Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full-time geek. She’s also the author of Superhero Therapy, Therapy Quest and Harry Potter Therapy. She also authored the book Super-Women: Superhero Therapy for Women Battling Depression, Anxiety and Trauma which is available currently available in the UK. When she was 12 years old, Dr. Scarlet fled persecution, the Chernobyl disaster, and immigrated with her family from Ukraine to the United States. Dr. Scarlet suffered health issues and bullying after her move to the States. Then, after a viewing of the first X-Men film, her life trajectory changed and she became a psychologist. She now uses genre to help patients with anxiety, trauma and PTSD.
This past week Dr. Scarlet released her first fiction book, the graphic novel Dark Agents: Violet and the Trial of Trauma. The book, for teens and young adults, follows Violet, a young witch whose parents were murdered when she was a child. As she wages war against necromancers and demons, Violet learns to overcome her internal monsters as well.
I was truly excited to have a chance to chat with Dr. Scarlet. We talk about the moment of sitting in the theater and watching X-Men for the first time and how that changed her life, why genre works so well with therapy and her new comic, Dark Agents.
Audrey Kearns: I want to start with how you empowered yourself as a kid after seeing X-Men. You’re a Chernobyl survivor, and after that disaster you immigrated to the US which was also a traumatic experience for you, and you also faced some bullying after the move. So all that’s happening to you at a young age, and then you’d see the X-Men movie, can you tell me what happens in those moments of seeing the film?
Janina Scarlet: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I felt like I was watching myself on the screen. From the opening scene to where we see Nazi occupied Poland. I saw these very strong messages about what people went through, and my grandparents survived the Holocaust and so it’s something that I was already connected to. But then seeing these characters, seeing Magneto for example, bend the gates in anger and frustration in fighting the Nazis, that was something that immediately drew me in.
But throughout the movie I was just hooked. I think I was barely breathing, because I felt so connected to these characters because they were believed to be, “Freaks”. They were believed to be so different from everyone else, and I think that in them wanting to fit in, there’s so much humanity in that, and I could really relate to that. And seeing Storm on the screen just blew me away. I had never heard of X-Men before seeing this movie, but seeing her on the screen, I feel like that changed my life. Because my entire life, at the very least Chernobyl, I had been controlled by the weather. A lot of my health issues are caused by weather changes and seeing Storm who can control the weather, was so inspiring for me. And so she immediately became my favorite hero.
And she also taught me that we are not victims; we are survivors of what happens to us. And so it was because of that movie that I realized the power of stories and how they can help us to understand our trauma history and work through it.
AK: Wow! I knew from knowing you personally about your grandparents, but when you’re talking about the first scene and an X-Men, it is from a concentration camp. So when you first sat down to watch that movie, were you a little triggered before the heroes came in?
JS: Yes. I didn’t know what the movie was about. I just knew it was about, “Some super heroes”. I was working in the movie theater and our manager said that all of us had to stay after work and go to the midnight screening of the X-Men, and I didn’t really want to go. I was like, “I don’t know this. I don’t know anything about this. I don’t know if I’m going to like it”. There was this pressure to like it because everyone from work was there. But from the second the movie opened, yeah I was a little bit triggered, but I was also so connected because I was like, “This is what my grandparents went through. This is not only a fictional character on the screen, this is my family history”.
AK: That’s fascinating. Thank you for sharing that, Janina. So, did that have anything to do with you becoming a psychologist? When did you know you wanted to be there for others?
JS: I’ve always enjoyed supporting other people since I was little. Growing up in my hometown, which during World War II was completely occupied by the Nazis, growing up in that town, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing some kind of a Memorial to people who died in World War II. And so I would often ask people who had lived through it, what their experiences were like, and I was fascinated from probably the age of five about people’s stories, learning about people’s strengths and what they went through and seeing how incredibly strong they were in terms of learning from their trauma. Being able to find some kind of meaning in their trauma.
