Transcript of Soapbox Interview with Dr. Justin Frank

CS: Cindy Sheehan
JF: Justin Frank

CS: Welcome back to Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. I am your host Cindy Sheehan and you are listening at 

Today my guest is a dear friend of mine, Dr. Justy Frank, or Justin Frank, who practices and teaches psychoanalysis in Washington, DC and is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center.  

A clinician with more than thirty year's experience, Dr. Frank has been a former columnist for,, and continues to be a frequent contributor to on topics as diverse as politics, film, and theater.  He employs the principles of applied psychoanalysis to assemble the kind of psychological profile used in his previous best-selling book Bush on the Couch (Regan Books 2004, 5, 7) in his new book Obama on the Couch: Inside the mind of the President, released October 18, 2011 by FreePress/Simon&Schuster he does the same thing.

Dr.  Justy Frank welcome to Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox.

JF: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CS: I should say welcome back to Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox because you’ve been on before.

JF: Yes I have, in the very early days.

CS: Yes, the early days of Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox. So you’re on because you just published a new book called Obama on the Couch, which I guess I don’t know if you can call it a sequel to your book Bush on the Couch. First of all before we talk about your new book why don’t you tell us about Bush on the Couch and about your methodology because I think it is relevant for your new book also?

JF: Well it’s an old methodology called applied psychoanalysis which is taking psychoanalytical principals and applying the principals of psychoanalytical work which was originally pioneered by Freud, applying that to working with people who you don’t get to see in your consulting room like public figures sometimes even fictitious people. I mean there has been lots of psychoanalytic studies say of Hamlet. But we are familiar of political figures. Everybody knows for instance, well not everybody but lots of people know that Lincoln was depressed. There have been several extensive psychoanalytic studies about Lincoln and it involves finding out everything you can about them. Which means in Obama’s case and in Bush’s case well in Obama’s case in particular he had written two autobiographies so that is a lot of information. Plus there is all the things you get to watch in press conferences, speeches, behavior, public behavior actions and all of that.

So it’s essentially looking for patterns. Looking for ways, different things that to help understand the person better and really think about them. The CIA does it all the time now with hiring psychologists and psychoanalysts to analyze foreign leaders. Roosevelt himself hired a psychoanalyst. He was the first one to start this in the political world. He hired a well known psychoanalyst named Fritz Redlich to analyze Hitler because he thought he’d like to know how to deal with Hitler should they have to negotiate after the war. Neither of them lived through the war so it never happened but the book was printed. So anyway that’s what I do and it’s actually very interesting and very thorough time honored technique.

CS: Well it must be on the one hand easier these days because you have more video and audio and material but then that must also make it harder because you have more video, audio and material to go through.

JF: You got it exactly right. It is easier and harder. The mass of material and information and he certainly, he gives these weekly Saturday broadcasts, so did Bush but he does much more public appearances than Bush did when he was President. So it’s a lot of material. There’s no way for it to be comprehensive you know, that’s always been a problem with doing psychoanalysis because I only hear in normal situations when I am working with a patient intensively sometimes five times a week I still only hear what they tell me about so I don’t know about their lives the rest of the day except what they tell me. In a way their analysis goes on on their own too. So with Obama it is actually harder. There’s so much material and I have to start selecting things. That’s frustrating.

CS: I just got your notice the other day that your book was coming out and so I had my producer Mikey arrange this interview so it was very quick and I haven’t received my copy of the book yet so I have to admit that I haven’t even looked at it. I am anxiously waiting for it.

JF: You’ll get. You know they had a thing where they said they couldn’t deliver it over night to a PO box and I should have called you for an address that I could have given them but I’ve been so swamped myself.

CS: I am sure you have.

JF: So why don’t we talk about it now. And why don’t if you read it and don’t like it I can come back in a month or two or whatever you want and then we can talk about it again. Cause I know you will have some interesting observations. I know you too well.

CS: Pretty soon it will be Cindy Sheehan on the Couch.

JF: Well I don’t know about that. I don’t do that with people I know so you’re safe.

CS: Okay cool. So anyway tell us about the book. Tell us about Obama on the Couch and what you concluded.

JF:  Well the book is slightly different than Bush on the Couch initially because I really liked Obama and I was really frightened of Bush I initially thought that he was psychologically unstable and dangerous which I think history has born out. Whereas Obama I felt like I don’t have to see a psychoanalytic study as a kind of weapon to warm people. It’s much more a chance to get to think someone and get to know them and look at some of their issues. But the motivation for the book was that I was actually stunned and this may be more about me than about Obama. And I don’t think you were stunned actually.

