The Superhero's Shrink
By Bekah Wright
Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM
DC Comics' Batman—who used his understanding of the criminal psyche to bring villains to justice—inspired Andrea Letamendi to pursue a career in human behavior.
Andrea Letamendi, a postdoctoral scholar in UCLA's Psychology Department, has a secret. Or you could call it patient confidentiality. Who's the client the clinical psychologist is protecting? Barbara Gordon—a.k.a. Batgirl.
Science fiction was a childhood passion for Letamendi, who bonded with her father over Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Twilight Zone. By the sixth grade, she'd graduated to reading comics. True love struck that year when, every day after school, Letamendi tuned her television to Batman: The Animated Series.
"He didn't just get the bad guy; he learned about the villain's motives, their developmental and psychological histories," she recalls. "Every episode was almost a case conceptualization or profile of one of these villains, giving a deeper understanding of human behavior."
Letamendi's own interest in human behavior and psychology was born, leading her to earn a B.A. in psychology from Cornell University and a doctoral degree in clinical psychology through a joint program at San Diego State University and UC San Diego.
Batgirl was a referral from Gail Simone, author of the current Batgirl/DC Comics series. Recently, the superheroine had been brutally shot by the Joker and was undergoing horrific physical and psychological trauma.
Letamendi, who works regularly with patients facing adversity, loss and traumatic events, including soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, was a natural person from whom to seek counsel.
And so when Letamendi opened Issue 16 of Batgirl (March 2013), she saw a familiar name on the comic psychologist's door—hers. "It was a huge surprise to discover Simone had made me the clinician who treats Batgirl," she says of that moment. "Everything had come full-circle—Batman inspired me to get into psychology, and I end up with my name and character officially becoming part of the Batman/DC Comics canon. It's such an honor."
As helpful as Letamendi has been to Batgirl, comics have done the same for the psychologist, who implements them in her daily work. "We don't have X-ray vision, telekinesis or super speed," she explains, "but there's something deeply meaningful and inspiring about seeing how these fictional characters encounter adversity."
Letamendi's seen the effect of comics and graphic novels on children firsthand. She works with Bruce Chorpita on Child STE Ps, part of UCLA's nationwide Child FIRST Program, which seeks to improve the effectiveness of mentalhealth services delivered to children via factors such as innovative treatment design and informationdelivery models. "Luke Skywalker, My Little Pony, Optimus Prime, Superman, Polly Pockets—those are kids' heroes. Once you find the thing a child is passionate about, that's how you connect. Comic books, graphic novels, science fiction and fantasy, all the stuff I loved as a kid, offer valuable aspects of therapeutic and learning tools for youth and adults."
Embracing Letamendi, too, was UCLA's Psychology Department when Issue 16 of Batgirl revealed her secret. "In the past, I'd been very mindful when mentioning that I speak on the comic conventions circuit about the psychology of superheroes and science fiction for fans who want to dig a little deeper," she says. "The psychology department and lab celebrated this side of me. That level of validation made me realize I can fully be myself at this institution and as a professional in the psychological field."