These are dispiriting times for a baby boomer with a keen interest in the arts, psychology, sports, politics and nature. It feels like we are being bombarded with stories and images of inhumanity to each other, abuses of power, sexual assault, the erosion of democracy, unchecked capitalism and the chaotic wrath of nature. Whether it is mass killings, abusive parenting, sexual dysfunction, government deadlocks or the ravages of hurricanes, wildfires and mudslides, there is a daily torrent of bad news that no one in their right mind could characterize as “fake”.
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, who spent 30 years in the entertainment industry as a lawyer, agent, producer, writer and executive, which has given me a vantage point to reflect on the rather recent epidemic of public disclosures of sexual abuse, shame and sociopathic behaviors of those in the “business”, as well as its close relative the sports industry.
What is behind this flood of bad behavior? On a general societal level, some argue that this misconduct has always been there and the accessibility of the Internet has provided a forum that did not previously exist to report it. Others point to it as a sign of our times, where a relatively peaceful world political climate has led to increasing numbers of people with more wealth, privilege and power, thereby increasing the likelihood of incidents of abuse. The data of rates showing skyrocketing use and abuse of both legal and illegal medications and substances that provide relief from stress and anxiety, suggests that despite all the technological advances we have made in the past 50 years, we are a society more on edge than ever before. Much has been written about disintegration of morality, starting with the weakening of the family unit, disinterest in organized religion and worship of money and material things above all else. No doubt, some of these assertions are causal factors.
Recent reflection on the conduct of several of these individuals leads to a different analysis that may prove helpful. Almost all of this behavior stems from relationships where there is disproportionate power, attained mainly by celebrity, wealth or positions of prestige. Most of the men involved were warned by their victims or those associated with them, that their conduct would lead to disastrous consequences for the abusers, but they continued despite the personal risk. There is a reckless, uncontrollable quality to these behaviors, which suggest the combination of compulsion, obsession and addiction. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that are experienced as intrusive or unwanted, whereas compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that a person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. Addiction is characterized by persistent behavioral symptoms that cannot be controlled despite negative consequences.
Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, football players at Michigan State and Baylor Universities, Woody Allen, Louie CK, Ray Rice, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, Greg Hardy, James Franco and Kevin Spacey are now all household names with double meanings. Almost all are highly accomplished in some way in their respective field of endeavor and are now headliners on an expanding marquee of societal monsters who abused others. What do these disparate men have in common? I believe the same qualities that made them successful are equally essential in examining their dysfunction. When combined with predispositions to obsessive/compulsive behaviors and the belief that their exceptionalism entitled them to trade access for consent, a pattern of disturbing, addictive and inhumane treatment of others begins to come into clearer focus.
Harvey Weinstein is a promoter, initially of musical events and later of film and television projects, but always of himself. As reported in an article in the Buffalo Evening News, he demonstrated obsessive, aggressive and risky sexual behavior as early as college, openly pursuing a sexual relationship with his then best friend’s girlfriend. His antics earned him a punch in the face and the loss of a friendship before there was thought of a career. He later built a company, with the aid of his brother Bob, which filled a void left by major studios that were mainly interested in entertainment for the masses. In the nascent days of Miramax, independent film distributors were not equipped financially or promotionally to take projects that on their face were not mainstream and make them so. Mr. Weinstein, who has been described as PT Barnum from Queens, New York, initially supplied promotion, and when Disney acquired Miramax, they supplied the money. On a personal level, he has indefatigable energy, an outsized belief in himself and a thick skin covering a myriad of deeply held insecurities. He also possesses an uncanny recognition of the weaknesses and needs of others, which has led him to be a shameless flatterer with those whose favor he is courting and a merciless bully to those that he perceived he had power over. Over the years this led to accomplishments, wealth, fame, power and dysfunction way beyond what Mr. Weinstein ever believed possible. He was beyond driven, beyond competitive in an independent film market that was previously gentlemanly and under the radar. He brought the intensity, lack of civility to others and self-promotion of old time studio film moguls like Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Samuel Goldwyn to modern times. His great skill was making other people believe that what he wanted from you was in your best interest. It did not matter how he got what he wanted and god help anyone standing in the way. Is it really surprising that a man who was not blessed with natural good looks, athleticism or extraordinary intellect, would use his incredible drive and insight into the weaknesses of others to obsessively manipulate relationships with physically attractive women to his own advantage?
