Inside Dr. Phil's Culture of Abuse
Ronan Farrow has boycotted Dr. Phil since 2016. Bill Burr publicly condemned him and Al Roker decried his “shameless exploitation.” Mia Farrow called him a “TV talk show predator” & Rolling Stone calls him a “professional charlatan.” Staff call him abusive. After decades of running toxic workplaces, multiple sexual abuse allegations against him, and years of exploitation, it’s time for Dr. Phil to hang it up.
Be Scofield is a prominent cult reporter whose work has led to coverage on Netflix, Dr. Phil, VICE, Playboy, The Guardian, Daily Mail, CNN and elsewhere.
October 7th, 2020
There was a lot I didn’t know about Phil McGraw when I hit the submit button on the Dr. Phil show website to suggest a story. Within just weeks, my original reporting about a cult would become a special two-part season premiere. When I watched the show, however, it said EXCLUSIVE on the screen throughout and my work was never given the credit as I was told it would. I was shocked. I imagined if I had reached out to the New York Times, spent many hours preparing materials and on the phone with them, gave them all my original sources and then they slapped EXCLUSIVE on their story and gave no credit to my original journalism. That’s exactly what the Dr. Phil Show did.
My reporter colleagues were shocked. “They need to pay you a decent researcher’s fee if they’re not crediting you,” one said. I spoke with two entertainment lawyers in L.A. who called what the show had done awful and reprehensible. My readers were infuriated. Everyone thought it was wrong except Phil McGraw and the Dr. Phil Show.
As a cult survivor and prominent cult reporter, the trauma I experienced in my gut as a result was a familiar feeling. It made me curious. I knew if there was smoke, there’d be fire. What I found was disturbing; McGraw had a widely reported many decades-long past of narcissistic abuse, eerily similar to the other dangerous gurus I had exposed. The sheer amount of complaints, exploitive behaviors, verbal and sexual abuses, fraudulent endeavors, infidelities and workplace abuses were alarming. Here was a highly charismatic and charming individual who had been taking from people for decades. I realized the appropriation of my work wasn’t abnormal; it was expected.
The more I researched, the more I saw a behavioral pattern that resembled cultic abuse. In nearly every endeavor both personal and professional that McGraw had engaged in, I found these troubling dimensions of control, abuse and exploitation. I was struck by the irony that McGraw had just scolded the leader of the cult I had exposed, but yet he had been acting in similar fashion for decades. A former business partner even said McGraw almost turned his seminar company into a cult and said he loved to be “god-like and worshipped.” Since I write about gurus I felt compelled to expose what I found.
Dr. Phil’s #MeToo Past
Before Dr. Phil became the famed self-help guru of daytime TV he was a psychotherapist practicing in Wichita Falls Texas. It was a job he admittedly hated, and a process that he never went through himself because he “didn’t believe in doing the inner child work” according to his ex-business partner. His biographers write that McGraw claimed he had a hard time “pretending” to be “sympathetic to other people’s problems.” He said he couldn’t stand listening to people complain and whine. He wanted to fix problems, not dwell upon them.
There was at least one patient though whom McGraw seemed to like; 19-year-old Sara Morrison. She had sought help for depression and low-self esteem. McGraw took a special interest in Morrison. “He wanted to see me three or four times a week–as a patient,” she said in a 2016 interview. Morrison said McGraw was controlling. “Phil was extremely insistent that I call him all the time, and he would call me.”
McGraw then paid Morrison to be his personal intern. He still required her to continue paying for therapy sessions. It was as his intern that McGraw started sexually abusing her, she claims.
“The first day I showed up for work, Phil had his hands all over me,” she said. At the time McGraw had been married for eight years. “Phil would pull me down to sit in his lap while he talked on the phone to patients, other doctors, even his wife.” Morrison said he would regularly grope her:
“He’d be running his hand up and down the inside of my thigh all the way up to my panties. He’d reach in my blouse and touch my breasts. He pulled my breasts out of my bra and kissed them. He loved to rub my pelvic bone, and he’d kiss me on my cheeks and lips…I just froze when he touched me.”
Morrison also claims that McGraw would change in front of her in the office. “When he’d undress in front of me, I’d turn my head away. He’d say, ‘ What’s the big deal?’ Phil was always talking about sex. He was hyper-sexed.”
