What’s In An Obsession?

Paula Hawkins’ New York Times bestselling novel, The Girl On The Train, gives us Rachel – a girl obsessed. There’s no question this novel is a mind-bending murder mystery par excellence. But, for me as a psychoanalyst, it poses a more interesting question. What’s behind Rachel’s obsession? Rachel Watson rides the train every day. She rides – as if she has a purpose. Rachel used to have a life. Now she has nothing. She rides past her old neighborhood where the life she lost took place – the only happy life she ever had. She watches Jason and Jess; at least that’s what she calls them. Watches the perfect life they have. They’re really Scott and Megan Hipwell. No more the perfect couple than she and Tom were.

Who Is Rachel in The Girl on the Train?

Rachel’s a serious alcoholic. She started drinking away her sorrows about not getting pregnant when everyone around her was. Rachel blamed herself. Tom had an affair with Anna. Anna got pregnant, Tom left Rachel, and now Anna and Tom are living in Tom and Rachel’s house – the happy family she couldn’t have. Rachel keeps drinking. She walks around the old neighborhood, knocks on Tom’s door, invades their old house. Rachel scares Anna in The Girl on the Train.

Rachel had a job. Lost that job. And, now gets black out drunk. She rides the train to escape, and to pretend her life is what it was. Yet, Rachel really only has fantasies about Jess and Jason. That’s all that’s left. And, Rachel lives inside their “happy life” … until she sees Jess kissing another man. This shatters her fantasy. It takes her back to her own shattered life. Jess (really Megan) has betrayed Jason (really Scott) – just as Tom betrayed her.

Rachel’s no longer a bystander, on the outside, no longer just a voyeur. She’s no longer only a girl on the train. So disturbed by what she believes is “Jess’s” betrayal, Rachel must do something. Especially when she discovers Jess (Megan) has disappeared. Rachel is a woman obsessed. Drawn into someone else’s life, too much like her own, what’s Rachel looking for?

Obsession, Buried Feelings & Projection

I’ve seen two sides of obsession. One based on terror – that something horrible is ready to happen at any moment. The other is an obsessive fantasy life; manufacturing something good and magical that doesn’t exist in your reality, or has been lost. They’re two sides of the same coin. Underneath the magical fantasies (and also in Rachel’s case her drinking) she feels horrible about herself, so bad, in fact, that she believes she’s responsible for everything terrible that’s gone wrong. Or is she?

Freud called obsession the “doubting mania.” And, Rachel’s consumed with doubt, especially about what’s real. Her drinking doesn’t help. Blackouts leave large parts of her behavior and reality unavailable to memory. She has vague flashes of something, maybe something violent. Did someone hurt her? Or, did she witness something happening to Megan? Did she do something violent herself?

Obsessive compulsions also serve to ward off anger or rage. As soon as an angry reaction comes into awareness, doubt sets in, and the anger is undone. Blaming yourself, as Rachel does, is one way of turning away from anger at someone else. Her anger is certainly stirred up by what “Jess” did to “Jason.”

Rachel’s rage is set into motion with Tom’s betrayal. Yet, she doesn’t know that for a long time. She’s too bent on proving she’s good and helpful. Too obsessed with finding out what happened to Megan.

Rachel On My Couch – Who Is Megan To Rachel?

If you’re obsessed with someone or something, as Rachel is – it’s not about that person or thing. It’s about you. The technical term is projection: a part of Rachel exists in Megan. That’s what’s hidden within an obsession. At first, it’s about the seemingly perfect life. Then, it’s betrayal. It’s Rachel’s disowned feelings – the ones she drinks away.

If I had someone like Rachel in therapy, I’d find the feelings she’s frightened of: the loss, the hurt, being cast off, left out, unwanted, the jealousy, and the rage. This is who Megan is for Rachel. An unexpected mirror of a very unhappy girl – the missing parts of Rachel’s self. Together, I’d help her bear them. In therapy, dreams can lead the way. And, Rachel has a nightmare just before Megan’s buried body is found:

There’s something covering my face, I can’t breathe, I’m suffocating.  When I surface into wakefulness, I’m gasping for air and my chest hurts. I sit up, eyes wide, and see something moving in the corner of the room, a dense center of blackness that keeps growing, and I almost cry out – and then I’m properly awake and there’s nothing there …”

This dream is about a part of Rachel who’s been “dead”. Disappeared in drunken blackouts. Buried in self-hate. A Rachel who is trying to wake up to the reality that the wonderful life and marriage she thought she had and thought she wrecked, was actually a sham.

What does Rachel Discover & Does It Free Her?

As she discovers Megan’s losses, a dead baby, and a Megan who tried to keep herself as numb with sex as Rachel does with drink–Rachel finds the truth about her own life. That Tom’s perverse games made her believe she did terrible things to him and is responsible for their divorce. Slowly, she remembers – he abused her. And, she realizes it’s not her fault. The truth is frightening and disturbing but begins to set her free.

No one is freed, though, from the bondage of doubt, self-loathing, or obsession without feeling anger. That’s an important part of any good therapy. Rachel does. Yet, the book’s end, which I’ll leave for future readers (it’s a murder mystery, after all) is too fantastical to believe.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.