by Dennis Palumbo
& Theodore Feit
We have a special treat this week–a special guest post by psychotherapist & mystery author Dennis Palumbo about the portrayal of therapists in film and TV & then a review by Theodore Feit of Dennis’ latest mystery novel, A Fever Dream, & and a chance to win a copy of the book. The Girl With the Evil Psychiatrist was originally posted in Dennis’ column, “Hollywood on the Couch,” on the Psychology Today website. January 4, 2012.
Two iconic images, from two classic films:
In Now, Voyager, kindly therapist Claude Rains walks in the garden with troubled patient Bette Davis. He’s paternal, insightful and obviously knows what’s good for her. In The Three Faces of Eve, psychologist Lee J. Cobb helps Joanne Woodward parse out the three distinct personalities tormenting her. Like Claude Rains before him, he’s a model of the patriarchal culture, a clinician of unquestionable motives and unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys.
Now, flash forward 40 or so years, to The Silence of the Lambs, in which Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist with an unusually carnivorous interest in his patients. Or anybody else crossing his path, like that poor census taker who once knocked on his door. (“I ate his liver with some fava beans, and a nice Chianti.”)
More recently, in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), we have evil psychiatrist Peter Teleborian. Not only does he sexually molest adolescent Lisbeth Salander while she’s under his care, he’s also addicted to Internet kiddie porn.
Which begs the question: How did we get from Claude Rains to Hannibal the Cannibal, from Lee J. Cobb to Peter Teleborian?
Because, with rare exceptions, that’s where we are. Look at how male therapists are now depicted in mainstream Hollywood films. Instead of being shown as caretakers, they’re portrayed as troubled, sexually predatory, even psychotic. In the past two decades, we’ve had Bruce Willis in The Color of Night, Robert DeNiro in Hide and Seek and Brian Cox in Running with Scissors. And of course, as mentioned above, the wearily omnipresent Dr. Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon and, most recently, Hannibal Rising.
Things aren’t much better on the small screen. On TV shows like Law and Order: SVU, The Closer and CSI, a male psychologist or psychiatrist is as likely to be the bad guy as any garden-variety contract killer or spurned lover.
Of course, as a former screenwriter myself (now a licensed psychotherapist), I know enough to be skeptical of Hollywood’s notion of any profession…but still, I can’t help wondering what’s going on.
What makes this trend even more irksome is the contrast with the predominant depiction of female therapists on-screen: in recent years, we’ve had Barbra Streisand’s Dr. Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides; Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos; Carolyn McCormack’s earnest Dr. Olivet on the above-mentioned Law and Order franchise; and, just this past year, Julia Ormond as Vincent D’Onofrio’s therapist on L&O: Criminal Intent, as well as Callie Thorne as a sports psychologist on USA’s Necessary Roughness.
(In some attempt at balance, I guess I should mention Birds of Prey, the short-lived superhero series of some years back, in which Mia Sara played an evil female psychiatrist named Dr. Harley Quinn. Grandiose, homicidal, the works. Then again, what else would you expect of the Joker’s girlfriend?)
Don’t get me wrong. There have been the occasional positive portrayals of male therapists on film and TV: Judd Hirsch in the Oscar-winning Ordinary People; Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. And, to cite Law and Order again, J.F. Simmons’ wonderful, testy police consultant, Dr. Emil Skoda. Not to mention Gabriel Byrne in HBO’s In Treatment, playing a therapist who, though certainly flawed, ultimately has his heart in the right place.
But these are clearly exceptions. The question is, why? What happened? How did the on-screen image of male therapist go from father figure to the most likely suspect?
Maybe this change simply reflects one that’s occurred in the culture at large. After all, the past fifty years have seen a challenge to the whole idea of male authority. In terms of image, professors, doctors and scientists of the male persuasion have suddenly gone from being saints to sinners. Same with male therapists. No wonder today’s TV and film writers find them irresistible as villains. All that education, respectability and power, turned to the Dark Side.
