Dear Dr. Brian


Dear Dr. Brian,

I’ve been meaning to ask you why you feel voters are able to tolerate and forgive the behavior of [New York City Mayoral Candidate Anthony] Weiner so easily? I wouldn’t care if he and I agreed about every single issue under the sun…the truth is, at the very least, his actions indicate selfishness, and a complete lack of self-control and good judgment, and that is a watered down assessment…and how could “being in a tough spot” in your marriage even begin to justify/explain running down any willing woman of questionable character on the Internet? How does this guy think we should accept that as an excuse? This is complete insanity to me.

Nonplussed in North Carolina

Dear Nonplussed in North Carolina,

Great question, and as you aptly noted, it doesn’t really matter what a politician says he/she will do if you can’t trust him/her. I think that there are many people who believe that a politician can be profoundly dishonest and/or can exercise profoundly poor judgment in his/her personal life, yet be completely honest and exercise only good judgment in his/her professional life. I know that this belief has been around for a long time, but in my opinion, it’s generally an inaccurate and dangerous belief. If someone’s profoundly dishonest and/or exercises profoundly poor judgment in one sphere of life, it’s far safer to expect his/her dishonesty and/or poor judgment to generalize to other spheres of life.

I also think that over the past few decades, many Americans have come to believe in “nonjudgmentalism” as a virtue. Not only do they seem to believe that they have no right to make judgments about others’ behavior (sometimes even others who’ve vowed to behave honorably toward them, e.g. spouses and public servants), but they also seem to believe that they’re somehow better people if they don’t judge. In addition, I think there’s an expectation – that’s conscious for some and subconscious for many – of reciprocal nonjudgmentalism, an expectation that if one doesn’t judge others’ behavior, then his/her behavior won’t be judged. (And it doesn’t help that there’s been an uptick in many forms of bad behavior since the 1960’s, when many Baby Boomers started to eschew the values and virtues espoused by their Greatest-Generation parents, e.g., “We don’t need to stay married, or get married, or stay clean and sober, or live within our means, or … .” Specifically to your question, so many Americans have, sadly, been unfaithful to their own spouses that, unless they’re huge hypocrites, they really can’t condemn the behavior of a guy like Weiner without condemning their own behavior).

In my opinion, however, the belief in nonjudgmentalism as a virtue is another generally inaccurate and dangerous belief. Our nation’s Founding Fathers understood that we’d never be able to (nor would we want to) put enough police officers on our streets to make the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior be the law/government. They understood that instead, the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior, in a healthy society, would be the disdain of one’s fellow citizens. Unfortunately, I believe that in recent decades, our society has become rather unhealthy, morally speaking. Yes, extreme judgments about personal behavior can be unhealthy, too, but in our haste to be nonjudgmental, I believe that we’ve reduced or removed social stigmas (e.g. the infidelity stigma) and absolved people (e.g. cheaters) of shame and guilt which were actually helpful to individuals, families, communities, and the nation.

But perhaps most frightening of all, it seems to me that many Americans, even if they do think critically about behavior, aren’t even confident about what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. It’s sad but understandable. Many millions of American parents are divorced, so in their households, the availability of parents in the home to discuss morals and values with kids has been divided in half. At the same time, morals and values aren’t often being discussed in public schools because teachers are afraid of being sued or fired if nonjudgmentalist parents get upset and accuse them of proselytizing in the classroom. Meanwhile, fewer Americans than ever before are attending church (or synagogue, or …) on a regular basis. So, if they’re not learning about morals and values at home, school, or church, it’s no wonder that many aren’t learning much about them at all.

That’s probably why many Americans these days are also so willing to accept mental “disorders” as excuses for bad behavior. They accept ADHD as an excuse for laziness, cheating, disrespect, and delinquent behavior from kids. Likewise, they accept addiction to drugs and alcohol as excuses for all kinds of bad behavior from adults, as if the continued use of those substances in the face of destructive consequences weren’t always a choice, regardless of how badly anyone craves them. And similarly, they accept “sex addiction” – which doesn’t even exist – as an excuse for the kind of bad behavior that we’ve seen from Weiner and many others.

And finally, I think that the concepts of compassion and forgiveness have gotten somewhat warped for many Americans – even many good-hearted, well-intentioned Americans who do attend church on a regular basis. As I see compassion, it belongs, first and foremost, with those who’ve been harmed (e.g. Weiner’s wife) and/or who might be harmed (e.g. voters) by someone’s bad behavior, not with the offender, but it seems like many Americans have that the other way around. Similarly, as I see forgiveness (of one human being by another – Godly forgiveness is another matter), it’s primarily for the benefit of the one who’s been harmed – so that he/she doesn’t go through life consumed by hateful or vengeful thoughts – not for the benefit of the offender, but again, it seems like many Americans have that turned around. And either way, I don’t believe that forgiveness requires the one who’s been harmed to also give the offender a second (or third, fourth…) chance to harm him/her.

I share your dismay that 8,000,000 New Yorkers would ever even consider settling for a guy like Weiner (or Eliot Spitzer) rather than demanding a person of character in every public office, but I’m confident that you and many other Americans are still talking about morals and values with your children, keeping the focus of compassion where it belongs, voting for people of character, etc., and that gives me hope for the country. Thanks for your excellent question!

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian


Dear Dr. Brian,

Can you discuss this one?


Appalled Animal Advocate

Dear Appalled Animal Advocate,

The sad, sickening story to which you linked has both important psychological and legal implications. First, the behavior depicted in animal “snuff” films is psychopathic. Finding gratification in the infliction of suffering upon another living thing is sadistic, and it’s profoundly disordered. A distinction must be made, however, between the desire to inflict (or to watch the infliction of) suffering and actually inflicting it. The desire is illness to the extent that it’s involuntary (like a pedophile’s desire to molest children). The actual behavior (like a pedophile’s actual molestation of children), however, is not illness because it’s voluntary in all cases — it’s a conscious, psychopathic choice to gratify oneself by inflicting suffering upon another.

Now, I’m sometimes asked whether and why we should criminalize the intentional infliction of suffering upon animals when the slaughter of animals for food remains legal. The answer is yes, we should criminalize the intentional infliction of suffering upon animals (as at least 48 states have done — such crimes generally fall under state rather than federal jurisdiction), “intentional” being the operative word. When animals are slaughtered responsibly for food, the intent is not to cause or to prolong suffering, and responsible slaughterhouses take measures to minimize animals’ experience and duration of suffering. When, on the other hand, there is an intent to cause suffering, that’s indicative of psychopathy, and undeterred psychopathy virtually always escalates, e.g. mutilations of animals escalate to simple assaults on humans which escalate to sexual and lethal assaults on humans. That’s why we must criminalize the behavior — to deter it and, if necessary, to segregate the perpetrators from the law-abiding public.

So, the makers of animal “snuff” films are psychopathic criminals who belong in cages of their own for sure (and can be put there under the existing laws of almost every state). The question then becomes whether to criminalize even possessing such films, as in the case of child pornography (and here, there is federal jurisdiction because trafficking in such images implicates interstate commerce). Certainly, the same rationales apply — consuming the films essentially makes the consumer an accessory after the fact to the crimes depicted therein, and watching such crimes has high potential to escalate into committing similar (and worse) crimes. At the same time, our nation’s founders wisely enshrined broad freedom of speech in our Constitution with a First Amendment which makes it extremely difficult for our government to prohibit the dissemination of ideas, even ideas that are widely considered vile.

From a legal perspective, I think that a ban on possessing animal “snuff” films could pass constitutional muster, as has the ban on the possessing child pornography, but it may need to be drafted more narrowly to address some potential problems that aren’t as salient in the case of child pornography. For instance, sexual acts performed on or by children under the age of consent are considered criminal acts throughout the civilized world, and both the filming of such acts and the possession of such films are relatively easy to recognize and criminalize. At the same time, it’s highly unlikely that a filmmaker is going to be prosecuted for making a documentary about poverty in Africa, nor is a consumer likely to be prosecuted for possessing it, even if there are some naked children in it.

