Got Problems? Can’t Fix Them? It’s Mom and Dad’s Fault!

Long ago, way before I became the model of wellness I am today, I sought out a therapist. I was 24, doing well at a fashion magazine in New York, enjoying a pretty fun social life, and besides the sorry pay, I didn’t have a lot to complain about. And yet. I thumbed through the insurance book, chose a few names at random. Dr. B. was the first to call me back.

She was in her mid-sixties, glamorous and frank. She looked like Blythe Danner. I saw her regularly for the next five years, sometimes twice a week. For the first year, we didn’t speak. I had figured I’d go in there, field a few probing questions, unknowingly reveal all that rendered me complex and interesting and screwed up, and (along with, perhaps, an antidepressant or two) presto: I’d be cured! Instead, we spent our sessions staring at each other. She wasn’t lazy, as I first suspected, or indifferent; apparently, psychologists use this technique all the time (my mom—not a shrink—used it, too, though with her it was called the silent treatment). It didn’t work for me—also, I never got the meds—but what did I know? Dr. B. was the professional, and I was 24.

I’d say, “So…,” and she’d say, “So….”

There’s no time for this sort of slow-boat approach in Keith Ablow’s world. As I sit down to interview him over dinner near the Manhattan studio where he tapes his eponymous TV talk show, the 45-year-old Newburyport psychiatrist gets right to it: Barely two minutes in, ever so casual as he unfolds his napkin, he says, “So, then. Tell me about your family.”

Well, I grew up an only child…and, um, my mom and dad were—hey, wait!

Ablow has made a career—a few careers—out of delving into people’s lives and personal histories. For more than a decade, he has divided his time among private practice, stints as an expert witness in murder trials, and media appearances. In September, after guesting on other daytime talk shows (Oprah, Tyra Banks), he launched The Dr. Keith Ablow Show, in which he rummages through his guests’ psyches for the benefit of a national audience. “Everyone has a story,” he announces as the credits roll. “You have the power to rewrite yours and make it better.” Here he means: Once you understand how and when your parents screwed you up—and believe him, they did—you can fix whatever ails you.

It’s an attractive concept, if not entirely new. Psychology textbooks call the idea “family of origin,” and Freud was a fan. But Freud has fallen out of fashion. These days, budding analysts receive more training in what’s called cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses less on where a particular behavior came from and more on what you’re supposed to do about it. Accordingly, most psychiatrists today (including Dr. Phil McGraw, the current king of talk-it-out TV, and Ablow’s closest competitor) preach the harder-to-digest “personal responsibility” credo. Dr. Jody Schindelheim, a professor at Tufts–New England Medical Center and a former teacher of Ablow’s, says while there’s nothing wrong with Ablow’s methods, no psychiatrist should be a slave to any one approach. “Each method of therapy has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the patient,” he says. “That should be taken into account, rather than trying to impose your particular ‘favorite’ sort of treatment.”

In any case, when it comes to TV therapy, Ablow’s a pioneer. And he may be on to something: Everyone’s got issues—and everyone’s got parents! Ratings are up.

Last year Ablow was named one of People’s sexiest men, honored with Howie Mandel and Joey Lawrence in a section called “The Bald and the Beautiful.” While “beautiful” might not be quite right—he’s completely, almost freakishly, bald—his eyes are kind, and he does a very good job of paying attention to whomever he’s talking to. Both on camera and off, he’s snappily dressed (9-to-5 wear includes custom-tailored shirts, while Casual Keith, at least during our encounters, sports metallic lace-up trainers), and a little hyper. At a recent taping, Ablow is constantly animated, jogging through the crowd to field questions, gesturing wildly whenever a guest says something he finds particularly revealing, tapping his cue card on his knee when forced to sit. He points, a lot. When he thinks of it, he turns to the right to reveal what he clearly regards as his “good side.”

In private practice, which he reduced to a “trickle” for the show (he now shuttles between New York City and Plum Island, where he shares a house on the beach with his wife and kids), the doctor would often meet patients over lunch, or “on their private jets.” He told them to call if they had a nightmare, even if it was 3 a.m. “Organized psychiatry would have opinions on whether bending boundaries like that is appropriate,” he says. “But I didn’t want the trappings of psychotherapy to stymie people from letting down their guard—and telling me more of their truths.”

It’s unorthodox, to say the least. “Mixing doctor-patient roles is fraught with danger,” says Dr. David Rosmarin, a McLean Hospital psychiatrist and former board member of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, which publishes a handbook outlining ethical guidelines. “Patients and therapists frequently develop warm feelings for each other, but friendship involves more of a symmetrical relationship, and that is not putting the patient first.”