Football is a sport, which is gender specific and physically competitive in a way that no other team sport is. Every play involves one on one battles between individuals, the result of which when added up result in either winning or losing as a group. It is in essence strategic warfare on a hand-to-hand level, where physical excellence and strategic planning determine successful outcome. From the earliest days, boys are shown physical techniques to help them achieve success against their opponents and with those techniques come a mindset of toughness, sacrifice and the greater good of the team over individual accomplishment. At higher levels, like those at collegiate football programs like Michigan State University and Baylor University or even more intensely for professional football players like Ray Rice or Greg Hardy, the more you can dominate your opposition the more successful you will be. The phrase that is heard in coaching circles all the time is, “Let’s impose our will on the opposition.” The group of men that succeed in that goal the greatest number of times will receive the most money, attention and respect. This imperative to dominate physically is in the DNA of every successful football player. Is this quality important in examining why members of the football teams of both university programs (and many others) participated in gang sexual assaults of defenseless young women who were left bruised, battered and traumatized? Does it play any role in the conduct of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy who when confronted with situations where their emotions were aroused, openly and blatantly resorted to physical violence against women who had no means of defending themselves?
Larry Nassar developed an obsessive interest in women’s gymnastics while still in high school and earned a varsity letter for his work as a student trainer. He studied kinesiology at the University of Michigan and did some work with the football and track teams. He joined the USA Gymnastics medical staff as an athletic trainer when he graduated from Ann Arbor, while at the same time working as a graduate assistant athletic trainer at Wayne State University. When accepted to the osteopathic medical program at Michigan State University, Nassar dropped out of Wayne State. He graduated from MSU in 1993 with an osteopathic medical degree and completed his residency at St. Lawrence Hospital in family practice in 1996. He was appointed national medical coordinator for USA gymnastics and attended the Olympic Games in Atlanta. He by all accounts was very invested in the lives, athletic achievements and bodies of the young gymnasts. Nassar described himself as a healer and did help many competitors with their injuries. He insinuated himself into the lives of these families, with charm, warmth and a developing sense of his own power to manipulate bodies for healing purposes. The first report of Nassar’s sexual abuse is in 1994, and he denied these accounts as outrageous and uninformed. This pattern continued unabated, often directly in front of parents in the examining room for the next 22 years. There were multiple reports of abuse thereafter, but no hearing until 2014 when he was cleared of any wrongdoing by a Michigan State University internal investigation. Clearly Nassar had convinced himself, his victims, their parents and investigators that his touching of young gymnast’s vaginas, breasts and buttocks was under the guise of healing. Only after an extensive investigation by the Indianapolis Star was published in 2016 did victims, parents and investigators look at his actions in a criminal light. Larry Nassar was a talented osteopath and facile communicator who outwardly demonstrated great empathy for his young female clients. Those same skills gave him access and enabled him to compulsively molest hundreds of women who were incapable of giving consent.
Woody Allen was accused by his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, of molesting her at their Connecticut home in 1992. Allen has vehemently denied the allegations and was never prosecuted. Both parties are credible in how they have addressed this issue and only they truly know the truth of what happened that day. What is also clear is that Mr. Allen has demonstrated an obsessive quality in both his professional storytelling and behaviors in life with young women, i.e. Mariel Hemingway’s character in Manhattan and his affair and subsequent marriage to Soon Yi Previn, his adopted daughter. He is an extraordinary screenwriter, who appears completely convinced of his own innocence. This parallels Mr. Nasser’s denial of his conduct for many years. Mr. Allen’s belief in his own story has a similar feeling to Mr. Nasser’s claims of healing and only doing the best for his victims. There is also the possibility of the powerful ego defense system of denial in play, which would serve as an explanation for either man being unable to consciously accept wrongdoing.
