He counsels millions, thanks to television

Psychology: Although discussing family relationships on `Oprah,' Phillip McGraw eliminates the sleaze other talk shows seem to generate.

April 21, 2000|By Mimi Avins | Mimi Avins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Phillip C. McGraw is a tall, balding, broad-shouldered former college middle linebacker who has never had a dialogue with his inner child, and doesn't want to. In his 49 years, he has been a recreational pilot, accomplished amateur athlete and coach, expert witness, clinical psychologist, seminar leader, entrepreneur, author and, lately, television personality.

Now McGraw is doing very well at an endeavor that he doesn't think much of and for many years didn't like doing: therapy. Thanks to a chance meeting with the woman who has had more influence on book sales than anyone since the invention of movable type, he has become a guru to millions. Twice a month, he counsels troubled couples on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and his book, "Relationship Rescue" (Hyperion, 2000), has sold more than half a million copies and been at the top of the New York Times list of best-selling self-help books since its publication two months ago.

Better educated and with more practical experience in psychology than many mass media pundits, McGraw reserves his greatest contempt for the buzzwords and psychobabble that attach, like mold, to the crust of therapy. As Winfrey says when she introduces him to her rapt audience, "Dr. Phil is here to cut through all the phony baloney. Y'all know Tell-It-Like-It-Is Phil, right?"

Anyone who doesn't might try to excuse their shortcomings by running some meaningless self-help jargon past McGraw. They'd risk hearing him drawl, "I tell you, my friend, around my house, that dog won't hunt." (That's how people talk in Texas, where McGraw, an Oklahoma native, has lived most of his life.)

Midway through the '90s, many daytime talk shows were wallowing in the gutter (and getting big ratings) by presenting real people who traded outrageously vulgar personal secrets for some time in the spotlight. Winfrey was so disgusted by the trend that she repudiated the galloping exhibitionism and exploitation of her competitors' shows and adopted a different formula. Instead of being the most shocking, she wanted her program to be the most helpful and uplifting.

She's been accused of being preachy but has the clout to ignore such gibes. Her taste in self-help literature is varied, ranging from Gary Zukav's "The Seat of the Soul" (Simon & Schuster, 1999), an obtuse and repetitive tome representative of New Age gobbledygook, to McGraw's plain-speaking, tough-love workbooks.

Since Winfrey began discussing books on her show in September 1996, Oprah's Book Club has helped publishers earn millions in revenue .

Dr. Phil shows up on Winfrey's show every other Tuesday. The couples who share the stage are engaged in cold wars in which stonewalling, silence and physical withdrawal are one set of weapons, nagging, verbal abuse and marital rape, another. Even between young men and women married only a few years, affection is a distant memory and sexual desire a forgotten one.

In more than 30 appearances on the Winfrey show, McGraw has dealt with adult children who mooch off parents, mother-daughter betrayals, sexless marriages, chronic anger. In the name of results, he isn't afraid to take sides, coddles no one and abandons a number of traditional counseling techniques, such as making each person feel his position deserves to be heard.

The same people who would come across as repulsive and trashy on Maury or Sally or Ricki Lake's stage, seem only pitiable and maybe a bit courageous with Winfrey and McGraw. The focus is not on the sordid details of their stories, but on what they're going to do to get their lives on track.

"I think they are courageous people," McGraw said. "It's like the rape victim who doesn't want to come forward because it's too embarrassing. You find those who have the courage to do so really accomplish something."

In "Relationship Rescue," McGraw's guiding principles are deceptively simple. Personal responsibility comes first.

"I strongly believe we have gotten so far away from accountability that it's just ridiculous," he said.

McGraw blasts martyrdom in a single statement that Oprah admits inspired a "light bulb moment" for her: "You have the relationship you have because you set it up that way," he said.

In his book, McGraw explodes a number of myths that confuse and sabotage couples, then distills a formula for a good marriage into one sentence: "The quality of a relationship is a function of the extent to which it is built on a solid underlying friendship and meets the needs of the two people involved." He explains and expands that thesis but sees no point in making things much more complicated than that.

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