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Nadja Geipert
Nadja Geipert

Saving Detective Goren: First, Diffuse Worst Fear

If your therapist doesn't believe in you, who will?

Usually, I let blatant misrepresentations of my profession in the media simply slide. Who has the time? Plus, psychotherapy isn't the only one suffering from a "Hollywood makeover"—just ask Ladies of the Night how much their life resembles Julia Roberts' in Pretty Woman. But, when one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, ended with a final season that portrayed a therapist completely mishandling the main character Detective Goren, I knew it was time to speak up. Plus, it presented a golden opportunity to discuss some important concepts in therapy that are frequently lost even on therapists.

But first, let's get some background on our patient Detective Goren.

Around the time of Goren's paranoid-schizophrenic mother's death, the super-intelligent detective –who grew up without a father– learns that a famous serial killer raped his mother and may be his real father. When soon after learning this, Goren's troubled brother is murdered, Goren starts having meltdowns at work. He gets suspended and then reinstated under the condition that he must attend individual therapy sessions with the department shrink Dr. Gyson. Being forced into therapy by an authority is not a great way to start this delicate process, but here they are. After a couple of polite, getting-to-know sessions, Goren begins to reveal his self-loathing and deep hopelessness about ever being able to have a normal, romantic relationship. In a particularly vulnerable moment, Goren asks for reassurance about his ability or at least potential ability for this. The therapist's response, in my humble opinion, permanently damages her relationship with this particular client.

Here is the pivotal scene.

Detective Goren: "I can take it, just tell me if you think that I can have what other people have, you know, a home...a relationship?"
Dr. Gyson (squirms in her seat, pauses and then somewhat hesitantly says): "If you wanna work towards those goals, then yeah, we can do that."
Detective Goren (repeating under his breath his therapist's cagey answer and getting aggravated): "What is that? What does that mean? No? Is that couched in shrink speak?"
Dr. Gyson: "I'm not the one saying no, or it's too late, you are. Where is this coming from?"
Goren: "I mean, I look in the mirror every day and I see what you see. You know, it's not working, this. You know, I ask you for your professional judgment and then you turn it back on me. I mean, come on. You're smart; you're someone I respect.
Dr. Gyson: And you want to know.... if I see you as someone capable of being in a relationship?

Feeling dizzy yet? At this point, Goren gets (understandably) angry because he feels Gyson is implying he is trying to hit on her, which I did not feel he was. He storms off saying: "You can tell the chief, I'm not a good candidate for therapy!"

This is a classic example of a therapist who doesn't understand that, first and foremost, her job is to connect with the client and gain his trust and that can only be accomplished by sensing what the client needs and responding appropriately.

In this case, the client asked for reassurance and the therapist squirmed, evaded and intellectualized the moment. This is a deeply troubled man who has dedicated his life to catching bad guys, trying to escape the shadow of his upbringing and reluctantly agreed to attend therapy to get his job back. Despite his own reluctance, he has opened up to her and shown himself and now he is getting the runaround instead of a straight answer? You can't just encourage people to share their innermost fears with you and then simply leave them hanging when they expose their vulnerabilities. It strikes me as cruel and insensitive.

Let's not forget that it is exactly this type of relational misattunement that has people ending up in therapy in the first place. Someone in the room needs to see the light and know where this is going and it has to be the therapist. She has to be the source of clarity and hope. If the therapist doubts the client can get well enough to develop a loving relationship, the process becomes rudderless and frankly pointless. Why would anyone go through therapy if there were not at least a glimmer of hope with a therapist who can see this potential in us. We can't get better in an environment that is as confusing and withholding as the environment that damaged us in the first place.

And Detective Goren clearly has that potential: He is a very sensitive, intelligent human being who was raised by a crazy woman and abandoned by his father and still managed to become an honest detective with high work ethics and the ability to develop a strong and trusting bond with his partner Detective Eames. He has every potential in the world to work through and overcome his upbringing enough to move forward and find love. In many ways, he already has done so, in particular when you compare his life choices to those of his brother, who became a drug addict.

A simple answer would have sufficed: "Of course you can have those things. What makes you think that you can't?" This would have worked in this particular moment, done wonders for the therapeutic relationship, but most of all, been the right thing to do.

But this is TV and not real life. So despite this royal screw up by the therapist, Goren returns to Dr. Gyson the following week. What happens in that session illuminates another important issue in therapy, so stay tuned.

"Copyright Nadja Geipert 2011."

For a particularly informative piece on the process of therapy from the perspective of a clinician, check out this post:

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About the Author
Nadja Geipert

Nadja Geipert, M.A. Psychology, is the founder of LA Family Therapy in Los Angeles and a science writer.

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