Ah, talk shows.
The precursor to reality TV if ever there was one. Turn on the daytime tube and you’ll be treated to a spectacle of larger than life guests, dads-in-denial and enough of Jack Hanna’s animals to fill the most adorable zoo this side of my planned dog amusement park called Pugville (It’s a work in progress). Sure, it’s a hodgepodge of equal parts fluff and scandal designed to get as many viewers watching as possible, but being a man who will occasionally scour the internet for pictures of pugs dressed as the Batman, let me be the last one to pitch a fit over someone else’s guilty pleasure.
Tune onto The Dr. Phil Show later today though and you’ll find something else; the exploitative coddling of a mentally unhealthy woman and her delusions.
As part of a segment on mental illness, the former clinical psychologist will feature Jenny Hill, the subject of her therapist’s, Judy Byington*, biography, Twenty-Two Faces. According to Byington, Twenty-Two Faces is not merely the story of Jenny Hill’s lifelong journey with her twenty-two multiple personalities, it’s the bombshell exposé of the nefarious conspiracy of Satanists that tortured Jenny for years. A cult that is alive and well even today, spinning a web through every fabric of our society. And how did Byington come to find out all these dark and terrifying secrets? Why, through the fully discredited science of recovering Jenny Hill’s long-ago repressed memories, of course.
It’s a science that in its hey-day back in the 80′s left thousands of patients manifesting therapist-facilitated delusions of pasts that proved every bit as traumatic as they were ludicrously false, and which allegedly split their minds into amnesiac jigsaw puzzles who drifted from one personality to the next. Though the medical diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (called Multiple Personality Disorder back then) remains controversial and loosely supported today, there’s little controversial about the shared public delusion that many DID experts fostered onto their unsuspecting clients, a delusion that led to a modern day witch-hunt and the imprisonment of ‘Satanic’ parents, daycare workers and teachers at the behest of so-called recovered memories. Jenny Hill’s story is nothing more than the enduring remnant of that movement.
Freelance journalist Doug Mesner has spent many man-hours campaigning against the continued existence of mental health experts who hold a torch for recovered memory therapy, including Judy Byington. For anyone wondering about the specifics of Jenny Hill’s at times incoherent story, here is an excerpt from Mesner’s review of Twenty-Two Faces detailing Hill’s claims.
Prophecy: The protagonist’s birth is foretold by her uncle in exacting detail.
Extra Sensory Perception (ESP): apparently believing that child abuse can prove beneficial to the victim, author Judy Byington describes that the protagonist, Jenny Hill, was able to break through certain subliminal barriers, not in spite of, but because of, early humiliations
Divine guidance: desperate and in prayer, Jenny Hill hears “a soft, yet thundering voice”, which urges her to “continue to write down your life experiences, for one day a book will be written.”
Divine intervention: In the midst of a Satanic ceremony in which she is bound to an altar, Jenny Hill is spared from sacrifice by a bare-footed “white-robed male personage, surrounded in a glorious White Light”. (Had this “personage” taken a little effort to arrive just a moment earlier, he could have spared the unlucky girl next to Hill, who is said to have been decapitated… but I’m sure His schedule is as busy as His Ways mysterious.)
Spirit Possession: Making clear that possession isn’t merely a more primitive cultural interpretation of DID, Byington describes that Hill suffered BOTH DID and spirit possession, the latter being cured by the prayers of LDS church officials
Upon getting wind of Hill and Byington’s planned appearance on the Dr. Phil show sometime last October, Mesner filed off an open letter to its producers, as well as the good Doctor himself, detailing many of these same suspect claims. Perhaps non-coincidentally, the show was actually pulled off the upcoming schedule for 2012, though as we can see now, that was but a temporary setback.
What makes the segment all the more disquieting is its eerie callback to how the original Satanic Ritual Abuse movement gained a temporary foothold in the public imagination some twenty years ago; via the irresponsible endorsement by the media outlets of its day, including, you guessed it, daytime TV talk shows that paraded out story after story of ritualistically abused women and their created personas. At least one talk show host, Geraldo Rivera, would later apologize for their role in propagating a dangerous myth.
Though the media landscape is vastly changed since then, to call Dr. Phil and his show anything other than influential would be a mistake, his brand representing the number one top-rated syndicated talk show in America. While the show will include some of Hill’s family members to contradict at least some of her story, expecting anything more than some token skepticism is about as likely as Hill’s biography. It’s hardly a stretch to worry about the impact of America’s Therapist implicitly promoting crank therapies that, while fringe, do survive under the radar and continue to wreak havoc for the families they inevitably destroy.
On a smaller level, it’s also more than unnerving to see the blatant exploitation of a troubled woman to sell a sensationalistic platter of Satanists and cults. We rightfully sometimes cringe at the pleasure we derive from reality shows showcasing people’s neuroses and damaged lives, but at least there we can blame the willful impulses of a Snookie to broadcast out her life for all the world to see. What’s willful about a woman made to believe she was abducted by a cult and strung up to an altar ready to be sacrificed to Satan?
And what are we for encouraging her belief?
UPDATE: In an, quite honestly, incredible turn, it appears that Judy and Jenny’s claims on today’s show were handled with a reasonable and skeptical eye by everyone involved, including Dr. Phil. Far from being a sensationalistic audience grabber, the show was clearly in favor of son-in-law Robert Steffen’s account of his mother being taken advantage of by Judy Byington’s dangerous antics. I’ll let my colleague Doug Mesner’s assessment sum it up:
I don’t think Judy exploiting Jenny could have been spelled out any clearer. The audience cheering for Robert in opposition to Judy was the final nail in Judy’s coffin.
In other words…Dr. Phil completely lived up to his name today, and I can’t imagine any of his audience members live or television walked away with a good impression of Judy Byington’s brand of quackery.
I’m sure I speak for many when I say I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong.
*Therapist is putting it generously. Byington was at one point a licensed social worker, but has since surrendered that same license to her home state, opting to mislabel herself as a ‘retired’ social worker on her bio page at Amazon.com. No mental health expert to be found here.