By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As lambs to slaughter they come, pitiful men with middle-age paunches, clueless characters with bad teeth, tortured souls who have emotionally abused their wives and are now prepared to sacrifice themselves on the altar of daytime television. Just why they come seems incomprehensible: A trip to foggy Chicago in mid-March? A free limo ride? A chance to hug the entertainment empire that calls herself Oprah?
But just now, as these husbands are escorted to their seats at center stage -- their wives reassuring them that everything is going to be all right, that confessing their sins before 20 million viewers is a good thing -- Ernest, Jimmy, and Darrell, emotional abusers all, must be thinking: "I'll do anything, say whatever you want. Just get me the hell off this show."
The studio set is simple enough, postmodern in its design, with bold orange and yellow neon circles. Yet its arches and columns suggest something more classical, as if Oprah and not ancient Greece were the birthplace of democracy. Both the studio and Oprah look smaller than they do on television, but size has nothing to do with self-importance. After all, this is "Change Your Life TV," a relatively new format that Oprah Winfrey has implemented to separate herself from the likes of Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Judge Judy, and the rest of the World Wrestling Federation. Confession is good for the soul, not to mention the ratings.
The mostly female studio audience looks at these men with a disappointment that grows even more palpable when they're told this will not be the "Oscar nominee" show some had hoped for. No Hollywood hunks for their viewing pleasure. But the crowd bursts into applause as one of the show's staff members announces: "Dr. Phil is here today."
"This is so exciting," says a curly-haired "stay-at-home mom" from Chicago who knows "Tell it like it is Phil" from his work as an Oprah regular. Phil McGraw is the hottest new self-helper on confessional TV, a Dallas psychologist and litigation consultant who, in the enlightened spirit of such gurus as John Bradshaw, Deepak Chopra, and Steven Covey, is making a killing.
After he made a difference in Oprah's life (he was the jury-selection expert who teamed up with her attorneys in the now famous Amarillo Mad Cow trial), she has made a difference in his. Thanks to the happy hucksterism of his devotee Oprah, McGraw is now a best-selling author. His first book, Life Strategies, sold more than a million copies; Relationship Rescue, just released in January, received its first printing at 500,000 copies. Oprah not only plugs his second book as if she had written it, but has based a series of shows around it as well, essentially giving McGraw his own twice-monthly program.
As the broadcast prepares to begin, McGraw takes his seat onstage, in line with Ernest and wife Cheryl, then Oprah. McGraw, at 6 feet 4 inches and 230 pounds, has a commanding presence, but it's not just his physicality that is daunting. The man rarely smiles and appears self-contained and programmed to pounce. At 49, he is Dr. Laura in a mustache, country-fried and hard-boiled. Ernest is first up and looks downright intimidated.
"I'm curious," says McGraw, his Texas twang unmistakable. "Now, be honest and don't sugarcoat it..."
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it," interrupts Ernest defensively. "I treated my wife like she doesn't deserve to be treated...I called her a bitch; I have used the 'C' word."
Oprah leaps out of her chair. "The C word!"
"Now, I'm curious," repeats McGraw. "What in your life gave you the right to do that to another human being?"
"Don't say nothin'!"
"I would say that's what I grew up around."
McGraw's nostrils flare. He doesn't want to hear Ernest's story. If he had a traumatic childhood, he should just snap out of it. Feeling depressed? Buck up. He's an adult now, responsible for his own feelings. Forget Freud, Jung, years on the analyst's couch. Check your subconscious at the stage door.
McGraw delivers his down-home insight with the precision of a surgeon's cut. He is the master of the therapeutic sound bite, the analytical flash delivered right before the commercial break. But can anyone undergo real change from a confrontational 20-minute encounter on Oprah? Would this kind of quick-fix TV therapy border on the unethical if Phil McGraw weren't so damn good at it?
"Well, let's get right to it," McGraw continues, as chairs are rearranged so the couple sits face-to-face. "Cheryl, you've got one chance to tell him...from your heart, not your head, you tell him right now what he did to you."
Already, her face is wet with tears. "I never believed that someone who said they loved me so much could make me hurt so bad. Let me tell you...It doesn't go away."
McGraw sits slightly behind and between them. "Are you going to take it anymore? Look at him."
"No I am not..."
"Whatever happened, you set it up that way. You taught him how to treat you."
That was Life Law No. 8, right out of his first book ("We teach people how to treat us. Own, rather than complain about how people treat us.") In Life Strategies, McGraw serves up 10 bits of what he calls absolute truth, and guarantees the reader that if they are swallowed whole, they will lead to psychological redemption or spiritual enlightenment or, better still, success.