My only concern about criminalizing the possession of animal “snuff” films in parallel fashion is the (perhaps) greater potential for confusion between depictions of legal and illegal activities. For instance, I think it’d be relatively easy to recognize the films described in the story to which you linked as depictions of crimes, such that their possession would be clearly illegal. At the same time, I wonder whether security-camera footage from a meat-packing plant would be as easy as the aforementioned African documentary to distinguish as a depiction of legal activity, such that its possession would be clearly legal. Don’t get me wrong, as a proud owner of a rescue dog, I’m all for criminalizing the possession of animal “snuff” films. As a legislative consultant, though, I understand the difficulty of drafting legislation that criminalizes possessing depictions of acts performed with intent to cause suffering while permitting possessing depictions of very similar-looking acts performed with no such intent.

And just in case you’re wondering, even if a federal ban on the possession of animal “snuff” films is ultimately upheld, there will still be no practical way to prevent the recreational viewing of depictions of harm to animals that remain legal under that statute, e.g. security-camera footage from a slaughterhouse, despite the potentially-escalating sadism that such viewing would suggest (because it would be practically-impossible to disprove a person’s stated reason for viewing such images, e.g. “I was just trying to learn what goes on in slaughterhouses”). In the end, prioritizing and balancing competing rights is the province of the judiciary, and my guess is that the federal ban on possessing and viewing animal “snuff” films will continue to work its way up through the court system, probably eventually all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer, I know that the slow pace of that process can be frustrating, but I also know that we have to handle both our First Amendment and our animals with care. Thanks for your letter and link.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Q & A about the Boston Marathon bombings


UPDATE 4/20/13 3:30 a.m.: Images of two suspects, now known to be young adult brothers, children of Chechen refugees, who apparently had been residing and studying in the U.S. for a period of years and had become radicalized jihadists during that time, were publicized on Thursday. The publication of those images (surveillance-camera footage and still photos taken at the Boston Marathon, the site of Monday’s bombings) apparently disrupted the suspects’ plans to commit further acts of terrorism using a stockpile of explosives, IED’s, and guns in their possession (which is probably why they hadn’t yet claimed responsibility for the Marathon bombings — they weren’t finished). They then apparently started making rash decisions, including perpetrating a carjacking robbery and murdering a police officer (when perpetrators’ plans are disrupted, and they’re forced to start making decisions in real time, the upside is that they usually make some stupid ones that ultimately lead to their captures or deaths, but the downside is that their behavior in the meantime can become increasingly desperate and unpredictable). When cops spotted the stolen car, a chase ensued, during which the suspects threw explosives at the cops, injuring several, one seriously. The chase ended in a firefight in a suburban Boston residential neighborhood. One suspect died in that firefight, having sustained multiple gunshot wounds but having also apparently detonated some kind of suicide belt or vest. The other suspect apparently was also wounded in that firefight but still managed to flee that scene on foot. After a virtual lock-down of Boston and a massive manhunt, that suspect was located — again with vigilant civilian aid — hiding in a boat in a residential backyard on Friday. After another firefight, that suspect was taken into custody and transported to a hospital in “serious” condition (I theorize that he may have run out of ammunition in that last firefight, or he would’ve committed suicide). He’ll now be federally charged with multiple capital murders and face the death penalty upon conviction. Despite this outcome, I still worry that we’ve only seen the tip of a larger iceberg this week — that there are more of these radicalized jihadist terrorist individuals and small groups operating secretly and relatively autonomously in the U.S. These two Boston Marathon bombers may even have had co-conspirators who are still out there. In the weeks ahead, we’ll really need to reassess as a nation whether our governmental resources are focused enough on maintaining our national security or whether they’ve been too widely dispersed among too many competing priorities, many of which are non-existentially-essential to our nation (apparently, the FBI was tipped off in 2010 that one of these Marathon bombing suspects might’ve been a jihadist but concluded otherwise and stopped monitoring him; the suspects’ mother reportedly has committed crimes here but hasn’t been deported, etc. — not that our law enforcement agencies and personnel haven’t done great work, but I think we need to be allocating more resources to them, which, in this economy, means diverting resources from less-essential functions), which of our nation’s immigration policies (e.g. the refugee visas that these terrorists and their parents apparently were granted, the student visas that other known terrorists have been granted, our relatively porous borders and ports, etc.) are costing us more than they’re benefiting us in terms of our security (and it’s our security that I care about and that I think should be the number-one priority of government both in budgeting its resources and in regulating immigration — I wouldn’t be helping out families who’ve had hard times in other places like Chechnya if that means potentially putting American families at risk)… . For the moment, though, excellent work by law enforcement, and by the public, in apprehending these two mass murderers! Thoughts and prayers of course remain with the victims (and their families) whose lives and limbs nevertheless remain lost. 

Here are some of the most common questions that I’ve received about the Boston Marathon bombings along with the best answers that I can briefly give with the information available to me at this time:

Is/are the perpetrator(s) foreign or domestic?

Too early to tell. The bombs, including lots of shrapnel designed to inflict maximum tissue damage within a wide radius, resemble the bombs typically used by Hamas in Israel, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, however, “recipes” for such bombs have been widely circulated. This is pure speculation, but I’m inclined to suspect an individual – perhaps an American, perhaps an immigrant or foreign student who had been in this country for a while – with jihadist motivations and some technical expertise/experience, but not necessarily with direct instruction or support from a broader jihadist organization. We’ve seen people like this at Ft. Hood, Times Square, and elsewhere apparently trying to make jihadist “heroes” of themselves by perpetrating solo terrorist attacks on Americans. If that’s the case here, I wonder whether some kind of a note, video, etc. will surface, perhaps mailed just prior to the bombings, identifying the perpetrator (so he’d still get his “hero” status in the event that he – and I’m using “he” because it’d almost certainly be a male – was killed in the explosions or by law enforcement at the scene).

Will there be copycat attacks in the days ahead?

There may already have been at least one subsequent incident inspired by the Boston Marathon bombings – a letter containing the toxin Ricin mailed to a U.S. senator (which was intercepted before delivery). There will be certainly be copycat threats if not actual copycats, and EVERY one of them should be treated as 100% serious. The type of person who’d think that it’d make him look “tough” to threaten a copycat of the Boston Marathon bombings is the type of cowardly loser who just might act on that threat (most probably wouldn’t, but we don’t need to risk it – the threat alone opens the door for us to take control of that individual).

Is it correct to say that a person who would do something like this must be “sick”?

No. Mental illness is only explanatory of violence to the extent that it prevents a person from making decisions about behavior. This bomber(s) may or may not be mentally stable, but he/they appear(s) to have made many decisions about behavior culminating in the bombings.

If it’s jihadist terrorism, what role does religion play?

Generally, not much. I don’t believe that jihadists, in general, are that much more religiously-motivated to do the things that they do in life than Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. are. I do believe, however, that if a restless, disaffected, direction-less, “disenfranchised,” angry young man were looking for a reason to lash out at an institution or a nation, and if someone with ostensible moral authority told the young man that it’s not only morally permissible but morally imperative to do so, then there’s a dangerous chance that the young man might in fact lash out. This would not, however, absolve the young man of the obligation to use his intellect to discern right from wrong independently of what anyone, religious or secular, told him, so he’d of course remain fully responsible for his actions.

What explains it then?

Keep in mind, if this “made sense” to you, you’d likely have some serious problems. This transcends psychology, but to use psychological terms, it illustrates the malignant, sociopathic narcissism at the core of the perpetrators of terrorism, the sense of entitlement to take their frustration, rage, jealousy, etc. out on innocent others. Everyone has to decide what to call the conscious decision to act on those feelings in a destructive way. I call it evil, and it absolutely does exist.

Why would the perpetrator(s) target innocent, unarmed people, including women and children?

Probably two reasons: 1) The bomber(s) probably wanted to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering and to spread it around as widely as possible, and 2) Cowardice – these perpetrators typically are cowards; they don’t want to fight equals face-to-face; they want to hide in shadows and ambush people; they want to inflict pain but don’t want to feel pain; they typically run away or commit suicide either before or when equals arrive on the scene.

Is this sort of thing the “new reality” in America?