“I just froze when he touched me.“
She said there was never any intercourse but “a lot of sexual touching.” Morrison said she never touched him back, but went along with it because she looked up to him. “He was my therapist. I trusted him. He was like a father figure to me,” she said.
After Morrison filed a complaint with the Texas Board of Psychologists McGraw was strongly disciplined and forced to have supervision during his sessions. “The board effectively put Phil out of business by making it too costly for him to operate,” Morrison said. “Another therapist had to be in the room when Phil conducted a therapy session, and he had to pay the (second) therapist. In less than a year, he gave up his license and left town.”
“Not a single day has gone by when I haven’t been affected by what Phil McGraw did to me. I’d hoped to fall in love, get married and have children. But I never trusted men after Phil.”
– Sara Morrison
Morrison isn’t the only woman to accuse McGraw of sexual abuse. In 2007 Shirley Dieu said that he groped her breast during a counseling session at a studio in Santa Monica. McGraw settled out of court. He denied both allegations.
VIDEO: Dr. Phil Scolds Counselor for Unethical Romantic Relationship with Patient
McGraw’s first wife Debbie McCall said their marriage failed because he cheated on her many times. “When I confronted him about his infidelities, he didn’t deny these girls and told me that it had nothing to do with his feelings toward me, to grow up, that’s the way it was in the world.” A friend of McCall told her upon returning from a trip she had seen McGraw bringing other women over while she was gone. “Debbie was absolutely devastated,” the friend said. “His cavalier attitude about it was unbearable.”
McCall also said that once married McGraw changed from the kind and sensitive boyfriend to a controlling, dominating husband. McGraw “did not allow her to get involved in the business; her domain was their home,” the Post Star, who interviewed Debbie, reported. He also wanted her to “always ‘look nice,’ which included lifting weights to bulk up her chest.” In this video about a controlling narcissist boyfriend, McGraw can be seen scolding a guy for his same behavior.
On his website, McGraw has an entire page dedicated to cheaters. He urges them to be “drop dead honest” and accept full responsibility. He also regularly lectures cheaters on his show.
“He Went Ballistic”
After McGraw was forced out of psychotherapy, he started a company called Courtroom Sciences Inc. (CSI). They quickly became the go to place for Fortune 500 companies and other elite clients to seek consulting for trials and jury selection. When prominent lawyer Chip Babcock hired McGraw to help defend his client Oprah Winfrey from the infamous Cattle lawsuit it set history in motion. McGraw and Winfrey became close, and he soon began appearing regularly on her TV show. Later she’d help him sell millions of copies of his first book and create the Dr. Phil show.
Employees at CSI interviewed by journalists Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez for their biography said McGraw was highly abusive, controlling and manipulative. “He’s called me a stupid bitch,” said one employee. “It was so constant. Everybody who has worked at CSI shakes in their boots about Phil.” Another employee said there was constant “yelling, there was cussing, there was ranting,” by McGraw.
“Phil engenders in that culture that you are his 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said a former employee. McGraw “owned,” them, an employee said. Another remembers being contacted at 3 A.M. “It was Phil, screaming at me.”
“Everybody who has worked at CSI shakes in their boots about Phil.”
CSI staff told the authors that many employees left their jobs feeling “battered and abused” and claim he “created an atmosphere of fear, resentment, and anxiety.” According to one CSI staffer McGraw “became more and more abusive to people,” after he got involved with Oprah. “He can manipulate the shit out of anyone,” said another former employee. “Phil is a cult personality, end of story.”
McGraw’s toxic and abusive workplace behavior continued later when the Dr. Phil Show began.
In the early 2000s, a Dr. Phil staff member told the press of McGraw’s workplace abuses. “In one staff meeting, he went ballistic.” He also claimed that “people were leaving the set in tears” and were forced to work all night. He told the press outlet that McGraw would berate and put down a teleprompter in front of the audience. “It was a constant badgering. I call it harassment.”
One staffer told McGraw’s biographers it was the worst place they had ever worked. “I will say without hesitation, in my 25 years of being in this business, that was the worst show I ever worked on.”
“People were leaving the set in tears.”
According to an insider McGraw bullies guests to get his dramatic clips. “It’s all about the sound bite, and he’ll bully the guest off-camera until he gets the sound bite he needs.” The insider also described his abuse. “He’s like a fascist dictator on a set of quivering female servants..I can feel the fear on the set.”
