Therapists See Good From Clinton Scandal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page B1
From the moment it burst onto center stage in January, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal caused widespread hand-wringing. Scholars worried it could damage the institution of the presidency. Wall Streeters voiced concern it might hurt the economy. And some citizens feared it set a bad example for children.
But there are members of one group who see an upside: therapists. Throughout the Washington area, many say the scandal has touched some patients in personal ways, prompting them to address concerns about their own relationships, be they infidelities, betrayals or lies.
Carole Stovall, a psychoanalyst in Northwest Washington, said Clinton's sexual involvement with Lewinsky "has certainly created an environment to speak about the unspeakable. Bill Clinton's [personal] life is in the public eye so freely and so openly, it gives people permission to talk about their own issues with the therapist – about their marriage, about their sexuality, about their own behavior."
Stovall noted that some men have long tended to deal with their infidelity with a wink and a notion that nobody gets hurt as long as no one knows. But public discussion about Clinton, she said, has caused some men in therapy to change that view.
"I think Clinton has really brought forward men talking about issues of their own fidelity," she said. "Some men got a little bit more depressed" about their adultery.
Conversely, she said, many women found comfort in Hillary Rodham Clinton's situation, knowing that as smart as she is, even she had been betrayed. "If they're married to someone who has a long history of infidelity, they figure maybe it's not their fault."
The Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Stovall said, is to infidelity what the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were to sexual harassment. "I think the Clinton-Lewinsky matter has increased everyone's understanding of sexual compulsion and really emotional abuse in marriage. I think women feel greatly relieved that they're not alone; the men feel more guilty."
Polly Armstrong, another Washington therapist, said she, too, has noticed an emotional response by her patients.
"Sometimes they will come in, especially when some of the daily stories have been breaking, and they'll say, 'Oh my God, I can't believe Clinton,' or 'I can't believe Starr,' and it will open up further exploration in [their] personal lives, personal marriage."
Mental health specialists say that some major national events seep into people's psyches, whether they are in therapy or not. The Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, the Nixon impeachment hearings, the O.J. Simpson trial – those events all stirred up emotion, be it angst, uncertainty, bereavement or something else.
"Whether there's a tragedy or major event, people react to them emotionally," said Jay L. Bisgyer, a Georgetown psychiatrist of 40 years. "With the Kennedy assassination, people were stunned. They felt bereft. There was great anxiety. People did feel a loss. I think the great concern during the Nixon period was the uncertainty about governance."
With the Clinton situation, the same "sense of crisis isn't there," Bisgyer said. "But it comes up. I have found it stirs up many fantasies. A young woman might identify with the situation Monica Lewinsky was in and what they might have done in those circumstances, and a man might identify with Clinton."
Therapists say the Clinton-Lewinsky story likely has had greater impact in Washington than elsewhere in the nation.
"I've noticed patients refer to Washington as a town, not as a city, even though it's the nation's capital," said Brian Doyle, a private psychiatrist and a professor at Georgetown University medical school. "Emotionally, it feels like a small town."
"Major public events like the Clinton controversy affect people's personal lives in a way I think is unique to Washington," he said. "It impacts people's futures or the future of someone they love. It resonates outside the presidency, since Washington revolves around the axis of government. It's the people who are part of the government it most affects."
Philip Silverman, a Washington psychologist, said he's seen an effect on some of his patients who have jobs in the administration.
"Certainly people who actually work in the administration do want to talk about it from time to time," he said. "Some have concerns about their careers." But when things seem to be going well for Clinton, "I think I see them less."
Others say the scandal hasn't troubled their patients one bit.
"I haven't noticed any effect at all," said Harvey Kelman, a Silver Spring therapist. Washington therapist Hayley Englander said none of her patients talk about it "unless it's a joke."
But Millie Goldstone, a clinical therapist in upper Northwest, said Bill Clinton's pain was good for business, at least in the beginning.
"Business did pick up the first of the year. I thought it might be attributable to the excitement around the Clinton situation," said Goldstone, who said she got more new referrals and heard from patients who had taken a hiatus from therapy.
The White House sex scandal, she said, "increased people's energy levels. They get curious; they gossip; they speculate. It's kind of like a good juicy novel. When their energy is up, they're more likely to address their issues."
By August, when Clinton was compelled to appear before the grand jury and confessed on national television to an improper relationship with Lewinsky, Goldstone's patients seemed to be in sync with the president. Some seemed more down, less energized and more introverted, she said.
"There was a dip in my practice. Some thought maybe they should see me less frequently," she said, adding that the late summer downturn in the stock market compounded the moroseness. But lately, she said, her practice has been on the upswing, perhaps the result of people feeling re-energized and optimistic about the saga coming to an end.
Although some patients only briefly mention Clinton in sessions, Goldstone said she still believes that a patient's energy level can be affected by the president's ups and downs.
Richard H. Mikesell, a psychologist in upper Northwest who specializes in divorced patients, said the affair has had a positive impact.
"It's really done the nation somewhat of a service," he said. "It's brought sex, and sex and marriage, more to the forefront of people's awareness. I think to that extent, it's good."
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