Ablow’s media pursuits have proved controversial as well. Two years ago, Ablow caused a stir with his book Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, in which he diagnosed the convicted murderer as a sociopath without having met him, prompting Rosmarin to file a complaint still pending with the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, on the grounds it’s unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he has conducted an exam. And in October, Ablow scored the first interview with John Mark Karr, the man who confessed to killing six-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey. Ablow and his staff were accused of securing the interview under false pretenses, getting Karr drunk on beer beforehand, and using a hidden camera to tape off-the-record conversations in which Karr described six-year-olds as “uninhibited.” Ablow has since appeared on Today and Larry King Live to defend the decision to air the footage. “We could’ve sat on the tape, sure,” he says. “But what if he went out and hurt a kid? How would we sleep at night?”

On Dr. Keith, Ablow’s topics veer toward that kind of sensationalism—
slutty 12-year-olds, “women who hoard”—and he spends most of the allotted 44 minutes trying to determine what the hell happened all those years ago to make people behave like this. C-list celebrity guests, as they do, ramp up the bizarre factor: Katherine McPhee, famously ousted from American Idol; Christopher Knight, famously Peter Brady; and, the day I visit the set, Rain Pryor, famously fathered by an out-of-control comedian who once set himself on fire. Pryor has just published a memoir, and is here to talk about its meatier bits: how her dad would bring home prostitutes and beat them in front of her, how he’d blow lines of coke while the rest of the family ate dinner, how his destructive behavior only made her “love him more.” (Ablow tells me later, “This is what happens when a little girl wants desperately to believe that her father loves
her,” but now he simply says he understands, and passes Pryor the Kleenex box.)

On his first day as an intern at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in June 1987, Ablow met a cute X-ray tech from Melrose named Debbie. Their first date was in the hospital cafeteria. They married in 1996, and for the first years lived in “gritty, honest” Chelsea. In 1998, when Debbie was pregnant with their daughter, the couple moved to the considerably less gritty Newburyport. Four years ago, they had another child, a boy. Because of the rigors of television production, Ablow doesn’t see much of his wife and kids these days. “I considered moving the family to New York,” he says. “But one, my wife is now a lawyer at her own firm in Charlestown, and she wasn’t excited about giving that up. Two, I felt this should be about me. I couldn’t picture my daughter having to leave her friends because I wanted a different job.” He talks to his kids twice a day, and sees them when he can. “But I get it,” he says. “I know it’s not the same. I’ll take full responsibility if they land in therapy. I’ll write a letter that says, ‘You have to understand. They had sort of a narcissistic father who just had to go to New York.’”

It’s clear Ablow fully subscribes to the brand of psychology he hypes. Long ago, he figured out it was his parents who screwed him up. “There’s an explanation for every single thing that people do, and every way they feel,” he says. “I believe it like a general believes that he can take a hill.” In his personal life, that belief lets Ablow justify his own actions, gives him a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for crimes of self-indulgence. It’s also part of what makes him an in-demand expert witness. Since 1996 he’s provided mitigating insights into the minds of such high-profile local killers as Joseph Druce, who strangled Worcester priest (and convicted sex offender) John Geoghan, and Edward Donahue, the Reading stay-at-home dad who killed his wife, Elaine. “I can talk to juries,” Ablow says. “I can say, ‘I see why this person may seem like a monster to you—look at what he’s done—but let’s consider the truths. At seven, this person’s dad made him run into a tree again and again until he lost consciousness. Was he a killer back then? Or did his father destroy him? Because that’s what it feels like to me.’”

Growing up in Marblehead, Ablow was tormented by bullies—followed home, called names (“wimp” is the only one he can seem to recall, but he thanks me for asking). The bullying is something he mentions often, and it’s evident, despite having been through therapy himself, the man is not over it. Or else it’s proved a handy vehicle for earning viewer empathy—I’ve been picked on, too!—while over at Dr. Phil, McGraw is increasingly criticized for being arrogant and a bit mean. Not surprisingly, Ablow blames his parents, who “disempowered” him. “I was coddled and overprotected in a way that prevented me from becoming substantial,” he says. “My mother was so intent on keeping me safe that I had never been tested. That was something the bullies knew.”

Lately Ablow has been trying to track down his tormentors, bring them on the show. He thinks he’s found one living on the North Shore—he tells me the man’s name—but he’s not sure it’s him, since the man won’t return producers’ calls.

I find the bully—let’s call him Jim—listed in He calls me back almost immediately. “I’ve gotten one message from someone at Warner Brothers,” he says, “and they never mentioned going on the show.” He’s not especially psyched to know Ablow’s been sharing his name with a reporter. As for the bullying, Jim says he’s innocent—he hung around with some rough kids, sure, but no way was he ever the instigator. Still, he seems to delight in telling the story of how Ablow once got egged: “There was egg dripping down his head. I was standing with a bunch of friends. Maybe I had an egg in my hand, maybe I didn’t. I didn’t throw it. At this point in my life, I would admit it, chalk it up to adolescence. But I don’t want to ruin what seems to be the blueprint he’s now basing his career on.” Jim adds that he’d be open to appearing on the show—or at least talking to Ablow. “Tell Keith to give me a call.”