I didn’t really think of psychology until X-Men, but it was after seeing that movie that I realized that I wanted to study psychology, and actually right after seeing it, I signed up for my first psychology class in high school, and fell in love and haven’t looked back since.
AK: Oh, that’s wonderful. Hearing that about the town you grew up in, the Chernobyl disaster, and having to escape your country and come here, it seems from a young age you were surrounded by people who suffered trauma, and your family went through it as well. Is that how you ended up specializing in PTSD or did that happen a different way?
JS: I think I was always drawn to trauma. I was surrounded by it, and I also experienced it as you said, and as a PTSD survivor, I find a lot of understanding and connection with other PTSD survivors. And it just so happened that in my postdoctoral work I was working with active duty service members who had just come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, and who were diagnosed with PTSD. And so I think I was extremely fortunate that my training just happened to be focused on trauma, which is something I’m very passionate about. And so now it is my specialty.
AK: How did you bring storytelling into your work?
It started out kind of by accident. I always knew that stories were important for helping us understand trauma, but I didn’t see the full magnitude of it until I started working with active duty service members. Asking someone who had just come back from the war about how they felt when seeing their best friend getting killed. I mean, there’s no word to describe that feeling. The word, “Devastated” just doesn’t do it justice. But the service members I was working with would use pop culture examples to explain how they felt. So for example, they might say, “You know how Bruce Wayne felt when he was a small child and his parents were killed in the alley in front of him? That’s how I felt when my best friend…”, someone that felt like a brother was killed in front of them.
And so I saw the power of that. I saw that people used these common myths, these examples from pop culture to explain their pain, because there are no words in any language that otherwise could do it justice. And so we started using metaphors more in our sessions, and I saw the power of that in helping people understand what they were going through, and also helping them see that their favorite heroes – whether it’s Batgirl, for example, or Rick from The Walking Dead, had all been through something really painful and also found meaning in their traumatic experience, allowing them to find their own strengths and unlock the powers that they didn’t even know they had.
AK: It is fascinating that the examples you just shared of what people use to get through their trauma are pretty much all ‘genre’. What do you think about that?
JS: I think that it’s not uncommon in genre to explore trauma, and I think that stories have utilized trauma for thousands of years. If we look at stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey, these stories are several thousand years old, but they’re still relevant in their portrayal of heartbreak and PTSD in relation to the war and grief. These kinds of human experiences don’t change, but I think through the lens of genre like mythology, fantasy or science fiction for example, we can have an easier time understanding our own experiences when we see them mirrored in these stories.
AK: I can definitely relate to that, Janina. This brings us to Dark Agents, which was just released this week. Congratulations!
JS: Thank you so much. I’m so excited.
AK: I got to read it. I’m very excited to talk about it. The graphic novel is called Dark Agents: Violet and the Trial of Trauma. Can you tell us about it?
JS: The series overall are about eight recruits and the main character of the first book is Violet, who is a witch with PTSD. When Violet was a small child, she witnessed both of her parents being killed by an evil necromancer. And so, Violet then swears to essentially have revenge on him by becoming a dark agent. A dark agent is someone who works for Hades’ Underworld Intelligence Agency and essentially creates peace between the world of the living and the underworld that dark agents are tasked by making sure that supernatural forces are not somehow harming living beings. And so Violet is essentially becoming part of like a supernatural police force. And although she’s learning how to face supernatural monsters, she also has to find a way to face her own inner trauma that she had been running from for over 13 years since it happened.
AK: Did any of your own childhood experiences kind of affect how you wrote the character?
JS: Absolutely. The town where Violet is seen losing her family and almost being burned alive as a child is called Black Path. It is a fictional town that I made up for the story. But the translation from Ukrainian, Black Path means Chernobyl.
AK: Oh my goodness.
