How Stardom Corrupted Dr. Drew

How Stardom Corrupted Dr. Drew

October 22, 2010

The now-famous “Dr. Drew” Pinsky, in his former life, was once a refreshingly modest, dedicated 1980s and `90s doctor advising callers (mostly teens) on KROQ-FM’s late-night “Loveline” show. He expressed heartfelt, often shocked distress at the severe damage caused by violent, sexual, and emotional abuses inflicted, overwhelmingly by adults, on the large majority of the show’s hundreds of troubled teenage callers. Countering the silliness of the bevies of pop-psychologists ever-ready to popularize themselves with trendy nonsense about youth, addiction medicine specialist Drew staunchly declared that teenagers’ biggest challenge is “surviving bad parents.” “Behind every troubled youth is an even more troubled adult,” he added.

Dr. Drew’s insight was as rare as it was keen. As one who listened to hundreds of “Loveline” broadcasts back then (and was even called on the show by Drew as an “expert” in an unmemorable moment), I heard night after night, from teen after teen caller, the poignant and compelling link that also shows up in cold statistics: troubled youths nearly always had parents and adults around them who were physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive, grownups who abused drugs and alcohol, fathers who abandoned their kids, parents who were disarrayed and suffered severe emotional problems. Statistically, bad youth behaviors are not random or universal; they closely track those of adults of their families, communities, socioeconomic groups, and eras.

Now that Dr. Drew has risen to Hollywood stardom with his own VH1 “Celebrity Rehab” show, Oprah interviews and constant E-media attention, he’s descended into the same arrogant, self-superior celebrity he deplores in his trashy, stereotype-stuffed book, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America (co-authored with academic star-chaser S. Mark Young). Dr. Drew’s immersion in the world of messed-up entertainers has warped his once acute perceptions, to the point that he now traffics in tabloid gossip and tosses out reckless quips, such as publicly urging actress Lindsay Lohan’s unstable father to stuff his daughter’s car full of illegal drugs to get her arrested—a harebrained idiocy that likely would have landed several people in prison. It’s no shock that by his own “narcissism personality inventory,” Dr. Drew (even with inside knowledge of the scale’s questions) scored as high as porn star Ron Jeremy and higher than Howard Stern.

The Mirror Effect is properly sanitized and sensationalized for prime-time. Gone is Drew’s mean old message linking bad parents and troubled grownups to troubled teens, too rough for the new, pop-personality. He now retroactively blames the teen problems he heard on “Loveline” on “celebrity-saturated” culture (p. 210), even though just about none of the thousands of “Loveline” callers manifested celebrities or popular culture as any plausible cause of their problems.

The new book’s chief point, which Drew and Young don’t even pretend to document, is that “as fame has become increasingly democratized,” Americans increasingly “mirror” destructive celebrity narcissism (p. 147). The authors claim (citing no evidence) that youth today “are growing up with the highest rates of divorce, of drug and alcohol abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases in our history” (p. 150) as well as rising “childhood trauma” (p. 143). They blame the “frightening statistics” of youths’ “distressing behavior” (p. 164) on claims that “the behavior of today’s celebrities is much more dramatically dysfunctional than it was a decade ago” (p. 3). The don’t offer a shred of evidence that youth misbehaviors are rising–actually, they’re falling dramatically–let alone of increasing pop-culture causality. For example, the authors cite National Survey on Drug Use’s “frightening statistics” (p. 156) without mentioning that for virtuallly every category, adolescent drug and alcohol use is much lower than in past decades, when celebrities supposedly behaved better.

The authors deplore the brutal, gossip-filled mob obsession by which “celebrities are created and destroyed at the whim of a narcissistic public” (p. 168)–and then, bizarrely proceed to stoke it. The authors sink to rehashing mean-spirited gossip and rumors, such as Angelina Jolie’s supposed “incest.” They pack a chapter with crude pop-psychology stereotypes demeaning teenagers and flat-out falsehoods claiming surges in youthful “aggression,” “violent antics,” “hypersexuality,” alcohol and drug abuse, and self-harm the authors blame celebrity narcissism for inciting.

