Unhappy Childhood Pays Off Big

May 10, 1991|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

At some point during a conversation with pop psych healer John Bradshaw, you're destined to hear about his sexless marriage and his battle with booze, his dad's same battle with the bottle and the antics of a sex-abusing grandfather.

Mr. Bradshaw sorts through this stack of dirty laundry, then hangs up the worst of it for everyone to see.

The point is, with Mr. Bradshaw there are no family secrets. There can't be. Not when you're mining your family's malfunctions and striking solid gold.

For those who haven't caught this self-styled family counselor on "Oprah" (talking battered child), on "Donahue" (talking co-dependency), on "Geraldo" (talking incest), and for those who haven't read his best-selling books or watched his PBS series, "Bradshaw On: The Family," it's time to get current.

Mr. Bradshaw is the latest in a long line of public speakers who want to help you help yourself.

In short, his feel-good spiel rests on the premise that his devotees are abused children, like himself, that the way they deal with present-day problems depends on how they were treated in the past. And because they weren't treated all that well, they are looking for help.

Mr. Bradshaw supplies answers with his workshops and his books, basic how-to courses in loving yourself the way your parents didn't.

If all this "love yourself business" sounds familiar, it should. In various forms, it has been mouthed by philosophers, therapists and psychiatrists for years.

But just as people have a penchant for ignoring old advice, they never lose their taste for a new leader. A case in point: Mr. Bradshaw follows other gurus who have tried to straighten twisted lives, including their own. Think of Mr. Bradshaw as the man for the '90s.

In fact, Mr. Bradshaw, a former high school and college teacher, makes no claim to original thought. Only original packaging. He translates lofty psycho-babble into something people can understand. ("Huga teddy bear," for instance.)

At 57, Mr. Bradshaw's silvered hair and trimmed beard give the look of a kindly grandfather. As for below the surface:

By his own admission, Mr. Bradshaw didn't finish all of his academic training. He studied to become a priest, but didn't become one. He did all the work for a doctorate, studying psychology and religion, but stopped short of writing his dissertation.

All along, friends told Mr. Bradshaw he was a natural in dealing with people and their problems, and encouraged him to go into counseling as a business. Eventually, he built a large practice and founded aco-dependency treatment center in Rosemead, Calif., about 10 miles east of Los Angeles. From there, he moved on to writing books and making TV appearances.

His marriage ended after 22 years, though he says hirelationship with his ex is friendly and financially rewarding for her. She handles the cassette side of his burgeoning self-help empire and gets a cut from his first two books.

Today, Mr. Bradshaw lives alone in Houston, in a home he's redecorating. For friends, he relies on a support group of nine men, recovering alcoholics like himself.

He says he's "working on intimacy." That is, he has a girlfriend but isn't ready to try marriage again.

As for his family: He's pleased to have gotten his father and brother into therapy but hasn't been successful with his mother and sister.

As for himself: The man who tries to help others put back the pieces isn't as whole as he would like to be.

"I'm functional," he says. "But there are areas I'm still working on. I look at it as progress vs. perfection. I say that everybody's dysfunctional to some degree."

He may be on to something. Either hordes of people are messed up or he's living a marketing miracle.

Within the past year, six (soon to be seven) satellite centers, including one in Miami, have opened in six states. These centers have therapists who have been trained in Mr. Bradshaw's teachings. And at the moment, his book, "Homecoming -- Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child," is a best-seller, and he has a contract for four more books.

All of which leads to the question: Is his message doing any good?

Mr. Bradshaw acknowledges he doesn't have clinical data to prove that his followers have achieved peace of mind. What he knows he has achieved is popularity.

"In Detroit," he says, "8,000 people showed up for a workshop, and I've sold 2 million books in three years. It's unbelievable."

One thing is beyond dispute; there's money in misery. By Newsweek's estimate, Mr. Bradshaw earned close to $1 million last year.

Such success has some in the therapeutic community, particularly the multi-degreed psychiatrists, blanching. They accuse Mr. Bradshaw of being "junk food" and of being simplistic in his message.

Mr. Bradshaw chalks it up to an emotion as old as mankind: jealousy.

And in an anecdote that may be somewhat telling, the man who found himself victimized as a child also finds himself victimized as an adult.

"I can understand the feelings of someone who has struggled to get his Ph.D. and is still struggling to start a practice and he looks up and sees -- there's Bradshaw on television again," he says. "But it's not my fault. To make me the victim doesn't seem quite right."

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