Honestly, that’s possible. Since 9/11/2001, our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts have been incredibly successful, but infinite, perfect preventive success is an unrealistic expectation. I’ve long said that we would eventually face the kinds of “street-level” terrorism that our friends in Israel have faced for decades. The more successful we’ve become at detecting and preventing large-scale or “wholesale” terrorist operations, the more we’ve limited terrorists to smaller-scale or “retail” operations like suicide bombs, car bombs, backpack bombs, trashcan bombs, etc. That’s good in terms of limiting total casualties per incident, but psychologically, the chance of trashcans exploding on their city streets can actually be more chronically anxiety-provoking for many people than the chance of the buildings in which they work falling down.

How might we begin working to prevent this sort of thing from becoming the “new reality” in America?

Our first thoughts and efforts should be devoted to the victims. Next, we need to figure out exactly what happened here and bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. Then, we need to ask ourselves what are the most important functions of our government? Is our government protecting us as well as it could be if it weren’t simultaneously trying to do a million non-existentially-essential (to the nation) things, from co-opting our healthcare all the way down to regulating the size of our soft-drink cups? Which government services and safety nets would we be willing to do without in order for our government to focus more of its resources on our security infrastructure? Do we want people, some of whom wish us harm (of course we don’t know yet who’s responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings – it could be an American – but I’ve been saying for years that we need to learn from the Israelis how to better balance our welcoming aspirations against deadly new realities on our streets) to continue to literally be able to walk across our borders into this country anytime? (And we should NOT even CONSIDER passing immigration reform legislation until we complete the investigation into these bombings, which may or may not reveal security risks that must be addressed as part of any laws governing who enters our country, who stays in our country if they’re already here, etc.) But again, victims first, justice second, policy third.

How should parents talk about this with children?

Even kids who weren’t directly affected can still be affected by coverage of the event in that it can shake their sense of the security, safety, and predictability of their world. Here are some general thoughts and suggestions for parents: 1) Listen to your children – they may not have paid as much attention to the coverage or be as anxious about it as you think (and you can minimize their further exposure to it by keeping it off of televisions, radios, and computers in the children’s presence). 2) Validate feelings and fears that they do have, e.g. by acknowledging, at age-appropriate levels of course, that there are some bad people in the world who do some bad things sometimes, and that it’s sad and scary for all of us. 3) Reassure them that they’re very safe and secure with you, that the majority of people in their world are good, and that we can work together to make the number of bad things that happen even smaller, e.g. if we take reasonable precautions, stick together, stay alert, report suspicious behavior, support and assist our first responders, etc. 4) Refocus them off of the gruesome details of the event and toward the good in people that was exhibited in the context of it, e.g. pointing out the heroism of the first responders, of the survivors who looked out for one another as that terrible event happened. 5) Act – e.g., maybe let them go with you to the blood bank if you donate blood, do something to show appreciation to your local first responders, donate to the victims’ relief fund, make a card to send to a hospitalized survivor, etc. – to help demonstrate that the “good guys” are back in control and thereby hopefully help to reactivate some of that resilient optimism that many kids characteristically exhibit. And if those measures don’t seem to be adequate for your child(ren) – or for yourself, for that matter – then seek consultation with a mental health professional near you; that’s what they’re there for.

Are public memorial services helpful?

Generally, yes. Memorial services will be helpful in mustering social support and reassuring that the “good guys” are back in control. (Obviously any event to which you take your kids or which you allow your kids to watch needs to be age-appropriate – an infant probably isn’t going to benefit much from attending a memorial service, for example.)

Any pet peeves about the coverage of cases like this?

Yes, I hate it when people say that the perpetrator(s) have to be “sick” (see the question and my answer on that specific topic above). In addition, while I realize that they don’t mean to, when people go in front of TV cameras and say that “God” saved their loved ones from harm, they’re implying that God didn’t mind that other people’s loved ones got killed/maimed. I don’t believe that God picks and chooses who gets killed, who gets maimed, and who gets spared like that, and I always feel bad for the victims’ loved ones when the media shows survivors’ loved ones saying it.

Is there any good to point out in this case?

Yes, the heroism of the first responders rushing to the scene without hesitation exemplified what “Patriots’ Day” (which was also Monday) in Boston is all about. There are also multiple stories of inspiring compassion and medical skill associated with the aftermath of these bombings.

Do first responders get traumatized like victims do?

My late father was a first responder (cop) at the beginning of his career, and my brother is a first responder (firefighter/EMT) now. First responders often see terrible suffering and are forced by the exigency of the circumstances to prioritize the needs of victims over their own needs, including their psychological needs. Not surprisingly, once removed from the emergent situation, they begin to process what they’ve seen, experienced, and felt, and that often involves experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions, which can preoccupy their thoughts, interrupt their sleep, and cause mood disturbances like depression and anxiety. It also often involves self-doubt, questioning whether they did enough of the right things, and while the guilt that they feel is quite often unjustified, it can be difficult for someone in a highly emotional state to reflect and think clearly and logically enough about all of the relevant factors to reach that conclusion quickly and comfortably. What begins as an “acute stress reaction,” if allowed to go unresolved long enough, can turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, like disaster victims, it’s important that disaster responders have someone with whom they CAN, if they wish (there’s no one-size-fits-all here), debrief and discuss – and in the process, organize, think through, and gain realistic perspective on – their memories, feelings, and thoughts about what they saw, did, and didn’t do on the scene of a disaster. Like some victims, some responders don’t feel that need, and some can do those things just fine with colleagues, friends, and family, but some don’t have that kind of social support system, and some who do have it nonetheless need professional assistance resolving persistent traumatic memories, feelings, and thoughts. It’s tough to know exactly which responders will fall into which category until some time has passed, so it makes sense, as the U.S. military has found, to have a professionally-facilitated “triage” protocol in place for anyone returning from a traumatic deployment, which basically involves mental-health professionals being available to see how functional people seem and to provide some reassuring/validating psycho-education about the normalcy of some negative post-traumatic emotions, the benefits of social support, etc., and what to do if one’s experience seems abnormally debilitating, abnormally protracted, etc. For some, that might be the only opportunity for professional involvement that they have or need, while others might need/want ongoing professional involvement for a while, and if anyone who initially thought he/she was in the first category comes to realize he/she is actually in the second category, they at least have someone they can contact either for direct assistance or a referral. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who goes through something traumatic needs to go straight to therapy. For many people, there’s actually a downside to continually rehashing their traumas.

Why would God allow something so horrific to happen?

This question is often posed to psychologists as they help people through grief, but it’s a question that psychology is ill-equipped to handle. If you’ve watched or listened to me in the media or read my blog, you know that I don’t publicly venture into a spiritual zone very often, but in this instance, I’ll give it a try. In case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s how I, personally, make sense of tragedy: It makes sense to me that God might, for example, help the driver of a bus full of children to think clearly enough during a bridge collapse to bring the bus to rest safely, but terrible things still sometimes happen in life, and when they do, I don’t think it means that God didn’t care about the people affected. What makes more sense to me is that there’s so much more to our existence after this life that when and how this life ends is not as important in the grand scheme of things as it seems to us who know only this life. I’m not minimizing the profound value and significance of our lives on this Earth. I’m simply asking, what if the magnitude of the loss of a loved one is as profound as it is to us because this life is all we know? What if the grief that we feel seems like it will last forever because we judge time relative to the length of this life rather than to eternity? What if, to our lost loved ones, our arrival where they are will seem almost simultaneous with theirs, as if we come through the door right behind them even though it’s been decades in Earth time? I can’t promise you that’s how it works, but that’s what I believe, and it helps me. Will it help anyone else in the wake of such profound loss? I hope so.

(I’ll try to update these questions and answers here, and/or on TV, as developments warrant/allow.)

Life Imitates Art at the EEOC


If you’ve never seen the movie “Idiocracy,” which depicts a futuristic American government devoid of reason, justice, and personal responsibility, this might be a good weekend to rent and watch it in view of the “guidance” recently foisted upon American employers by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), whereby employers are made responsible for their employees’ health, weren’t enough for one to conclude that our nation had fallen through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass (into “Wonderland”), try demonizing employers who decline to employ convicted felons.

