icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


The Doorknob Effect

I first heard about the doorknob effect from a student who worked in a state hospital as a forensic psychiatrist. All day long she listened to the accused tell stories about their afflicted childhoods or confess their crimes. She wrote up her findings for the court. Every detail was on the record including the psychiatrist's hypothesis about the alleged perpetrator's conscious and unconscious motivations and his or her sanity. She conducted interviews using a recording device and taking careful notes. Questions were prepared beforehand but often the most useful and/or incriminating evidence surfaced during unscripted answers to questions or when the interviewee/patient/suspect thought the session was over and started to head out the door. Experienced psychiatrists keep the recorder running, my student said, as the words "oh by the way..." often signal a revelation. This is known as the "doorknob effect." Sound familiar? If so, it's because reporters experience the same phenomena.

How many times have I put on my coat and said goodbye when my "subject" begins the most telling anecdote I've heard in more than two hours? There's something about the informality and gentle patter of leave-taking that puts a person at ease. I usually stop, take out my notebook again, and write down what the person has just said. Or I make a follow-up phone call.

But what I've been thinking about today (after reading my students last submissions of the term) is a variation on this theme: We often inflict the doorknob effect on ourselves. How does this happen? I'm not a forensic psychiatrist much less a psychologist, so my best guess, based on my own experience, is that our unconscious fears reign us in. This can be a serious obstacle to our writing and leaves an ellipsis in the story the reader can't forget. Or, as Arthur Miller, said in 1953 after seeing a play by James Merrill, "You know, this guy's got a secret, and he's gonna keep it."

Tenacious reporters don't give up until they've got the story. And writers who use the material of their own lives as a story or in a story shouldn't either.

Be the first to comment