Monday, November 20, 2006

'My problem is, I get bulimic watching Dr. Phil...'

It's been a while since we've gone after our old friend Dr. Phil McGraw. And I must confess—in the spirit of fair play—that during my recent visit to Oklahoma to speak before an annual conference of psychology types, the consensus was that McGraw is less objectionable than most who perpetrate advice-giving to the masses. Of course, the shrinks' relative soft spot* for McGraw could have something to do with their knowledge that he shares their core credential, a PhD in psychology. Further, for a while at least, McGraw played linebacker for the very college from which several of them hailed: the University of Tulsa.

With that as preamble, let us move on to the case of one Darlene Rockey, a severely anorexic woman who this past September put her fate in Dr. Phil's hands. McGraw's producers built a segment around Rockey; McGraw then pumped up her frail body with positive thoughts and vowed to get her the follow-up help she needed. He did. None of it worked. And now, Rockey concludes, looking back on the episode and its central figure, "he's just a man in shirt and pants like anyone else."

What I'm doing here would be a grossly unfair misuse of anecdotal evidence, if I were using the Rockey episode, ipso facto, as "proof" that Dr. Phil can't deliver on his promises. Well, I'm not doing that.

Let's look at this common-sensically. As several of my esteemed sources point out in SHAM, under ideal conditions (e.g. ongoing one-on-one therapy), counseling has a spotty success rate. The circumstances under which McGraw operates fall far short of ideal. And yet his fans tend to regard him as a miracle worker—a gilded image that McGraw doesn't exactly discourage, for all his caveats and disclaimers. In truth, not only is Phil McGraw just a "man in shirt and pants," but we have reason to question whether he's even the best man in shirt and pants, at least for these types of jobs. Such doubts are rooted in exhibits placed in evidence by McGraw himself. As documented in my book, McGraw burned out of clinical psychology long before hooking up with Oprah (at which time he was famously running a jury-consulting enterprise known as Courtroom Sciences, Inc). In a 2000 interview with CNN, for example, he summarized his efforts as a marriage counselor thusly: "It was drudgery. It was ineffective.... You've got to be looking at the world's worst marital therapist in the history of the world." (Now, of course, he is marriage counselor to the world, thanks to the likes of Relationship Rescue and Love Smart.) I am reminded, too, of Wendy Kaminer's line about how, as a culture, we're so willing to elevate these people to shaman-like status, even though their advice is apt to be no more astute than "something [your] aunt or auto mechanic could've told [you]."

There is little or no magic to be worked on the Dr. Phil Show. Which brings us to a point on which the folks in Tulsa were unanimous: The push-button transformations hinted at on Dr. Phil, and reinforced in books whose titles include failsafe, focus group-tested words and phrases like "ultimate solution" and "7 keys to [fill in the blank]", have unrealistically elevated the layperson's expectations of therapy in terms of both the speed and scope of the "cure." At the last, we come back to the catch-22 that forms one of my main gripes with pop psychology: If your problems are superficial enough that they can be fixed via 30 minutes of Dr. Phil or 30 seconds of Dr. Laura, you don't need self-help in the first place and shouldn't be wasting money on it (though your very penchant for such tripe has probably got you convinced that you're a living, breathing DSM). Conversely, if your problems are deeper and darker, no amount of self-help will rescue you. You need real help.** And it might not work, anyway.

So I ask you, then: If all such advice is flawed—and if Dr. Phil, by his own admission, isn't even a particularly adept dispenser of such advice to begin with—then why do we listen?

* or maybe a more accurate phrase would be "less-hard spot."
** Again in fairness to McGraw, however, I'll give him this: He does not apologize for his TV ways. As he told Larry King in 2002, "[T]he idea that in order to get your life in order, you've got to go find yourself a therapist and pay him $180 an hour three times a week for five years is offensive to my sensibilities."


Cosmic Connie said...

Why do we listen to Dr. Phil, et al.? We listen because, against all reason, we never give up hoping that there is, after all, a quick fix for what ails us. Or that there are in fact seven easy steps to happiness and fulfillment. And some of us listen (and read) because, as one of the shrinks in your Tulsa audience suggested, it allows us to put off actually having to do something to change our lives.