Louie CK and Bill Cosby both excelled at observing the behaviors of others, finding awkward or difficult moments, and reframing them for the comedic enjoyment of their audiences. This skill set allows them to disarm others, while hiding their own personal discomfort. The sexual encounters described by women involved with each man sound both awkward and uncomfortable for all involved. Mr. Cosby went even further to manipulate the situation to his own advantage by drugging the women. One can only wonder whether the talent these men have in abundance for both disarming others and cloaking their own anxiety contributed to their sexually abusive behaviors.
James Franco and Kevin Spacey are chameleons capable of immersing themselves into the soul and being of others in a way that is almost imperceptible to their respective audiences. Their job is to get you to believe in the reality of what they are portraying. In most roles that also involves getting the audience to like them. These same traits are also found in the behaviors of skilled sociopaths. Although these men’s actions are vastly different, they both presented a false image to others, which gave them access and the ability to engage in sexual aggression.
Politicians, including Presidents and Prime Ministers crave power, which create feelings of control and dominance. Power is attained by winning popularity competitions on a regularly scheduled basis. What we have learned over the years in examining the process is that the end always justifies the means. Or as Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders once said, “Just win baby!” Power gives you the ability to get your needs met, how you want, when you want. If every action that you take is designed to enhance your ability to obtain and then retain power, is it any wonder that so many politicians use it to create control and dominance in sexual situations?
One of the themes running through this saga of sexual abuse is male confusion about what constitutes female consent to sexual activity. Several of the men above have claimed that their sexual activity was consensual, in clear contradiction to the detailed accounts of the women involved. Besides a desperate Hail Mary, CYA defense by the perpetrators, what else could explain this disparity in reporting? Some of it may involve the self-image of the men who had already attained extraordinary success and recognition. All of them worked very hard to get to a place where others wanted access to them. What often develops in situations where one is being praised, deferred to or being asked to bestow favors is a feeling of exceptionalism. This belief in your own innate superiority goes a long way to justifying your success, privilege and power. It is a particularly powerful defense mechanism if there have been any deficits in childhood, adolescence or young adulthood that created self-esteem wounds. In almost all these cases, women are seeking the attention of the men involved for some benefit, making contact between the parties consensual. For the men involved, the quid pro quo for agreeing to let these people into your life is participating in whatever sexual activity the perpetrator desires. When one believes that only the best succeed in a meritocracy, willingness of women to meet with them is further evidence of their success. Is it a far stretch for these men to feel that the women involved are lucky to be in their company and by showing up have tacitly agreed to sexual activity desired of them?
It is not power or the feeling of exceptionalism alone that create the abusive behaviors. Proof of this lies in looking at the actions of actor/director/ producer Warren Beatty or recently retired New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. Both men easily fit the categories of possessing power and high self esteem. They also both have reputations for having romantic relationships with many attractive women over the life of their respective careers. There are no claims of abuse or lack of consent with either figure. Quite to the contrary, several women who have had relationships with the men report looking back on the experience as a positive in their lives.
An analogy can be found in the study of addiction. It is not the substances themselves that cause addiction. If so, everyone who had a drink, smoked marijuana, used opiates, amphetamines or their synthetic equivalents would be an addict. Addiction results when these substances are used by people who as a result of their environment, upbringing, or in some cases abnormalities in brain chemistry, find benefits from substance usage that to them outweigh the impairment it causes in their lives. Here the abusive sexual behaviors result from a combination of (i) disproportionate power, (ii) underlying emotional issues, (iii) personal skills that cut both ways giving perpetrators recognition, power and wealth, as well as the access and ability to impose their will on others, and (iv) belief in the perpetrator’s own exceptionalism creating confusion about actual consent from victims.
