food well before the expiration date. She doubles her morning workout after eating two cupcakes. Routine is paramount.
Camille won’t even make a meal for hurting friends because it would mess up her kitchen.
Cam hosts the Let in the Light podcast with Shyla, her producer. Tidbits of podcast wisdom and journal musings pepper the story. Each poetic analogy shows sensitivity to issues that many people shrug off as “crazy.” The imagery highlights the dilemma and pain of a hoarder through these rich comparisons:
- The soccer players and their coach who endured nine days of darkness in a Thai cave
- A slow-moving creek
- The culture shock of immigrants
- An unruly bush that defies pruning
- The game of Jenga
- An electromagnet that picks up loads of scrap metal
- Plums growing in an over-trashed yard
Camille meets Allison Chase through the podcast. Inside Allison’s house, a three-legged chair is propped with bricks, surrounded by stacks and bundles and bags and boxes. Debris everywhere. Cam is trained not to flinch at mice or any signed of decaying life. Or crickets crooning in the basement.
In her fifties, Allison wants her adult children back in her life. They won’t come back until she fixes the mess.
Another client, Chester, will be evicted if he doesn’t clean his house by the end of the month. Camille offers to get a cleanup crew in two days. But when the hauling service goes out of business, Cam must find somebody fast. She also needs a podcast sponsor.
Eli Rand and his trucking company might fit the bill. But Cam doesn’t trust men in general, Eli in particular. Especially with his cheesy brand and goofy cranberry-colored jumpsuit. She rattles on with snide remarks to his face, and he sometimes returns the favor with his own zingers. But she’s desperate for help.
Some of Cam’s techniques with clients lie outside boundaries of accepted practices and standard protocols, but this begs the question: does the end sometimes justify the means?
True confession: I have a friend who lives next door to a hoarder. The mess overflows the front and back yards. Though I’m sensitive to mental health issues in general, I’ve made several thoughtless hoarding comments about this situation to my friend and my husband.
But after reading this book, I was convicted about that. Afraid of the Light is definitely a stepping stone to empathy.
Join me for some Q & A with Cynthia Ruchti
Questions regarding Afraid of the Light:
Afraid of the Light puts the spotlight on mental health, particularly hoarding. What prompted you to delve into this difficult topic and why?
Cynthia: The topic of hoarding hasn’t been addressed in novels very often. For one thing, it’s a—pardon the expression—messy topic. In more ways than the accumulation. It’s messy emotionally. Relationally. It doesn’t by nature have romantic appeal for readers, certainly. It’s a misunderstood syndrome. And it’s either sensationalized or avoided in most circles.
But I knew there had to be more to the story. Friends of mine were caught in the fallout of hoarder parents or other family members, left to deal with the relationship crumbles and the endless, aching question, “What do we do?” Other friends had been literally left with the hoard. It was their inheritance. Throwing it all in a dumpster seemed dishonoring to their parent, but the heirs were left with a massive health hazard.
Something about the “there must be more to these stories” drew me deeper into research and to the quest for where hope might be buried for hoarders and their families.
Your main character, Camille Brooks, is a clinical psychologist trained to work with clients who are hoarders. What resources did you have for writing from her perspective and for deciding on her approach and interaction with clients?
Cynthia: Several friends are clinical psychologists and offered their input. I read books from the perspective of children of hoarders. I studied documentaries. And I talked to people who were either caught in a cycle of hoarding or being crushed by its weight. I also leaned into personal experiences with friends who pulled the curtains tightly shut against the very hope they needed.
I knew my main character, Camille, needed to have her own wounds. But rather than letting her interact with her clients from that place of woundedness, I wanted her to treat her clients as she wished she’d treated her mother.
Where do your initial story ideas usually originate from–character, plot, setting, or themes? Which of those was the initial impetus for writing Afraid of the Light?
Cynthia: The theme was the impetus for Afraid of the Light. I knew the quote well, about how sadder than children afraid of the dark are adults afraid of the light, although like hordes of other people, I assumed it was attributed to Plato until I found out differently.
My mind tossed around the connection between those who hoard items and those of us who hoard emotions or grudges or hurt from so long ago, we don’t remember what started the feud.
After pondering those ideas for a while, I woke one morning with a single scene in mind. It became a very visual, iconic scene in the book—yellow plums. With no other words written, I had that one scene…and the last paragraph of the book. All I had to do then was fill in everything else!
You treat this very heavy topic with great sensitivity. What did you want to implement in order to accomplish that? How do you want this story to resonate with your readers?
