Clinton's Tome Marks a Thoroughly Therapeutic Age

Article excerpt

An abusive stepfather, poor self-esteem, a drive to excel, a tendency to self-destruct. An affair that rocked a marriage - with America watching his every move. And, finally, therapy that, in his eyes, brought new insight, vitality, and peace.

With his new memoir, "My Life," former President Bill Clinton has sprinkled his 900 pages with revelations from religious, marital, and family counseling - and brought America's gaze, once again, to the growing role of psychotherapy in private lives and popular culture.

Unthinkable a few decades ago, Mr. Clinton's talk of counseling, his "private [struggle] to hold the old demons at bay," and the ways in which his unconscious shaped his life and presidency, is a barometer of just how widespread and acceptable therapy has become.

In some ways, Clinton is the ultimate emblem of an Age of Therapy - an era in which the rich and powerful, as well as the lost and lowly, seek, and even embrace, psychological help. The phenomenon has been lionized in popular culture, from "The Sopranos" to Dr. Phil, and is giving rise to a whole new lexicon. Just think "closure."

"It's certainly a sign of where we've come by the end of the 20th century, that these kinds of psychological variables are part of ... a politician's self-disclosure," says Stephen Hinshaw, chair of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's revealing of just how psychology-minded we have become as a culture."

To many, it's a positive movement - a more honest reckoning with oneself and a more genuine approach to others. But not all of America is on board. To some, all those hours in an easy chair create problems where none exist - hence the pejorative term, "Woody Allen syndrome," for the wealthy and neurotic who dash to psychologists over a lost toothbrush or a bad date.

There are vast cultural differences, too: Some immigrant groups have far more negative perspectives on digging through the past, warts, wounds, and all. Even therapy advocates worry that cultural forces popularizing it can "both present a reality and also trivialize and distort some of what we know about the mind's workings," according to Professor Hinshaw.

In politics, as in society at large, it wasn't so long ago that any discussion of mental illness or depression was strictly taboo - or worse, a death knell for careers. Former President Nixon carefully hid the fact that he underwent psychoanalysis after his impeachment. In 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton saw his spot as the vice- presidential candidate on George McGovern's ticket demolished by revelations that he'd had electric shock therapy. Even in 1988, Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis fought rumors that his wife had been hospitalized for mental illness.

"What's changed is that people who are high up, presidents, corporate officials, and others, now feel they can talk openly about their psychological difficulties and their willingness to go into therapy," says Richard Lachmann, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York, Albany. "Until recently, it was seen as a sign of weakness.... Now, if anything, it's seen as a sign of strength."

Yes, detractors have criticized Clinton for minimizing personal failings, blaming them on his childhood, or portraying them as factors beyond his control. But the fact remains that Americans use therapy - and talk about it - more than ever.

According to a Harris Interactive survey released in May, some 27 percent of Americans - or 59 million people - have received mental- health treatment in the past two years. Although about half of them were treated solely with drugs, some 15 million went into therapy each year.

"A cynic would say the nation is becoming more screwy," says Jo Colman, publisher of Pychology Today, which cosponsored the survey. "An optimist would say we've always had these issues, but now more people are getting help. …