Issue 042 Author Interview: Hannah Frankel and “TheraBot”

For those looking for more summer reading, our Issue 042 is still available! It has 12 stories by 12 fantastic women authors, including Hannah Frankel’s “TheraBot,” the topic of today’s author interview.

LSQ: This story strikes such a chord right now, in a time when it seems like so many jobs are being either done by machines and computers already, or where AI replacement is being investigated. Was there any particular incident that inspired you to write “TheraBot”?

Hannah: I was inspired by a genuine curiosity about what tech-augmented mental health looks like, in a world that is (happily) clamoring for more mental health, but in the context of needing it to be more affordable for more people to have access. In our economy, affordability often comes from technology and/or scalability. What would therapy look like as a corporate product? Would that be a bad thing? What would it do to people like me who are very happy inhabiting the field as it currently exists?

LSQ: Velma was instantly relatable for me. Her observations of her colleagues and her interactions with them were so interesting and, at times, seemed painfully spot on. How concerned were you with accurately depicting this slice of the working world?

Hannah: The thread of this story that is closest to my heart was depicting a working person’s efforts at emotional survival in a deeply hierarchical setting that legitimizes itself as a meritocracy. And this is such a common workplace type for our time that I thought other people might be able to relate. In that kind of day-to-day existence there’s so much wearisome bullshit, that most of us censor speaking in daily life because it’s counterproductive to our needs and goals, and happens to get censored out of most stories that get told because we assume it’s universal to the point of being boring. I have always admired the people who work in those settings, like Velma, who are aware of the bullshit, but somehow also remain resolute in being decent and generous to others.

LSQ: This story was fascinating in part because it felt so realistic. Do you think we’re looking at a TheraBot future?

Hannah: I wish I had that crystal ball! We’re starting to see products like TalkSpace and BetterHelp in the last few years, decentralized tech-driven mental health packages that let you access therapy remotely and asynchronously (such as over text) but also require tradeoffs. Chief among these, from what I’ve heard, is that people have a harder time forming a relationship and trust with their therapist. That said, in the age of COVID many therapists are exclusively seeing clients over video telehealth platforms, and since we’re forced into getting lots of practice I’ve noticed myself and my clients are getting better at using the technology in a way that feels more focused and intimate.

For the most part mental health treatment works as kind of a decentralized cottage industry right now and while that protects practitioners like me, it keeps the product expensive and difficult to access. And yet, I believe I will do better work when I am allowed to do it on my own terms, in a way that I’m not confident I would if I were overworked and underpaid as a franchise worker. So it keeps it expensive, but it keeps providers healthy and able to give their best. The best solution to balancing everyone’s needs, however, is clearly not TheraBot as she appears in this story.

LSQ: Who did you think of first when you were doing characterization for this story: Velma, Angie, or JoyCE?

Hannah: Velma came first. I wanted to heroize an unglamorous working woman who tries to do the right thing with the system that she’s given. Someone with very little ego and very little interest in herself as a hero, and who deserves more recognition than she will ever get in her world. Good thing she is the heroine of a short story in ours!