CS: No I have to say that I’m not surprised by what’s been going on the last three years but I am a little stunned that it is actually worse than I thought it was going to be.

JF: Yes I think so too and I was stunned by the discrepancy between candidate and president and I was trying to understand what that was. And I knew that when he was a candidate he was not a real liberal guy. I mean I know enough about that I’ve been studying that so that was not a surprise to me. That he even took on guys like Geihtner, Summers and those people. The surprise to me and what’s in the book is about his paralysis at times. Like when there’s the oil spill and he doesn’t react. Or when there are things happening that are terrible he doesn’t react.

This disconnect between that and this methodical campaign where he just went after Hillary then he went after John McCain and he was clear and focused and strong and then even when he had bin Laden murdered it was like focused and decisive and he did it in this focused way where he was at the Press Club the night before joking around and it was the night it was going on. He was amazingly focused and yet when he is dealing with republicans, when he is dealing with his own party, when he’s dealing with congress he seems tentative and indecisive and almost paralyzed. In fact Gail Sheehy who read the book wrote a blurb on the back and said she thought he was neutered. She used the word neutered.

You know that’s after reading the book. That’s what I was beginning to, what really bothered me so I wrote this book looking in to why he was like this. One of the things I figured out is that the way he used the word change and the way that we understood, we meaning the way most people understood change was dramatically different. Most people felt he meant change away from Bush and change away from Bush’s policies like war, like Guantanamo, like economic dishonesty and unfairness, like tax breaks for the wealthy. All of those things.

CS: Right.

JF: Environmental, you know how Bush ignored the environment, ignored the Kyoto accords. So I mean the change meant a change away from that it seems like. But I don’t think that is what he meant. In researching him I don’t think that is what he meant by change.

CS: Well I say that an awful lot. You know, I say that change could mean so many different things to so many different people. And even though he didn’t mean change away from the Bush policies to me I think that he was very happy to let his supporters believe that is what he meant.

JF: I agree with that. He was very happy to be what we call in my field a projection screen. A blank screen where you project your own hopes and dreams and wishes and he allowed himself to be that and I think he actually I agree with what you said. He liked that.

CS: He did actually say that right?

JF: He did say that. He said that at one point. I don’t remember where but he did say that. During the campaign even. So I think in that sense he likes the mystery and being a blank screen and he knew in that sense he was manipulating people. I think that’s right. And that’s what I didn’t write as much about in my book as I did that we the people, that he did mean change but he meant change in a way that was very idiosychcratic to him because of his upbringing.

CS: Talk a little bit about that. Talk about what you found out.

JF: Well first of all the change he meant was change towards civility where people could actually have dialogue and discuss and that’s why he became a community organizer originally. That’s his interest. His interest is to get people to see what they have in common. That was his speech in 2004 about no red states or blue states. It’s been a focus even when, even after he made the announcement about Bin Laden. He ended that brief announcement with something about we are all in this together kind of thing.

When he talks that every chance he can. So why does he do that? As a child he was first of all bi-racial. So he had a black face and he was raised, surrounded by a sea of white faces. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is his father abandoned him when he was a baby. Abandoned the family. Not when he was two like people are saying but when he was a baby. And then his mother remarried and then he had a stepfather that he was very close to and the stepfather taught him how to box, how to defend himself.

The stepfather, he even writes that his step father was like the ground he walked on and the air he breathed he was really that intensely involved with him and then his mother took him away from the stepfather when he was ten with the overt reason and I don’t know why fully, the overt reason was that she felt that her son was becoming too Indonesian and wanted him to become more American and go to American school. So that was the second broken home. In other words. So he grew up by the time he was ten he was from two broken homes. He never had a father after that. He had a father that he yearned for. He met his natural father only for a month when he was about ten and that was it. So the next father figure he had I think in any deep meaning was Reverend Wright and that’s much later in his life.

CS: What about his grandfather? Wasn’t he…

JF: His grandfather…

CS: Didn’t he spend al lot of time with his grandparents?

JF: Yes, he spent a lot of time with his grand parents but his grandfather was a drinker who was not very focused and was sort of dismissed as an authority figure or as a wise person by the grand mother yet alone by the grandson. But the grandmother was strict and there and focused so she really helped raised him a lot and was very much involved. So he did have, he didn’t have like nobody there. And in fact his mother, the irony is though that his mother was there in a way that was really inconsistent because she was there and she abandoned him to pursue her own interests in anthropology when she went to these remote Indonesian locations.