That, of course, is the rub challenging all these pop-culture-apocalypse books: every reliable reference (FBI Uniform Crime reports, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Crime Victimization surveys, the CDC’s vital statistics reports, the Digest of Education Statistics, Monitoring the Future, etc.) shows that among youths, serious crime, violence, rape, murder, gun assaults, violent deaths, suicide and other self-destructive behaviors, pregnancy, abortion, school dropout, violence in school, drunken driving, drug and alcohol use, social alienation, smoking, and other ills have all fallen dramatically over the last two to four decades, many to all-time lows, while community volunteerism, voting, college enrollment, and other benefits have risen.

Further, as virtually every unhealthy behavior has plummeted among teenagers over the last two decades, the period Drew assigns the worst celebrity and media influences, drug abuse, suicide, violent deaths, serious crime, imprisonment, and AIDS have soared among middle-agers, a population culture warriors like Drew prefer to flatter. In fact, youthful behavior problems remain powerfully connected to poverty and domestic abuses, not to Lindsay’s pill popping or Kim’s sex tapes; pop culture and celebrity behaviors are very diverse, not the monolithic. Either Hollywood isn’t nearly as big a puppet-master of youth as Drew presumes, or teens actually make good choices and handle diverse media images quite well.

But massive real-world complications he can’t explain contradict Dr. Drew’s theories, so he simply ignores them and rewrites reality. More disturbing, Dr. Drew’s concerns about child abuse also have been revised in tandem with his growing stardom. The old Dr. Drew would have cited Drew Barrymore’s childhood addictions to point out the legacy of abandonment and violence by her drunken father, who threw her against the wall and beat and burned her, in a family with a long history of alcoholism. The new Dr. Drew brings up Drew Barrymore only to deplore the “spectacle” the press made of her in a Hollywood feeding frenzy (p. 37). Interestingly, Barrymore, in her autobiography, presented an argument exactly the opposite to Dr. Drew’s claims of seduction by “celebrity narcissism”:

On the surface, people might blame Hollywood for my troubles. It would be easy to cast me as a fast-lane victim of the glitter and glamor. But that’s not remotely close to the truth. If anything, work was my saving grace, the one tangible thing I could always rely on to boost my sagging self-esteem and confidence. My problems had more to do with life in general. The family I was born into. The home in which I was raised (Drew Barrymore, Little Girl Lost, 1990, p. 6).

The new Drew still deplores child abuse, of course, but his chief concern in Mirror Effect is no longer the devastating damage caused by beatings and rapes themselves, but that abused children are more psychologically vulnerable to corrosive celebrity influences. The shift in concern away from real physical violence toward imagined “media” and “pop-culture” harms marks the celebrity-enveloped bubble in which these authors are wrapped.

Mirror Effect boils down to an exercise in conceit. Dr. Drew is clearly offended at celebrity excesses—well, those by certain celebrities: he endlessly berates Miley Cyrus for wearing a drape while praising his pal and promoter Oprah Winfrey, who spends $10,000 on eyelashes and features her own picture on every cover of her magazine, as humbly non-narcissistic. Dr. Drew aggrandizes his personal offense at Hollywood images by claiming they “trigger behavior pathology” in weaker souls (p. 11). The authors divide the world into the morally strong (among whom they count themselves and their fans invited to join in pomposity) who intrepidly resist cultural temptations versus the morally weak, who succumb in “monkey see monkey do” fashion to the self-destructive celebrity debasements they crave.

The bizarre paradox is that it is Drs. Drew and Young, whose professions, commentaries, and book demonstrate daily an unhealthy obsession with the luridly sensationalized foibles of a small number of already-well-berated stars. Even by the dubious surveys he presents and misrepresents, teens are not nearly as fascinated with pop personalities and images as Dr. Drew is; very few seem to share the authors’ all-consuming belief in irresistible celebrity allure. When teens are asked what they think their biggest challenges are, they sensibly cite the bad economy, war, high cost of education, family breakup, racism, environmental degradation, and other real problems. Almost none cite silly distractions like pop culture.

Drew was right 10 to 15 years ago when he bravely declared that modern teenagers’ biggest challenge was to survive an older generation that a wealth of statistics clearly document are the most difficult, troubled parents and adults that young people have ever had to grapple with. That was a difficult, troubling message Americans desperately needed the discipline to confront. Unfortunately, this new book is a made-for-prime-time distraction that, more than anything else, demonstrates the need for Drew to retire from his Hollywood status and rediscover his humbler days.