Unless you’re a lawyer who pays attention to the EEOC’s guidance updates, or a psychological expert in employment cases, or a management consultant and lecturer at a business school, or a Wall Street Journal reader who happened to catch James Bovard’s excellent article on it last week (I’m all of the above), you may not have been aware of this, but you should be, if you’re interested in optimizing the quality of the American workforce with which we’re to compete against China for global economic dominance, and especially if you’re an American employer:  The EEOC is actually threatening to sue employers who use felony convictions as exclusionary hiring criteria. If you’ve seen “Idiocracy,” this sounds like something straight out of that movie, I know, but sadly, it’s reality.

The legal premise underlying the EEOC’s revised guidance is not new, but the length to which President Obama’s hand-picked EEOC leadership has now stretched this premise is both new and further illuminative of what I see as the President’s disdain for the very individuals who’ve forged and fueled the engine of American productivity. The premise is “disparate-impact” discrimination, and it refers to indirect forms of discrimination whereby exclusionary hiring criteria, even if applied to all job applicants equally, impact members of protected classes disproportionately to other applicants, intentionally or unintentionally.

In this case, the EEOC argues that excluding convicted felons from consideration for employment has a disparate discriminatory impact on black and Hispanic applicants who, statistically, have higher frequencies of felony conviction than members of other racial groups. The revised EEOC guidelines require an employer who uses a felony conviction as an exclusionary hiring criterion to either be able to prove how that specific felony rendered that specific felon unqualified for that specific job or to face a disparate-impact discrimination lawsuit.

As an attorney who has worked on both high- and low-profile employment cases, please first allow me to illustrate why disparate-impact discrimination should not be viewed as a universally-bad thing. Consider the specific felony of insider stock trading. Among convicted insider-trading felons, white males are represented disproportionately to members of other racial groups. Thus, if an insider-trading conviction is used as an exclusionary hiring criterion on Wall Street, it’ll have a disparate impact on white male applicants, which is precisely as it should be. If white males are committing the crime disproportionately, then it stands to reason that they bear the consequences thereof disproportionately.

To demand that Wall Street employers eliminate insider-trading convictions from their pre-employment inquiries to prevent a disparate impact on white applicants would be insane, but then I’m getting ahead of myself, swapping my lawyer hat for my shrink hat prematurely. Hiring an insider-trading convict to work in a Wall Street firm would likely be deemed negligent, and the employer would likely be held liable for damages, were that convict to use information obtained in the course of his or her employment to make and/or to facilitate trades that were detrimental to clients of the firm or even to the investing public.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – there’s a clear nexus between having committed a prior felony involving insider trading and the likelihood of committing a similar felony if given another opportunity to do so – even the EEOC would acknowledge that, right? Don’t be so sure, but regardless, as a psychologist who has served as an expert in employment cases, please allow me to state the following, definitively and unequivocally, in my professional opinion:  There is an inherent nexus between one’s character and one’s likely behavior on any job, anywhere, anytime, and the commission of a single felony, in and of itself, is a reasonable basis for the conclusion that an applicant is characterologically unfit for employment. (And if you know an employer who ever has to defend against a disparate-impact discrimination claim filed by a convicted felon, I’ll be happy to repeat that in court on the employer’s behalf!)

But what if that Wall Street applicant’s prior conviction were for an attempted rape 20 years ago? One could argue that it doesn’t have anything directly to do with trading stocks today, but that wouldn’t make the applicant any more qualified for a Wall Street job than for a job in a women’s fitness center, and here’s why:   The kind of individual who would ever have attempted a rape is the kind of individual whom I’d never recommend that one ever trust to behave lawfully around one’s clients or employees, let alone one’s cash, property, or data. And just imagine the negligence liability, not to mention the moral culpability, if a Wall Street firm hired that applicant, who then went on to rape a client or fellow employee of the firm.

While the United States Constitution expressly enshrines within its First Amendment the freedom of social and political association, it also expressly recognizes within its Commerce Clause the power of the federal government to regulate commercial association. If our economy is analogized to a national “Monopoly” game, then the Founders essentially reserved the right for us, as a nation, to make certain “rules of the game” that those who wish to participate must follow. At the same time, our Founders and Supreme Court, historically, have recognized that such rules operate as abridgments of the private-property rights that are foundational to both our economy and our civil liberties.

Such abridgments then, have traditionally required both the presence of a compelling higher priority (of which there are few, relative to private-property rights) and the absence of an alternative way to achieve it. Ameliorating the unemployment of felons is by no means a compelling national priority, disparate impact or not, and to the extent that anyone (the Obama EEOC at least) cares about it, there are alternative ways to achieve it. How about ascribing personal responsibility to job applicants of all races not to commit felonies in the first place? A felony-free record is not a high bar to impose upon job applicants of any race. How many felonies have you committed? Zero? Me too, and it hasn’t been difficult, and as law-abiding citizens, we deserve to be treated preferentially.

In addition, not all employers use felony convictions as exclusionary hiring criteria. Some employers are willing to hire, and routinely do hire, convicted felons – voluntarily. Bovard aptly noted, however, a possible unintended consequence of the EEOC’s revised guidelines that I, as a management lecturer and consultant, concur is likely. The revised guidelines may actually increase unemployment among black and Hispanic Americans as some employers may make stereotypical assumptions about some applicants which could’ve been dispelled by the very criminal background inquiries which the employers may now be afraid to make.

Since 2008, in my WorldNetDaily columns and elsewhere, I’ve been warning that President Obama, I believe, sees the United States as an unfair, unjust, and oppressive nation in need of fundamental “change” far beyond that which he promised in two Presidential campaigns and that, like all presidents, he’d appoint government officials who share his views. For corroboration, one need look no farther than the EEOC’s fundamentally un-American new mandate that productive citizens expose their consumers, employees, and assets to individuals whose disrespect for our way of life has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As Ayn Rand more famously warned over 50 years ago, Atlas has shrugged, up is down, down is up, “A ≠ A.”

F.A.Q. About Ex-Cop-Killer Christopher Dorner


Here’s a rundown of some frequently asked questions about Christopher Dorner, the L.A. cop who got fired from the police department for making an unsubstantiated allegation of misconduct against a superior officer, later got passed over for promotion in the Navy Reserves (effectively ending his military career, perhaps in part because Navy officials became aware of how his police career had ended), then posted a rambling manifesto on the Internet promising to kill the roughly 40 cops and the children of those cops whom he believed had mistreated him, ambushed and murdered the daughter and son-in-law (to be) of the cop who represented him in the administrative hearing that preceded his dismissal, murdered a cop and attempted to murder three other cops on random patrol (none of whom apparently had anything to do with his dismissal), attempted to steal a boat (tying its owner up in the process), invaded a home (tying its occupants up in the process), stole a car, murdered another cop (who also had nothing to to with his dismissal), and critically wounded yet another cop (who again had nothing to do with his dismissal), before apparently committing suicide in yet another home that he invaded and set ablaze.

How did I know his firing was justified without reviewing the record of the administrative proceedings against him?

Good people whose reputations have been slandered and who just want their good names back generally don’t threaten to murder anyone, let alone the children of those whom they believe mistreated them. Psychopaths do that. In his manifesto and in his subsequent actions, he proved that he was everything of which he had been accused and more.

How did I know he’d be deadly but not nearly as deadly as he promised to be in his manifesto?

He was apparently a narcissist, which means his self-image substantially exceeded reality. In his manifesto, he touted himself as an excellent writer, but his manifesto was full of errors. I said that publicly when he was on the run. Now, here’s the part that I didn’t say then, because if he happened to be monitoring the media, I didn’t want to “egg him on” in any way:  I strongly suspected then that his tactical prowess would likely have been about as overstated as were his writing skills, and I predicted that he’d use the element of surprise to ambush and kill a couple of law-enforcement officers as they closed in on him before committing suicide or “suicide by cop” (which doesn’t negate the possibility that he left booby traps in various places in an attempt to cause his final carnage from beyond the grave, so cops still need to be extremely alert to that possibility as they wrap up this investigation).

