Take a musical genius and sensitive boy. Say that boy hears musical notes and whole ensembles in his head. Add a jealous and demeaning father. What’s the result? Critical voices in that boy’s head fighting with the songs and the self that are trying to come alive. Mix in drugs and alcohol to shut those voices up. Ingest an overdose of a grandiose, self-serving, controlling, unethical, abusively critical psychologist. What do you get, then? You get Brian Wilson’s story and a very near psychological disaster. That is, until love and mercy in the form of Melinda Ledbetter walked in.
Bill Pohlad’s Love And Mercy, with brilliant performances by Paul Dano and John Cusak, tells The Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s story with all the gentle emotional nuances required to make it real. What this film highlights in disturbing detail are how being in dire psychological need makes it all too easy to mistake a charlatan for a good psychologist. It can happen to anyone. Marilyn Wilson was desperate. Eugene Landy, a smooth operator. And, Brian Wilson: a pretty trusting guy. Except for trusting himself. Landy (Paul Giamatti) made sure to use that self-doubt to his benefit. Something a psychologist should never do.
What are some signs of unethical therapists?
1. They Have Poor Boundaries
Good therapy has good boundaries. That doesn’t mean a lack of warmth or caring. It means a focus on your needs, not the therapist’s. There shouldn’t be too much familiarity, as we see in Love and Mercy. Not only: “I’m Dr. Eugene Landy. A brother from another mother.” But, Landy took over every aspect of Brian’s life, living in his house, cooking for him, commandeering his boat, and shopping for cars. Therapy is about talking things through and helping you make your own decisions. Not doing it for you. Breaking confidentiality? Never.
2. They Are Controlling
There’s a certain amount of dependency involved in therapy. You come to therapy because you need help. But, ethical therapists never use this dependency to undermine your strengths or for their own sense of power. In fact, a good therapist supports the strong parts of you, while helping you work out any problems getting in the way. Eugene Landy manipulated Brian into having no contact with his family, re-writing his will and making Landy the beneficiary; into the belief that he was so disturbed, he needed Landy simply to function and couldn’t survive without him.
3. They Use Fear Tactics
When all else failed, Landy’s most perverse tool for control was fear. A terrorized Brian couldn’t make a move without Landy’s approval. In a rare surge of autonomy in the film, he wanted to be alone with Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) and convinced her to jump off his boat (where Landy’s son was watching him) and swim together to his beach house. Later, though, a panicked Brian, hearing Landy at the door and knowing he’d find them together, rushed Melinda out: “You have to leave now, but don’t leave me. He’s my legal guardian. He can do things to me. He can send me away.”
4. They Are Grandiose
Melinda, who saw through Landy from the beginning, was a threat to Landy’s inflated view of himself as savior to a famous and troubled man. If a therapist thinks he’s your rescuer, you’ve got a serious problem. That isn’t therapeutic help; it’s the therapist’s need to be important or great or better than anyone else in your life. It’s all about them, not you.
With his overblown self-importance, Landy issued drugs he wasn’t licensed to prescribe or monitor. He overdosed Brian so he couldn’t think. He invaded Brian’s entire life. To keep his control, he yelled abusively. He demeaned Brian. Underlying grandiosity is always a deeply buried sense of inferiority. Projection is a way of dealing with it. Landy made Brian the insecure one. Not himself.
We can see these grandiose and disturbed parts of Landy in some of the things he said to Melinda: “You’re dealing with a very sick man…But, I have it under control. I AM the control.” When Melinda was finally able to expose Landy by showing Brian’s family a copy of the altered will – he lashed out: “You filthy bitch. You’re sucking him dry.” Yet, who was really sucking Brian dry?
What makes someone vulnerable to a bad therapist like Eugene Landy?
1. Terrible Self Doubt
Brian needed help desperately. He had terrible self-doubt. He was, as he wrote to Melinda on the back of her business card when he first met her at the Cadillac dealership: “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.” He was a hostage to these feelings (and because of them to Landy). He had voices in his head at war with each other. The creative voices, the good ones, didn’t feel like him. The self-doubting, humiliating voices he completely believed. He’d been put down and abused by his dad. As Carl said about those critical voices: “maybe it’s dad messing with you.”
2. Feeling Weak
In comes Landy. Undoubtedly, Brian mistook Landy’s control and arrogance for the strength and certainty he, himself, didn’t have. When you’re lost and floundering, arrogance can, unfortunately, be quite seductive. It can pull you into a fantasy that this therapist will give you what you’re lacking.
3. Abusive Childhood
In any therapy, your fears, your wishes, your fantasies about yourself and your early experiences come into the relationship with your therapist. If you were, as a child, abused and demeaned as Brian was, that’s what you expect. Or you might look for an idealized relationship – one you always wished for but didn’t have. That’s called transference.
What’s Good Therapy?
Transference repeats old problems. In the hands of a well-trained and ethical therapist, the transference is useful in working these problems out. That’s not what happened with Landy. Instead, Landy began to personify the shaming and self-doubting voices in Brian’s mind. Just as Brian’s father demeaned him and interfered with his genius from the time he was small, so did Landy.
That’s not how therapy should be. Good therapy is not about being judged. It’s not about being put down or humiliated or robbed of your power to think for yourself. It’s about being understood. A good therapist works along with you to be able to stand up against your history and those self-attacking tendencies in your mind.
When Melinda said to Brian: “Let’s go. You need to get back to yourself,” that’s exactly what Landy was robbing him of, and just what Brian had to do.