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Psychologist gets to the roots of ‘Mad Men’ madness

Like “wire monkeys” famous study Betty (January Jones) offers little warmth her children.

Like the “wire monkeys” of a famous study, Betty (January Jones) offers little warmth to her children.

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Updated: April 26, 2012 8:09AM

‘Mad Men” owes a good deal of its success to its rich cast of complicated characters.

“All of these people are interesting because they’re so torn and ambivalent; they’re all in so much pain,” clinical psychologist Stephanie Newman said.

Newman is a faculty member at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education in New York. She’s also a big fan of the show. Newman thought it would be interesting to examine these characters through the lens of modern psychology. She did just that in her new book, Mad Men on the Couch (Thomas Dunne Books, $16.99), published this month.

Here’s what Newman had to say, both in a phone interview and on the pages of her book, about some of the compelling personalities that make up “Mad Men.”

Q. Which character needs the most psychological help?

A. I would say Don. He lost his mother in infancy. He never got to know her. I kind of see Don — and the reason he’s drawn to multiple women and prostitutes — sort of as a little, motherless boy. He’s really looking for the mother he lost. He plays out his longings, albeit in a paradoxical fashion, by seducing and then abandoning or being abandoned by a series of beautiful and exciting women. If he unconsciously provokes others to reject him, or if he rejects them, he feels more in control of the demise of the relationship, thus bringing about the expected outcome and mastering his anxiety about loss.

Q. Why did Don pick his secretary, Megan, over Faye, who seemed like more his equal?

A. He does not choose to look into the past or to look into himself. Faye, who’s an organizational psychologist, encourages him to think about his past. He will have none of that. Megan represents the future. He has a way of grasping onto the future almost like it’s a life raft. Proposing to Megan is Don’s attempt at survival.

Q. Why do Pete and Don butt heads?

A. Pete has “daddy issues,” as they have commonly come to be called. Pete acts unconsciously toward Don in ways that recreate Pete’s relationship with his father. We know Pete’s father is rejecting, belittling his job in advertising and berating him for doing nothing with the family name. Pete challenges Don and wants to replace him, yet he also idealizes him. It’s called transference. You relate to people in your present as if they were significant figures from your past.

Q. What effect did World War II have on Roger?

A. He tries to bat the bad memories and sad, terrified feelings away; they are a threat to his masculinity and stability. We know this strategy does not work. He cannot forget his war years and repeatedly uses military lingo and combat metaphors just as he remains rabidly angry at the Japanese. So he makes other attempts to compensate for his destabilizing emotions. One compensatory measure is seeking almost constant pleasure. He even tells Don that his generation drinks because “they deserve it.”

Q. What kind of a mother is Betty?

A. Psychologists have a name for a mother like Betty who does not nurture and has little to give emotionally to her children. To professionals, she is a “wire monkey.” In the 1950s a researcher at the University of Wisconsin named Harry Harlow … took eight neonatal rhesus monkeys and paired them with synthetic mommies. Some of the baby monkeys were fed milk by “mothers” made of cold, hard wire; others by “mothers” made of wire but covered in warm, soft terry cloth. Harlow’s findings were fascinating: all the babies chose to cuddle with the cloth “mother,” regardless of whether they had been fed by the wire ones. When these monkeys [with wire mothers] grew and reproduced, he noticed that many of them became abusive. One monkey bit off many of her infant’s fingers without provocation. It will not be lost on the astute observer that this tragic anecdote mirrors all too closely Betty’s threat to cut off Sally’s fingers after learning she has masturbated at a neighbor’s house.

Q. Why did Sally act out so much last season?

A. She’s hoping someone will say to her, ‘OK, what’s wrong?’ and talk with her about it as opposed to slapping her on the face or sending her to her room. She’s looking to be understood. She gets that from Dr. Edna — and so does Betty. Dr. Edna is almost Betty’s therapist as much as Sally’s.

Q. Is Sally going to be OK?

A. Since the treatment began, Sally has gone from a lisping, confused girl to a tween who is figuring out herself, her body and her relationships with others. She, more than any other character on the show, is making meaningful internal changes. Like Peggy, Sally represents the next generation, which has a new, better way of doing things.

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