Dr. Diane Lawson Martinez’s psychiatry and psychotherapy practice in Alamo Heights sits at the top of a gently turning stairwell paneled with light-hued wood and illuminated by stylish groupings of small, square windows. By the time patients reach her sunlit office, they likely feel as if they have ascended to a high-end tree house rather than a professional space where a well-credentialed medical doctor—twelve diplomas hang from her wall—will plumb the depths of their troubled psyches.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Martinez squeezed in 45 minutes between her 9:45 and 11:30 clients to discuss her debut novel, which comes out this month—under her birth name, Diane Lawson—from El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press. The compulsively readable A Tightly Raveled Mind tells the story of Dr. Nora Goodman, a San Antonio psychoanalyst to largely upscale clients who grows suspicious when two of her patients meet violent ends on successive Mondays. The book had its genesis sometime in the nineties, when a patient of Martinez’s who never missed a session didn’t appear for therapy one day. “I couldn’t imagine what would have accounted for that other than him being dead,” she says. “And in that hour that I waited for him, I started free-associating, and stories started playing out in my head.”
At first, Martinez imagined the narrative as something of a murder mystery and tried writing it as a screenplay. But over the years, much as in the slow work of psychoanalysis, she discovered what lay beneath that made-for-Hollywood script: a subtle character study, enlivened by sharp observations of Alamo Heights’ old-money families.
Martinez, like Goodman, is a displaced Midwesterner who settled in San Antonio as an adult, and like her fictional protagonist, she initially found the local mores puzzling. “A lot of the concerns my clients have is about what clubs they get into,” she says. “That was something I hadn’t really encountered before. Part of me would be like, ‘This is really a life-changing thing for you?’ But it’s not superficial to them. A lot of identity and feeling valued gets tied in to that. It’s anything but superficial.”
In A Tightly Raveled Mind, Dr. Goodman is not just steeped in Alamo Heights society but has married into a particular subset of it—specifically, the area’s Jewish community. Goodman herself is Jewish, and her own neuroses are defined by her fraught relationship with her Torah-spouting, manic-depressive father. Why did Martinez—whose blond hair and blue eyes no doubt lead most people to assume she is gentile—decide to make her protagonist Jewish?
“Actually, I am Jewish,” she says, with the careful patience of someone who has spent her entire professional life explaining to people that the world is often not as it appears to them. “I’m a convert. I grew up in a very small town, where the divide was between Methodists and Baptists. I was in my teens before I realized that ‘goddamnbaptists’ wasn’t one word, because that’s what my dad always said.” By the age of five she realized she would never get to heaven. “I knew myself well enough,” she says. And so began years of spiritual searching that ended with her embracing Reform Judaism as an adult. “I liked the fact that you didn’t have to imagine heaven as a place where you go; you could think about heaven as a place that is you being remembered well after you die.”
It’s hard not to notice a pattern here, of reinvention and transformation, of shedding one skin for another: a Midwesterner turned Texan, a Methodist turned Jew, a therapist turned novelist. Is there more to this predilection for metamorphosis than meets the eye? Perhaps. But that will not be revealed today. Our time is up.