Usually people who have a lot of ability to do major damage don’t tell the world about it first. They tend to just do (or attempt) it, which is part of what makes them as dangerous as they are. For example, if a guy really has a surface-to-air missile with which he could — and wants to — bring down a police helicopter, he usually doesn’t tell the police that he has it. If he tells the police that he has it, he’s probably just hoping to intimidate the police out of searching for him with helicopters. You can see a similar effect on an international scale with North Korea, Iran, and nuclear weapons. North Korea is open about its possession of nuclear weapons. While its recent nuclear tests prove that it truly has the weapons, its openness suggests that it doesn’t really want to use them aggressively but that it wants to intimidate the rest of the world out of taking any military action toward it. In contrast, Iran attempts to conceal its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. While it’s believed not to have successfully built one yet, its concealment suggests that it may actually intend to shock the world by actually using such a weapon, perhaps against Israel, or by giving such a weapon to a terrorist group to use, perhaps against the U.S. That’s why I believe that Iran is a far more pressing problem for the U.S. and its allies than North Korea is, even though North Korea is the one currently detonating bombs.

How did I know he wasn’t just crazy?

Purely crazy people usually aren’t all that dangerous. They may very well pose some danger to their family members who live with them, or to their caregivers in mental hospitals, or to cops attempting to arrest them, but they’re generally not able to engage in the complex planning, preparation, and practice of mass murder. From the jump, this looked to me like a “narcissistic collapse,” whereby a person builds a facade in which he or she takes great pride, and when the facade crumbles, the person becomes enraged by the exposure of his or her true self and projects blame for the breakdown of the facade onto others — sometimes onto specific people (like the officers named in his manifesto) or institutions (like the L.A.P.D.), and sometimes onto society at large.

Why didn’t he kill the civilians who owned the boat that he tried to steal, the first home that he invaded, and the car that he stole?

Now that he’s gone, we may never know (unless perhaps he explained it to them), but my bet would be that, at some level, precisely because he wasn’t just crazy, he knew that it was wrong to murder innocent people, even if he did truly believe that he had been wronged by the police department.

How did I know he’d go down in a blaze of suicidal (what he perceived to be) “glory”?

In part, because he indicated in his manifesto that he would, and I took him at his word, but also because narcissistic psychopaths are almost always cowards (they may not fear death, but they usually fear pain — the physical pain of being wounded, the psychological pain of being publicly punished/humiliated, etc.). Sure, he had the “courage” to kill an unsuspecting, unarmed woman and her husband (the daughter and son-in-law-to-be of the cop who represented him at his administrative hearing) in a parking garage. Sure he had the “courage” to hide and take pot shots at police officers sitting in a patrol car. Sure, he had the “courage” to hold unarmed civilians at gunpoint and tie them up (at the boat and at the first home that he invaded). Sure, he had the “courage” to shoot at pursuers whom he was able to surprise and/or over whom he (temporarily) had superior firepower. But when he was finally confronted with overwhelming counter force at the cabin where he made his “last stand,” what did he do? Apparently, he killed himself, just as so many other psychopathic cowards (with the notable exceptions of Anders Breivik and James Holmes, about whom I’ve written and spoken extensively) have done when counter force has arrived on the scenes of mass (e.g. school and shopping-mall) shootings (which is why you should want other guns — either in the hands of law-enforcement professionals or at least in the hands of well-vetted law-abiding citizens — in places where such shootings might occur).

Did the police do anything wrong? 

No and yes. Some have criticized the Chief of the L.A.P.D. for publicly announcing that he’s reviewing Dorner’s dismissal (this chief wasn’t yet the chief when Dorner was fired) because that sounded like an acknowledgement that Dorner had cause for his rage. I don’t agree. Of course there’s been misconduct within the L.A.P.D. at times, as there is in virtually every large organization, some of which may even have been directed at Dorner. There are bad apples in every bunch, but most cops are good people who go into law enforcement for the right reasons, and I think the Chief is just trying, as he said, to reassure the public that his department is trustworthy and transparent. It’s important to reiterate, though, that nothing inappropriate that happened in that department, even if it happened to Dorner — not racism, not false allegations, nothing — justifies what Dorner did. In the course of the manhunt for Dorner, two civilians were mistakenly fired upon by cops because they were in a vehicle almost identical to Dorner’s in close proximity to the home of one of the targets named in his manifesto. I blame Dorner for that more than the cops. And I don’t know what the cops could’ve done much differently to prevent the casualties that they suffered during the manhunt. A suicidal coward who hides in wait to shoot at people is extremely dangerous because, as I predicted, he or she is likely to get some shots off before his or her pursuers ascertain his or her location and can direct overwhelming counter force toward him or her.

Here’s where I think that the L.A.P.D. probably went wrong — way back at the beginning, when Dorner was first accepted into police training. While most cops go into law enforcement for the right reasons, like my dad did, there’s a relatively small but dangerous subset of antisocial narcissists who go into it because it’s a way to exert power over people with society’s blessing (good cops know who the exceptions are in any department). Sometimes, if they can keep their antisocial narcissism contained, members of this subset can actually make successful cops because they can think like criminals and predict their behavior. Members of this subset are also, however, prone to drive recklessly, use excessive force, falsify evidence, etc., and if they hadn’t become cops, they may well have been among the very criminals from whom our cops protect us.

I believe Dorner was likely a member of that subset, and when his narcissistic “good cop” facade broke down, I believe he quickly switched over to the other (criminal) side. It sounds like Dorner’s life history (e.g. fights, etc.) should’ve raised concerns about his reasons for wanting to be a cop back when he first applied (and he may have wanted to join the military for some of those same reasons). I’ve done psychological evaluations of police applicants, and Dorner strikes me as among the very types that I’ve tried to help departments to “weed out” at the pre-employment stage. This illustrates why personality assessment is extremely important in law-enforcement and in many civilian organizations as well. Even after Dorner was accepted into police training, while that training was still underway, it sounds like Dorner was showing signs of inability or (more likely) unwillingness to contain his antisocial narcissism. In his manifesto (which he, in his apparent narcissism, thought made him look good), he described an incident in which he put his hands around the neck and had to be pulled off of a fellow trainee whom he allegedly had overheard using a racial slur (and in the manifesto, he said he actually should’ve shot the other trainee).

Now don’t get me wrong, if the other trainee used a racial slur, that was utterly inappropriate and a major red flag about that trainee’s ability to police a diverse community effectively, but a guy like Dorner who apparently couldn’t or (more likely) wouldn’t contain his anger, in my estimation, should never have been trusted to police that community — in my opinion, his volatile behavior should have been expected to escalate, and he should’ve been kicked out of police training way back then, before he ever even became a cop. Like so many other cases about which I’ve written and spoken, this looks like a case of a guy who was actually given too many chances as opposed to not enough, and by the time the department (and quite possibly also the Navy) realized that, it was too late — the facade had lasted too long, and the rage precipitated by its crumbling had become deadly. This illustrates why risk assessment is extremely important once an existing member of an organization has indicated that he or she may pose a risk (physically and/or ethically).

Am I worried about the state of our union because some Americans are glorifying Dorner on the Internet as a vigilante martyr?

That’s an appropriate question on the night of the President’s State of the Union Address. Yes, I’m worried about the state of our union, for reasons about which I write and speak often (e.g. our unsustainable government spending, our weak foreign policy and border enforcement, our softness on crime, our ineffective pubic education system, our culture of entitlement and disrespect, etc.), but this isn’t one of those. The relatively few Americans who are idolizing Dorner online represent a small, stupid, sociopathic subset of society. Most are probably just criminals who hold grudges against the cops for arresting them, as if the cops were to blame (which is how a narcissistic sociopath — notice how narcissism and sociopathy seem to occur together; that’s because narcissism is a principal constituent of sociopathy — would choose to see it). Some are probably just anti-establishment, anarchistic, “Occupy Wall Street” types who’d like to see civil order fall apart and chaos reign. And others are probably just low-life losers who think they’re shocking and impressing somebody by supporting Dorner. We have over 300 million people living here in the U.S.A., so we’re going to have plenty of these kinds of idiots unfortunately. Fortunately though, they’re relatively irrelevant in terms of their influence on how the rest of America thinks. Their impact on society is actually more direct, coming in the form of the crime that they’ve committed and will commit, which may now include Dorner-copycat crime, and I do worry about that.