“It’s getting desperate behind the scenes,” a source at the show told MSNBC. “Dr. Phil is so demanding, and there’s a feeling anyone will do anything for the get. But it creates chaos. I don’t know how much longer everyone can take it.”
In 2016 a former director of the Dr. Phil show of 12 years named Leah Rothman claimed he “imprisoned and berated 300 workers behind locked and guarded doors in a tirade” while he forcefully slammed items, threatened them and yelled “If you fuck with me, I’ll fuck with you.”
VIDEO: Locking People Up Hypocrisy
Another staffer backed Rothman’s account, saying it was a “horrible place to work.”
“He’s like a fascist dictator on a set of quivering female servants..I can feel the fear on the set.”
Thelma Box, the woman who co-founded Pathways motivational seminars with McGraw said he was “unkind in the way he speaks to people.” She was appreciative of the volunteers who helped run the seminar and would thank them, but McGraw told her not to. “It demeans you when you go around always saying thank you to these people,” he said to her.
McGraw scolded a guest for his “rage” problem. “Managing by intimidation, threatening her, yelling at her…is absolutely not the way to bring about change…You have a rage problem do you not?”
In a television interview McGraw explained to the viewers how damaging verbal abuse can be. “What we know psychologically is that verbal abuse, mental abuse can have a much more devastating effect on someone than physical abuse.” He regularly scolds guests for verbally abusing others.
VIDEO: Dr. Phil Explains How Damaging Verbal Abuse Is
“It’s Callous Exploitation”
When McGraw broadcast a bizarre interview with severely mentally ill former actress Shelley Duvall, star of The Shining, it raised the ire of many. Ronan Farrow called for a boycott. Al Roker decried McGraw’s “shameless exploitation.” Stanley Kubrick’s daughter called it “appallingly cruel” and said she “recoiled in complete disgust.” Comedian Bill Burr had harsh words for McGraw, whom he said was “completely exploiting” Duvall. Mia Farrow said we need laws to protect people from “TV talk show predators” like McGraw.
“Dr. Phil often embarrassed guests on his show in their darkest hour, leaving the staff to pick up the pieces of the broken people who had put their trust in Dr. Phil,” said former 12-year producer Leah Rothman. She said McGraw’s interest was not helping people but in ratings and making money.
“It’s a spectator sport to watch someone be humiliated.” – Dr. Ellen McGrath.
McGraw dragged a very drunk guest named Todd Herzog on stage during one episode. Herzog was the 2007 Survivor winner and struggling alcoholic. Social worker and executive director of The Arbor treatment center, Steve Thomasson, appeared but later regretted it. He was so dismayed at how they exploited the speech-slurring Herzog that he permanently cut ties with the show.
Herzog said that despite being an alcoholic there was a full bottle of vodka in his dressing room, which he drank entirely. He also said staff gave him a xanax before the show, which only made him more inebriated.
“Guests have been left without medical help as they face withdrawal from drugs” reports a STAT/Boston Globe investigation into the Dr. Phil Show. They said guests have been “put at risk.” They also found evidence that the show ply’s guests with drugs and alcohol before episodes, a charge the show denies.
McGraw showed a pregnant woman on camera searching for a drug dealer in L.A’s Skid Row. Another guest, Jordan Smith, also claimed that Dr. Phil’s staff took him to buy heroin.
“Don’t support the exploitation of vulnerable people. Don’t watch Dr Phil.”- Ronan Farrow
“It’s callous and inexcusable exploitation,” says clinical psychology professor Jeffrey Sugar. “These people are barely hanging on.”
In one episode McGraw brought a woman on who was suffering from paranoid delusions. She believed she was being tracked by terrorists and targeted with poisonous gasses. McGraw “dissects every minutia of the guest’s delusions,” in front of the studio audience and the world writes Jonah Franks. He then “unleashes a torrent of questions before allowing her to respond.” The woman was made the object of entertainment while McGraw profited.
Lindsay Lohan publicly called out McGraw as a fraud after he aired an interview with her mother who appeared erratic. “All people saw was two minutes edited of an hour long interview,” her mother Dina said. “Of course they cut it to make it interesting.”
A couple claims they were lured onto the Dr. Phil show under false pretenses and portrayed in a completely different light. “We feel we were set up from the beginning, and the producer lied to us,” they said. “Looking back now, we see how it was carefully orchestrated, right down to getting us to sign the contract that allows them to air it.” They wrote to an online magazine seeking advice with the question, “Is it normal for talk shows to deceive guests?”
