Shock Therapy

This August, talk-show psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw arrived in Elgin promising to tape a year’s worth of shows that would make the Central Texas town “a shining example on the American landscape.” Then the first episode aired—and suddenly it’s the host who has all the issues.

IT SEEMS EVERYBODY IN ELGIN is keeping tabs on what Jim Dunaway is eating these days. Wherever the 49-year-old city manager goes to dine—whether it’s a sit-down restaurant or a busy to-go joint—his neighbors are watching him with an air of suspicion. Dunaway is not a vegan, nor is he even a vegetarian. By Elgin standards, he says, his dining habits have been normal his entire life. But since August, when television talk-show therapist Dr. Phil McGraw set up shop in town, Dunaway’s dietary regimen has become the topic of conversation from Austin to Iowa.

Dunaway isn’t the only Elginite being watched. To demonstrate the impact that his eponymous weight-loss plan and self-help philosophies could have on a whole town, Dr. Phil and his staff are trying to get everyone in Elgin involved. They’ve held a fitness rally attended by more than one hundred residents, organized citywide exercise programs, and facilitated nutrition support groups. Dr. Phil himself talked some local restaurants into serving healthy meals; he even persuaded the 3-H Cattle Company to introduce some recipes from his Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook. But to give his audience something to focus on, Dr. Phil needed some role models, and so he selected seven overweight Elginites to follow throughout the television season. Two of the volunteers were Dunaway, the 300-pound city manager, and Jeff Jackson, the 312-pound owner of one of the only gyms in town. Each was given a nutritionist and a trainer. And there were carrots, of course. When Jackson and Dunaway finally appeared on the show in Los Angeles before a national audience in October, Dr. Phil announced that he had a surprise: He gave Jackson three new machines for his gym worth a total of $20,000. “And I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Dr. Phil. “You two big old country boys drop fifty pounds apiece and we’ll make sure  you get some more equipment.”

There were also conditions. This being a town project, Dr. Phil created an assignment for the rest of Elgin: If locals noticed Dunaway—who admitted to a weakness for greasy foods—eating something unhealthy at a restaurant, they were instructed to throw away his plate and send Dr. Phil the bill. And when he wasn’t exercising, they were told to ask him why. Sure enough, when Dunaway got back home, strangers were checking in with him to make sure he wasn’t cheating. Once, a local runner even called him up at 6:30 a.m. and chided him for not exercising that morning, singing into the phone, “Dr. Phil says, ‘Where aaaare youuuuu ’”

The day I met Dunaway at his office, a stranger had just stopped him on the street after he’d picked up a take-out order for lunch. “What’d you get?” the woman inquired, staring at the Styrofoam box Dunaway was carrying in a plastic bag. He didn’t miss a beat: “I got the grilled chicken chipotle salad.”

BY NOW IT’S NO SECRET how Dunaway and his fellow Elginites came to be starring in their very own version of The Truman Show. This August, as has been reported all over the national media, Dr. Phil volunteered himself not only as Elgin’s new weight-loss guru but also as a personal guidance counselor for the town’s 7,200 citizens. The goal had been to find a place that was similar to “everybody’s town”—a community with an ethnically diverse population under 10,000 with an average median income—and to use it to explore the problems that affect Americans everywhere. Elgin fit the requirements perfectly. A rapidly growing bedroom community 25 miles east of Austin known as the Sausage Capital of Texas, it offered a perfect mix of small town and boomtown. So one Friday evening this summer, Dr. Phil’s producers flew from Los Angeles to Texas to propose the idea to Elgin’s city officials. Discussions lasted all weekend. By Monday the decision was final: Elgin would get a new nickname, Dr. Phil’s “Anywhere, USA.”

Opinion among Elginites, at least initially, was mixed. Some locals insisted that their citizenry didn’t need a town shrink; others thought the attention was good publicity, believing wholeheartedly that Dr. Phil’s presence would benefit the town. But then the first Dr.-Phil-in-Elgin episode aired on September 13, and viewers were hit with more dirty laundry than a washateria. The first willing subjects to appear on the show, the Waltons, a family of five who’d recently relocated to Elgin, detailed their dysfunction through a series of tear-jerking interviews during a Dr. Phil “house call.” Jim Walton is a youth soccer coach, and Elginites watched in disbelief as he confessed on national TV to looking at pornography for hours each day and having beaten his wife in the past. Later in the show, high school kids testified that students were having sex in the stairwells and selling drugs at their lockers. Before the episode had finished, the high school principal, Mary Liz Singleton, received an e-mail with the subject line: “For shame.”

To be fair, Dr. Phil wasn’t pointing the finger at Elgin specifically. As he had stated repeatedly on the episode, Elgin was “a small town with big problems, just like every other town in America.” It followed, then, that the first episode would focus on the issues that concern Anywhere, USA. After all, one had to look at the challenges before one could propose solutions.

But none of those explanations seemed to minimize the shock around town. Before Dr. Phil showed up, personal matters weren’t something you discussed in public, and Elginites were just fine with that. And while the landscape of voyeuristic TV is familiar now to every American, all that reality is easier to take when it occurs on a desert island rather than in a town where most folks know each other by name—and where the pharmacist still delivers prescriptions to customers’ doorsteps and the local furniture store owner lets shoppers buy tables or chairs on credit. “If you’re in Austin or Dallas, you have anonymity,” says Molly Alexander, a former Elgin economic development

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