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Susan Harrison (Family handout)
Susan Harrison (Family handout)

Obituary

Susan Harrison: From sexologist to thriller writer Add to ...

When a nearby Christmas-tree seller saw the gunman conk Ms. Harrison on the head, he came to her aid and chased off the gunman, who turned around and shot him in the leg, Mr. Massey recounts. The two victims ended up in hospital. “She was shaken and called me from the hospital to come and get her, and really from that point on we were united,” he said. “She went back to Toronto, but we realized that something strong was connecting us and we built on that.”

The couple spent 30 creative years together, though they did not marry until 2006. In 1990, they bought a rundown horse stable on a downtown lane and lovingly transformed it into a spare, well-organized residence with studio and office space for each of them. They called their building MaHa, combining the first syllables of their surnames.

”We were very entwined,” Mr. Massey said. “She was very involved with my work and career and edited everything I wrote. She might ask me to read passages from what she was writing.”

They were together daily. Mr. Massey would work on his video installations and avant garde photo works destined for exhibitions in Cologne, Paris, Antwerp and many Canadian cities.

Meanwhile, Ms. Harrison would put on protective industrial headphones to block out distracting noises and write for several hours every day, before turning to other responsibilities. She loved her cats and in 1996 produced a 56-page novelty book for Viking Books, Zodicat Speaks (writing as Dr. Zodicat) about how to read your cat’s personality according to its astrological sign.

In 2005, she helped psychotherapist Elly Roselle write a book of case studies, Changing the Mind, Healing the Body (Ugly Duckling Editions). She became deeply interested in Adlerian psychology, which holds among other things that individuals block their own development and happiness by clinging to fallacious beliefs about what they can and can’t do.

In The Silent Wife, she assigns the insights she gained about human behaviour to her female protagonist, Jodi, an Adlerian psychotherapist.

A vegetarian, Susan Harrison was passionate about animal rights. Susan Swan recalled that her friend would sometimes go into pet shops to reprimand the owners for how they caged the puppies or neglected the iguanas. In a 2008 article in this newspaper, she argued for laws to make animal abuse easier to prosecute. “Canada is shamefully behind [other countries] in its animal cruelty laws,” she wrote. “For one thing, only animals that are somebody’s ‘property’ are protected – so do what you like to stray or wild animals.”

Ten years ago she decided to stop writing non-fiction and try her hand at genre fiction. This was no small step for someone coming out of the art world, where conventional narrative is seen as hopelessly dated. “That prohibition against narrative was the tail end of modernism,” explained Mr. Massey.

She wrote two murder mysteries featuring a detective figure who was also an animal-rights activist. Neither was publishable, but her husband says that in the process of writing them “she taught herself what she actually wanted to do. She was fascinated by psychology and she wanted a greater sense of that in her work.”

Her next attempt was not a whodunit (we are told on page 2 that Jodi will turn to murder) but was about the twists of fate, emotions and character that can drive a person to destroy another being – in this case a philandering husband. It was her agent, Ms. Haywood, who suggested that if she wanted a U.S. publisher, it would be best to set her thriller in Chicago. Ms. Harrison did not know the city personally but did her research and contacted people there to help with the geography.

Finding an interested publisher was still proving difficult, however, until Ms. Haywood sent the manuscript to Karyn Marcus, then an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York. While Ms. Marcus rejected the book, she did something unheard of: She took the time to give detailed advice on what the book lacked and how to fix it. She suggested, said Ms. Haywood, “giving the characters of Todd and especially Jodi more back story and complexity, and their conversation helped A.S.A. round that final corner in her revision process. The novel sold to Penguin U.S. on the next draft.”

Susan Harrison leaves her mother Angela, brother Brian and husband John Massey, to whom the novel is dedicated.

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