With his 2012 novel A Prison of Lies: A Journey Through Madness, author Robert Thomas Doran crafted a gripping, introspective tale of unrequited love, rejection and mental illness. Told through the eyes of a protagonist named Tom, who spirals from depression into the depths of madness upon losing the woman of his dreams, the book is loosely-based upon Doran’s own experiences and represents a raw, unfiltered retelling of one man’s journey to the darkest corners of human emotion.
Through Tom’s struggle, A Prison of Lies provides a unique examination of topics including human sexuality, violence and suicide, and Doran’s eloquent, confessional style of writing offers a glimpse into what clinical emotional trauma looks like from the inside. Written as an act of faith, the book serves as both a vital, cathartic component of Doran’s recovery as well as a beacon of light for others who are fighting to escape the wilderness of mental ilness.
Today, Doran lives in Pennsylvania with his wife of seventeen years. To learn more about him, visit www.aprisonoflies.com.
What made you decide to write A Prison of Lies? Was there a particular moment when you realized that documenting your struggle would be helpful both to yourself and potentially to others?
My motives for writing the book changed over time. The book was there, in its latency with each letter I wrote to the young girl who was the object of my desire, in the aftermath of her rejection. Perhaps I was a crashing bore with all of that. But equally, I think, it is a deep seated desire of each one of us to be seen in our best light. Each letter was in fact a plea to be understood. My belief is that any one of us, if seen with the broadness, completeness and intimacy of our life’s history, can take on a nobility or even perhaps a divinity.
Faced with no response beyond mute silence, my motives became charged feelings of rage and vengeance, because it seemed that I was emotionally well before I met her and devastated in the aftermath.
In the next phase of my illness, it became clear to me that my very survival depended on documenting what had happened, both externally, via my experience, and internally, how I interpreted that experience. Experience, after all, is a synergy of what actually happens and how that reality is perceived. Ultimately, as it became clear that I would make it out of my illness, I felt called upon by God to relate what had happened. Having heard this call, there was simply no choice in writing it. I simply had to.
I feel very strongly that there is tremendous value in the book. Not necessarily that all of my perceptions are unimpeachable or accurate throughout the book, but as literally every perception and feeling expressed in the book is authentic to my personal experience with mental illness, I think every bit of the book sheds light on how the mind works in post-traumatic emotional states.
Prior to writing A Prison of Lies, which authors were your biggest creative influences?
Kurt Vonnegut, with Breakfast of Champions and Sirens of Titan, impressed upon me how flawed both authority and humanity are. Alice Miller gave me my first glimpse of writing about mental illness with two books in particular: the first of course was her landmark book Drama of the Gifted Child, and also For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing Practices and the Roots of Violence. I was also very impressed with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and, later, The Ancestor’s Tail.
When writing A Prison of Lies, what aspects of the writing process did you find most challenging?
Getting it out was not challenging, by any means. By the time I decided to sit down in front of a word processor, which is what I had back then, it came as easily as turning on the tap. It came that easily. The book was in my head complete before I typed the first word. Editing I would have to say was the biggest challenge and the most fun. There was a great deal of effort in planning out what went where in the book; in other words, I had to work out the flow of thought and the flow of events. There was also a great deal of effort put into word-smithing the book. Many sections were rewritten no less than fifty times, and I definitely became a better writer in the process. There was always a fine line between too much detail, which would make a passage ponderous, and not enough detail, which would not give it its full flavor. An idea expressed fully with a minimum of words is truly a thing of beauty.
I am probably violating all of that in these responses: you are pretty much getting my first draft.
Was there ever a point in which you thought you might be revealing too much by publishing this book?
Almost at the very inception of writing the book, I realized that I was putting every bit of myself out there with it. One friend after reading the book exclaimed, “You are completely naked!” That pretty much sums it up, and not all of it is pretty. I know: understatement! But going back to my commitment to God in writing it, it had to be completely honest. It would have no value otherwise.
How did it feel to hold a printed copy of A Prison of Lies in your hands for the first time?
Quite literally, “Now I can die!” I don’t mean that in any sense of moroseness. Quite the opposite: If I had a mission in this life, the book was absolutely it. And having fulfilled that mission, I had no unfinished business. I don’t owe anything else to God, or rather he hasn’t called upon me to do anything else.
On the national, state and local level, do you feel that the government does enough to provide for individuals with mental illness? If not, what changes would you like to see made?
I wish the government spent most of its money helping people at the beginning of life rather than at the end of life. I think every kid, beginning in first grade, should have something equivalent to a therapist working with them, not necessarily on a weekly basis, perhaps on a monthly basis would be okay for the kids who are well-adjusted. But every child is going to have emotional challenges. In this role, a therapist might be little more than a mentor helping children deal with whatever is coming up. But for children who really need therapy, it is an absolute sin that many will never get help, of if they do, only after their illness has progressed, and only when there is so much to fix within them.
What we have now is children being raised entirely by their parents, and that is entirely a pot luck type of thing. Many parents are flawed, have their own issues, don’t have the skill set to do a good job at parenting. Kids are also raise by kids in many ways. Sexuality and socialization are perhaps the most prominent ways children raise children. That is truly sad. It’s the blind leading the blind, after all.
How did you meet your wife?
Dating service, quite honestly. I didn’t have the time or the where withal to find her any other way. I am not a church-going person, There is almost a taboo against dating someone you work with. Where else are you supposed to find a spouse? In a bar?!
The dating service told my wife, we have a guy you absolutely have to meet. That’s how much our profiles seemed to blend. And the only time I have been truly happy in my life is the time I’ve had with her.
In the movie version of A Prison of Lies, what songs are on the soundtrack?
I’m a child of the 1960s. And that informs my choices here. Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” would be playing through the final credits. Somewhere in the beginning would be “I’d Love to Change the World, but I don’t know what to do…” by who was that, Alvin Lee, AKA Ten Years After. I hear The Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb” to express some of my vengeful periods. Led Zeppelins’ “Cashmere” would be good for just before going into the psych unit. And “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin on a mountainside. Frank Sinatra during a scene from childhood, Edgar Winters’ “Free Ride” during the Christmas Mind Fuck.
Do you have any plans to write another book?
I would like to write at least one more book before I die. It would be entitled This Life and the Next. It would be a fiction, but it would fully express my very unconventional belief on this existence and what follows, which is not at all a Christian perspective. It isn’t Buddhist either. It’s simply what I have come to as a very personal belief system, after having pretty much rejected everything else. I would really like to write that book but my biggest frustration with that is not having the time right now. I have too many other things demanding my attention. I guess God will give me the time to write that book if he so desires.