Armchair Shrinks At the Ready

An alert reader points out a story from Sunday’s New York Daily News which purports to shed light on what, exactly, led 46-year-old secretary Laura DeFilippo to allegedly engage in an affair with 79-year-old Monsignor Eugene Clark, her boss at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

How does the Daily News get inside DeFilippo’s head? Simple: Reporter Maggie Haberman asked a bunch of people to speculate on DeFilippo’s motivations — despite the fact that they’ve never met her. Here are three examples of said speculation:

“A priest is a highly idolizable person,” said Michelle Ascher Dunn, a Manhattan psychoanalyst and an advice columnist for The Daily News Online. “Their core life together for her was, I think, based on her capacity to keep him idolized … he wasn’t a regular person.”

Dr. Robert Butterworth, a California-based psychologist, agreed: “Idolize means worship. Who better to idolize than someone closer to God? And maybe … the sense of being close to him was being close to goodness.”

“It may be the father she never had, the one who never noticed her, the one who never admired her,” said Wayne Myers, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. In fact, staying in her marriage may have allowed the raven-haired church worker to rationalize the affair.

“It is a compartmentalization,” Dunn said. “The bigger the difference between … [their] stations of life, the more in denial a woman can stay.”

One might argue that a psychiatrist is qualified to analyze a person he or she hasn’t met based solely on media reports. But one would be wrong, at least by the standards of most psychiatrists. The American Psychiatric Association, for one, has deemed such behavior unethical. Consider this passage, from the APA’s “Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry”:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

And what about psychologists? Here’s a passage from Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, from the American Psychological Association:

… [P]sychologists provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions. When, despite reasonable efforts, such an examination is not practical, psychologists document the efforts they made and the result of those efforts, clarify the probable impact of their limited information on the reliability and validity of their opinions, and appropriately limit the nature and extent of their conclusions or recommendations.

In a June 2004 New York Times piece on the temptation to psychoanalyze public figures, Sally Satel pointed out a number of problems with such armchair analysis. One problem that she notes is “hindsight bias,” which “leads us to spin a tidy causal story only after an outcome is known. We can do this because events in the past appear comprehensible and orderly compared with future events. Not surprisingly, however, this risks oversimplifying a complex situation and the uncertainties the subject faced in dealing with it before its resolution.”

Rivka, a psychologist and blogger, gives us a blunter assessment:

You don’t diagnose a patient you haven’t examined. You don’t discuss your diagnoses without the patient’s permission. And if your only defense against the latter rule is that the person you’ve publicly diagnosed isn’t really your patient, that alone ought to let you know that you’ve strayed far from the requirements of professional ethics. A psychiatric diagnosis is a clinical tool, not a rhetorical device; to treat it otherwise substantially undermines the reputation of psychiatry and psychology.

As Mark Kleiman points out, experts appear on television all the time to do such analysis — as anyone who saw the runaway bride coverage is well aware. But, he says, “psychiatrists (and clinical psychologists) aren’t merely experts; they’re licensed healers. Using that license to wound is by its nature an abuse.”

We agree — though we don’t think the so-called experts, many without a license, should be given a free pass either. The fact is that long-distance analysis is a byproduct of the media’s desire to craft a story into a narrative, regardless of the facts therein.

In the notorious opening of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm writes that “[e]very journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

We wouldn’t go quite that far, but the willingness of journalists to publish the offhand speculation of media-hungry psychologists and psychiatrists speaks volumes about the degree to which an ostensibly factual story can be built on a dubious foundation.

The experts quoted by the Daily News should be embarrassed by their participation in such an exercise, and the Daily News, along with other journalistic outlets that engage in similar ones, should be ashamed of giving them a voice.

Brian Montopoli

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.