Analyze this

From his seat on Oprah, Dallas' Dr. Phil McGraw reigns as the king of quick fixes for troubled relationships. But what about his own?

McGraw denies that he ever wanted to do television, but years before he appeared on Oprah, he was angling for his own talk show. A Hollywood producer who had attended a seminar filmed a pilot episode telling the stories of three people as they went through the training with McGraw.

McGraw was in all things a performer; part showman, part evangelist, and part genius. "Once he got in the front of the room, it didn't take him long to feel the power," says David Dickenson, who also helped Box organize Pathways. "He loved being godlike and worshiped. The only reason it didn't become a cult is because Thelma wouldn't let it."

No longer content to remain behind the scenes, Box overcame her shyness and decided to work the front of the training room. Her technique was less direct but equally insightful. "Phil wanted people thinking he was the answer," Dickenson says. "Thelma let them find the answers within themselves."

Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.
Mark Graham
Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.

By the late '80s, Pathways had grown wildly popular, outgrowing Wichita Falls and settling in Dallas. Each year more than 1,000 people would pay up to $1,000 to attend "The Weekend" with McGraw and the five-day "Walk" with Box and McGraw.

Yet despite McGraw's reputation as enlightened being, he didn't apear to get along with his father. Theirs was a combustible relationship, two powerful egos wrestling for dominance in the same family and the same business. It didn't help that the elder McGraw kept falling asleep in the training room and was at times more disruptive than helpful. During the training, McGraw seldom spoke with his father, and his contempt for him became obvious. "Come on, here is a guy who is running a relationship seminar, and he doesn't speak to his own father in the training room for years," says one former training assistant. "He didn't walk his own talk."

Though McGraw and Box were partners for more than seven years and friends for more than a dozen, his treatment of her didn't seem much better. On November 16, 1992, Box received a faxed memo from McGraw informing her that he had made a "tentative deal" to sell his interest in Pathways to Midland philanthropist Steve Davidson. McGraw was ready to move on, his father ready to retire -- that's why his father had sold his 1/3 interest, the memo informed her, to a Wichita Falls businessman. Of course the new partners "understand yours [sic] and my relationship and know that I am committed to you as a friend and associate and expect fair treatment."

"Basically, he sold me down the river," says Box, who recalls having heated discussions with McGraw about either selling her own Pathways interest or buying him out in the two weeks prior to the memo. "Phil and I hadn't been getting along. He stopped talking to me, and I knew we couldn't go on that way."

What he had neglected to tell her, she says, is that he had engineered this corporate takeover scheme by actually selling his interest more than a year earlier. On October 15, 1991, he signed a agreement for the sale of his Pathways stock for $325,000.

"I absolutely told her I was selling," McGraw says. "What she didn't like was who I was selling to."

But the agreement stated that the sale was confidential, and a memo from McGraw to Davidson dated November 25, 1991, reiterated that the deal would be kept a secret -- from the public, from Box, even from his own father -- "to minimize the inevitable pain of transition and disruption of support and enrollment."

Only when a disgruntled secretary in Davidson's office faxed Box supporting documents revealing the confidential arrangement did Box realize she had no choice but to leave Pathways. "I had no faith in the new owners," she says. "It looked like Phil had intentionally sold to people who would make it fail."

In early December 1992, the new partners stepped up their negotiations with Box for the sale of her interest at a "disproportionately low price," she says. More important, she would be forced to sign a noncompetition clause, something neither McGraw nor his father was required to do. "Dr. Joe was retiring. Phil was burnt out," Box says. "But Pathways was not only my dream, but my livelihood."

What McGraw had suspected might happen, did happen. The Pathways population divided into two opposing camps: McGraw's and Box's. David Dickenson had aligned himself with Box: "There was a feeling of betrayal because Phil had compromised the integrity of the program. In effect, he helped rip off Thelma and her asset value in the corporation by selling behind her back."

At the Pathways Christmas Party in 1992, Box made her announcement: The world was big enough for two seminars, and she would be starting her own. She would maintain a passive ownership interest in Pathways until 1997, when the next generation of owners finally paid her price.

To this day Phil McGraw has never acknowledged either in his books or on Oprah that anyone other than him and his father owned or gave birth to the idea of Pathways. He does acknowledge that the material from Life Strategies, his first best seller, is taken directly from his seminar work. But nowhere does he mention Thelma Box or her contributions to his success.

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