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The David Viscott You Didn't Know

Talk Radio's Shrink Was Tough on People Who Came to Him for Help. But Many Swore by His Advice. Too Bad He Didn't Call Himself for the Same Counseling.

January 26, 1997|Nora Zamichow | Times staff writer Nora Zamichow's last article for the magazine was on the post-earthquake reconstruction of the Santa Monica Freeway

On line 11 is Michelle, a 25-year-old former Catholic school girl who once aspired to be a lawyer but became a prostitute with a drinking problem after her stepfather raped her. She has trouble trusting men, she tells the late-night television talk show host. * Dr. David Viscott listens to her with the gentleness of a kindly uncle, probing her pain delicately. Then, ultimately, as he always does, Viscott delivers his karate chop: "You will never get more clear instructions in your life: You must sober up and you must get to work on your ultimate goal in life." * Psychiatrist David Viscott became one of the early stars of shrink radio by serving up short-term therapy to people with long-standing emotional wounds. It was tough love and no nonsense. He'd coddle you, coaxing out the most intimate details--and then clobber you. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," he told one woman suffering depression. * As talk radio exploded in the 1980s, Viscott was your drive-time friend and entertainer on KABC-AM. At his peak in the early '90s, he advised millions on both radio and

television programs, selling his wisdom in seminars and aboard pricey therapeutic cruises. He developed his own greeting-card line with self-sufficient messages like "No matter what happens, we always have us," and audio tapes with such titles as "52 Minutes to Turn Your Life Around." At age 58, he had written more than a dozen books, including two autobiographies.

He offered individual therapy for $1,500 per two-hour session and supervised four centers staffed by therapists he'd trained in the quick-hit Viscott Method: Four sessions--at most--and you were cured (except for extenuating circumstances). You walked out the door armed with cassettes of your therapy sessions and workbooks; Viscott had taught you how to discover your "inner gift," your reason for being on earth.

His followers adored him, a short, pudgy man whose thick Boston accent made him seem more approachable. An hour before his afternoon KABC radio program began, the station's switchboard would be flooded with callers begging for a spot in line. When his television show ran, the 12 phone lines in his office were jammed with 500 calls a day.

"He was to psychiatry what Mozart was to music," says Lee Holloway, a friend and astrologer who hosts her own radio show.

Abrasively confident on the air, megalomaniacal off it, Viscott was never in doubt about what other people should do with their lives. But when his own life began to crumble, he turned out to be clueless. The fact that he could write a book titled "Emotional Resilience" did not mean he had any.

Viscott died alone in October, drained of money and prestige, the apparent victim of heart disease. All the guru's trappings were gone. "He was reduced to just being a psychiatrist and just being a psychiatrist wasn't enough for him," says Eric Steinwald, his accountant and friend.

Viscott's death came only three months after he'd purchased a $1-million life insurance policy--a fact that troubles a few friends who wonder whether the distraught psychiatrist took his own life. Viscott's insurance company refuses to discuss the incident. But in cases in which a policy is purchased so close to the time of death, the company always investigates, a spokesman said.

The life of David Viscott contains a lesson that he did not intend to teach: The next time you're listening to one of the countless self-help masters make life sound so simple, remember that the expert's life may well be as messy and contradictory as yours.

At the time of his death, Viscott was depressed, estranged from his wife, a daughter and several close friends. He'd been bumped off his KABC radio show because of poor ratings and never found his radio footing again. His two attempts at television shows never took hold. The fiction that he loved writing didn't get published. His efforts at a screenplay were a flop. He'd lost his $1.5-million Hancock Park home after declaring bankruptcy four years ago and his $1 million-a-year income plummeted by 80%.

Unhappy with his daughter Penny's decision to marry, Viscott--the man who hammered you with the importance of communication--stopped speaking with her, talking to her again only in recent months, friends and family members say. He never met his first grandchild, Penny's 3-year-old daughter.

His marriage had spiraled into a painful state of flux, according to friends and family members. Police were occasionally summoned to his home to break up domestic squabbles, according to court records. The unpredictable nature of his relationship with his second wife, Katharine Random, was often painful for Viscott's three children from his first marriage. Before his funeral, the family had not been united since 1988, when his eldest daughter, Liz, now a 36-year-old book editor in New York City, got married.

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