And at one point in the book I came with the thought that he really had to struggle with his feelings about his mother because he adored his mother. He needed his mother and yet she was the only person that was so intimate and intense with him at the same time. He was probably really angry with her for pushing him but also for leaving him. She would push him then leave. So I started thinking about that and I was wondering I know, I mean I don’t know what your kids did you know because your son was killed so it’s very different. But I don’t know how your kids, I don’t remember how old your other kids were when you started traveling and speaking out.

CS: Well they were all 19 and above but still they had some difficulties with the dramatic way and traumatic way our family life changed.

JF: It was really dramatic and traumatic. And I think what happened with him was that he was a little boy and he had no siblings at the time. I mean he didn’t even have a sibling until he was nine. So he didn’t have what your kids had for growing up. Then his mother would not be around so then he never protested his mother being away. You know I had this idea, why couldn’t he say, you know I opened a restaurant when my son was six and man was that dump and I am a psychoanalyst. I was gone a lot. This was really dumb. And Joey said to me at one point, what’s more important Dad, a Dad or a restaurant? A boy or a restaurant? And that stuck with me. That was the last day I cooked at the restaurant by the way. I just said, you are right.

CS: Justy the way our society is that there are very few families that are untouched by financial difficulties or other stresses that are really pressing the average or normal American family or the 99 percent what the Occupy Wall Street people will say. You know we know that what they call a so-called family with a mom and dad at home, you know dad working and mom staying home..

JF: Those are the exception to the rule.

CS: Yeah so we’re probably from now on going to be facing this with just about everybody that runs for President now or seeks the office of the President. And what do we do when it is probably not the man or the woman that really is in charge of the empire. What do we do when the empire is so diseased?

JF: Well first of all there’s more than one way to be away.
It always hurts a child or the mother or the father when they’re not spending as much time with them or they leave. It makes them feel bad. Makes everybody feel bad and the necessity is the necessity. But there’s more than one way of attaching to your children and for them to attach to you. There’s lots of different terms for this and I really didn’t get in to that in my book but I think it’s important, very important. One of them is called anxious attachment, one is called dismissive attachment and the other is called like pursuing attachment.

I forget what it is called but it is where you always want more, where you go after your mother or father for more. Or the dismissive one is where you get your feelings hurt and boom, you cut yourself off and you don’t feel it and I think that’s what happened to Obama. I think it doesn’t have to happen that way that when people are working and they’re busy and trapped by our diseased system and everything, have to work to make ends meet and you know we are in a system that is not a good one right now. I mean it never was but now it’s coming to fruition.

CS: Can I just give you my impression of Barack Obama when I had a sit down meeting with him back in 2005 and then have you comment on it because we un believable only have a few minutes left.

JF: Oh no!

CS: I know it goes by so fast I can’t believe it.

JF: I thought it was an hour. I didn’t know.

CS: Oh gosh, no, no, no it only works out to be about 25 minutes for an interview.

JF: Tell me your impression.

CS: It’s been fascinating so far and then of course we will have you back on after I read your book for sure.

JF: Good.

CS: So after Camp Casey in 2005 I was pursued by the Democratic Party. You know they recognized the power of the antiwar movement in the United States at that point. I met with everybody. I met with Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, John Kerry, you know from Congress people, a lot of Congress people both Democratic and Republican and they were very open meetings where their staff would be there, my staff would be there. My staff who was really my sister who ran behind the scenes…

JF: I remember your sister. She was great.

CS: And half the time her stupid phone would go off and she had the Benny Hill them music on it. I would look at her and go," really,  by now you’re not turning your ringer off?" But anyway then there would be press and everything. Barack Obama insisted that it just be he and I. No press. None of his staff, none of my staff and um…

JF: He was the only one who did that?

CS: Yes, the only one that did that. You also know me very well that when I am out on the protest line it’s shorts and a protest t-shirt. So I had been going from Crawford Texas to Washington DC. It took us 3 weeks to get there. Stopping, flying and very busy. So I am still mostly in my protest attire. I walked in and the first thing he did was criticize the way I looked. Then he was very, very sarcastic, very dismissive of my input and I got the impression almost the same as when I got the face to face with George Bush..

JF: Yeah, it sounds very much like him.