Dear Dr. Brian


Hi Brian, do you think that no matter what kind of parenting your child grows up with, some will still have problems because of mental problems or whatever the case may be? The society we live in now says its ok for girls to get pregnant (here in my area I know for sure of over 10 girls in one local high school that are pregnant), its ok to have sex, and do whatever they feel they want to. I’m writing to you because I have a friend whose son at 15 is having sex, trying alcohol, and this weekend, cut his arms up real bad and now is in a psych unit for kids. This boy has come from a 2 parent family, church going, instilled in him good morals, etc, went to Christian school, was home schooled til he started high school this year. So many kids are having a rough time and I don’t know why. He is very intelligent and it seems like intelligent, smart kids are the ones I’m seeing getting in trouble or having their own agendas in life, even if they have a great family life.

Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried in Wisconsin,

Research tends to show that, while neither is a 100% guarantee, poor parenting is more of a guarantee of a bad outcome than good parenting is of a good outcome, and in either case, our self-absorbed, if-it-feels-good-do-it culture doesn’t help. So, it’s possible that when a kid has a bad outcome, that kid’s parents never parented poorly, but in my experience, it’s generally more likely that they did (parent poorly), at least in some pivotal respect(s).

It’s important to keep in mind that we really rarely know exactly what goes on in someone else’s home. We know what they tell us and show us, but there’s usually more that we don’t know. If a 15-year-old is drinking alcohol and having sex, for example, it doesn’t look to me like good morals have been instilled in him, at least not effectively. I wouldn’t assume that he necessarily has had a great family life, and if he was home schooled (which I’m generally not a big fan of – despite all of the problems in schools, especially public schools, few parents in my experience are truly equipped to provide their kids with education and socialization equal or superior to what’s available in a school setting, especially a private school setting), then you may know even less about this kid than you might know about an average kid living near you, attending your children’s schools, etc.

Maybe this kid is smart but wasn’t socialized very well and has had a lot of interpersonal difficulty adjusting to the high-school setting. Poor parenting doesn’t have to be intentional or neglectful. Sometimes it’s just born of ignorance. And again, there are some times, like when a kid truly has a mental disorder (which self-mutilation, e.g. intentional cutting behavior, would suggest is highly possible), when the parents might not have been able to prevent the bad outcome, at least not without professional assistance (and maybe not even then, but I’m glad that your friends are getting such assistance now).

It’s very hard to tell from a distance why a particular kid had a bad outcome. In general though, I think we’re having a lot more bad outcomes, as evidenced by all of the teen pregnancies in your area (statistically speaking, I’d say that at least most of those suggest poor parenting, although it certainly doesn’t help that we have un-“reality” shows on television glamorizing teen pregnancy) in America right now than we’d have if a lot more parents got a lot more worried about doing a lot better parenting.

Just as I believe that guilt is a good emotion to the extent that it helps people to know when they need to change and/or make amends for their behavior but often doesn’t serve much productive purpose beyond that, I believe that worry is good to the extent that it helps people to take reasonable precautions to avoid unreasonable risks but often doesn’t serve much productive purpose beyond that. So, while I don’t want parents to be worried all the time about bad outcomes that truly are beyond their abilities to reasonably prevent, I think to the extent that you’re worrying – let’s say concerned – to a reasonable degree, about whether you’re doing everything you can to prevent reasonably-preventable bad outcomes, it may put you ahead of a lot of parents who aren’t even worrying about those.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian


Dear Dr. Brian,

Enjoyed hearing you talk about the disrespect and narcissism with today’s youth. I wish you were the standard bearer. I have a teen who has issues, especially since the school system is in direct conflict with what I call “discipline”. What is your real resort when other adults make it seem like real enforcement is morally wrong or illegal and your child brings that home? Just talking with today’s youth and using compromise yields nothing.

Dad Against the World

Dear Dad Against the World,

Thanks for watching me on The O’Reilly Factor last week. Even though I know it feels like it sometimes, you’re not alone in trying to do the right thing by your teen. Over the years, I’ve had many good parents tell me that their efforts to instill structure, discipline, values, and character in their children’s lives are chronically being thwarted by their kids’ friends’ overly-permissive parents. I recall one mother asking me, “How am I supposed to tell my high school daughter not to drink beer when the mother down the street is serving it up every weekend?” And all too often, school officials, fearing the ire of the permissive crowd, neither reinforce what good parents are doing at home nor counter what permissive parents aren’t doing at home. So, while I have no “magic” to make counter-productive adults (nor their counter-productive offspring) disappear from your teen’s life, here, generally-speaking, is what I think (and I’m assuming a fairly “normal” teen here, i.e. a teen without what we might call “special needs,” e.g. a developmental disability, mental disorder, etc., which could complicate matters and change my thoughts in a specific case).

First off, the “bartending” mother whom I mentioned above was committing crimes that could’ve gotten kids killed, and she needed to be reported to local law enforcement. But I know it’s not always that easy. As you noted, it can feel like you’re getting nowhere with a teen by talking, but I think it’s still important to try. I think it’s important to be frank with teens about the fact that it’s your moral, ethical, and legal duty to get them to the age of majority as physically and mentally healthy and as well-educated as possible so that they can go on to become independent, productive, and hopefully happy Americans. Therefore, instead of trying to be his or her “friend,” you have to exercise your moral and legal parental authority in such a way that you’ll be able to live with yourself if something terrible happens. It’s amazing to me, for example, how many mothers can’t seem to wait for their high school daughters to be their “Sex and the City” gal pals, so they dress the daughters up like they’re 25, fund them like they’re 25 (and working college-graduate jobs), give them freedom like they’re 25, and then wonder why they’re drinking and having sex like they’re 25. I’m not for confining a teen to school or home until age 18 by any means – I think that’s potentially-destructive, too, because it means he or she won’t get any practice making his or her own decisions until you’re nowhere nearby when he or she makes a bad one. Parents, and other adults who are “in loco parentis” (“stand in” for a parent, e.g. a school administrator), have a duty not only to protect a child from harm by others but also from harming him/herself long-term via his or her own childish impulsiveness, and as I said on the show, consequences are key to both of those efforts.

I often talk about a “power-responsibility continuum” with teens, whereby parents begin with 100% power to make decisions for their teens, because the parents bear 100% responsibility for the teens’ outcomes, but recognize that the goal is for substantially the reverse to be true, i.e. for the teens to have assumed substantially 100% responsibility for their outcomes and thus to have assumed substantially 100% of the power to make decisions for themselves, by the time the teens reach age 18. If you agree with that concept, then the goal is to gradually give teens power to make decisions for themselves to the extent that they establish sustained track records of exercising that power responsibly (and taking back some power if/when the teens go off track). No, teens probably aren’t going to articulate much appreciation for what you’re trying to do, especially when you say that you’ll be erring on the side of caution when you’re in doubt, but again, I think the words are important. Your teen may not tell you, let alone thank you, until much later in life, but many a teen has told me that his or her mom or dad was the “little voice inside my head” that gave the teen a reason to do the right thing at a critical decision point.

You seem like the kind of parent who’s probably already involved enough in your teen’s life to know where and with whom he or she is and what he or she is doing, at least most of the time. If so, that’s good, because you may need to place some restrictions on where he or she goes (certainly via any vehicle furnished by you), with whom, and what he or she does there, unless/until the teen establishes the responsibility to avoid such people and situations on his or her own, particularly if those people and places involve parents who actively or passively contribute to the delinquency (e.g. drunk driving) of their minors (and potentially yours, too). As hard as it can seem sometimes, I think it’s helpful for concerned, involved parents to seek one another out so they can talk about what they’re trying to do for their kids. They can vent frustrations with the permissive crowd and with school administrators, share information with one another, and reinforce one another’s resolve in the face of teenage retorts like, “You’re the only dad who’s not letting his kid go to this [music festival, two hours away, for an entire weekend, at age 16]!”