“His primary interest was not about helping people on the show, but rather, done for the sake of ratings and making money.”
-Leah Rothman, former director
A woman named Maryanne Bodolay said she agreed to appear on the Dr. Phil show based on the premise of her being a heavy 400 lb woman who was happy with her body. When she and her friend got to Vegas the Dr. Phil show paid a group of guys to heckle and make fun of them. And then they switched the show topic. “When we got to the show, the whole premise changed,” she said. “Suddenly, they had a couple of fat people in the audience striving to get thin: They were good, and we were bad because we were living. We weren’t attacking ourselves because we were fat.” She was disappointed and said they were “used” by the Dr. Phil show.
“Should watching emotionally wounded people receive pseudo-clinical advice be entertainment?”
There are also instances of guests being promised to not discuss certain information on the show by producers only to be broadsided with it by McGraw unexpectedly. “I was promised that this person who wrote into you would not have anything to do with this show,” says one woman who walked off the set during a live taping. Another woman stormed off a live taping telling the producer they had “falsified” information and that she agreed to come on under certain pretenses.
In 2009 the mother of Britney Spears called McGraw to ask a private favor that he visit her in the hospital confidentially. After visiting, however, he made a public statement to the press about the deteriorating mental health of Spears and thus getting press for himself. “This is another example of a trust being betrayed,” said the family spokesperson. Some staff members were outraged but feared speaking out.
Prominent cult expert Steven Hassan appeared on the Dr. Phil show but left feeling taken advantage of after they didn’t promote his work. “I was exploited as an expert by Dr Phil also. He and the show are slimy and I did expect to be promoted. Big disappointment.”
A love and relationship expert couple who appeared on the show in 2011 said they were also exploited. “We had no idea we were being exploited for our story; we believed we were coming to share our depth of experience.” They were not allowed to mention or promote their work and were mad after the “slick move” by the show.
“If you degrade someone, you isolate them; you control them; you call them names; you demean them. That’s a horrible existence for people.”
– Dr. Phil
There are a wide variety of lawsuits, complaints and abuses from people claiming McGraw exploited them on his show.
“He Sold Me Down the River”
Sara Morrison, McGraw’s former patient who alleged he sexually abused her, described how he left town after he was pushed out of his career as a therapist. Leaving town after a failed endeavor would become a recurring theme in his career as McGraw has engaged in several failed schemes over the years. Perhaps McGraw, who was dubbed a, “professional charlatan,” by Rolling Stone Magazine merely continued the deceptive methods with the Dr. Phil show. But unlike the other failed attempts, the show was highly profitable.
He was investigated by the Kansas state Attorney General for running what the lead investigator called a “textbook example of a membership scam” with a health club scheme. McGraw fled the state for Texas owing tens of thousands to banks and individuals. Texas is one of only two states that don’t allow out-of-state financial judgments to be collected.
McGraw also allegedly defrauded thousands of individuals by selling fake weight loss supplements. He paid 10.5 million dollars in a settlement and stopped selling them.
And while not a scheme like the health club, McGraw was sued by DDH aviation for $135,000 for flying on their private planes without paying, despite many formal requests to settle his bill.
McGraw’s former business partner at Pathways seminars, Thelma Box, claims he screwed her over. “Basically, he sold me down the river,” Box said. After seven years working together, McGraw secretly sold his and his father’s share of the businesses without telling her. A year after the sale, a secretary of the new business partner informed Box of what had happened. She was shocked. The new owner David Dickenson said McGraw had ripped Box off. “Phil had compromised the integrity of the program,” he said. “In effect, he helped rip off Thelma and her asset value in the corporation by selling behind her back.”
“Phil is a Cult Personality”
During McGraw’s years as a motivational seminar leader in his Pathways company, he was seen in a cult like fashion. “The word ‘God’ was used a lot with him,” a former seminar attendee said. “He loved being godlike and worshiped,” the new owner of the company said. “The only reason it didn’t become a cult is because Thelma wouldn’t let it.” Susan Britton was a former longtime volunteer at McGraw’s seminars. “When Phil walked out of the seminar room, there were people who thought he was sitting on the right hand of God,” she said.