In trying to contemplate how to deal with the men who have been abusive and perhaps more importantly how to prevent others from acting like them, there may be useful information from how the military has dealt deal with veterans trying to return to civilian life. Much like football players, soldiers are taught skills that enable them to kill other human beings (football only goes as far as physically dominate them) and to defend themselves and their brethren from being killed. The skills that allow soldiers to succeed in one environment are directly responsible for them being unable to cope when they return home. The National Institute of Health surveyed 1.44 million military personnel who returned from combat in Afghanistan. Approximately 772,000 of these veterans sought treatment through Veterans Administration healthcare. The three most prevalent conditions treated were muscular-skeletal problems, mental health issues (greatest percentage PTSD and depression/anxiety issues) and substance use disorders. This led the VA to recommend an interdisciplinary approach between primary care doctors, mental health practitioners and social workers as a best practice. This approach emphasizes, (i) openly addressing the barriers to seeking care, (ii) offering welcoming and positive environments to receive care, (iii) focusing on the patient-provider relationship and (iv) acknowledging society’s debt to those who have served.
Only some parts of this are applicable to the group of perpetrators mentioned above, given the anti-social and in some cases criminal behavior of the men involved. Keeping that in mind, best practices should include the following:
1. Create easily accessible, professionally staffed recording and reporting portals for incidents of abuse that are regularly monitored by law enforcement and the news media;
2. Recognize the barriers that exist for victims reporting these incidents and try to remove as many as possible;
3. Once the perpetrators are identified and the accounts are confirmed, develop enforcement strategies to strip them of their power.
Note: This can be accomplished through the criminal justice system, i.e. Larry Nasser going to prison for the rest of his life. Or through the power of the marketplace, i.e. Harvey Weinstein being fired from the Weinstein Company and dismissed from the Motion Picture Academy and Producer’s Guild, or Kevin Spacey losing his leading role in a television series and being edited out of a film that he recently completed;
4. Perpetrators being required to undergo intensive psychotherapy to better understand the interaction between their specific underlying emotional issues and their aberrant behaviors, including their complete lack of empathy for others and having psychiatric evaluations to assess the need for psychotropic medications;
5. Establishing substantial financial penalties for these abuses, adjudicated by the judicial system, that level the playing field of disproportionate resources, give recompense to victims and provide funding for identification, enforcement and education to prevent similar conduct in the future;
6. Better recognition of the symptoms which are markers of the abusive syndrome at earlier stages, i.e. looking for antisocial behaviors of those in power in any situation.
Note: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore and Greg Hardy were all known for entitled, abusive and emotionally dysregulated behaviors before any accusations of sexual misconduct or domestic violence occurred;
7. Identifying groups of potential victims and providing accessible education, coping tools and resources to help prevent them from being in a situation where they are at risk with potential perpetrators and what to do if they are.
The #Me Too movement is a spontaneous reaction to the inequities which are the subject of this article. It is a miraculous first step in shedding light on a very dark place. That being said, it is vital that this good work be amplified and result in the creation of systems needed to correct these faults. I hope that some timber for that foundation can be found above. We need to understand that this abusive behavior is damaging not only to its victims, but also to all of us. It affects how we feel about the world we live in and how we feel about ourselves. Inequality, discrimination and inhumane treatment of others are societal cancers that destroy the fabric of everything we have all worked so hard to build. Exceptionalism should no longer be measured by monetary success, power and celebrity, but by the extent to which we use whatever personal resources are available to us in improving the quality of life for all of us now and in the future. We can do better!
Written by: Rob Scheidlinger MA, LMFT, JD, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist at Malibu Hills Treatment Center and in private practice in Westlake Village and West Hollywood, CA.