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A Second Opinion on 'The Sopranos' Analysis

August 14, 2000|MARVIN S. BEITNER | Marvin S. Beitner practices clinical psychology in Long Beach and Fountain Valley

Deborah Lott quotes several psychiatrists regarding their analyses of the interaction between Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Jennifer Melfi and James Gandolfini's Mafia capo Tony Soprano in her article about the HBO series "The Sopranos" ("Analyze This," Aug. 2).

The comments do not address some glaring peculiarities in the behavior of Dr. Melfi. For any female therapist to wear a short skirt and sit facing her sexually impulsive patient with legs crossed would be unprofessional and sexually provocative. This portrayal of her behavior is probably more a reflection of the writers' desire to titillate the audience by playing up the sexual tension between therapist and patient than an attempt to realistically portray the psychotherapeutic process.

Also omitted is any commentary about Dr. Melfi's use of psychiatric jargon such as "narcissistic" and "schizoid" in the treatment process. Such technical terminology is useful in communication between mental health professionals, but is an ineffective and confusing way to communicate with a patient. For Dr. Melfi to use these terms with her patient would suggest inexperience, poor psychotherapeutic skills or an intellectualized defensive retreat into the use of psychiatric jargon.

Finally, Dr. Melfi's habit of "drinking vodka in between sessions and popping Halcions at night" indicates a disabling drug-alcohol problem that would severely incapacitate her in her role as a psychotherapist.

The whole issue of the goals of successfully treating Tony touches upon the dilemma of treating a sociopath. The psychiatric commentaries imply that Tony is being treated for his lack of conscience, his violence and his criminal activity. However, Tony actually consulted Dr. Melfi because he had frightening symptoms of anxiety such as of shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting and other symptoms of a panic disorder, as well as periods of mental confusion and depression. To imply that the psychiatrist decides independently to cure Tony of his criminality is not a realistic portrayal of the practice or the power of psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy involves an alliance between patient and therapist with mutually agreed upon goals. In Tony's case, the goal appears to be relief from his symptoms of anxiety and depression. I do not recall Tony expressing a desire for help in developing a conscience or abstaining from criminal activity. On the contrary, criminal action is a valued activity in his life. Our disapproval notwithstanding, it brings Tony power, wealth, respect and prestige in his peer group. His criminal relationships constitute the fabric of his social structure, and are the source of his feelings of self-worth, power and "respect." Without these sources of emotional gratification and support, Tony's life would be empty and intolerable.

To suggest that Tony could solve his problems by retiring from the Mafia and becoming a football coach is like suggesting that Bobby Knight should give up coaching basketball and become a Mafia don.

Of course, all of these "professional analyses," including this one, must not be taken too seriously because they are based on the writer's impression of a Mafia capo and a fictional psychiatrist.

There are three reasons that the "The Sopranos" has such irresistible drawing power: (1) Tony's character vividly portrays the universal human struggle with anger, fear, doubts, sexuality, and desire for power and recognition. (2) Unlike most TV representations of the Mafia, "The Sopranos" skillfully combines a raw expression of these themes with a penetrating portrait of a multidimensional person in all of his family and personal relationships. (3) The arcane process of psychotherapy, the true persona of the therapist and the nature of the therapist-patient relationship fascinate people.


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