Nov 02

“Too Good to Be True”: Bad Childhood Therapy for Benjamin Anastas

Imagine this happening to you as it did to the author of Too Good to Be TrueBenjamin Anastas:

You’re three years old. Your mom has taken you, your twin sister, and your seven-year-old brother to a strange place to live. You all miss your father and sometimes feel scared.

Mom regularly attends some kind of group because there’s something wrong with her—you don’t know what.

In Too Good to Be True Anastas writes about the adult struggles that compelled him to look back at some things that have shaped him, and he describes one particularly haunting memory (excerpted on The Huffington Post):

One day, while our mother is in group, they bring us to the room where they watch us playing and sit us down. I have no memory of what they say to us. But for each of us they have a sign: my brother’s sign says MR. KNOW-IT-ALL, my sister’s sign says CRYBABY, and mine says TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE…

He wears this sign for one whole day. For a lifetime he’ll be affected by it.

The book as described further by Kirkus Reviews:

The author affords readers a glimpse into an unconventional childhood watched over by a loose-cannon father and a depressive, therapy-dependent mother, who came out as lesbian when the author was a teenager. However, the headliner here is his more recent conundrum, which he conveys with an exacting eye for detail and a healthy dose of browbeaten exasperation. Eventually circumstances improved, and the author’s many battles have wrung from him both catharsis and poignancy.

Publishers Weekly says more about the current events that trigger his past:

The author initially appears self-pitying, mystified by his inability to earn money as a well-educated published author, reduced to scrounging for coins in order to entertain his son, and somewhat comfortably accustomed to his role of getting kicked around by creditors, ex-wife, therapists, even the new boyfriend of his ex, called the Nominee (for a Major Literary Award, no less). At times the author can come across as insincere, but he does redeem himself with a closing poignant letter of promise addressed to his son (‘you’).

In an interview regarding Too Good to Be True, Anastas is asked about his attitude toward therapy. His response indicates not only a clear reluctance to consider using it but also an interesting prejudice against our choices in office decor:

Q. You’re very open in the book about a ‘mistrust of mental health professionals,’ partly because of a bad experience you had with family therapy as a small child. Have you ever learned anything in therapy that’s been helpful?

A. The only thing I’ve learned in the periods when I’ve been in therapy is that being in therapy makes me miserable. I’m not cut out for it. It might seem like a strange thing to say for someone who’s just written a memoir, but it’s other people who I find really fascinating, not myself. The idea of going to an office somewhere to sit on discount furniture and talk about myself for 50 minutes is my idea of hell. I’m bad at it.


Charles Yu, author: “‘Enjoyed’ is the wrong word for this book. You don’t enjoy eating a bag of glass shards mixed in with bloody pulpy bits of a human heart. Enjoyment, in this case, is irrelevant —I devoured this book not in spite of the pain, but because of it. This is a messy, vital, non-story of a story. I finished it and felt covered in the debris of a life.”

Gary Shteyngart, author: “A spectacular account of mind-blowing failure. It is short and it is beautiful and you must buy it.”

Rivka Galchen, author: “I love this book so much. Which is weird, considering that it consists of watching Anastas take blow after blow, before being battered and receiving more blows. But you won’t pity the author, who leans into even the most difficult situations with wonder and boundless empathy; instead you’ll just wish he could narrate your own disasters to you, so you could see the art in the salvage.”

Aug 29

“Go On”: March Sadness In Group Therapy (But In August)

A while back I wrote about the upcoming sitcom Go On, featuring Matthew Perry as Ryan King, a radio sportscaster whose wife has died in an accident. Well, in the midst of all the recent Olympics coverage, and again since then, NBC aired the pilot—though Go On is not regularly scheduled until September 11th.

Many reviewers agree that the main highlight of the episode was what occurs when the reluctant King participates in a support group for those who’ve experienced losses. TV Guide describes it:

The pilot episode’s high point is the set piece of Ryan’s first encounter with his fellow misfits in ‘Transitions,’ described in a pamphlet as a ‘group for mindful life change and renewal.’ Ryan’s sarcastic eye-rolling aside, check out the splendid and admirably diverse supporting cast, which includes Julie White as a tightly wound lesbian widow, Everybody Hates Chris Tyler James Williams as a young man struck mute with grief (until Ryan works his magic, of course), Suzy Nakamura as a control-freak suck-up, and (while not listed among the cast regulars) Bill Cobbs as a curmudgeonly old blind man milking his infirmities for sympathy. Ryan gets one look at this crew one-upping each other with their sob stories, and he pits them against each other in a ranking game of ‘Who can bottom who?’ which one of them dubs ‘March Sadness.’