It wasn’t just the bullies; Ablow had issues with Marblehead, too. “It’s hard to trust a town about which a guidebook exists,” he says. “There’s a forced sense of sentimentality. I’m not a big fan of Hallmark cards, although I think the company’s just fine—I have to say things like this now—and I don’t believe every sign on your street needs to be made of carved wood with gold-leaf paint. Life’s not a movie set. And if you encourage people to believe it is, you’re encouraging them to present a façade of their own existence.” Right now, he adds, society is at a crisis point. We shun authenticity. “Just look at the whole distressed-jeans thing: We want other people to believe we wore them out. And what’s worse, we half believe it ourselves,” he says. “You probably think that’s innocuous, except it really isn’t. Because it shows how we’ve gotten used to lying, and how everybody’s okay with that. We’re okay with going to a psychiatrist and within five minutes that psychiatrist is reaching for his pad to write out a prescription that will only make it harder for you to be aware enough to realize what’s causing your pain. Saying you don’t want to talk about it gets you detention in the Ablow School of Psychology.”

In the early ’90s, during a rough patch as a resident at Tufts–NEMC, Ablow visited psychiatrist James Mann, who helped him work through what he considers his biggest life change so far: declaring “emotional autonomy” from his past. “For the first time, I saw that I had very loving parents who also were frightened of me becoming an individual,” he says. “I realized that being a complete person meant detaching.” At around the same time, Ablow got the first of his three tattoos, on his right thigh: a pair of hands prying open a human head, flames pouring out of the fissure. The image represents Ablow as healer, as demon slayer, but basically he got it because it was a symbol of freedom from Mom and Dad (and a pretty clear one at that, since they raised him Jewish, a religion that doesn’t exactly celebrate tattoos). He had it done when he lived in Chelsea, by a guy who made house calls and had just gotten out of jail for home invasion. (Ablow paid him an extra 50 bucks to check out his security system. His dead bolts, he was told, wouldn’t stand up to a tossed brick.) Debbie watched as the guy tattooed Keith in the living room, then ran to a Christy’s for paper towels to mop up the blood.

When Ablow talks about home, he often talks about Chelsea, though he hasn’t lived there for almost 10 years. Unlike Marblehead, he says, “you would never design a city like Chelsea. That’s what makes it honest. I don’t think people would ever pretend in that place.” With Ablow, the idea of authenticity crops up a lot. The problem he faces, though, is that Americans like distressed denim, and new T-shirts made to look vintage, and overmedicating—and they like these things, to some degree, for the same reasons they like his show. Dr. Keith is escapism, a way to explore psychological issues superficially.
Some might say the doctor is a believer; in trying to reframe how people look at personal transformation, he’s trying to change the world. Others might wonder about his chosen psychiatric medium: less than an hour of pat psychoanalysis and TV-friendly sound bites instead of in-depth sessions and follow-ups, the often thankless work of individual therapy.

At times, he seems conflicted, too. “A lot of people like to feel full,” he says. “I like it best when I’m emptied out. I’m not saying I’m like Gandhi or anything—let’s be honest, I shop for fine shoes.” (And, he admits, distressed jeans.)

Whether through a desire to help or a narcissistic streak, Ablow is tireless in his efforts to make himself heard. Since 1990, he has written 12 books, including How to Cope with Depression and the crime novel Psychopath. A TV pilot he penned in 2002, called Expert Witness, starred Matthew Modine but was never picked up. He’s a contributing editor at Good Housekeeping. And this May, Little, Brown will publish his new self-help book, Living the Truth, which is drawn, predictably, from his own history. He’s currently renovating an office near his Plum Island home so he can work undisturbed all night long.

Next month Ablow will find out whether his show will be renewed.

He doesn’t like to speculate, but is hopeful. If he were to go off the air, he says, his work would continue. Not that he wouldn’t be sad, or “grieve” the loss. Perpetual motion is, after all, what makes him feel youthful, and useful, and “less worried about dying.”

I ask Ablow what another psychiatrist might say about his 80-hour workweeks and 300-mile commute. “Nobody could miss the fact that in working this much you run the risk of using the work to avoid engaging with other people, including your family,” he says. “But I’m close to my kids. I think my marriage is a healthy one. All marriages after 10 or 11 years are a challenge, in my mind. I’m good for the challenge. As for Debbie, my feeling is that you’d never marry a psychiatrist if you didn’t want to get into emotional terrain that’s a little uncomfortable. Because I have a habit of going there. At dinner parties I’ll end up talking to one person, and that one person ends up crying. Why? Because most of the things that connect us are painful.”