The methods McGraw used in Pathways were “shrouded in a certain amount of mystery and confidentiality” according to his biographers. Participants were sworn to secrecy of what occurred during the many day’s long events. The goal was to “strip” people of their self-deception. The Dallas Observer reported on the seminar company in 2000. “Over time, Pathways developed a loyal following, and many of the same people, wowed by the change it made in their lives, not only returned for another hit of transformation, but spread the word with near evangelistic zeal.”
“He loved being godlike and worshiped. The only reason it didn’t become a cult is because Thelma wouldn’t let it.”
There is a long history of Large Group Awareness Trainings like EST and Landmark Forum using controversial, intense and even abusive methods to force people to change. These types of control techniques have been used by McGraw throughout his career, both on guests and in trainings.
In the episode based on my original reporting, McGraw heavily scolded the cult leader for locking a child in the closet. There are instances of McGraw locking people in rooms, falsely imprisoning them and abusing them.
Shirley Dieu, the woman who said McGraw groped her breast in a counseling session, also accused the talk show guru of false imprisonment during some type of Big Brother episode gone wrong. Along with another woman, Crystal Matchett, they sued claiming they were “lured by promises of getting personal counseling from Dr. Phil himself, only to be locked in a building, surrounded by 12-feet walls and fences restraining them from trying to escape.” Dieu claimed that during her stay, which was involuntary, that staff prevented them from leaving and cut off the phones when she tried to call 911.
McGraw also sent in a “completely naked” man who “exposed his entire naked body, genitals and all,” they claim. Dieu also says she was “brainwashed to trust her captors” and “programmed” to believe she was in a safe environment and receiving “real therapy from a licensed doctor.” McGraw settled with the two women.
“It’s very cult like.”
– former CSI employee
Another example of McGraw’s high-demand past is a ten-part series on Oprah called the “Get Real Challenge.” He locked himself in a room with 42 people for five days. Aided by an “unfriendly team” dressed in all black, who never smiled, McGraw drilled into the participants to force change. “The group was kept in the dark about the schedule,” writes his biographers. It was part of his “master plan” to keep everyone uncertain and wondering. It was described as an “intense, confrontational, emotional experience.”
A former employee at McGraw’s CSI said he created a culture of dependence and control. “They constantly infused in us `You can’t go anywhere else, you’re never going to make this kind of money, there’s no company like CSI.’ That’s kind of a control tactic.” She continued, “It embarrasses me to admit it, but it’s very cult-like. They believe it’s their only route, they believe they can’t do anything differently, they think they can’t do any better.”
“His fear was that he would be exposed as not being the guru he put himself up to being.”
– Steven Dickenson
There’s former 12-year Dr. Phil director Leah Rothman’s allegation that McGraw locked hundreds of staff in a room, put guards at the exits and screamed and berated his employees. And both McGraw’s ex-wife and his alleged sexual abuse victim Sara Morrison describe his controlling, domineering behaviors.
Just as the methods of McGraw’s seminars in Pathways were shrouded in secrecy, employees of the Dr. Phil show must sign confidentiality agreements to never discuss the workplace environment. Both are mechanisms of control.
It’s clear that McGraw has used and experimented with techniques of a cult leader throughout his career; his cruel and manipulative treatment of staff, sexually taking advantage of vulnerable patients, exploiting and imprisoning guests, screaming and shouting, cheating on his wife and use of scams to defraud unsuspecting victims of money. One gets the sense that people are merely the objects of a game in McGraw’s world.
McGraw is like the daytime version of Tony Robbins, the controversial self-help guru who has been accused by multiple women of sexual abuse and of using abusive tactics. While a cult leader may directly claim to be a god, gurus like Robbins and McGraw show people they are gods; through power, control, abuse, charisma and domination.
“He Buried All Those Childhood Feelings”
“Lawsuits are relationships,” McGraw says. “A lawyer stands before a jury and forms a relationship with them.” While running CSI he taught legal teams how to win by manipulating elements of their emotional presentation to appear certain ways for the jury. “He’s an attorney doing therapy” says Dr. Ellen McGrath, a critic of the Dr. Phil show. She said he’s a “bottom liner” who “loves to win.” She continues, “That’s not the way to work with people’s vulnerabilities.”
“He didn’t believe in doing inner child work and so he never went back to do the healing,” said former Pathways partner Thelma Box. “Feelings buried alive never die. He buried all those childhood feelings, and he’s still dealing with them.”