Shrink-ese Performs a Moral Lobotomy

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 06, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It is notable that the clearest, maybe even the sanest words heard at the Woody and Mia custody trial so far were offered up by Moses: ''Everyone knows not to have an affair with your son's sister.''

This searing, flat-out judgment did not come from the Moses. It came from 14-year-old Moses Farrow Allen. This phrase was not inscribed on a stone tablet. It was written in a letter to somebody he once called Dad.

Nevertheless, the boy's vision was as unclouded as his pain when he wrote, ''You have done a horrible, unforgivable, needy, ugly, stupid thing.'' It stands in stark contrast to the rest of this bizarre trial being conducted in a dreary New York courtroom, under the strictures of the law and in the language of Shrink-ese.

Indeed in that courtroom, it's possible to hear the way that once-arcane vocabulary has infiltrated our everyday conversation just as English has infiltrated French. Under the linguistic rules of Shrink-ese, good and evil are now translated into ''appropriate'' and ''inappropriate.'' Right and wrong have become ''good and bad judgment.''

The use of Shrink-ese in this ''head case'' is predictable. It may be the native tongue of the entire, extended and distorted Allen-Farrow clan -- a tribe that comes with a battery of psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists in tow. These children seem to have been assigned a shrink at birth or adoption the way other children are assigned a patron saint.

But last week, in the wrangling over custody the court was further treated to the testimony of son Satchel's therapist speaking in this tongue. By the time it was over, Dr. Susan Coates had offered a national lesson from the Tower of Psychobabble.

Was Woody evil, a lawyer asked? ''I would say this was someone whose judgment is very impaired,'' she demurred.

Was he bad? One ''could not generalize about a person without multiple, multiple bad acts.''

Was Mia wrong in her rage? ''I felt that for her to see Mr. Allen as an all-bad person was an overreaction. . . .''

Was there a solution? ''What is critical for the children is they find a way to have a mother and father and that each parent find a way to emotionally empower that tie.''

Every time the psychologist was asked a question about the ethics or right and wrong, she seemed to, uh, shrink, the moral dimensions down to their clinical dimensions. She dropped any accent of criticism. Indeed, the closest she got to expressing an opinion about a man who slept with the daughter of his long-time mate and the sister of his children was to say, ''I couldn't understand why he couldn't understand'' what the impact would be.

Well, I hear you, Dr. Coates, as they say in Shrink-ese. I know where you are coming from. Though, maybe Woody couldn't understand because he spent so many years in therapy being understood.

I rarely side with people who want to put good and evil stickers on every piece of human behavior. There are enough zealots in the world searching for biblical proof that Spandex is a creation of the devil. It's important to understand a criminal as well as punish a crime. It is wise to distinguish between a bad act and a bad child. The word evil doesn't roll off my tongue either.

But there are times, and this is one of them, when I wonder whether our adoption of Shrink-ese as a second language, the move from religious phrases of judgment to secular words of acceptance, hasn't also produced a moral lobotomy. In the reluctance, the aversion -- dare I say the phobia -- to being judgmental, are we disabled from making any judgments at all?

In Woody Allen's lifetime and often with his running commentary, we have made an extraordinary transition. From moral absolutes to moral relativism. From exorcists to therapists.

When in trouble -- marital misery, infidelity, abuse -- we are often sent or even sentenced to a shrink. Moral problems become medical ones and yesterday's sinners become today's patients.

And sometimes, just sometimes, people like Woody Allen, a fallen-away Jew, and Mia Farrow, a fallen-away Catholic, fall into something else. A therapeutic mode that erodes one set of moral bearings without replacing it. A world that emphasizes the need to understand each other but not necessarily to understand right and wrong.

Woody Allen slept with a mother and a daughter, threw a grenade into the family vortex, and now says that he should have custody of three children, bring them home to an apartment where their sister would be stepmother. And this is what passes for a confession of guilt about starting his relationship: ''I think I did make a mistake. An error of judgment.''

I'd rather give the last word to Moses.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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