Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fame Junkies: Dr Drew and Celebrity Rehab

Okay, I admit it. I’ve recently been tuning into Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, on the not-so-venerable ABC2. It’s emotional car-crash television and I feel guilty watching it.

This low-rent reality TV program follows a group of the kind of people who qualify as celebrities these days – actors, porn stars, models, reality TV stars, rock stars, sports stars, and the parents of stars – as they attempt to recover from addictions to alcohol, drugs and prescription pills in a luxury treatment centre in Pasadena, California. Swollen lips, flouncy hair, floods of tears, tantrums and attitude problems abound. Perhaps the most poignant participant was Leif Garrett, a 1970s teen idol addicted to heroin and cocaine.

The group leader and treating doctor is celebrity medico Drew Pinsky, who was also executive producer on the first five seasons of the show. True to the fact that the budget of ABC2 matches its trashy values, the fourth season, which first aired in the US in late 2010, is currently screening in Melbourne.

When I started researching the show I discovered I was hopelessly out of date; Pinsky finally ended the series this year after six seasons. He'd grown tired of the storm of criticism he received from doctors, psychologists and addiction experts every time a former participant died. Those critics were quick to point the finger when Mindy McCready, a country singer who had appeared on the show’s third season in early 2010, shot herself in February 2013, just a month after her boyfriend’s suicide; she was the fifth former participant of the show to die. 

The experts who slammed Pinsky accused him of having an inherent conflict of interest: his need for the show to be entertaining versus his interest in his patients’ recovery. They claimed that his methods were dangerous and outdated, and went against treatment guidelines from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Detoxing at the clinic was done quickly and painfully, a practice that was potentially deadly but conveniently dramatic; and contrary to Pinsky’s belief, 12-step programs and complete abstinence were not the only means of recovery, and not right for everyone.

They also criticised the fact that participants were paid to appear in the show – five hundred thousand dollars in some cases – because it amounted to luring addicts with the promise of money they could then splash on their addiction. This also goes against the whole concept of addiction recovery – the addict has to want to recover, and shouldn’t need a financial incentive to do so.

I’m in no position to make judgements about the causes of the deaths. The people concerned weren’t in Pinsky’s care at the time and in some cases it was years since he’d treated them, and addiction is a notoriously stubborn condition. But that’s not my main point here. My point is that the whole concept of filming a celebrity being treated for addiction is toxic.

Pinsky, by the way, is no Dr Phil - he is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Keck School of Medicine at the University of California.

Abusive therapy?
My issue with the show centres around narcissism. It’s the curse of our age, and the term narcissist is used as a term of derision, but narcissism is actually a crippling disorder. Many narcissists harbour deep childhood wounds from years of abuse. Pinsky himself has researched narcissism and fame, co-authoring a 2006 study that demonstrated that celebrities were significantly more narcissistic than the general population (which makes him doubly culpable for playing on his patients' incessant need for attention).

To be a celebrity these days almost automatically demands narcissism to begin with. To film these celebrity addicts is, I believe, a kind of abuse, because the presence of the camera actually encourages their narcissistic tendencies without dealing with those tendencies as part of the therapy.

A case in point is Janice Dickinson, who styles herself as the world’s first supermodel and these days makes her living as a talent agent, photographer and writer. With her face so plastered with filler she can barely move it, and beestung lips so thick she can hardly talk, this woman displays levels of anger and exhibitionism that suggest serious emotional damage. Dickinson has spoken out about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and her decades-long drug habit. Given that she filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, it’s also likely she has a spending problem. 

In one scene she complains to Dr Pinsky that another patient has been playing up to the camera. She then stages a walk-out, declaring that she’s leaving the treatment centre. The camera keeps filming her and the question of whether she is acting or not suddenly becomes incredibly complicated. While she rants and packs, she accuses the camera of being intrusive. No doubt she too is playing up to it, and probably thinking about her own career, yet she also seems aware that the camera is actually part of the problem.

It strikes me that the last thing these people need is to have a camera pointed at them. The lure and promises of the camera – an increase in fame, recognition, attention, love – would be a barrier against effective recovery. And surely the first thing a good doctor would do, for a celeb or would-be celeb deep in addiction, would be to turn the camera off; to hide her away from the world so that she has the chance to heal. These are people at rock bottom, at their most vulnerable. Privacy is the very least they deserve. Giving Dickinson a camera to parade in front of may have simply played on her vulnerabilities, and actually worsened them. Just because you exploit yourself doesn’t mean you’re not also being exploited by others.

But the show itself is the thin end of the wedge; the use of Dickinson to promote the show is far worse. In this video, probably promoting the show’s fifth season, Dr Pinsky and two others, who appear to be producers, start a line of questioning about the penis size of the many famous men Dickinson has bedded, and then prompt her to list these men (don’t watch it if you’re easily offended). She’s slurring just a tiny bit, which suggests that she may be on some kind of tranquilliser or antidepressant. This promo goes so far against the ethics of the patient–doctor relationship that it’s breathtaking. It also demonstrates that for Pinsky at least, the line between entertainment and therapy, between staged drama and reality, has not simply blurred but completely disappeared.

Dickinson has written about a hellish childhood in which she was beaten repeatedly by her father, a paedophile, for refusing sex with him. If we assume that her addiction is linked to that childhood abuse, it’s beyond the pale that a woman who has never been fathered is being encouraged by her male therapist to boast about her sexual conquests with men in graphic terms. It is likely that she would seek the love and approval from her therapist that she never got from her father, and would use her sexuality to try to obtain that love. If so, this would amount to a toxic relationship that involved simply re-enacting her incessant need for attention rather than actually examining it.

Dickinson, it must be said, credits the show with getting her sober. Good luck to her; perhaps in between all the exploitation by self and others, she somehow got what she needed. But to take the risk that a minority of patients, even a tiny minority, could be damaged or even killed by such a flawed treatment method seems negligent in the extreme. And it’s sad and disheartening to see these vulnerable people, sometimes with faces ravaged by abuse, parading in front of the camera.

Ethical TV therapy
The idea of filming people in therapy is not necessarily bad. I thought Pamela Stephenson’s ShrinkRap one of the best things on television, suggesting its potential as a medium for genuine inquiry and discovery. Sitting opposite each other in comfy chairs in a dimly lit room, Stephenson confronted a tortured celebrity or artist, and asked them therapeutic questions about their childhoods and the way their pasts affected their careers and personal lives. The show featured megastars like Robin Williams, Salman Rushdie and Joan Rivers (ironically, Stephenson like a few of her own guests, sports ironed hair and face).

There is a sense of dignity and choice. Stephenson manages to cover tabloid topics in a way that probes for the reasons behind public scandals and private torment. Questions mimick those of a therapy session but are cleverly geared to television, and the whole thing takes about fifty minutes, the time of an average therapy session. Stephenson's demeanour is respectful yet fairly detached, her approach finding a balance between letting her guest go off in their own direction, and bringing them back to difficult topics. Imagining yourself in that particular therapy chair is neither difficult nor unpleasant.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like The mysterious life of the psyche: on watching United States of Tara and A tale of two talk show hosts.

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