Nov 04

“Deconstructing Harry”: Therapist Boundary Issues

In the complicated and darkly comic movie Deconstructing Harry (1997), the sex-obsessed life of writer Harry (Woody Allen) is observed and analyzed. Finishing out Halloween week, one of the related plot threads is particularly pertinent to the topic of therapist boundary issues and scariness.

Before viewing the movie clip below, some background to Deconstructing Harry:

  • Harry had been psychoanalyst Joan’s (Kirstie Alley) client.
  • Joan chose to terminate the therapeutic relationship so that she could become involved with him romantically.
  • They later married.
  • Joan’s office is in their home.

Warning: the following scene is definitely NSFW and is about six minutes long.

Can you name all the therapist boundary issues in this clip? Some things to consider:

  • Was it in any way okay for Joan to become involved with Harry, whether he’s a current or ex-client?
  • Is it wrong for a therapist to have her office in her home? Or is it just wrong to let her philandering husband have contact with her clients?
  • Is it wrong for Joan to confront her cheating husband right before her next session? Or is it just wrong to continue the argument after her client has arrived?
  • Is it wrong for Joan to leave a session in order to yell obscenities at her husband? How about to be mentally preoccupied with her own problems while her client is speaking—even though she’s comfortably out of her client’s line of vision?

Discuss Deconstructing Harry. Oh, and have a happy, non-scary kind of weekend.

Nov 03

Dr. Melfi of “The Sopranos”: One TV Therapist’s Scary Dilemma

The Sopranos (1999-2007), now available on DVD, features mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in therapy with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). She in turn has her own shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg (Peter Bogdanovich).

In one particularly relevant (to the theme of scary therapy) episode, entitled “Employee of the Month,” Dr. Melfi is brutally raped by a guy named Jesus Rossi (who turns out to be said employee at a sub shop she goes to). He gets arrested but is soon released on a technicality. Naturally, this fuels Melfi’s distress and rage.

In a dream, Melfi sees a large menacing Rottweiler, then her actual rapist, who starts to assault her again. But the dog saves her by violently attacking Rossi.

Melfi wakes up feeling relief. Later, she describes the dream to her therapist.

The Rottweiler in her dream is deemed to represent her client Tony, whom she knows could be her protector if she so chooses. All she’d have to do is say the word—Tony would have the guy killed. As it is, though, he has no idea what happened to her.

Although she assures Elliot, her shrink, that she will not in fact take this route—which of course involves serious moral and ethical ramifications—she’s seen in an ensuing session with Tony seeming quite close to doing it. There’s a nine-second silent pause while she considers whether to admit her plight…

But then she doesn’t.

Nov 02

Clown Phobia: Getting Exposed to One’s Intense Fears

Still sticking with the scary theme, but today’s theme is clowns. Fear of clowns, that is. Clown phobia.

First, a little comic relief: Dr. Frasier Crane (from TV’s Frasier) tries to help a client overcome her fear of clowns by using exposure therapy.

On a much more serious note…

I also came across this clip of an actual attempt to help a woman afflicted with severe clown phobia. UPDATE, 2/17/13: This clip is no longer available to the public.

Having some degree of this fear, sometimes known as coulrophobia, is apparently pretty common. A few of those who have admitted to this publicly include Carol Burnett, Sean Combs, and Daniel Radcliffe.

Also, the character Kramer from Seinfeld:

Clown phobia often begins in childhood. Actor Robert Pattinson reports that his own fear started at a young age when he actually saw a circus clown die in his own joke-car that unexpectedly exploded. No joke.

And Johnny Depp explained his fear of clowns to the Courier Mail:

I guess I am afraid of them because it’s impossible — thanks to their painted-on smiles, to distinguish if they are happy or if they’re about to bite your face off.

As with other types of phobias, though, it’s not usually necessary to figure out the causes in order to treat it successfully, and treatment is often done with behavioral techniques à la the video clips of Frasier and the woman allowing exposure to a real clown.

Nov 01

Therapist Boundaries In “The Prince of Tides” and “A Dangerous Method”

Kind of continuing the Halloween theme, today I present clips from two movies, The Prince of Tides (1991), and an upcoming release, A Dangerous Method (2011). The scariness today, though, relates to therapist boundaries.

#1.  The film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy could have been better in many ways. But, even though many readers were disappointed, it did receive a good number of film/acting award nominations. Here’s the trailer:

So, did you get the picture from that? Nick Nolte‘s married character, Tom Wingo, travels to New York and tries to help Dr. Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) help his suicidal sister. In essence, he’s a family member also receiving therapeutic services from Lowenstein—but can you tell that she doesn’t appear to see it quite that way?