JS: Yeah, so Chernobyl is in Ukraine and the power plant was in Ukraine. And so I always thought it was ironic that the power plant’s name was Chernobyl, which means dark paths or black path, like a deadly path. And so when they see Violet being persecuted again for being a witch, I wanted to illustrate what a lot of people in Ukraine have gone through and still go through for being Jewish, what persecution can look like and how inhumane some people turn when someone is being persecuted against, even if it’s their own friend or neighbor. I wanted to show that the scars that we experienced might stay with us for years to come. Violet, of course, has literal scars from the fire that she had, but she also carries a lot of emotional scars and those are the ones that haven’t healed.
AK: Did you find that challenging writing something that was kind of close to home for you there?
JS: You know, I did and I didn’t. In a lot of ways it was therapeutic and in a lot of ways it was also very vulnerable. It certainly felt like I was kind of exposing myself, but also it felt like something that needed to be told. I think that my story is not unique and if he can help at least one person, then I will have done my job.
AK: Violet has a companion device, Cassie, so it was given to her by her mom. I found that so fascinating. Can you explain what she represents to Violet?
JS: Sure. Cassie is this artificial intelligence device, she’s essentially Google but a friend. Cassie can look up anything Violet needs, like she can look up directions or information for her, but she is also her companion so she can support her emotionally. And she represents, kind of the missing link of what happens when we over rely on technology.
We rely on technology to kind of distract us from boredom or from our depression, but sometimes it doesn’t necessarily have that friend component. It doesn’t substitute for a real friend. And so I wanted Cassie to represent kind of a balance of that. That someone who’s going through a hard time might struggle with making real life friends sometimes if they’re feeling too triggered, too overwhelmed to talk to people. But if there was a device like that, they might have an easier time to communicate with it.
AK: I found Cassie absolutely fascinating and wonderful.
JS: Me too.
AK: You had talked earlier about the UIA, the Underworld Intelligence Agency. It’s located in the Underworld and, by the way, it’s so wonderfully realized and super fun. Dark Agents’ illustrator Vince Alvendia did a wonderful job with the with the city.
JS: He really did.
AK: Are you big fan of Greek mythology? I mean, I know you have a cat named Hera.
JS: I love Greek mythology. I’m fascinated by it. I grew up reading Greek mythos and Hera is my favorite goddess. There’s a reason why Hera makes an appearance in most things they write. And I do have a cat name Hera. I have a character named Hera in one of my other books. Hera in this Dark Agents is a counselor.
A lot of people don’t know this, but the Greek Goddess Hera is the Greek Goddess of Marriage. And in this book she is a marriage and family therapist. So she is a counselor. Now she has finally left Zeus who in Greek mythology had sexually assaulted her and cheated on her and abused her. And actually on one occasion tortured her in front of all of the gods, humiliated her. So in this world, she has finally left him and is a powerful career woman. Zeus is not too happy about that, as we’re going to see in subsequent books, and there might be some challenges that arise between the gods.
AK: You weaved wonderfully throughout the book what folks go through with anxiety and PTSD by having the young characters in the book go through it. Then you offer tools through the story for the characters to use when they’re having an event. And as an anxiety and PTSD sufferer myself, I really appreciate it how you had the characters learn about facing fear through mindfulness. And, this is true – I went for a walk the other day. I was having a bad day and my anxiety was bubbling up and I found myself saying, ” Where are my feet?” which is something, a tool, in your book, so thank you for that.
JS: Thank you so much for saying that.
AK: That really happened and it worked. It really helped bring me back to the present moment. And after that I was on a walk and I took a moment to look at the trees and look at the leaves and listen to sounds and everything. And it all started with “Where are my feet?” It was a really interesting experience.
AK: Did you know what tools you wanted to weave through your story before you started writing?
JS: Yes. So they’re going to be eight books and each book is from the point of view of one of the eight recruits. And the story will continue and in each book we learn new skills. So the first book focuses more on mindfulness and then future books will of course incorporate mindfulness because that’s kind of the foundation, but they will also incorporate others tools like defusion and self-compassion and other tools like it.
