Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatan

Quacks, charlatans, posers, pharisees, pretenders. Jesus Christ delivered some of his most scathing rebukes against the sort of spiritual leader whose every action supported the illusion of a self that is able to teach, guide, and heal others without being whole oneself. Helping professionals, whether religious or not, so often “help” without having had a visitation of the holy trinity of client-centered therapy: empathy, congruence, and unconditional, positive regard. Therapy without love is a load of crap. 

What does it take to become an expert? What qualifies a person to advise others? What makes a sage, or a healer? These are questions that have been on my mind as I’ve noticed increasing quackery and charlatanism around me among so-called healers, and witnessed, too, the development of effective healers who, by conventional standards, aren’t really qualified to help anyone. Nevertheless, it seems that almost everyone wants to be an expert at something, as if by externalizing one’s need for mastery, one can neatly sidestep one’s own obligation to it. People master others because they will not master themselves.

The number of people qualified to treat mental disorders has increased with the number of the disordered. We have therapists and churches on every street corner in America, most claiming to be able to help, to cure what ails ye; yet our culture has never been more ill. NIMH estimates that approximately 26.2% of Americans are suffering a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, a statistic supported by research reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2005. I think James Hillman and Michael Ventura hit the nail on the head when they wrote We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse.

When I think about how suffering people looking for help can be (and have been) abused by people trained or claiming to be healers, I’m appalled. Most of us have seen the damage corrupt authority can do, whether the person in authority is a parent, teacher, counselor, priest, or king. Jesus taught that it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and drowned than to cause someone of lesser power (dignity, standing) to become entrapped, offended, deceived, enticed away from what is real and true–most particularly, away from the love of God.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Today, I’m horrified to think about the possibility of deceiving myself to the point that I might abuse the spiritual focus and energy intended for my inner work by externalizing it and thus abusing someone else.  This pitfall of the therapeutic process has been documented for decades by numerous researchers and writers in psychoanalysis and psychology. Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller wrote:

“When [the patient]  presents material that fits the therapist’s knowledge, concepts, and skills–and therefore also his expectations–the patient satisfies his therapist’s wish for approval, echo, understanding, and for being taken seriously. In this way the therapist exercises the same sort of unconscious manipulation as that to which he was exposed as a child. A child can never see through unconscious manipulation. It is like the air he breathes; he knows no other, and it appears to him to be the only breathable air.”

“What happens if we don’t recognize the harmful quality of this air, even in adulthood? We will pass this harm on to others, while pretending that we are acting only for their own good. [. . .] This temptation to seek a parent out among our patients should not be underestimated; our own parents seldom or never listened to us with such rapt attention as our patients usually do, and they never revealed their inner world to us as clearly and honestly as do our patients at times. Only the never-ending work of mourning can help us from lapsing into the illusion that we have found the parent we once urgently needed–empathic and open, understanding and understandable, honest and available, helpful and loving, feeling, transparent, clear, without unintelligle contradictions. Such a parent was never ours, for a mother can react empathically only to the extent that she has become free of her own childhood; when she denies the vicissitudes of her early life, she wears invisible chains” (21-22).

One reason it seems easy to see the delusions of others is that we’re so practiced at deceiving ourselves. In  fact, as Jesus taught, one has to take the 2×4 out of one’s own eye to see clearly enough to take the splinter out of a brother’s eye. Everything is distorted by one’s own 2×4. I know that this is why I suspect, blame, fear, and sometimes arrogantly know that someone else is the culprit. To be sure, sometimes they are. Even so, I have been, can be, and will again be a dissembler, no matter how much I long and intend to be transparently pure in intention and deed. 

Because of this human habit of hiding from myself, one of my favorite mental tricks is to take my judgment of another person and apply it to myself: I am always the Prime Suspect, number one on my own list of frauds. I know that whenever I mentally accuse someone else of some wrongdoing or misstep, the real criminal is often likely to be some aspect of myself that has escaped my inner, walled city. . . usually from the dungeon. Disguised as someone else.

I hope that people who work in the healing professions and those who go to them for help take seriously the task of healing before them and can consider the healer’s position of authority as one of service–and a calling. Anything less is to play with stricter condemnation for one’s hubris.

Healing is a calling. I think it is one of the most archetypal of roles to presume to heal others, much less to actually heal them. Mythology gives us Asclepius and Chiron as healer archetypes. The etymology of the Greek name “Asclepius,” has a root meaning, curiously enough, “mole-hero.” I like this idea of the heroic, healer mole having to dig deep underground (as moles do), connecting the tunnel between the healing above ground, and the unconscious, healing stuff that’s underground. Some kinds of moles, I learned from Wikipedia, are also aquatic, which puts the symbolic icing on the metaphorical cake. The water is Mother, it is the unconscious and the unknown; all the stuff we needed from Mother, and can only get in adulthood from ourselves and God–that’s in Asclepius, the archetypal healer.

The name Chiron comes from the Greek word dactyls, denoting fingers, hence meaning “hand.” The Dactyls were a race of small, phallic male beings associated with the Great Mother, suggesting fertility, creativity, power, and energy. The Dactyls of Mount Ida worked metals in the fire to produce useful objects. I’m reminded of mining the ore of the real Self and bringing it up to the surface after much labor and deep digging: another metaphor for healing on many levels.

The mythological Chiron, also known as the Wounded Healer, is a much admired healer archetype, I think because many healers can identify with him. The externalized need to heal one’s own wounds is what drives many people into the helping professions. It’s easy to see why people would identify with a wounded healer. But I think that Chiron’s value lies not only in his woundedness; it is in his sacrifice. Though immortal, Chiron sacrificed his own life to give fire to humanity and is thus is a mythological type of Christ.

Finding a Therapist. Because the road to wholeness is fraught with perils, not the least of which is finding a real healer to help along the way, the person seeking help would do well to approach the problem of getting it intelligently. Put another way, the patient must separate the wheat from the chaff. Drawing again from Alice Miller, a good list of questions to use when interviewing a prospective therapist:

  1. What made you choose your profession?

  2. What is your background?

  3. What did you do before becoming a healer?

  4. Can you put me in contact with people you have demonstrably provided with lasting help?

  5. Is the therapist transparent, fair-minded, and willing to be on my team?

  6. How does the therapist handle criticism?

  7. Can the therapist admit inconsistencies?

  8. What is the therapist’s behavior when s/he has erred?

  9. Does the therapist promise me results that are realistic, or impossible?

  10. Does this person seem likely, from what s/he has said, to respect my personal autonomy?


| How to Choose a Competent Counselor |


Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. New York: Perennial, 1997.

2 responses to “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatan”

  1. Eve Avatar


    Wow back at you, RG! If I had a tail, I’d wag it!

    Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says that people go to therapists because there is no one in their household who can listen to them… and there’s research proving what you wrote about simply having a good friend who can listen. I think you’re right, although I also found a year of psychoanalysis after my daughter’s death breathtakingly liberating. I agree with the depth psychologists that every single psychoanalyst must go through his or her own course of therapy before trying to help anyone else.

    By the way… as I read your blog I’m starting to imagine Fred Thompson as president. Just so you’ll know you’re getting into my head! ;o)

  2. renaissanceguy Avatar

    Wow! I’m just floored. This essay is brilliant and my favorite post of yours so far.

    I took a peer counseling course in college, and one thing they taught us was that a good friend who truly cares can sometimes do as much good for somebody in distress as a professional therapist. (Barring serious mental illness, of course.)

    I have had psychological counseling myself, and the humility and empathy of the counselor was definitely a key factor in how helpful the person was.

    Thanks for the pleasant read and the deep insights.

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