Cynthia: In a word, compassion. As I wrote, I found my compassion for mental health issues, for those who work with people with clinical compulsions or disorders, and for hoarders of all kinds (things, hurts, grudges, anger) growing as it never had before. I’d considered myself a compassionate person. But to write this book, to put myself in all the characters’ shoes, I had to see the story from their side and learned so much about those tormented by addiction and addiction’s collateral damage.
I hope that readers might find the same to be true. I’ve heard from readers who say Afraid of the Light helped them understand their mother/father/sister/brother better, and from others who saw themselves on the pages and realized they’d been resisting the help they were so desperate for.
Have you written other novels that address mental health themes, or do you plan to?
Cynthia: Several. In fact, almost all of them. A few are mental health issues that require professional counseling, like the depression in Song of Silence and Facing the Dawn; or suicidal issues as in When the Morning Glory Blooms and Facing the Dawn; or grief and loss issues as in They Almost Always Come Home, All My Belongings, As Waters Gone By, A Fragile Hope, and Facing the Dawn (that one was FULL of issues!); or abandonment as in Miles From Where We Started. A Fragile Hope dealt with betrayal, and that can’t help but affect mental health. So whether in a “we can get through this” way or a “I need professional help” way, mental health concerns are more common than we may admit…and in my opinion need to be given a voice and hope in well-told stories.
Which characters or events did you plan from the outset and which ones evolved as you wrote?
Cynthia: I had a handful of characters who seemed to “come with” the yellow plum scene. I knew I wanted Camille to experience what it felt to be loved well, but not in a syrupy way, and not in a relationship that was cookie cutter, but with a unique male counterpart and his equally unique family. And I knew Eli needed to have his own hoarding issues, because we all do. His added something I didn’t expect when I started the book. And his family history added yet another layer. His brother was an additional character who arose as I wrote. But he played a vital role, too, in Eli’s past wounds. I did have a loose outline, but its flexibility allowed me to “grow” the work as the words added up. New ideas ALWAYS pop us as I write, and they certainly did in Afraid of the Light, too. Camille’s podcast producer’s challenges took me by surprise, but fit so well with the core of the story.
You wrote this story in third person from Camille’s perspective. How do you decide whether to use third person or first person? Would you ever consider writing from the point of view of a hoarder or someone with a mental illness? Why or why not?
Cynthia: Writing from the point of view of a person with mental illness would be a wonderfully intriguing challenge, and I have done that in the past (most particularly with Lucy in Song of Silence and Mara in Facing the Dawn, both of whom dealt with clinical depression from trauma). But because thought processes are often skewed because of illness (either physical or mental), it’s more difficult for a reader to gain a full perspective of the story from a first person telling. It’s also exhausting to put yourself in the perspective of someone battling a mental illness, so a story only told from that first person point of view is asking a lot of the reader. I can imagine it being enlightening, but, as I said, exhausting.
Questions about your writing:
Do you have a favorite of the novels you’ve written? Which one and why? Do you prefer writing fiction over non-fiction?
Cynthia: Almost always, my favorite is the book that’s brewing in my heart and hasn’t been written yet! I grow and develop more as a writer with every book, so the one just released or the one still in my head should be the books that resonate most strongly as a “favorite.” Between fiction and non-fiction, I jokingly (but then again, not) say that my favorite is the opposite of what I’m writing at the moment. That’s usually said during the nitty-gritty of grinding out the words!
What books have been most influential for you as a writer? Was there a book that sparked or confirmed your desire to be a novelist?
Cynthia: I’ll answer this a little differently than some writers might. When I was trying to figure out if it were possible to incorporate humor or at least comedic relief into stories that were serious and weighty, I read two books by Patti Hill—Like a Watered Garden and In Every Flower. She wrote smart, savvy, beautiful yet poignant stories with both humor and angst. Reading her work convinced me it was possible. That was a turning point for me as a novice novelist.
Are you an outliner or a pantser? Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Cynthia: I used to write ONLY by the seat of my pants…resisting the brilliant organizational skills of other writers who (WHAT?) knew how the book would end and what would happen in chapter twenty-three. Now, I am a modified panster. I love discovering the story as it unfolds, but I do work from a very minimalist outline that might include a note that says, “Something dramatic happens here.” Or, “Better start bringing this story to a close” in another spot. ☺
Since 2008, I’ve written at least two if not three or more books per year. Some were longer, some shorter, some compilation books of devotions. That means, I was compelled to write fast. And pulled some all-nighters. Typically, I research and consider and think about a book, especially novels, for many months, but write them in a few months.
