Self-help • Phillip McGraw
He spent his life behind the scenes. Then he met Oprah.
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I SAW HIM FOR THE FIRST TIME in January 1998, during the Oprah Winfrey “Mad Cow” trial in Amarillo. A balding, broad-shouldered man who usually could be found right behind the talk show diva as she walked in and out of the courthouse, he never said a word to any of us in the news media. He wouldn’t even nod hello.
We were told he was Phillip McGraw, a co-founder of Courtroom Sciences, Inc. (CSI), an Irving-based litigation consulting firm that creates jury profiles and conducts mock trials for some of the country’s most prestigious law firms. Although he had worked on many high-profile civil cases, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill suit and the fierce battle between the ABC television network and the Food Lion grocery store chain, he had made it his policy to avoid publicity. He always slipped away at the end of the day while the lawyers stood on the courthouse steps in front of a bank of microphones and took questions. Whenever we called to ask him about his work—in legal circles, he is renowned for his ability to analyze juries and develop trial strategy—we were sternly reminded that he does not speak to the press.
But after her victory over the cattlemen, Winfrey asked McGraw if she could introduce him on her show, and he agreed. She not only told her huge national TV audience that he was “one of the smartest men in the world” but also tearfully said that he “gave myself back to me.” Later she explained that McGraw, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Texas, had spent many hours during the trial counseling her, building her self-esteem, giving her advice on how to stay in touch with the best parts of herself. “I told him, ‘If you ever did therapy, I’d go to you,’” Oprah said. “He is one of the best psychologists I have ever run into.”
Suddenly, the 49-year-old McGraw was a star. Winfrey, who has nicknamed him Tell It Like It Is Phil because of his blunt, no-nonsense speaking style, began putting him on her show at least once a month to advise people on how to live better lives. Earlier this year, Hyperion published his first book, Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters, which quickly soared to number one on the New York Times list of the best-selling advice and how-to books. (More than 750,000 hardback copies have sold thus far; the paperback will be released in January.) “I’m now being described in the tabloids as ‘Oprah’s Superstar Psychologist,’” he recently said, chuckling at the vagaries of fame. “My publisher just called to discuss plans about translating my book into Hebrew and Chinese. Hebrew and Chinese? My God, what’s next?”
Compared with most authors of self-help books, McGraw is refreshing, in large part because he makes no bones about his disgust for pop psychology. “Most of these guys who write these gimmicky books have everything but verbs in their sentences,” he told me. A former middle linebacker who attended the University of Tulsa on a football scholarship, McGraw comes across as the Vince Lombardi of therapy—a tough taskmaster with an unblinking stare who tells his audiences to get over such obsessions as why they had “negative feelings” or who treated them unfairly in the past. “There are therapists out there telling people they need to discover their ‘inner child’ and to rock themselves like a baby with a blanket wrapped around them in order to find happiness,” he said. “Good God, we’ve got people trying to get their rent paid, trying to keep their kids off drugs, trying to make their marriages work, trying to get their careers in gear, trying to manage their own impulses—and they are supposed to go rock themselves? Come on. Life is a full contact sport, and if you don’t have a really good strategy to get through it, if you don’t come up with a very specific plan to make your life better, then you’re never going to change.”
In his first appearance as a counselor on Oprah’s show, McGraw told the audience that he wasn’t impressed with people who told him they just wanted to be “happy” in life. “Hey,” he said, “my dog wants to be happy.” He pooh-poohed those who constantly talk about their “dreams” for the future: “Your dreams for yourself come and go. They’re like New Year’s resolutions. They won’t last more than three or four days.” After one woman tearfully described her grief over the dissolution of her marriage—her husband had mistreated her for years—McGraw didn’t hug her and tell her to let her feelings out. He gently criticized her for allowing her husband to show her a continual lack of respect. Instead of letting her continue to complain about him, he told her the time had come for her to start treating herself with some dignity. “You tell your husband, ‘I’m going to treat myself from now on with respect—and, buddy, if you want back in my life, that’s the price of poker.’” The mostly female crowd ate it up. It was as if they saw in McGraw the father figure they’d always wanted. Oprah said on one show that he was “the deepest well of common sense I have ever encountered.”
