Move Over, Dr. Phil

Hopkins-educated Dr. Kieth Ablow brings his softer style and his psychoanalyst's couch to one of TV's hottest new talk shows

November 08, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

Sara Brinkman had never seen The Dr. Keith Ablow Show, but friends had described the host of the hot new self-help program as "Dr. Phil with an edge."

That was enough to convince the Kansas City, Kan., resident that the TV therapist was just what her family needed.

Brinkman sent the show an e-mail requesting that Ablow help her and her sisters, Kristin and Amy, salvage a disastrous relationship with their father, Larry. The women claimed that he berated and physically abused them as children, sometimes yanking Amy's hair.

A couple of weeks later, the Brinkmans were front and center on Ablow's set, and Sara discovered what scores of viewers already knew: The one-hour show is a virtual therapy session.

Ablow, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine graduate and 15-year therapist who gained national attention as a media analyst during the Scott Peterson murder trial, is skilled at stripping away layers of denial, defensiveness and distrust.

His show, which airs locally on WUTB, Channel 24, weekday mornings at 9, is unlike similar programs. Other talk-show personalities discuss problems with guests and then invite a psychoanalyst for an expert opinion.

Ablow's show has merged the host and the analyst, like on Dr. Phil. But Dr. Phil McGraw can be combative and abrasive. Ablow doesn't rant or raise his voice. He is firm and poignant but empathetic.

He honored the Brinkman women's requests to place stage props between them and their father. His set is decorated like a psychiatrist's office, with plush sofas, soft lighting and shelves lined with books. The audience is so quiet, sometimes viewers forget it's there.

Larry, they say you hit them all the time with a switch," said Ablow, peering into Larry Brinkman's eyes. "Did you or didn't you?"

The three women stared anxiously at their father, a graying man the size of a refrigerator, with a chiseled face. He shifted in his chair, sighed heavily and fumbled with his response.

"The girls ... the girls ... "

"Larry, Larry, Larry," Ablow interrupted. "Did you or didn't you? It's a yes or no answer."

"No."

With that, each of Larry's daughters broke down crying.

"Larry, we should all look at each other," Ablow said. "You have a chance to set the record straight with your daughters. Life doesn't offer everybody second chances."

With Ablow's stroking and prodding, Larry Brinkman went from a state of abnegation, to repeating "I did the best I could," to admitting that he had indeed abused his daughters. Then he almost broke down as he relayed his own abuse at the hands of his father.

Sara, who didn't know what to expect when she appeared on the show, was taken aback with how many fences her family mended in an hour.

She said later that her father complained they "made him look bad" on television, but still the family will return for a taping Friday for an update show scheduled to run Thanksgiving week.

"It was kind of scary," she said in a telephone interview Monday. "When I watched the show, I was like, `Oh my gosh, did we actually say all that?' It was surreal. I feel this whole thing has lifted a burden off my chest. Our lives have definitely been changed since Dr. Keith and his show."

Viewer appeal

Apparently, they're not alone. Since debuting Sept. 11, the show ranks second in viewership among the four new syndicated talk shows this year, behind TV cooking personality Rachael Ray and ahead of comedians Megan Mullally and Greg Behrendt.

"There's a different daytime viewer at home, smart, educated women, and he appeals to them," said Ablow co-producer Cathy Chermol, a former Baltimore resident who previously worked for Maryland Public Television, Good Morning America and The Tyra Banks Show.

"He's not a chair thrower - nothing against chair throwers, but he's not one - and that appeals to women," Chermol said. "Right now, he's the No. 2 [among new talk shows] with women 25 to 50."

The show has given Ablow an outlet for what he believes is his calling: helping individuals and families probe their inner selves for catharsis and healing.

It was a calling he said he discovered during his third year at Hopkins, when a path toward ophthalmology was derailed. He discovered that, as one of his professors put it, his fellow ophthalmology students enjoyed looking into others' eyes while he enjoyed looking into their lives.

"He's such a lively person and interactive with the faculty, you couldn't miss him," said Hopkins psychiatry professor Dr. Paul McHugh. "He added to the good spirits in the place."

He pursued many interests at Hopkins, including publishing a book on how to get in and stay in medical school and writing freelance articles on medicine for Newsweek and The Evening Sun. He also produced several novels and a New York Times best-seller, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson.

Though he continues to write, Ablow found his niche in psychotherapy. His talk show is an extension of his practice.

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