Critic Laurel Brown of Buddy TV found “March Sadness” to be “one of the funniest scenes in recent TV-comedy history.” Furthermore, she calls the show in its entirety “the funniest pilot of the fall 2012 season.” Because she’s undergone a recent personal loss of her own, this is particularly significant.

What takes Go On from good to great is how this comedy alternates with real pain, all while keeping the same tone throughout the show. I have watched the Go On pilot three times now, and every time there are moments where my laughter dissolves into tears — and then back again into laughter.

Not nearly as enthusiastic in his overall assessment is Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly :

I get it that we’re supposed to think Ryan is a wounded ass who is hiding his pain (and we know he’s in pain because we were shown him trying in vain to sleep in the bed he used to share with his wife, and having an out-of-proportion rage attack when he sees a character texting while driving because his wife died in an accident while texting in a car); that this is all lurking beneath his game wisecracks and his ridicule of the therapeutic practice. But the subtext of this subtext is that we really are supposed to laugh and agree with him when he says, ‘I think this is all kinda dumb’ and that ‘the talking, that wallowing, it keeps you from getting on with your life.’

The takeaway from the initial Go On is that you should indeed acknowledge your pain… but then for God’s sake, just buck up, man up, and get on with your life. Because, you know, having someone (or something) you love die — it’s just a bump in the road. Get happy, you wuss.

Matt Roush, TV Guide, is one of several reviewers observing that Lauren the support group leader is inadequate in her role. She’s been incorrectly identified as a “therapist,” however. If she were actually a credentialed therapist, and not someone who got her group experience from being a former Weight Watchers employee, her failings would seem even worse.

Thankfully, Perry gets a terrific sparring partner in the lovely Laura Benanti…as the group’s dubiously qualified therapist, whose patronizing platitudes can’t entirely mask a prickly impatience with her clients, especially the new guy. Their wary cat-and-mouse game doesn’t exactly break new comic ground, but it temporarily lifts Go On from its jarring tonal shifts between mockery and mawkishness.

One thing many of the critics have reservations about is the ability of this series to have staying power. Pilot episodes often do fail to induce high expectations—how much potential, after all, can you cram into a mere 20 or so minutes worth of new story and characterization? James Poniewozik, Time:

…(T)he pilot is aiming for a balance of dark humor, heart and flat-out funny that it doesn’t quite manage. Maybe for fear of bumming the audience out, the pilot tells us about Ryan’s sense of loss more than makes us feel it….(T)he pilot builds to a final scene that’s obviously meant to be uplifting and cathartic, but doesn’t quite feel that way.

That said, I’ll stick with Go On for a while, because it at least has the pieces to eventually become a successful comedy you can invest in—a smart, idiosyncratic sitcom with a real emotional core.

Jul 03

“Anger Management” the TV Show: Managing My Anger About It

According to IMDB, Charlie Sheen‘s new series on FX, Anger Management, is “(a) TV sitcom-version of the 2003 feature film about a guy sentenced to anger management counseling with an aggressive instructor.” It premiered last week with the episode “Charlie Goes Back to Therapy,” and, as expected, it drew tons of viewers.

In brief, his character, Charlie Goodson, is a former baseball player with anger management issues who’s now an anger management therapist—with—guess what—continuing anger management issues.

Because there’s a group therapy focus, many reviewers have compared Sheen’s show to someone else’s from way back when.

Variety: “‘The Bob Newhart Show’ with more sex jokes…”

Washington Times: “Goodson has a 15-year-old daughter he adores, a sassy ex-wife he lets push his buttons, and, in addition to the paying members of his therapy group (shades of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’), he also volunteers at a penitentiary to work with cartoonish hardened inmates.”

Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly:

The locus of most of this show’s comedy…is the therapy sessions Charlie conducts. Watching him referee a group of recalcitrants and oddballs, you recognize the true template for this series: The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), with its bemused therapist surrounded by his wacky clientele.

But they’re not as vividly drawn as Newhart’s patients; you’ll find no equivalent to, for example, Jack Riley’s intriguingly furtive, insecure misanthrope Elliot Carlin.

Instead, the troubled souls in Anger Management are all less pleasingly complicated types, familiar to sitcoms current and past: the cranky old man (Northern Exposure’s Barry Corbin), the sarcastic gay man (Michael Arden), the sexpot (Noureen Dewulf), and a dope (Derek Richardson) who likes goading other people. Charlie also has a second group of patients – a group of prison inmates he counsels – but that’s a tonally strange, unfunny subplot that will either have to be dropped or drastically overhauled, since its humor in the first two episodes involve awkward jokes about murder, gay sex, or rape.

