Malpractice story on 'Frontline' is riveting

Television

November 12, 1991|By Michael Hill

They are the doctors who are charged with giving care to perhaps the most fragile part of a human being -- the personality.

Whatever you think of the specifics of Freudian theory or the efficacy of psychoanalysis, the fact remains that psychiatrists develop an extraordinary relationship with their patients. The abuse of that relationship would appear to constitute one of the more heinous forms of medical malpractice.

Tonight's edition of "Frontline" examines just such a case. "My Doctor, My Lover," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, is about a psychiatrist who entered into a romantic, sexual relationship with one of his patients, a woman who had gone to this doctor because of her intense feeling of guilt and depression about a previous extra-marital affair.

As chronicled in this riveting 90 minutes of television, Melissa Roberts-Henry, then 30, was living in Denver, working at home on her master's degree in geology while her husband, also a geologist, frequently traveled. Her marriage was under pressure. She had an affair. She went to Dr. Jason Richter for help.

Eleven months later, in March 1985, their therapy sessions ended with a discussion of their attraction for one another. Ten days later, their sexual relationship began. At least at the beginning, their encounters took place in his office, during the same amount of time that used to be allotted to her therapy. Yet Richter claims that he was no longer acting as her doctor, just as her lover.

A few months after the end of her 18-month affair with Richter, Roberts-Henry sued the doctor for malpractice. Following extended legal maneuvering, the suit came to trial in February 1989.

"My Doctor, My Lover" uses video from that trial, from depositions, and interviews with Roberts-Henry, Richter and other psychiatrists and friends to tell a suspenseful and heart-rending tale that has important ethical and legal ramifications. Some estimate there may be 1 million women in America who have been similarly victimized.

In her interview and, especially, in the trial, Roberts-Henry comes across as an attractive, intense woman whose mental fragility is evident. Richter seems smug and self-assured, two attributes that would lead him to agree to an interview for a documentary like this in the first place.

If "My Doctor, My Lover," which was made by the Canadian team of director John Zaritsky and producer Virginia Storring, has a flaw, it is that it makes its case a bit too strongly. If Richter has a stronger defense, you want to hear it. If Roberts-Henry is more culpable, you want to hear that, too.

But from the basic evidence, there seems to be no way to do

anything but condemn a psychiatrist for entering into a sexual relationship with a disturbed patient, even if, technically, their therapeutic relationship had been severed a few days or weeks before.

So, at that point, you would think the professional bodies would step in and take care of such a mess in their own backyard. But, if "My Doctor, My Lover" has a bigger villain, it is the American Psychiatric Association.

The actions it took in this case had nothing to do with helping a patient to get better -- which is supposed to be what people get into these jobs to do -- and had everything to do with money. That would be the money paid out by the insurance company, which is one-fourth owned by the APA and which underwrites most of the country's psychiatrists' malpractice protection.

The APA's insurance company signed up with some hired-gun lawyers -- they come off looking like bloody-toothed hyenas -- and condoned a defense for Richter which included putting this disturbed woman through 24 hours of questioning over three days about every detail of her sex life. Was that good for her mental health? These shrinks don't care, there's money involved!

And the APA approved the tactic of going after the therapist who subsequently took over the treatment of Roberts-Henry, trying to blame her for Roberts-Henry's subsequent psychiatric problems.

Why would the APA say it's OK for the lawyers to go after one of its members? Again, because of filthy lucre. Discrediting that psychiatrist -- even by trying to ask about rumors of her sex life -- might save on the potential malpractice bill.

"My Doctor, My Lover" is a dramatic document. The outcome of the trial is in doubt until the moment the jury returns. And the outcome of these two lives -- those of Richter and Roberts-Henry -- is deeply disturbing.

Often people go to psychiatrists looking for life preservers in a stormy mental sea; when it turns out they've grabbed onto a lead weight, the results are the stuff that nightmares are made of.

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