One of my favorite book series in recent years has been the non-fiction PsychGeeks series, edited by Travis Langley, in which various geek franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Game of Thrones are examined from various perspectives by a team of psychology professionals. To date I have reviewed three books from this series (here, here and here): The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, and Captain America vs. Iron Man: Freedom, Security, Psychology. And in each of these volumes my favorite articles have consistently included those by Janina Scarlet, often written in collaboration with Jenna Busch.
One reason I greatly enjoy Dr. Scarlet’s work is the warm, sincere and personable voice that comes through in her writing. Another reason is that the topics she writes about tend to focus on areas like trauma, anxiety and PTSD—areas that for personal reasons are very important to me. On top of this, she is a truly passionate geek which makes her role as a mental health spokesperson more relatable and less threatening to those in the geek community. All this is why I have been eagerly awaiting the release of her new book, Superhero Therapy: A Hero’s Journey Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
It becomes apparent on the very first page of Superhero Therapy that Scarlet’s target audience is the average lay reader and not other psychologists or academics. Although everything she discusses here is underpinned by solid scientific research, she presents the information in a literary style that’s suitable for all ages from the YA age bracket (maybe younger, even) and upwards to adults.
The bulk of the material in Superhero Therapy comes from a form of psychotherapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT). For readers of this book who happen to be acquainted with Buddhist thought, some of the ideas here may seem to resemble certain ideas from Theravada Buddhism, particularly the practice known as vipassana (also often referred to as insight or mindfulness meditation) which dates back to the Satipatthana Sutta, a foundational text of the Pali Canon. It would not be an inaccurate observation to say there are indeed certain similarities between ACT and vipassana. But while the question has been raised before of whether ACT is just a repackaged form of Buddhism, I have a few basic responses to that:
(A) There are plenty of philosophies and therapeutic models that resemble aspects of each other but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re just rehashing each other, nor does it make any of them less valuable. (B) While I personally see Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, it is generally classified as a religion and thus comes attached, rightly or not, with certain perceptual baggage that can be a turn-off for some people. ACT, by being a secular psychological model, sidesteps that problem. And (C) another advantage that ACT has is that there is a wealth of clinical evidence supporting it. This isn’t to say that ancient Buddhist thought isn’t scientific because in my view it is. Rather, it’s to say that the data and evidence cited by ACT practitioners exists in a form that’s often more palatable for modern, skeptical minds. And said evidence ultimately validates certain Buddhist ideas. And so, if anything, the two complement each other nicely though you certainly don’t have to have any interest in Buddhism to take advantage of what ACT can offer.
Now let’s get back to the book. For the audience that Superhero Therapy is seeking to reach, and for what it is trying to accomplish, it wisely does not get itself bogged down in theory, and psychological terminology is used only sparingly to provide brief contextual information. Scarlet stays sharply focused on her goal which is to quickly provide readers with a handful of practical tools they can easily learn and use to manage difficult feelings—something that is, obviously, applicable to everyone. And she does this in a way that is fun and highly accessible. She employs a team of fictitious superheroes of her own creation—with appropriately flamboyant names like Doctor Semper, Katrina Quest and Shadow Gray—to illustrate key ideas in an appealing way. In this she is greatly aided by the lively illustrations of comic artist Wellington Alves who has previously worked on titles like Marvel’s Avengers Vs Infinity and Marvel Zombies.
Scarlet’s characters are, of course, stand-ins for regular people who have talents and gifts to offer the world but may be presently impeded from doing so, to various degrees, by certain personal struggles. Using the helpful tools that she offers, readers can combat “the four monsters” which seek to immobilize them: shame, anxiety, depression and anger.
And while the range of readers’ personal struggles will invariably differ, these monsters are nearly universal, thus making the tools to combat them just as universal. And while not everyone might be able or willing to receive professional therapy for whatever reasons, the great thing about the tools in this book is that they are readily available to anyone at any time. Of course, no book can ever completely replace working with a real-life professional, but if that isn’t an option right now then this book can help, provided that you proactively take the “Superhero Steps” that Scarlet lays out.
Superhero Therapy is a book that can be quickly digested in a handful of short sessions and there’s no dry theory or studies to drudge through to get to the “good parts.” This means the reader can immediately try out these suggested practices in day-to-day life and see if they help. And life being what it is, particularly in these scary political times of ours, there will not be a dearth of opportunities to do so. The geek community is lucky to be able to count Dr. Janina Scarlet among its ranks. As a big fan of this smart, compassionate woman and the fine work she does, I highly recommend this book to aspiring superheroes of all ages.