John Bradshaw, an author, television personality and public speaker who built a self-help empire exhorting his followers to conquer their emotional ills by “reclaiming” their “inner child,” died May 8 at a hospital in Houston. He was 82.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said his wife, Karen Bradshaw.
For decades, Mr. Bradshaw and his Texas drawl were a familiar presence on public television and talk-show programs such as those hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael. He was once described as a “psycho-televangelist,” an orator who combined developmental psychology, touches of philosophy and theology, and a flair for the dramatic to produce revival-like encounters for audiences who turned to him for help.
As a writer, he was a mainstay of bestseller lists, selling millions of copies of books that included “Healing the Shame That Binds You” (1988), “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child” (1990) and, more recently, “Post-Romantic Stress Disorder: What to Do When the Honeymoon Is Over.”
Thousands turned out for motivational workshops in which he coached participants through mental exercises. Often holding a stuffed animal, and with a soundtrack of new-age music, they returned to their childhood to confront their wounded younger selves.
Mr. Bradshaw defined the “inner child” as “the part of you that got repressed.”
“When you laughed too loud, Mama said, ‘That isn’t ladylike,’ ” he explained, “or you had anger and they said, ‘That’s not permitted here.’ You had to repress those parts of yourself and adapt with a smiling face or a ha-ha-ha or whatever. The part that didn’t get expressed is the inner child.”
Through his writings and speaking engagements, Mr. Bradshaw sought to help people quell their rage or resentment, defeat addiction or otherwise improve their lives. He was credited with helping popularize concepts such as the “dysfunctional family” and “toxic shame” but was most associated with the term “inner child,” which became a catchphrase of the latter 20th century.
It did not escape parody. In one episode of “The Simpsons,” a self-help guru bearing striking resemblance to Mr. Bradshaw encourages the residents of fictional Springfield to indulge their desires as the petulant child Bart does, an experiment that devolves into disaster at the “Do What You Feel” festival.
Mr. Bradshaw’s appeal seemed to stem in part from his account of his life. He, too, had known addiction — to sex, to alcohol — and had risen above it.
“The most profound spiritual moment of my life,” he said, according to Newsday, “came when I was wearing size forty-eight pants, drying out at a state mental hospital, babbling in front of ten psychiatrists and their stenographer. Suddenly, I knew what I didn’t want to be any more.”
John Elliot Bradshaw was born June 29, 1933, in Houston. He said that he grew up in “dire poverty” as the son of an alcoholic father. He recalled that his mother, who he said was the victim of incest, once shamed her husband for his drinking by nailing his dirtied underwear to the wall.
Years later, Mr. Bradshaw’s mother told a People magazine reporter that it had been painful to hear “all our family secrets . . . aired in public to make a point” and that some of her son’s claims were “exaggerated.”
Mr. Bradshaw planned to become a Roman Catholic priest, studying at a Basilian seminary in Canada for nearly a decade before leaving days before his ordination.
By his account, he descended into crippling alcohol addition. One day in 1965, he awoke under a car and decided then to check himself into a treatment center. He said that he had been sober ever since.
After his recovery, he began working with addicts and lecturing at a church in Houston, where a local TV producer saw his presentation and recruited Mr. Bradshaw for television work. As his profile grew, his programming became a centerpiece of public-television fundraising drives.
Some critics regarded Mr. Bradshaw’s brand of psychology as overly simplistic. Others criticized him for conflating minor complaints, the equivalent of psychological bruises and bumps, with true childhood trauma.
“Some think I’m on the cutting edge,” he told the Boston Globe. “Others say what I do is junk food, pop psychology, dangerous. And I’ll admit it, some of those guys scare me. They scare the part of me that didn’t get my PhD, as if somehow that piece of paper would make everything I do legitimate.”
He said that he regarded his role as similar to that of a priest.
“If the priestly work is to bring hope and comfort to people, then in that sense I believe I am one,” he told the Irish Times. “Everywhere I go people walk up to me and say, ‘You changed my life.’ ”
Mr. Bradshaw’s marriage to Nancy Isaacs ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 12 years, the former Karen Buntzel Mabray of Houston; a son from his first marriage, John Bradshaw Jr. of Houston; a daughter from his second marriage, Ariel Bradshaw of Houston; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
“Everything I write about I struggle with myself,” Mr. Bradshaw once told the Observer of London. “Therapists are like the Wizard of Oz. Pull back the curtain and you find we are frightened and scared, too.”
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