I may start with a spark of an idea, a sentence, just a title, or a scene in mind. I’ve had to write in nooks and crannies of life ever since my kids were little and needed more attention. I still do, because I’m a literary agent as well as an author. I’m not the author who can lay her fingers to the keyboard at dawn and write until someone rings the dinner bell. I fit in the writing around other responsibilities and projects.
Can you share something about a future project or the direction you want to go?
Cynthia: I do enjoy writing Christmas novellas and hope to write more of them in the future. And I have at least four novel concepts that won’t leave me alone. None I can talk about right now since they’re just in embryo form. But things are brewing. ☺
What led you to becoming a literary agent? What do you love best about being an agent? What is the biggest challenge?
Cynthia: As with so many major life changes for me, I didn’t go looking for it. God brought it across my path. One afternoon, I was minding my own business, and received a call from Janet Grant, president and founder of Books & Such Literary Management. (Wendy Lawton with Books & Such is my agent.) Janet asked, “Have you ever considered becoming an agent? We’re thinking of adding another agent to our team and thought of you.”
I answered honestly. “No. Huh uh. Never. Nope. Oh, no! I have to pray about it!” I assumed my husband would say, “You’re not doing one more thing.” And that would have been a wise thing for him to say. But instead he said, “Don’t you think God’s been grooming you for this?” And that was the right and wisest thing for him to say.
I love everything about agenting, about advocating for my authors, accompanying them on their writing and publishing journeys, even the hard parts, and there are plenty of those. It’s always challenging to realize there are far more great writers than there are slots at publishing houses. It’s challenging to have to tell one of my authors, “This story just doesn’t sing like your last one.” But it’s always enormously rewarding to help that author find what will MAKE it sing! I have a great deal of respect for publishers and editors, for sales and marketing teams, for booksellers, for the power of story (both through fiction and nonfiction). I think that helps me in decision-making and coaching those God has entrusted to my care.
How do your days and weeks balance out as an author, agent, and speaker? What does a typical day or week look like?
Cynthia: What is this word “balance” of which you speak? Most of my week is spent in agenting responsibilities, but every day, I’m either working on a bit of writing or marketing or relationship-building. Speaking comes in seasons, so that, too, works around other tasks.
I’m at my desk in my home office for a full workday five days a week. I try to take Saturdays off for my family and occasionally cleaning or cooking ahead for the next week. And Sundays I reserve for quiet, worship, family, and rest. Some nights I can’t resist a hot project and will spend a few hours editing or problem-solving for a client. But I’m making a serious attempt to reserve my evenings for unplugging. Or irresistible research.
In such a competitive marketplace, your competition as a writer is fellow authors, yet you also represent authors and guide them throughout their careers. Are your agenting responsibilities and writing career ever at odds with each other? Managing both seems like a fine line to walk.
Cynthia: The life God asks us to live is a live that prefers others above ourselves. I knew He had worked that deep into my soul the day I secured a contract for one of my authors that was what I would have considered MY dream contract. ☺ And I felt nothing but joy for her. The peace I felt assured me I could do this agent/author combo without the two tripping over each other.
What’s your best advice for aspiring novelists?
Cynthia: Aspiration plus inspiration plus determination plus perspiration is the only trustworthy path to publication. Writing is hard work, even for the very gifted. But those willing to work as hard as they can and wait with grace will be rewarded, if not with a contract, then with strength of character.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy Afraid of the Light, stay tuned for a story I hope to publish someday: Poetry of Storms, about parents that deal head-on with mental illness after their adult child’s diagnosis. Please join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
You may also be interested in reading Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown. What happens when a nice young Christian woman is inflicted by depression?
Here’s some non-fiction that’s helpful for understanding mental illness and the role of the church in addressing it:
- Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson
- Whispers in the Pews: Voices on Mental Illness in the Church, by Chris Morris
Cynthia Ruchti bio
Cynthia Ruchti tells stories hemmed-in-Hope through more than 35 novels and nonfiction, and through speaking events for women and writers. Her award-winning books include The Carol Award, two Christy finalists, and more. Since 2011, she has served as American Christian Fiction Writers’ professional relations liaison and is a literary agent with the Books & Such Literary Management team. Cynthia is married to her grade school sweetheart and lives in the heart of Wisconsin, not far from their three children and six grandchildren. Connect with her at https://www.cynthiaruchti.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Join me next time for a visit with author Michelle Shocklee.
Meanwhile, feel free to comment below. Have you read Afraid of the Light ?
Have you read other fiction with a focus on mental illness?