And it just gets worse. States a Chicago Tribune reviewer: “The funniest riffs come from perhaps the most contrived plot point. Charlie is best friends with fellow therapist Kate (Selma Blair), whom he is also having sex with. And in the pilot, they become each other’s therapists, putting off the physical relationship for about 30 seconds before getting frisky on her office chair.”

What the…?! They become each other’s therapists?! Where do I begin…???? The ethics against having sex with a client? The inability of a colleague-who’s-also-a-best-friend to be an objective-enough therapist? The no-way-can-your-client-also-be-your-shrink and no-way-can-your-shrink-also-be-your-client?

Apparently, here’s how this all develops: First, there’s Charlie’s realization that he needs his own therapy because of his still-unresolved anger stuff. The Washington Times:

‘Why do you need a therapist? You are a therapist,’ his neighbor asks.

Goodson responds this way: ‘Did you ever see a tow truck hauling a tow truck?’

Of course, Charlie being Charlie, there’s a problem.

‘There’s only one tow truck I trust,’ he sighs, ‘and unfortunately, I’m having sex with it.’

How ridiculous. A therapist actually believes he needs to have a developed and trusting relationship with his shrink before he starts therapy? !

Virginia Rohan,, adds that when Charlie’s neighbor then asks why this is problematic, he replies, “It’s unethical for a therapist to have sex with a patient. They teach that Day One. It weeds out half the class.”

Ha ha. Good riddance to them. Charlie, it’s not too late for you to weed yourself out.

David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun, who finds the show amusing, parenthetically notes:

(Memo to therapists: Save the emails about patients and therapists sleeping together. I didn’t say the series was enlightened. I wouldn’t go near Charlie or her if I wanted real-life therapy. But this is sitcom, remember?)

Yes. Yes, we do remember. But we’re sick and tired of it anyway, and we’re not gonna take it anymore! There are actually plenty other ways to make fun of therapy and therapists than to continually give the public the completely wrong impression that therapists may have sexual relationships with their clients.

“What would Dr. Melfi say?” This is asked by Mark Perigard of the Boston Herald, and it shows me that at least one critic is uncertain about Charlie’s doings. (Dr. Melfi was the shrink on The Sopranos.)

Better yet, Jace Lacob at The Daily Beast points out that Kate: “…willingly throws away her professionalism and morality to continue to have sex with Charlie, even as she ‘treats’ him. She’s said to be brilliant, but we’re shown no examples of her intelligence, just her sex drive.”

And, refreshingly, David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle, also aptly sums things up: “Two things are relatively safe bets about the new sitcom Anger Management…The ratings are likely to be strong, especially for the first few episodes, and Charlie Sheen probably won’t make the American Psychological Association’s short list to keynote its next convention.”

Thank you, guys. Thank you for your support. I feel a little better already.

Jun 29

Nora Ephron, Heroine Known For Her Humorous Writing

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” Nora Ephron

This is just one of many serious quotes that have been attributed to writer Nora Ephron (1941-2012), who died this week after a secret battle with leukemia.

But Nora Ephron was also known for her sense of humor. And one of her friends has publicly noted that even as Ephron was dying, she was still cracking jokes. Not that she wasn’t also showing sadness. She could do both.

“My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.”

I don’t know if she was ever in therapy, but she did seem therapy-oriented in some ways. For example, in her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Heartburn (1983), group therapy figured prominently. The movie version, which featured Meryl Streep as lead character Rachel, contained a scene in which she and others get robbed during a session.

Actually, it’s quite possible that in real life Nora Ephron spurned shrinkage in favor of something else. According to the New York Times, she once said about her choice to engage in twice-a-week professional blow-drying of her hair:

“It’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis and much more uplifting.”

Also on the topic of hair, she had stated:

“…the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.”

Here’s Ephron in 2004—with good hair—getting big laughs during a tribute to Streep:

Other Nora Ephron quotes of interest:

“Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”

“[A successful parent is one] who raises a child who grows up and is able to pay for his or her own psychoanalysis.”

“When you’re attracted to someone, it just means that your subconscious is attracted to their subconscious, subconsciously. So what we think of as fate is just two neuroses knowing that they are a perfect match.”

“Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it.”

“Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.”

“You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were, or back into the people they used to be.”

Jan 20

Smoking Not Allowed in Group Therapy: “ER” Episode

You know what they say: Where there’s baptism by fire, there’s smoke. Or smoking.

Or something like that.

In the tenth season of the long-running TV series ER (1994-2009), Nurse Manager Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney), now in her fourth year of medical school, is doing her psychiatry rotation. Unexpectedly, her supervisor tells her she can run the group therapy session all by herself.

Abby, who’s an on-again, off-again smoker, later tells another character, “I started smoking in the middle of the session today to get their attention. Pity I couldn’t finish that cigarette.”