Oh, wait. That was a rhetorical question, wasn't it? :-)

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, Steve and Cosmic Connie. Just found this blog, and enjoy it thoroughly! There's not much else like it out there.

Trish Ryan said...

One thing I'll give Dr. Phil - he tells people what they need to hear when their family and friends won't. We've gotten so polite and politically correct as a society that we've absolved ourselves of any responsibility for delivering "tough love" to the people in our lives when they need it. Often the best thing Dr. Phil has to offer is the raw honesty needed to snap someone out of their self-indulgence.

The Professor said...

The Professor would like to add that he considers Oprah a wonderful person and a boon to the books industry. And while we understand the appeal of sales, we will never buy anything simply because it was 75% off. We will never understand this mentality. In fact The Professor is more apt to buy something simply to be the first to have it, or simply to outdo his neighbor. Scoff if you must, but we will be watching Oprah in zillion inch high-def grandeur long before Dr. Fill ever will! If that means debt so be it!

This ends our disclaimer.

The Professor said...

The Professor attributes Dr. Fill's success to office (aka water-cooler) and suburban (aka soccer mom) culture. The short explanation of this being this: we live in a busy, self-absorbed and disconnected world (made worse by Tom Cruise eating the oversoul in a Scientologist wedding ritual, we know... Tom Cruise ate existentialism... tragic), and in this world people like their sound bites so they can cut through the awkwardness that work and their kid's soccer games create to have some common tidbit to discuss and make them feel informed. Sometimes its Howard Dean's blow-up, or Michael Richard's racism. But in the absence of "hot news" there is Dr. Fill and his miracle cures. A topic which is universal enough that everyone can participate because it ultimately touches on human experience rather than human interest. In other words men will talk sports usually at the exlusion of the women. Women will discuss diets, sales, Oprah at the exclusion of men (although that Atkins was a genius). But anyone can talk Dr. Phil. The Professor understands this a borderline sexist generalization, but the point remains, people listen to Dr. Fill because they want to talk about it later and they want to talk about it later because they know that other people listened with the intention of talking about it later. The "cure" is just for show.

RevRon's Rants said...

The Rev equates Dr. Phil to the drunken party guest who feels compelled, as part of his inebriation-fueled state, to shock fellow party-goers with his "honesty." Certainly, there are occasions where his words carry some relevance, but just as often, they serve only to shock. While the Rev harbors deep disdain for the excesses of the politically correct crowd, he also rejects the notion that one must offend in order to be considered astute and honest.

Now, I feel a compulsion to stop talking like Miss Manners or the "Jimmy" character from the old Seinfeld series. I guess I lack the inherent pathology required to support such affectations. Either that, or the meds are kicking in. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ok folks, now look: This third-person thing is getting a bit wearying. RevRon, I realize that you're doing it facetiously, and Professor, I understand that you probably view that method of self-expression as your "franchise," seeing as how you were the first to do it (consistently) here. Still...and one hates to invoke Joan Rivers as a font of wisdom...but can we just talk here? Without the affectations? Linguistic playfulness is fine, but at a certain point....

The Professor said...

The Professor does not consider the third person point of view to be his franchise. He considers it his tone. He also believes there is some truth in the ancient Chinese saying, "Men who sell mirrors like to hear their own voice." The attention you spend on commenting on voice might be better spent addressing his salient and wonderful points. Dr. Fill was a failure before Oprah, true. But he's a nobody without fractured post-modern society's thirst for what we might call "casual discourse communities." A slightly less commital and less democratic version of the blogosphere. In other words, we choose what blogs we read and respond to while casual discourse communities are essentially made up of conversations shared with strangers that we are stuck with because of work, or kids, or travel and so forth. Hence celebrity can be built not around talent or good-looks, but simply by stating the obvious in a forum that many people will share.

Anonymous said...

Now, now. A little affectation is good for the soul. And I think The Professor has put his finger on the reason behind the success of Dr. Phil and, in fact, pretty much ALL TV--it gives people something to talk about, a way to establish common ground, in the absence of actual thought-provoking, substantive conversation. Good call, Prof!

RevRon's Rants said...

"Men who sell mirrors like to hear their own voice." The occidental version replaces mirror salesmen with orators and politicians.

