Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Spunky Police & Public Safety Psychologist Ellen Kirschman Writes Mysteries & Non-Fiction

I've been a police and public safety psychologist for thirty-plus years, before I had any gray hair. 

My work has taken me to four countries and twenty-two states.
Getting blessed by an elephant in India
I no longer have a private practice. Instead, I spend my time writing, teaching, and volunteering as a clinician at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat for first responders.

I have written four books: 

I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know

I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, 

Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know
(co-authored with two colleagues), and  
Burying Ben, my first-ever mystery. Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery received first prize for the not-yet-in-print novel from the Public Safety Writers Association. 

*** Find all of Ellen's books at ***

Writing mysteries is a new skill for me. I used to think that making things up would be easier than writing non-fiction. What a delusion! Creating a story that captures and holds the reader's attention from page one is a tricky business. On a more personal note, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband, who is a photographer (he took the author photos for all my books) and retired remodeling contractor. In our spare time we hike, dance, travel, and cook - not in that order.

Police Psychology is an unusual profession, there are fewer than 300 of us in the United States. People often ask me how I got started. I rarely tell anyone the truth because they’d never believe it. But you, fellow writers, love a good story.
Teaching in the Czech Republic this spring
Growing up in the 1950’s, I anticipated a life like my mother’s, full of frustration and self-denial in the service of others. Like hers, my job prospects were limited to teaching and secretarial work.  Because I had some modicum of theatrical talent, I thought to escape this fate by becoming an actress.

I studied acting with a teacher well known for playing Macbeth.  “Acting is physical,“ he roared as though still on stage. “Macbeth roamed the halls of his drafty castle in a reeking bearskin cape. To get to his heart, you have to smell the stink. Anyting else is shallow romanticism.” He urged me to use my senses while spending a week observing someone at work.

I don’t know what drew me to the Majestic Ballroom on Times Square. Perhaps, it was the only place I knew where I could get a job the same day I applied for it. Down the stairs I went, following the neon arrows and the aging photographs of buxom women with sullen, pouty faces.  I knocked on the manager’s door and told him I was looking for a job. “What are you?” he asked. “Some kind of reporter?”

He handed me to Dorene who looked me over, concluded that I had nothing suitable to wear and handed me a floor-length strapless tube of stretch jersey with a padded bra that catapulted my bosom into a fleshy shelf. 

My training was short and to the point. “Tease the clients,” Dorene said. “Promise something while promising nothing. The longer you hold a customer’s attention, the more dances, drinks, and cigarettes he’ll buy.  String the guy along until closing and then have the bouncer throw him out on his butt."

I waited with the other hostesses in an oval holding pen separated from the dance floor by a low railing. We were a cast of female archetypes. An avatar of Marilyn Monroe smiled provocatively and shook her pearly blonde wig. Cleopatra assumed a regal pose while clucking disapprovingly at an aging siren with deflated breasts who stood near the door blowing obscene kisses and making juicy smacking sounds as our patrons descended the stairs. The youngest hostess had a baby, a diaper bag, and a mother, whose job it was to watch the baby. Off to one side, a forlorn and disheveled Ophelia talked to no one but herself.  

Our clients were a motley bunch. Morose and somber, some were barely able to make small talk or eye contact. Many seemed caught between loneliness and fear, scared of the human contact for which they were paying. No one seemed to be having any fun except for the occasional drunken frat boy who fell through the door on a dare, laughing and shouting obscenities.

Mike was unlike the soggy-faced shufflers who had been breathing in my face. He was young and talkative. “I chose you, “ he said, “because you look different from the other girls.” I was elated to be recognized for what I was, not what I was pretending to be. I poured out my tale: dedicated-young-actress-embarked-on-a-meaningful-but-dangerous-venture-into-the-skin-trade-for-the-love-of-theatre. My confession must have pierced the armor of his anonymity and scared him into thinking I wanted something in return. An eighth note after the music finished, he bolted across the dance floor and made for the stairs. With his hand on the door, he turned and shouted at me:  “Hey you. My name’s not Mike.”

At closing time, we changed into street clothes.  The manager escorted us upstairs where a few sleepy security guards watched us drift away. Cleopatra rode off in a long Cadillac with a man who looked to be half her age. Marilyn Monroe hailed a taxi.  The old siren stuck a cigarette in her nearly toothless mouth and headed for an all night bar. Ophelia skittered off into the darkness. The young Madonna left with her mother and baby.

I quit acting soon after, realizing that I didn’t have the drive or the talent and   tucked the Majestic Ballroom out of mind. I can’t tell you the exact moment when I realized that my brief venture as a dance hall hostess was actually a venture into the world of social psychology, my first experience probing the universe of work, in search of the mysteries that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Police officers and dime-a-dance hostesses are very different groups, of course, and I hope I’m not insulting either, when I suggest they share some similarities. I can say this to you, my fellow writers, because you understand conflict and relish complexity. Cops and dance hall hostesses both need to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically from an ambivalent public that wants them and rejects them in equal measure. The occupational personas they are forced to adopt are tools of the trade; virtual masks that simultaneously crush them and free them to do their jobs.

Teaching in Singapore.
My story has a good end. I’d have been a terrible actress and an even worse dance hall hostess. I’d be poor, for one thing and have a very short career. Grey hair and wrinkled cleavage don’t sell well.  I’d annoy the customers by asking too many questions about their personal lives. Besides, I really like to lead.  The Majestic Ballroom no longer exists, probably replaced by on-line porn sites. Cleopatra, Ophelia, Marilyn Monroe, and the little Madonna have gone on to do other things. It makes me sad that they will never know how much they influenced my life and for how long.  

Connect with Ellen Kirschman at: 
Her books can be ordered at:

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