Harry Houdini refused to play on people's credulity and fear -- but television therapists do it all the time.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, May 15, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Harry Houdini Had Too Much Integrity to Do Therapy on TV

HoudiniA fellow PT blogger speaks of the many hats worn by therapists. How about the hat of "psychic?".

I was amazed on catching one respected psychiatrist with a television show (he no longer has it, but appears regularly as an expert on other news programs) presenting psychic twins to his audience. The audience peppered the two youthful, attractive women with questions, for which they had instantaneous answers - about dead relatives, illnesses, life decisions - all of which it would be inappropriate for a licensed therapist to provide. I was stunned that a psychiatrist would jeopardize his audience with this kind of BS.

This celebrated psychiatrist showed no self-consciousness about putting such pernicious crap out there. I contrasted this in my mind with Harry Houdini. Houdini early in his career performed spiritualist tricks. Once he came to a town and learned that a couple had just lost a baby. Judging them to be young and fertile, he shouted out to the couple in the audience that their dead son said he was glad his mother was with child again - which she had told no one. The woman and her husband, of course, dissolved into hysterical tears.

This image never left Houdini's mind. Years later, when he had made his name as the world's greatest escape artist (and was the best-known celebrity in the Western World), Houdini contacted these people to let him know the trick he had played on them. He simply could not rest having foisted irrationality and terror on the world.

But you can get this madness around the clock on American TV, often bearing the imprimatur of therapy. Dr. Phil today had on a woman whose life has been ruined by the spirit of a ten-year-old boy who she says is constantly with her, causing her perpetual anguish, to leave her job, and to cease all outside relationships. What to do? Why, call in ubiquitous ghost buster James van Praagh.

Van Praagh divined that it wasn't a ten-year-old tormenting this poor woman, but another man she knew who had been murdered (how's that for differential diagnosis?). Dr. Phil asked, reassuringly, could van Praagh help the woman - van Praagh assured Dr. Phil that he had a spirit protection package ready to put in place for this therapy -- or is it seer -- client.

We know Dr. Phil is beyond licensure action - this was revealed when he went to Britney Spears' hospital room at the request of her parents, but instead recruited her for his TV show. Many people - including Spears' parents - were appalled at this conflict of interest, violation of confidentiality, and self-serving behavior. But it turns out that Dr. Phil doesn't hold a license, so no one can bring an action against it.

The aforementioned psychiatrist I assume must be licensed, as well as being a member of the American Psychiatric Association. But I imagine no one complained about his psychic twin therapy. Why would they - mental illness is, after all, a ghost in the machine.