Soon he was receiving one thousand letters a week. After his book was released, huge crowds flocked to his signings. More than seven hundred fans came to meet him at a Barnes and Noble in Dallas last spring, some of them standing in line three hours to get his autograph. True, much of what he said was not particularly new. The ten “Life Laws” that he describes (among them: “Life rewards action,” “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” “Life is managed; it is not cured,” and “There is power in forgiveness”) have been around in one form or another seemingly since the beginning of time. “Look, I didn’t create the Bible of living,” he said. “But it was real clear to me that far too many people have ignored the basic principles about how to manage one’s life. They don’t know how to reach—or they refuse to reach—in any strategic way for something better. At one point, I wanted to title the book, What the Hell Are You People Thinking?”
McGraw was raised in northeast Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado. His father tried various careers—at one point, he was a high school football coach; then he became a pilot for an oil company—before he returned to college and received a doctorate in psychology. McGraw decided to follow in his father’s footsteps after his own college football career was cut short because of an injury. After he received his Ph.D. he practiced psychology in Wichita Falls and with his father conducted life-skills training seminars all over the country. Because he had specialized in neuropsychology in his graduate work, he was often called to testify as an expert witness in civil cases involving brain injuries. McGraw loved courtroom work, he said, “because in a trial at the end of the day, there’s a clear winner and a clear loser. You either came up with the right strategy to get what you wanted or something was taken away from you. I loved that. In a clinical practice your patients come in one week and say they feel better, and then they come in the next week and say they’re depressed again. Too many people seemed willing to talk about their problems as a way of avoiding doing anything about them.”
In the late eighties McGraw and his next-door neighbor in Wichita Falls, a lawyer named Gary Dobbs, created a “trial science” company that helps lawyers prepare their cases. Today Courtroom Sciences is a multimillion-dollar operation, filling up a large building in the ritzy Las Colinas neighborhood of Irving. Inside are two mock courtrooms (including one full-scale federal courtroom) where lawyers can test their cases. CSI provides “jurors” (Dallas-area citizens who answer CSI newspaper ads), bailiffs, judges, and even attorneys to act as opposing counsel. The CSI staff then uses closed-circuit cameras, computers, and extensive questionnaires to analyze the jurors as the case progresses to see what arguments work and which ones don’t. CSI also creates sophisticated courtroom graphics and computer animation to help a client’s presentation for actual trial. “We’re here to help lawyers tell the truth effectively,” McGraw said. “This is a science, a way to take the guesswork out of jury selection and to gauge what kind of jurors would be most receptive to your case.”
When the renowned Dallas media lawyer Chip Babcock was hired by Winfrey to defend her in the Mad Cow suit, he immediately called McGraw. When McGraw went to meet Winfrey in Chicago, one of her assistants told him he had exactly one hour with her. “Excuse me,” he said, “it isn’t my ass getting sued. If that’s all the time she’s got, then I don’t want to be a part of this.” Winfrey eventually gave him plenty of time. She even flew to CSI’s offices before the trial to work on her case in mock trials. McGraw ripped into her overly defensive posture—“she came across poorly, in a state of disbelief that she was being sued”—and then helped her develop a presentation that showed her more noble side. According to McGraw, Winfrey loved talking to him so much about how people can motivate themselves to do better in life that she started telling him that the two of them should write a book. But she later told him that he should do it alone. In the Las Colinas mansion that he shares with his wife of 23 years, Robin, and their two boys, he quickly outlined Life Strategies, worked on it five or six hours a night, and finished the first draft in a couple of months.
No one—especially McGraw—could have predicted the response. He recently launched his own Web site, www. philmcgraw.com (it got 20,000 hits in the first month). He has the luxury of turning down dozens of speaking engagements a month, and he just said no to an overture from a television network that offered him his own daily talk show. “How am I supposed to do all this?” he asked. “I’ve still got a day job I love.”
The only thing he’s said yes to is another book—one on relationships that should be out sometime in the year 2000. “Who knows? Maybe this one will flop,” he told me—but he was smiling wryly when he said it. Deep down, Phil McGraw, Oprah’s guru, knows that he’s going to remain a force in the self-help industry for many years to come. “You know, all I wanted to do was pass on some common-sense advice,” he said. “I’m still amazed that it could create so much attention.”