There is almost nothing I can name about him that’s appealing — his good efforts, perversely, make him seem either desperate or pathetic, while his missteps feel odious…Healy is like Charlie Brown, except every time he kicks the football, you feel less sorry for him. Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture, describing Sam Healy of Orange Is the New Black
After the debut of the highly rated series Orange Is the New Black, social workers had good reason to be concerned about the image being presented via Sam Healy, MSW (Michael Harny), prison counselor at Litchfield Penitentiary. Social work academic Stacey Peyer, in fact, told Social Workers Speak that “she knows of an educator who is using Healy as an example of how not to practice social work.”
And now that we’ve had four seasons, it’s become increasingly clear that Healy isn’t just bad at his career; he has significant personal problems in need of resolving.
Many SPOILERS lie ahead.
Starting with a recap of Season One, we know Healy’s deep-rooted homophobia culminated in him refusing to help lead character Piper (Taylor Schilling) avert being savagely beaten by another inmate, “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning).
In Season Two Healy struggles to have a better relationship with his mail-order bride, Katya (Sanja Danilovic). She can’t stand him. In his own therapy Healy addresses his marital woes along with job issues and his temper.
We find out in Season Three that Healy grew up with a mentally unstable mother. In the present he resents new prison counselor Berdie Rogers (Marsha Stephanie Blake). While Healy is white, sexist, racist, and “lacking in compassion and empathy,” Rogers is black and truly cares about the inmates.
A critical incident involving inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) highlights Healy’s incompetence. He pushes antidepressants (can social workers, who are not MD’s, do this in a prison?) versus offering needed counseling. Rogers, on the other hand, takes the approach of signing Soso on for regular talk therapy. But when Rogers becomes temporarily unavailable, Soso has to see Healy, who again fails her. Soso tries to kill herself; she is found, fortunately, before it’s too late.
In Season Four there’s “plenty of sadness to go around, and most of it belongs to Sam Healy,” notes Kathryn VanArendonk, Vulture. His mom abandoned him in childhood, we learn, but not before he was told by a pal, falsely or not, that Healy’s mom’s a lesbian. We also get glimpses of Healy as a younger adult trying to date a client (who isn’t into it) as well as his mistaking a homeless woman on the street for his mother (which doesn’t go well).
For various reasons, Healy in the present becomes motivated to help prisoner Lolly (Lori Petty), who has paranoid schizophrenia. At the same time that her murder confession is treated by him as just another delusion, a dead body lies under the garden outside. “It’s a counseling disaster,” concludes VanArendonk.
When the victim is actually found, Healy gets it—and he panics and flees. More from VanArendonk: “Much like when his mother told him how she no longer wanted to undergo those lobotomies his father made her do, he didn’t listen. He thought he knew what was right and it was proven to be wrong, forcing him to consider the fact that what he does no longer matters or makes any difference.”
Following a last-ditch phone message he leaves for Katya, Healy attempts suicide by walking into a body of water.
But his ringing phone on shore draws him back. It’s not Katya, however, it’s the prison—to which he returns in order to assist Lolly in identifying her crime. Kelly Schremph, Bustle: “Healy couldn’t help his mother and he ended up losing her. That’s almost an exact parallel to what happens with Lolly when she gets carted off to the psych ward. He’d grown to really like Lolly and hated that (in his eyes) he’d failed her…”
So, the “sensitive and idiotic” Sam Healy, as Sarah E. Fryett calls him in the recently published Feminist Perspectives On Orange Is the New Black, checks himself into a psychiatric institute, leaving his fate lying for now in the hands of others whose competence we don’t yet know.
Thank you for this post! One of the things I love about OITNB is that all the characters have a story and no one’s story is simple. Healy does despicable things, frequently, usually in blind service to his raw pain and confusion. But he also works for an institution that cares even less about the women it “serves” and he’s basically alone . . . in so many ways. I want to believe that there’s a good Sam Healy deep in his tortured soul, with or without an MSW.