I don’t know how old your teen is, so at this point, the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages, but at least if you also have a teen-to-be (i.e. a younger child), I think a private school is worth considering, if you can swing it financially (and I’m constantly advocating for school-choice vouchers so that more parents can swing it), in part because the parents who are willing to make the sacrifice to send their kids there tend to at least share some common values, and in part because those parents then tend to have at least a little more sway with school officials. That’s not universal, though, and it’s not always a good thing. I’ll never forget the kid who told me how disillusioned he was when his private school kept allowing the same delinquent son of wealthy parents to commit offenses for which the punishment listed in the school’s student handbook was expulsion. When I called the school’s president to inquire as to what I should tell my patient, I was told that “Jesus would want us to try to help him [the delinquent],” whereupon I inquired further as to what Jesus might want for the hundreds of other kids whose learning experiences, both academically and about cause and effect in life generally, were being degraded by the delinquent’s presence. It took a semester, but the delinquent was eventually “encouraged to attend an alternative school, better-suited to his special needs,” i.e. kicked out (better late than never).

A recent survey of tens of thousands of high school students from across America found that a third of them had stolen something from a store within the past year, and a subsequent survey of American college students found that frighteningly few of them could identify a moral dilemma with which they had been faced, let alone articulate a system for the analysis and resolution of a moral dilemma. I’m worried about their futures on multiple levels – about their future relationships, about their future competitiveness in a global economy, about their future parenting – but I’m really not that surprised. It seems like fewer parents are talking to their kids about morals and values these days, in part because of the parents’ own self-absorption, in part because more parents are single (so the parental availability in the home has been cut in half), in part because parents feel guilty (about being divorced and/or absent, etc.), and in part because of the misguided notion that the kids should somehow have life easier than the parents had it (I’ve had many successful fathers tell me that they don’t want their sons to have to do some of the very things – like work for their own spending money – that inspired the fathers to be successful in the first place). Too many parents seem to have misunderstood, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” as a commandment rather than a caution (and I’m not recommending that anyone actually take a rod to his or her child – I’m just recommending more structure, discipline, and emphasis on character development than many parents these days are bothering to provide).

You probably grew up like me – if I had gotten in trouble at school, I would’ve been in more trouble at home! Today, teachers and school administrators, at least in public schools, are afraid – overly afraid in my opinion – of being sued if they talk about anything that even remotely smacks of religion (e.g. morals and values) or points out shame-worthy parental failings at home, and if you think your teen’s high school teachers and administrators are unhelpful in reinforcing your values, just wait until he or she gets to one of most (but not all) American colleges! As I said on the show, no discipline at home is a big part of the reason why so many kids are cussing out teachers at school, and no discipline at school either is a big part of the reason why so many kids are ending up in front of criminal judges (and bankruptcy judges) later on, having essentially become society’s problems to solve at that point. Also, fewer Americans are going to church these days, not that I think kids can’t develop good morals and values outside of church, but if they’re not getting morals and values instruction at home, and they’re not getting it at school, and they’re not getting it at church, it’s really no wonder they’re not getting it. It generally takes an adult mind and significant motivation to derive a system of morals and values by reason alone.

You also seem like a parent who probably already pays attention to and regulates what your teen is doing via electronic technology, especially when it’s furnished by you (e.g. an Internet connection, cell phone, etc.), as, I think, is your right and obligation. Even if he or she isn’t meeting sexual predators online or trafficking in the kinds of posts and texts that could otherwise compromise his or her future, excessive social media allows kids to portray only those aspects of themselves that they perceive to be socially desirable, to interact only with “friends,” and to somewhat delude themselves into thinking that lots of people are interested in everything they say and do, which doesn’t help when we want them to be seeing themselves as part of something larger than themselves and to be thinking about the impacts of their actions on the lives of others. As I also said on the show, if Narcissus lived in this “age of entitlement,” social media would be his reflecting pool. I use social media to disseminate information and to keep in touch with friends, family, and people who are interested in my work, but when young people (or older people for that matter) use it as a substitute for real lives, it doesn’t just reinforce self-absorption, it can reinforce self-deception, neither of which is likely to help them with their real-life professional and social relationships.

Finally, you mentioned “compromise.” If your teen has established a track record of responsibility with respect to, for example, a curfew, you might make some conservative compromises as you move him or her along the power-responsibility continuum, but I generally don’t recommend “compromise” when it comes to the values that you believe are fundamentally important to your child’s healthy development. If you think there’s a chance that you may actually be “over the top” about something, or if you’re being told that by others, then that’s a good thing to discuss with other parents and perhaps with a values-oriented professional for some perspective (especially if you’re being told that something is illegal), but as I said, you ultimately have to be able to live with yourself if something terrible happens. Teens may not often show it while they’re teens, but believe me, they know deep down when somebody loves them enough to do the right thing by them, even when it’s difficult – even when they make it difficult – and I’d hope that a dad who’s trying hard to do the right thing will eventually be rewarded for his perseverance, if not in a “Thank you, Dad” at his teen’s college graduation or wedding, then at least in witnessing his teen’s happy, healthy future.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Ramsey Revisited, Again


It’s been just over 16 years since little JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her parents’ Colorado home along with evidence that a male assailant unrelated to the family had been in intimate contact with the girl immediately prior to her death and a note written in what’s been suspected to have been the hand of the girl’s mother demanding a ransom that mirrored an amount of money received by the girl’s father days prior. It seems like this is destined to be one of those cases, like the death of actress Natalie Wood, that we revisit from time to time as new theories emerge and old theories get rehashed. Monday was our latest revisitation of the Ramsey case.

On Monday, we learned that a grand jury had actually voted to indict the Ramsey parents but that the district attorney nevertheless declined to prosecute them. Personally, I don’t think this news really means that much. You’ve probably heard the expression, “A good prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich,” and there’s a reason why that expression has stuck around. Additional information could be released that could change my mind, but at this point, it looks to me like the prosecutor probably exercised appropriate prosecutorial discretion.

As a prosecutor, you’re not supposed to try to get someone convicted of anything more than you honestly believe that the evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, if Casey Anthony’s prosecutors hadn’t tried to convict her of first-degree murder when their evidence didn’t establish that beyond a reasonable doubt, I believe they could’ve gotten her convicted of manslaughter, because I believe the evidence did establish that beyond a reasonable doubt.

An even starker example may be the case of George Zimmerman, who’s awaiting trial, also in Florida, for the alleged second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin when I’ve seen absolutely zero evidence that his shooting of Martin was anything other than self-defense. It looks to me like a prosecutor playing to the local crowd, trying to punish Zimmerman as best she can with a drawn-out ordeal precisely because she knows he’s innocent, and if that’s what’s happening, she ought to lose her law license, let alone the case. But I digress.

In the years since the Ramsey story first broke, many have speculated that one of the Ramsey parents was responsible for the girl’s death and that Mrs. Ramsey tried to deflect suspicion by writing the ransom note (to make it look like a kidnapping gone bad). I’ve never subscribed to that theory for three reasons:  A) because of the unrelated DNA found on JonBenet’s body, B) because I think people have incorrectly inferred responsibility for the murder from the weirdness of Mrs. Ramsey’s zeal for dressing her daughter up like an adult and entering her in child beauty pageants, and C) the Ramsey parents always came across to me like people with clear consciences rather than people burdened with guilt.

In 2006, John Mark Karr was arrested in Thailand and brought back to the U.S.A. after intimating in an Internet chat that he was present when JonBenet died, but DNA testing quickly proved that he was not the unknown assailant (that’s Nancy Grace and me above discussing Karr back in ’06). Mrs. Ramsey has since died, and no one has ever been charged in the death of JonBenet. You could Google this topic and find volumes of additional information, theories, criticism of law enforcement, etc., and if you’ve followed the case, you’ve heard it all before, so rather than give any more background here, I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you what I think may have happened.

Caution:  This is just a theory based on what’s been reported in the press. I have no secret information to confirm or disconfirm it. I’m not accusing anyone of anything, and I could be totally wrong, so think of this in terms of “What if…”:

1)  What if the assailant was someone who had been allowed into the house (perhaps a worker of some sort whom the parent(s) let in, or perhaps a stranger whom JonBenet let in — sorry, I can’t even speculate specifically on who the assailant might have been because I don’t know who had access to the house)?

