Published December 20, 2015
Therapists say admitting one has a problem is the first step toward recovery. For San Diego Mayor Bob Filner that could be tricky.
The first-term mayor and former congressman starts two weeks of intensive therapy Monday while facing a sexual harassment lawsuit and calls for his resignation amid a flurry of allegations that he groped women for years.
Even as he undergoes treatment, Filner is set to be grilled by lawyers under oath this week in a lawsuit brought by his former communications director that claims he asked her to work without panties, told her he wanted to see her naked and dragged her around in a headlock while whispering in her ear.
Neither Filner nor his office has released details about his therapy or its location. Filner is picking up the tab for the treatment.
Filner's accusers, his one-time supporters and voters have expressed skepticism that any two-week program is an appropriate remedy for what Filner himself has described as years of inappropriate behavior toward women. Longtime therapists also questioned how much progress could be made.
"It is pie-in-the-sky to think that in two weeks anyone could be a new man," said Helen Friedman, a St. Louis psychologist who has treated compulsive sexual behavior for 30 years, though she said it was a good start.
Success will depend on how far the 70-year-old Filner goes in acknowledging his problems, experts said.
"Typically in the first few sessions you have to find someone you really trust," said Lilli Friedland, a Beverly Hills psychologist who advises business executives on sexual harassment. "'Can I open up with all my dirty laundry, and is this person expert enough?' It takes a number of sessions and visits to establish that trust."
Some voters wondered whether the therapy stint was simply an effort to buy time amid extraordinary pressure to resign.
"He needs to save face," said Christina Imhoof, 72, who voted for Filner in November but then quit the Democratic Party over the allegations. She said she suspects Filner will return after the time-out and say his therapist has encouraged him to resign for medical reasons.
Filner announced his plans on July 26 to enter a behavioral counseling clinic to "begin the process of addressing my behavior." He called it the first step in a continuing program that would involve ongoing counseling.
"I must become a better person ... I must demonstrate that my behavior has changed," Filner said then, while offering apologies and an acknowledgement that his "failure to respect women, and the intimidating contact, is inexcusable."
The mayor's office did not respond to interview requests.
Nine women, including a university dean and a retired Navy rear admiral, have gone public in the past month with accusations that Filner cornered them and made unwanted sexual advances that included groping and slobbering kisses. At least five renewed their calls for Filner to resign after he pledged to begin therapy.
"It is highly doubtful that two weeks of therapy will correct for decades of reprehensible behavior," said Laura Fink, who alleges that Filner patted her buttocks at a 2005 fundraiser when she was deputy campaign manager to the then-congressman.
One accuser, former Filner communications director Irene McCormack Jackson, has filed a harassment lawsuit against him. Her lawyer, Filner's attorney and city lawyers will depose him Friday.
Filner, the city's first Democratic leader in 20 years, will keep full powers while in therapy and said he would be briefed twice-daily on city business. Filner also has delegated significant authority, including the ability to sign contracts, to an interim chief operating officer, Walt Ekard, a former county administrator.
The mayor's absence comes during a summer lull, with the City Council on August recess. Nevertheless Filner's Republican predecessor, Jerry Sanders, said his absence occurs when the mayor's office normally "would get caught up, do a lot of policy work and make sure things got in order."
Sanders, who now leads the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes the scandal is affecting day-to-day business. He said department directors are hesitant to make decisions, that money has not been released for the city's tourism marketing district, and investors are reluctant to start projects.
"We are hearing companies saying: 'Why would we move to San Diego? With this going on the city is the absolute object of ridicule around the country,'" Sanders said.
Experts who spoke generally about treatment approaches and not specifically about Filner said patients being treated for addictive or compulsive sexual behavior typically get a medical examination to rule out chemical imbalances or other physical ailments.
Therapists would try to build trust so the patient is comfortable sharing personal information and try to determine if the person is in denial.
Once a problem is acknowledged, doctors try to identify what triggers the behavior so patients can develop a coping mechanism, build a support network and find other ways to control it. Long-term treatment may involve weekly group or individual therapy.
Friedman said any such recovery requires hard work over a lifetime.
"People feel after an inpatient stay that they have things under control," she said. "However, when they are back in their usual environment, they're confronted with the same triggers that got them into treatment."