AK: That’s great. I appreciate all the tiny details you use. Such as when Violet walks into the counselor’s office and sees threats everywhere. I think a lot of people don’t understand that about anxiety suffers that it’s little things that can get to them. And in another part of your book, when they’re practicing mindfulness, all the students immediately have self doubt and think hateful things about themselves. For someone that’s a sufferer like myself, when you see that, you feel seen, and I think this book can be really important, especially for young folks.
JS: Thank you. Thank you so much. And the second book, actually, will be from a point of view of a different character who struggles with OCD and has a lot of intrusive thoughts, and has some social anxiety, and struggles with panic attacks as well. So the second book will be even more on the anxiety side. We’re going to have a book from a character’s perspective who has chronic pain, a character who struggles with addiction, a character that struggles with self-harm. And so the idea is to create an understanding for readers about what to do if you’re struggling with something like that, but also to build empathy about what these people go through. Because in each book the reader will see the world through the point of view of only that character.
For example in Book Two, they will no longer see the world through Violet’s eyes. But by knowing what Violet’s triggers are, they will be able to recognize, “Oh, Violet must be feeling triggered right now,” and they will be able to understand and empathize with her.
AK: I love, love, love the quote, “Embrace the dark and guard the light.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how that popped into your head?
JS: Yeah. Thank you for asking that. So first of all, the kind of therapy that I utilize is based on acceptance and commitment therapy, which is about embracing and accepting even difficult and painful emotions. And that’s something I wanted to demonstrate here.
And I know I wanted to have some kind of a quote, some kind of a message that these characters would say to one another. So I actually asked Dustin, my partner in life and in everything, and his brother to write a song that would be a soundtrack for Dark Agents. And they did, and they titled the song Embrace the Dark. And I thought it was so brilliant that I actually then took the that part and then added, “and guard the light,” because I think it’s important for us to embrace the difficult emotions but also to savor the really sweet and wonderful ones, those sweet moments that we have with our loved ones, for example. And so half of it came from this amazing song that Dustin and his brother, Anthony, put together. And then the other came essentially from the characters, from the message that I wanted to portray and from the message they wanted to give to the world.
AK: What’s your biggest wish for the book?
JS: My biggest wish is that somebody who’s going through a hard time is going to pick it up and read it and recognize that they’re not alone. That they’re going to see that maybe, just like one of the characters, they might’ve been through something difficult, too, and but they’re also a hero. They also can become a world defender, that they also can become almost like a version of a Dark Agent in real life.
AK: I have one last question for you, Janina, and it’s personal. I’m a proud Gryffindor, and I know you’re a proud Slytherin.
AK: Can you please explain to me so I can tell my husband, because he’s upset that he was sorted into Slytherin. I keep trying to explain to him why it’s okay to be a Slytherin. Can you tell me what I should tell him?
JS: First of all, there are heroes in every house. I think it’s an unfortunate stereotype, that Slytherins are considered villains. It’s true that some of the villainous characters came from Slytherin. But what I really value about Slytherins is that they’re ambitious and they never give up. Their motto is “By any means necessary,” which means that even if they’re being shot down, even if they’re facing a million obstacles, they’re going to get up, and they’re going to continue on their journey. And so to me, that’s the core of what it means to be a Slytherin. So if someone is sorted into Slytherin, all that means is that they’re somebody who is relentlessly going to fight for what they believe in. And as we hear Harry say to his son at the very end of the series, “One of the Hogwarts headmasters, Severus Snape, was a Slytherin and he was the bravest man I’ve ever known.”
AK: Oh, my goodness. You couldn’t have described my husband more with that. Thank you. You really gave me something good to talk to him about.
JS: Of course. He’s ambitious, huh?
AK: He’s ambitious and he also will never give up fighting for what he believes in and fighting for those he loves. It’s just in his core, so thank you for that.
Thank you Janina for chatting with us! You can find Dark Agents: Violet and the Trial of Trauma, HERE.
This was originally posted 3/8/20
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