What can we learn from the tragedy of Anthony Weiner? What can mental health professionals contribute to the public conversation?
The story is all too familiar. Weiner, the proud, forceful, outspoken 46-year-old Democratic Congressman from New York, had been having internet sex chats with women who had befriended him via social media. In the process he sent photos of himself in various stages of nudity, including one of his barely concealed erect penis. The 21-year-old woman who received this particular photo sent it on, and it quickly became public. This led to a media frenzy, a tearful public confession by Weiner, a crescendo of calls for him to step down, a leave of absence to seek psychological treatment, and, in the end, his resignation.
Until this story broke, Weiner appeared to be living a charmed life. The previous year he had married Huma Abedin, the accomplished and beautiful personal aide of Hillary Clinton, who has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the "40 under 40." Their wedding ceremony, which was conducted by Bill Clinton, received a great deal of attention, and they were expecting their first child. Weiner was also preparing to run for mayor of New York City, and he was considered a leading contender.
So what's going on here? How could this highly successful and recently married man allow himself to send sexually provocative photos to young women he had never met? What was he after? Admiration? Affirmation? Didn't he realize how ridiculous he really looked in the pictures he had taken of himself in the locker room of the U.S. Congress? Was Donald Trump right when he called Weiner "a psycho"?
Mental health professionals who have been following the story can't offer reasons for Weiner's behavior. But, from experience with matters of this sort, we can offer a general perspective. We can remind the public that many people break sexual taboos, and that Weiner may have thought that his personal violations were minor and weren't really hurting anyone. We can remind the public that many people don't realize how absurd they may look to others when they try to show off. Although Weiner seems to have an inflated view of his personal beauty, and misjudged the way others perceive him, he is not a "psycho." What really got him into such big trouble is that he overestimated the privacy of his internet communications--- a mistake that is still common among users of social media---and impulsively sent pictures that are easy to forward to others. And his arrogance had already turned so many people off that almost none were there when he needed them.
Does this episode tell us much about Weiner's character? It tells us that he gets low marks for self-control and self-awareness---as do many of his colleagues. Can he recover from the extreme humiliation he now feels? Probably, but it remains to be seen. Can psychotherapy help him engage in productive self-reflection and modify his behavior? Yes. Was it fair for congressional leaders to demand that he resign? It was up to them to decide, based on their moral, legal and political considerations.
And it's not up to mental health professionals to intervene on one side or the other. We can point out that Weiner still has many of the positive characteristics that made possible his early achievements. We can point out that he can learn to modulate the hubris that contributed to this series of tragic events, and that he may now be highly motivated to do so. But Weiner was hardly indispensible to his colleagues and constituents, especially in his diminished state. As he leaves in disgrace he will have to marshal his considerable personal and professional resources, and build a new identity.
It's easy to condemn Anthony Weiner. He looks so foolish in his photos, and he is so clearly a prisoner of his personality, that the road from here won't be easy for him. Let's hope he can find his way to a virtuous and productive life.