But it wasn’t just society’s growing distrust of male authority that turned Lee J. Cobb’s gray suit and pipe into Anthony Hopkins’ face muzzle and leather restraints. There was also a trend, starting in the 50’s, of popular films that threw extremely cold water on the notion of psychological treatment as a positive tool to alleviate suffering. Films like The Manchurian Candidate (and its recent remake), The Snake Pit, and One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest all suggested the nefarious ways that psychology could be exploited or used for evil, often conflating its concepts with those of brain-washing and drug-induced manipulation.
Even such recent films as A Beautiful Mind depicted the horrendous misuse of electro-convulsive therapy — at the hands, of course, of a cooly assured, unfeeling male psychiatrist. (As opposed to its somewhat benign use in the series finale of Showtime’s Homeland, in which Claire Danes’ sister, a kindly psychiatrist, looks on with concern.)
Let’s face it: the world’s a pretty treacherous, confusing place nowadays. Our most sturdy institutions — government, the church, education — traditionally headed by men, seem to be letting us down. It’s no different with psychotherapy. Fairly or not, I believe the way in which male therapists are portrayed on screen reflects a similar disenchantment with both the profession in general, and its male practitioners in particular.
Which is why, when I started writing a series of mystery novels (Mirror Image and its sequel, Fever Dream, I wanted my amateur sleuth to be a therapist. Flawed, yes. Psychologist Daniel Rinaldi is certainly that. Troubled, stubborn, and with a temper. But someone trying desperately to make a difference. To help others on the path to healing, even if only as a way to come to some kind of peace himself.
My point is, if Daniel Rinaldi’s mission as a therapist is to treat those crippled by trauma, I guess one of my goals as a writer is to help resuscitate the image of the mental health professional. Particularly male. Particularly in today’s harsh, cynical world.
Because nowadays, much like Catholic priests, the male therapist suffers from the failed expectations of a disillusioned public. He’s been transformed, regrettably, into just another stock character — our distrust and suspicion buffed to a stereotypical finish by the narrative demands of TV and film.
So now, to the hallowed celluloid images of “tough” private eye, “brilliant” physician and “ruthless” attorney, we can add the unethical, manipulative and frequently homicidal male therapist. Coming to a theater — or TV screen — near you!
Hmm. Sounds like we could all use a walk with Claude Rains right about now…Movies
Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo
Review by Theodore Feit
In the beginning, we had Alex Delaware, psychologist and sometime police consultant. Now we also have Daniel Rinaldi, psychotherapist and part-time police consultant. There, of course, the similarities end. Whereas the Kellerman protagonist is more cerebral, the Palumbo creation is more physical, in keeping with his background as a Golden Glover from the mean streets of Pittsburgh.
This novel, the second in which Rinaldi is involved in a murder mystery which endangers his life (multiple times), begins when he is called by a Pittsburgh detective following a bank robbery, to treat the sole surviving hostage (all the others were shot). From that point, a series of events takes place, fast and furious. In the midst of everything, there is a gubernatorial campaign in which the D.A. is running as a tough law-and-order candidate, complicating the police efforts and raising other concerns.
The complex plot proceeds apace, with scant clues but much physical action, especially a few murders and lots of firepower. The only criticism I have about an otherwise entertaining novel is Rinaldi’s omnipotence, allowing him to merely espouse solutions to the various mysteries without any preceding facts in the narrative (maybe that’s the way motion picture scripts are written – – the author formerly was a Hollywood screenwriter). Nevertheless, the book is very enjoyable, and is recommended.
To enter to win a copy of Fever Dream, simply email KRL at email@example.com with the subject line “Fever”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 28, 2012. U.S. residents only.
If you love mysteries, why not check out Left Coast Crime: Mystery Conference in Sacramento, March 29-April 1, 2012. Registration is only $225 & day passes can be purchased for $75 for Friday and Saturday panel sessions. Registration information can be found at the conventionwebsite, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.