The following brief clip zeroes in more closely on a pivotal point in the evolution of Wingo and Lowenstein’s inappropriate relationship:

This film is scary because (A) Nick Nolte actually earned a Golden Globe for this, (B) many of the movie’s fans thought it was a great romantic drama, (C) the film was actually billed and marketed as a romantic drama, or (D) the therapist violates major ethics.

If you answered any or all of the above, well, at least you agree that this clip is scary.

#2.  A Dangerous Method is new and won’t be released in the U.S. until 11-23-11. Its plot borrows from a chapter in psychoanalytic history when Freud mentored Jung. This excerpt from the Variety review (the film was seen at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year) further introduces it:

Less concerned with the treatment of mental illness than with the way social norms encourage the suppression of human impulse, Christopher Hampton’s exceptionally coherent, literate script (adapted from his play “The Talking Cure” and John Kerr’s 1993 book “A Most Dangerous Method”) hinges on an unorthodox experiment Jung undertook with Sabina Spielrein, a Russian Jewish woman whom he treated for hysteria, and who later became a significant psychoanalyst in her own right.

Now, watch the trailer to see what kind of “experiment” was allegedly undertaken:

Reviewer Shaun Monro recently called this movie “…a well-acted skewering of overreaching psychology.” Overreaching. Good word.

Interesting that we have so few movies that attempt to represent the field of psychotherapy, and when we do, so few of them are not about the violation of therapist boundaries and ethics.

And that’s scary in and of itself.

Oct 28

Chaz Bono: Transgender Star Accepted By Many (Ignore Dr. Keith Ablow)

We learned this week that Chaz Bono was the latest contestant to leave TV’s Dancing With the Stars (DWTS) competition. From many accounts, he lasted longer on the show than his dancing deserved, which may have reflected an extra boost from voters who wished to show him acceptance and support in the face of considerable controversy.

In case you don’t already know, Chaz Bono was known as Chastity Bono, a female author and activist, before identifying as transgender and transitioning to male. His recent memoir is entitled Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man. In addition, a documentary, Becoming Chaz, has aired on OWN. Below, the trailer:

Following the announcement in late August of the current season’s DWTS contestants, some people were unhappy about the idea of Chaz dancing with a woman on TV. But probably nothing got as much media attention as the misguided misgivings of a particular mental health professional, psychiatrist Keith Ablow. Even if you’re not familiar with Ablow by name, it’s entirely possible that you’ve seen him on Oprah or elsewhere on TV.

It started with Ablow’s opinion piece, written for Fox News, entitled “Don’t Let Your Kids Watch Chaz Bono On Dancing With the Stars.” In it, he revealed his fears that kid viewers could see Chaz dance and decide that they also want to remove their breasts or penis. He adds:

It would be wrong to think that gender dysphoria cannot be kindled by celebrating those who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. Human beings do model one another—in terms of emotion, thought and behavior. By broadcasting, applauding and mainstreaming the journey of a very disordered person who endured, and likely will continue to endure, real suffering based on extraordinarily deep psychological problems, we suggest that that journey is a smart—even heroic—one to take.

He goes on to describe in detail how he would have helped her (Chaz) if he had been her shrink. Read it if you’re curious, but this deliberate misuse of pronouns may be all you really need to know. 

In an interesting turn of events, even Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly let it be known publicly that she wasn’t having Ablow’s nonsense.

In a clip below from The Ed Show, more is reported on this topic. But before you watch, put the kids to bed, as watching Dr. Ablow—according to his own contagion-type reasoning—may make them into right-wing psychobabbling bigots stuck in a time-warp world.

Although Chaz has now departed DWTS, he has done so graciously, and his presence on the show has been hailed as “a great victory of transgender visibility” by GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). In a blog post on their site, Matt Kane also noted:

No other transgender person has had the opportunity to tell their story to so many people for so long a time, or to do it with such humble generosity.  Whatever his next steps, chances are good that Chaz will continue the great advocacy work he has been doing for years, such as showing support for LGBT youth through both Spirit Day and GLAAD’s new “Amplify Your Voice” PSA series.

So, Chaz has some meaningful work to do, but what will become of Dr. Keith Ablow? Will he now reach out to all the children whose parents allowed some Chaz-watching? And, if he doesn’t, whose job will it be to ensure that these kids don’t inappropriately defect to another gender?

One thing we supposedly can count on from this man whose website says he’s officially “America’s Psychiatrist” (don’t let the APA find out), is that he will continue to put forth his “message” that he admits is “always the same”:

By harnessing your innate capacity for courage, faith, truth and compassion you will find the power to reach most any goal.

Ahem. I mean, unless (cough) you’re, you know, someone transgender who…scares me?