CS: it was an arrogance and it was also like you said earlier a detachment from humanity. Of course I got the same impression from Hillary Clinton and most of our elected officials are to some degree bought. But a lot of them still have an ability to empathize with people. But I didn’t get that feeling from George Bush or Barack Obama.

JF: So interesting. And I have a question. Was this when he was already President or Candidate or was a Senator?

CS: He Senator was in 05’

JF: So it was early before he even ran for the Senate? Oh no he was a Senator.

CS: He was in the Senate. Yeah he was a Senator at that point.

JF: Right.

CS: But he was also the super star of the Democratic Party.

JF: Right. So this was in 05’. Oh my God. Oh my goodness. Well I’m a little speechless. I want to think about that because I think he, the thing that I thought about him and maybe he’s different form the way he is. I am curious how he is with men and with women? Because I think he is seductive not in a sexual way but seductive in a way where people feel listened to and attended to. I wonder if he is more seductive towards men that way and he feels that they feel that he pays attention and listens to them. Because I know several people and they’re women too who say they’ve never met a person who listens better than him.

CS: Oh well that wasn’t my experience.

JF: No! Not at all.

CS: I mean as soon as I was in the door he was on the attack. Attacking my appearance.

JF: God.

CS: Then of course it was the whole; we’re going to do this. And so when he was campaigning on transparency I thought that was pretty ironic considering my own personal experience with him. Our meeting was just he and I and you know of course there was no record of our meeting or anything.

JF: I am aware now of time but you’ve got me worried that Bush taught me that national politicians, especially national ones, whenever they say something about a major idea you always have to think that they also mean the opposite. So when he says I am a uniter not a divider you have to think that he is a divider. When he says he is a compassionate conservative you have to think that he is not compassionate.

Well I thought that way about Obama when he said transparency meaning he’s not transparent. But I didn’t focus on that because I was so struck by this what I call obsessive bipartisan disorder that he has that everybody get along and that blinds him to everything else. It leads him to be paralyzed. But I think you are right about transparency and even change you could say. I was writing I thought it should be called Change you can’t Believe in. Or Change you Shouldn’t Believe In. I have a chapter in the book that says he’s afraid of change.

CS: Well I can’t wait to get your book Justy and can you tell my listeners how they can get a hold of their own copy or contact you if they have any questions or comments?

JF: First of all I have a website called Justin Frank that’s very simple. Or Obama on the Couch. Either one .com. It tells about contacting me and all that and they’re reviews of the book. The cheapest way to get the book if you have a computer is because its listed $26 and they are selling it for $16.

CS: All right.

JF: Bookstores, you can get it at any bookstore and it also comes in e-books in terms of Kindle and all that stuff. So you can get it in any form you want and it’s available widely. It just came out and you’re interviewing me the day after the book was released.

CS: Yay!!

JF: So this is very immediate. It’s the longest interview I’ve had even though you had to cut it off. So that’s how you get the book and it’s pretty straight forward to get, It’s got, one of the things that’s different about it is it’s got a chapter called, Our Obama, and a chapter called, Their Obama, and a lot of those chapters are focusing on the people who support him and the people who attacked him in the beginning. Thinking about their psychology and what he means to them. The second thing that makes it different is that there is a glossary of terms at the end so in reading it you’re not stuck with psychoanalytic stuff.

CS: Um huh, jargon.

JF: Jargon, it’s very readable. I think it’s very readable.

CS: Yeah, your book Bush on the Couch was a super interesting and fast read so  I’m really looking forward to my copy and Justy my friend, as you are my friend, my personal friend, how’s the family?

JF: The family is good. My middle son is Abe is in Los Angeles making money from tutoring kids for college boards, for SAT’s to pay his rent so he can write screenplays. So he is a struggling writer. My oldest some Joey, I guess you know he made a movie and won Sundance Grand Prize so I am very proud of him winning the Sundance award.

CS: No kidding!

JF: Yeah, it was a documentary about Brazil, about corruption in Brazil and it’s really good. Then my daughter that you know, Ginevra, well you knew Joey too the oldest, the first-born. Ginevra is finishing up her senior year at the University of Maryland. So they’re all moving along and Heather is great. She’s got this big job so she can’t work for the book or anything with it. She is now Vice President at USA Today.

CS: Wow! So now that the book is finished then you should be in better touch.

JF: I will definitely. I will guarantee you. Scouts honor I will.

CS: Okay Justy. Thank you so much for being on Cindy Sheehan’s Soapbox today. 

JF: You’re welcome. I love you.

CS: Talk to you soon. Love you too.



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