Once I had successfully waded through and filtered the oratory, I found myself actually agreeing with much of what the "professor" had to say. Dr. Phil does, indeed, fill some gap which exists between our personal boredom and the more titillating news items of the day. He may well be the millennial Jerry Springer in that regard. I would like to believe, however, that the discourse we share with friends is more substantive than what is found in the latest Jerry Springer/Dr. Phil show (beyond the shows' occasional lapses into common sense). Of course, I can only judge from my own experiences here, as I have little contact with the soap opera/trailer park set, which comprise the primary target market of these shows.

Cosmic Connie said...

Actually, I agree with a lot of what the Prof is saying too, but I think he is being a bit obscure on purpose at times. Or maybe I am just being a bit dense. :-)

Furthermore, at times I can't shake the uncomfortable sense that all of us are being a bit elitist here, whether we refer to ourselves in the third or the first person.

But *then* I get to thinking about how the SHAMsters who pander to the lowest common denominator are making money hand over fist, while many folks for whom the word "integrity" still means something are struggling. And I think that maybe, to a certain extent, we've earned the right to be a bit elitist.

Steve Salerno said...

A wonderful editor for whom I was privileged to work for a time, Harold Hayes--best known for piloting Esquire through its halcyon era of the 1970s--once told me, "A writer does himself no favors by being self-conscious. He certainly does his audience no favors." (When I encountered Harold, he had already left Esquire and taken the helm at California, a now-defunct regional magazine.) Harold meant it as pointed criticism of my own now-and-then tendency to devolve into obscure syntax and overall phrasing--a foible I still haven't conquered, as regular readers of this blog are all too aware. Still, I think there's a difference between (A) a natural bent toward needlessly complex language, and (B) the purposeful attempt to overwrite--i.e., to mimic a certain voice that one thinks sounds learned or even precious. The latter is usually accomplished by going back over one's work and intentionally massaging the phrasing so that it sounds (supposedly) more sophisticated. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between A and B. At other times, there are tip-offs, if you know what you're looking for...

The primary purpose of writing is communication. We can argue about style till the cows come home. But when form mucks up or otherwise fights content, such that even one's intended audience comes away befuddled (or is laughing when it shouldn't be)... Well, I fall back on Harold's words of wisdom: "A writer does himself no favors..."

I aim this comment at no one in particular. Honest. But if the shoe fits...

Steve Salerno said...

Actually, Harold ran Esquire from '61 to '73. So I stand corrected (by myself).

a/good/lysstener said...

I just wanted to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving, Steve. As for me, I will be thankful for finding you and your blog and the rest of the Shamblog crew!

That wasn't too overwritten, was it? ;)

detz said...

Has any journalist ever dealt with Dr. Phil's success rate?
The number of patients and the number of successful results cured by the good Doctor.
No one asks to see the statistics?
I can't think of any journalist who dared question Oprah's picks and judgment calls, except for Kitty Kelly.

The one big caveat is no one messes with Oprah's proteges, if they are still getting high rating. (Sorry Rachel Ray... see Ya.)
What you have discovered is a modern day tale of Citizen Kane. We don't question the sources if they are popular to our clique/media favs. This guy or woman must be right.Why delve into looking for the truth?
Therefore, fact checking is a lost art. Even Oprah did not look closely at Dr Phil's past?
The past can point that we should consider with caution American's fascination with Gurus, Heroes and Experts.
The Doctor's past may not be pretty and perfect and why not probe his failings? Dr. Phil heals marriage problems why not include his first marriage as an example.
Dr. Phil's first wife should be on the Dr. Phil show to list her problems with her marriage to the Guru. (Now, that would be an interesting show. This would also create very high ratings for the sagging OWN network.)
Dr. Phil does offer one very good solution for life. Become a Guru instead of working for a living.
Unknown to even Doctor Phil, he has shown us the way toward employment in a tough job market.
Delving in how to become a Guru, without a license or real degree, is a solution for America's unemployment issues.

Now, please send me your questions along with ten dollars, and I can help you with all your problems.

Sincerely, Drnetops (Director of The Dowee, Cheatum and Howe school of Enlightenment.)

Steve Salerno said...

Detz: Do you accept payment via (overlimit) Mastercards?