2)  What if Mr. Ramsey or both Ramsey parents arrived on the scene of the assault just after it happened, while the assailant was still there, and realized that JonBenet had been killed?

3)  What if Mr. Ramsey killed the assailant, not in defense of his daughter, but in a fit of rage?

4)  What if, fearing that Mr. Ramsey might face charges for killing the assailant absent the need to defend himself or his family, the Ramseys decided to make it look like the assailant had fled the scene after a botched kidnapping attempt, so Mrs. Ramsey wrote the ransom note?

5)  What if the Ramseys disposed of the assailant’s body somehow, somewhere (sorry, I don’t have specific speculation on this part either because I don’t know what options they would’ve had readily available) before calling police?

The foregoing wouldn’t explain who killed JonBenet, but it would explain everything else, like why there was unrelated DNA found on JonBenet’s body (because there was in fact an unknown assailant), why Mrs. Ramsey would have written the ransom note, why neither parent seemed (at least publicly) to be very excited about the John Mark Karr arrest, why successive district attorneys never charged anyone (because maybe they’ve suspected something like this and haven’t wanted to go after the parents for the assailant’s death), and why both parents seem to have been at peace all these years (maybe because they’ve known exactly who killed their daughter and that the killer is long dead).

So, that’s my theory. As far as I know, nobody else had ever thought of it, or at least stated it publicly, before I first did years ago. We may never know what really happened in the Ramsey case, but you can count on Monday’s news not being the last we’ll hear of it!

Dear Dr. Brian


Brian, I was wondering if I could suggest a topic for a blog post. I’d really love to hear what you think about the new Bravo series:

Admirer in Atlanta

Dear Admirer in Atlanta,

I have mixed feelings about this new series. It’ll be one of a very few reality shows to premiere in recent memory wherein the entertainment proposition for viewers isn’t solely downward social comparison to trash (e.g. trash polluting the Jersey Shore, trash “showing” its offspring like a piglet on the county fair circuit, trash masquerading as socialite housewives, etc., etc., etc.). For a refreshing change of pace, this show will offer viewers an opportunity for downward social comparison to people with psychological issues (perhaps including the show’s therapists).

I’m not too worried about the privacy angle – if competent adult patients (I know, I’m assuming) want to waive their privacy in exchange for free therapy, chances to be on television, etc., that’s okay by me. I’ve even thought about making a reality show about divorce/child-custody mediation on which viewers could watch those dramas play out and maybe even learn something about settling those issues out of court. Given the nature and brevity of the mediation process, I believe that I could still be an effective mediator with a national audience observing, but I’m skeptical about the efficacy of the psychotherapy to be chronicled in this new series.

A few years ago, there was a reality show (I don’t recall the name or network) on which a therapist helped patients get over various types of phobias. That show didn’t last long (probably because the therapy – graduated exposure or “systematic desensitization” – looked pretty much the same whether the phobia was of spiders, mice, heights, flying, etc.), but in that circumscribed context, I imagine that the patients probably benefited about as much as they could’ve benefitted in the therapist’s office while the audience learned something (possibly) about overcoming fears. When it comes to other kinds of psychological problems, though – for example, mood disorders like depression or relationship problems – I have doubts.

And my doubts aren’t just about the patients’ willingness to fully disclose their thoughts, feelings, and actions in front of a national audience. I also have doubts about the quality of the therapy that we’ll see, if in fact it’s entertaining and/or interesting enough, even in edited form, to hold a national audience’s attention. I’ve given advice to callers on the radio and on television, but that wasn’t therapy – for the viewing/listening audience, it was entertainment (hopefully educational), and for the callers it was simply a few minutes of directional perspective (hopefully helpful) on how they might want to think differently about their issues and what actions might help them start moving toward resolutions of those issues (getting into therapy, getting legal advice, etc.).

Real therapy, though, is inherently boring to watch, even for supervising psychologists and therapist trainees, let alone for the general public. It takes many patients a long time to make “breakthroughs,” even longer to be “cured” (when a “cure” is even possible), and much of that time is filled with relatively mundane chronology of past and current events in the patients’ lives. Maybe this show will feature enough patients that the audience will only see brief snippets of each patient’s progress in each episode, with the main focus then being on the therapists (their perspectives, professional and personal lives, etc.), but it’s tough for me to imagine the general public really wanting to spend many hours following individual patients’ struggles with, for example, depression symptoms, in a genuine, “by-the-book,” cognitive-behavioral psychotherapeutic process.

If the therapy itself is particularly entertaining or interesting in this show, my guess is that it’ll have to involve some degree of misrepresentation of the normal therapeutic process. In that case – and especially to the extent that therapists’ lives and pathologies are dramatized simultaneously – I imagine that some viewers may be less inclined to consider therapy either as a mental-health treatment or as a life-improvement tool. At the same time, I also imagine that some viewers may be more inclined to get themselves into therapy, albeit perhaps for the wrong reasons (e.g. misguided self-identification with the patients on the show).

So, while I’m really not alarmed by the potential of this new show to significantly damage the psychology profession, my prediction is that it’ll be typical of reality television, i.e. trash.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian


Hi Dr. Brian,

I watch you on TV all the time and I’m a big fan. You seem like a very smart person, so I hope perhaps you can offer some insight regarding my question. I live in NY City, and new neighbors moved in next door who are massive pot smokers. The stench fills the halls and my apartment. The police aren’t interested because it is a landlord/tenant problem, and the landlord is passive/uninterested in affecting a solution. Do you have any suggestion of how to “pierce the haze” and get through to addicts that their behavior is crossing the line? What would you do to solve the problem? Spraying air freshener isn’t going to solve this. Thank you very much, 

Second-Hand Toker

Dear Second-Hand Toker,

I’m not surprised that the cops aren’t much help in this instance. In part, being that you’re in New York City, as annoying as your situation is to you, I imagine that they’re inundated with more dire situations. In addition, though, I think this is probably yet another negative result of our increasingly pervasive, albeit misguided, societal attitude that pot doesn’t hurt anybody. Sounds like you’ve attempted to politely reason with the neighbors, and I’m not surprised that that wasn’t much help either. You’re not likely to talk an addict into quitting, or even moderating, his or her addictive behavior, and you have to be careful here because a typically-docile pothead can turn into a hothead when confronted about his pot use.

You mentioned that the fumes pervade the hallway and permeate your apartment, which makes me wonder whether their primary point of entry into your apartment might be under your door and whether some weather stripping under there might be a practical stop-gap (literally-speaking) measure. If the fumes are entering your apartment another way, you might want to communicate with the landlord again – in writing – and perhaps mention that you’re wondering whether the building’s structural integrity and ventilation are up to code. Maybe the prospect of you calling the City’s building and/or public-health codes enforcement office(s) and requesting an inspection might prompt the landlord to get more interested in helping to solve the problem.

Although it would probably cost you some money, depending on how intolerable the situation is, you might want to consult a local attorney about your rights under the applicable landlord-tenant state statutes and local ordinances. Depending upon the jurisdiction, if your landlord owes you a “habitable” apartment (and landlords generally do), yet the landlord permits an intrusion that unreasonably interferes with the apartment’s habitability (e.g. noxious – not to mention illegal – fumes permeating the apartment), you may have the right, upon written notice to the landlord, and upon the landlord’s failure to remedy the situation within a specified period of time, to suspend or reduce rent payments or terminate your lease without penalty.

Sometimes, it’s amazing what a simple letter, arriving on an attorney’s letterhead, can accomplish for the price of just an hour or two of the lawyer’s time, and if not, some jurisdictions have “housing courts” wherein tenants can assert their rights, with or without legal representation, in relatively short order and at relatively low cost. Keep in mind, anything you do that puts you at odds with the landlord could come back to haunt you at lease-renewal time, even if the law prohibits such retaliation, but when that time comes, it sounds like you may not want to stay in that apartment anyway, especially if this situation persists.

In the meantime, thanks for watching, and I hope that whatever combination of steps you take will enable you to continue watching in your apartment without having to do so through a haze (cognitive or literal) and without having to run to the kitchen for a snack every few minutes!

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

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