In ‘Oh, Really?’ the Biederman Blog’s editors — voracious consumers of all matters pop culture — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular productions, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.
When writing this feature, the Biederman Blog editors pick a movie or television show that evokes an interesting legal issue, a piece of pop culture that so strays from legal reality that it compels analysis. Well, to Matt Groening’s credit, every episode of the Simpsons qualifies. Whether it’s murder, sexual harassment or even copyright infringement, this series has covered it. In this season’s installment, Love is a Many Strangled Thing, the Simpsons tackle therapist-client relations and obligations. And between the gales of laughter, there’s lot to think about, legally speaking ….
After causing Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) total public humiliation, Homer (Dan Castellaneta) finds himself in a therapy group on how to be a better dad. After several other dads recount their tales of fatherhood, Homer feels comfortable enough to share one of his delightful stories, ending with him choking Bart. Horrified by Homer’s nonchalant confession of child abuse, the therapist, Dr. Zander (Paul Rudd) schedules a private session with our cartoon hero. Dr. Zander’s solution to Homer’s violent outbursts on his son? Get 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (voiced by himself) to make the squat Homer understand how it feels to be a scared child. Dr. Zander, chooses Abdul-Jabbar, of course, because he has a good heart, telling him, “You are the only Laker I can trust.” Abdul-Jabbar proceeds to choke Homer throughout the episode until he becomes so traumatized he can’t seem to choke Bart no matter what he does.
Enduring what seems like days of choking, Homer and Dr. Zander chat.
Dr. Zander: After two more weeks of therapy…
Homer: I lied about having health insurance.
Dr. Zander: you’re cured!
Outside the confines of Springfield, Dr. Zander, in the real world, would face a world of serious legal trouble. He receives to start a clear confession from Homer that he abuses his child. While the therapist-client relationship is privileged and confidential, Tarasoff v. The Regents of the University of California allows for and even requires a break in that confidentiality in situations where a third party is endangered by a violent patient. Further, most states have reporting statutes in place, requiring therapists, teachers and others to notify authorities if they learn of potential child abuse — physical or sexual. There is an argument that enforcing reporting statutes on therapists violates a patient’s constitutional right to privacy and harms patient treatment; the State’s compelling interest in protecting minors from abuse seems to overcome any such arguments.
People v. Stritzinger provides one of the few exceptions to reporting statutes. Under Stritzinger, a therapist is not obligated to report a parent’s admission of child abuse when the child has previously told the therapist of the abuse and the therapist has reported the child’s statements to the authorities. Bart has had no previous contact with Dr. Zander before Homer, and it’s a safe bet the therapist would not have reported anything, even if Bart told him of Homer’s choking. Judging by Dr. Zander’s methods, he would have gotten Mike Tyson to train Bart on how to defend himself so that he can “face his own fears.”
And after watching the whole episode, it seems that failing to report child abuse is the least of Dr. Zander’s problems. While trying to fix Bart and Homer’s relationship, Dr. Zander ended up choking Bart himself. Don’t worry, though: Bart and Homer seek legal recourse in the show and get Dr. Zander’s house out of the litigation. Of course, Dr. Zander’s house is a hollowed out tree because even in the cartoon world the economy is so bad that patients have stopped paying for expensive therapy.
Still, Dr. Z’s got a pretty sweet tree house.