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Profile: Phillip C. McGraw

The Doc Says, Analysis, Schmalysis

He believes marriages can be saved by focusing on the here and now and losing the psychobabble.

March 14, 2000|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Phillip C. McGraw is a tall, balding, broad-shouldered former college middle linebacker who has never had a dialogue with his inner child, and doesn't want to. In his 49 years, he has been a recreational pilot, accomplished amateur athlete and coach, expert witness, clinical psychologist, seminar leader, entrepreneur, author and, lately, television personality.

Now McGraw is doing very well at an endeavor that he doesn't think much of and for many years didn't like doing: therapy. Thanks to a chance meeting with the woman who has had more influence on book sales than anyone since the invention of movable type, he has become a guru to millions. Twice a month, he counsels troubled couples on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and his book, "Relationship Rescue" (Hyperion, 2000), has sold nearly half a million copies and been at the top of the New York Times list of bestselling self-help books since its publication a month ago.

Better educated and with more practical experience in psychology than many mass media pundits, McGraw reserves his greatest contempt for the buzzwords and psychobabble that attach, like mold, to the crust of therapy. As Winfrey says when she introduces him to her rapt audience, "Dr. Phil is here to cut through all the phony baloney. Y'all know Tell-It-Like-It-Is Phil, right?"

Anyone who doesn't might try to excuse their shortcomings by running some meaningless self-help jargon past McGraw. They'd risk hearing him drawl, "I tell you, my friend, around my house, that dog won't hunt." (That's how people talk in Texas, where McGraw, an Oklahoma native, has lived most of his life.) Face to face, he's likely to say, "I'm going to call bulls---- on that," but he alters his vivid vocabulary for television.

Midway through the '90s, many daytime talk shows were wallowing in the gutter (and getting big ratings) by presenting real people who traded outrageously vulgar personal secrets for some time in the spotlight. Winfrey was so disgusted by the trend that she repudiated the galloping exhibitionism and exploitation of her competitors' shows and adopted a different formula. Instead of being the most shocking, she wanted her program to be the most helpful and uplifting.

Having risen above childhood poverty and abuse, she is a believer, as well as an example of the credo that your life is what you make it. She strives to bring that message to her audience as often, and in as many ways, as she can.

Taste in Self-Help Has Been Varied

She's been accused of being preachy but has the clout to ignore such gibes. Her taste in self-help literature is varied, ranging from Gary Zukav's "The Seat of the Soul" (Simon & Schuster, 1999), an obtuse and repetitive tome representative of New Age gobbledygook, to McGraw's plain-speaking, tough-love workbooks.

Since Winfrey began discussing novels on her show in September 1996, Oprah's Book Club has earned publishers roughly $175 million in revenue, and she's been responsible for 28 consecutive bestsellers. Her track record with nonfiction is not as strong, but sales of any book that's mentioned on her show spike, at least for a while.

Engagement-ring purveyors couldn't make a worse choice than to place ads on the Winfrey show every other Tuesday, when Dr. Phil shows up. With the exception of Winfrey's comments about her steady, Steadman Graham, and McGraw's unvarnished testimonials to his wife of 23 years, the picture of commitment presented is unremittingly grim. The couples who share the stage are engaged in cold, cold wars in which stonewalling, silence and physical withdrawal are one set of weapons, nagging, verbal abuse and marital rape, another. Even between young men and women married only a few years, affection is a distant memory and sexual desire a forgotten one.

In more than 30 appearances on the Winfrey show, McGraw has dealt with adult children who mooch off parents, mother-daughter betrayals, sexless marriages, chronic anger. In the name of results, he isn't afraid to take sides, coddles no one and abandons a number of traditional counseling techniques, such as making each person feel his position deserves to be heard.

Andrew Christensen, director of the Couples Therapy Project at UCLA and co-author of "Reconcilable Differences" (Guilford Press, 2000), said, "Phil takes a very accusatory, challenging, at times ridiculing, stance that I don't think is very helpful. He's sometimes dismissive, like when a man complained about carrying a disproportionate share of parenting and housework duties, and Phil called him 'Mother Teresa in a turtleneck.' His style is sometimes patently disrespectful, and I don't think that's effective, because it makes people defensive."

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