The Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce: Psychiatry vs. Scientology?

When Katie Holmes recently filed for divorce from Tom Cruise, she also filed for sole legal custody and primary physical custody of her 6-year-old daughter, Suri.  Unless she is merely posturing for financial gain, this means that she is prepared to prove in court that Cruise is unable to parent effectively and might place his daughter at risk.

As a forensic psychiatrist, I have evaluated many men and women whose spouses have filed for similar exclusive rights.  In each and every case, they alleged that their wives or husbands had a pattern of erratic emotions or behavior or beliefs that would predictably and severely impact their children in negative ways.

Because Tom Cruise is reportedly a high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, and because the church is so controversial, the dictates of Scientology on child rearing may come center stage.  Holmes may well contend that Scientology’s customs or edicts about how and what to teach children are themselves harmful, abusive or a reflection of underlying mental illness in adherents.

If so, the divorce proceedings may pit one or more psychiatrists against Mr. Cruise, because such experts are traditionally the ones required to substantiate that an individual is unable to reasonably exercise parental rights.  And since the Church of Scientology is very hostile to psychiatrists—believing they are corrupt and abusive—friction between the profession and the church could skyrocket during the proceedings.

It would be wise, should this happen, to remember a few things:  First, Scientology and psychiatry both believe that people too often live as hostages to negative psychological dynamics that begin during traumatic or stressful early life experiences.  Scientology and psychiatry also both believe that it is through a guided exploration of these early experiences and the patterns they spawned that clarity of feeling, thought and action is achieved.  Less encumbered by psychological defenses like denial, the individual sees himself or herself in a true way and reconnects with his or her God-given courage, creativity and compassion.

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    It is no surprise, therefore, that L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, offered his insights to the American Psychiatric Association.   And it is no surprise, given that organization’s own rigidity, that he was rebuffed.  The ill-will that ensued has only intensified over the decades since.

    If Scientology has veered toward mind control and cult-like tactics to cower its members into remaining affiliated with the organization, then it has lost its birthright—originally rooted in the notion that individuals make choices, and that their choices must be freely made, with all the insight you can help them attain - without bullying them or buying them.

    And to the extent that psychiatry has abandoned helping people talk about their lives and understand their souls, in favor of quickly labeling them with disorders and prescribing them medications, my field has abandoned its birthright too.  Too many psychiatrists now meet with patients for ten minutes, write out a prescription and see them a month later.  Too many psychiatry residency programs don’t even offer credible training in psychotherapy to their residents.

    Katie Holmes, in presumably trying to do the best she can for her daughter Suri, may also help clarify whether the good intentions of the religion she and her husband Tom have shared now place people in harm’s way.  She may rely partly on psychiatric experts to do so.

    Perhaps, this was meant to be.  Perhaps, what is good in psychiatry—its roots in helping people free themselves from outside, negative influences and from illness—can carefully, courageously and fairly help identify anything potentially harmful in what Scientology has become (especially any way in which it hobbles individual freedom).  In so doing, it would only be in the spirit of discovery, honesty and my field’s best possibilities, if psychiatry were to revisit and re-embrace the best we have to offer—light brightly focused to illuminate anything and anyone that thrives in the shadows.

    In some unexpected way, there is the sliver of a chance that psychiatry and Scientology, meeting in a courtroom where two celebrities will dissolve their marriage, could—perhaps amidst grave distrust on both sides and against all odds—begin, nonetheless, to heal something broken in both.