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Move Over, Dr. Phil

Sara Brinkman had never seen The Dr. Keith Ablow Show, but friends had described the host of the hot new self-help program as "Dr. Phil with an edge."

That was enough to convince the Kansas City, Kan., resident that the TV therapist was just what her family needed.

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Brinkman sent the show an e-mail requesting that Ablow help her and her sisters, Kristin and Amy, salvage a disastrous relationship with their father, Larry. The women claimed that he berated and physically abused them as children, sometimes yanking Amy's hair.

A couple of weeks later, the Brinkmans were front and center on Ablow's set, and Sara discovered what scores of viewers already knew: The one-hour show is a virtual therapy session.

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Ablow, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine graduate and 15-year therapist who gained national attention as a media analyst during the Scott Peterson murder trial, is skilled at stripping away layers of denial, defensiveness and distrust.

His show, which airs locally on WUTB, Channel 24, weekday mornings at 9, is unlike similar programs. Other talk-show personalities discuss problems with guests and then invite a psychoanalyst for an expert opinion.

Ablow's show has merged the host and the analyst, like on Dr. Phil. But Dr. Phil McGraw can be combative and abrasive. Ablow doesn't rant or raise his voice. He is firm and poignant but empathetic.

He honored the Brinkman women's requests to place stage props between them and their father. His set is decorated like a psychiatrist's office, with plush sofas, soft lighting and shelves lined with books. The audience is so quiet, sometimes viewers forget it's there.

Larry, they say you hit them all the time with a switch," said Ablow, peering into Larry Brinkman's eyes. "Did you or didn't you?"

The three women stared anxiously at their father, a graying man the size of a refrigerator, with a chiseled face. He shifted in his chair, sighed heavily and fumbled with his response.

"The girls ... the girls ... "

"Larry, Larry, Larry," Ablow interrupted. "Did you or didn't you? It's a yes or no answer."

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"No."

With that, each of Larry's daughters broke down crying.

"Larry, we should all look at each other," Ablow said. "You have a chance to set the record straight with your daughters. Life doesn't offer everybody second chances."

With Ablow's stroking and prodding, Larry Brinkman went from a state of abnegation, to repeating "I did the best I could," to admitting that he had indeed abused his daughters. Then he almost broke down as he relayed his own abuse at the hands of his father.

Sara, who didn't know what to expect when she appeared on the show, was taken aback with how many fences her family mended in an hour.

She said later that her father complained they "made him look bad" on television, but still the family will return for a taping Friday for an update show scheduled to run Thanksgiving week.

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"It was kind of scary," she said in a telephone interview Monday. "When I watched the show, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, did we actually say all that?' It was surreal. I feel this whole thing has lifted a burden off my chest. Our lives have definitely been changed since Dr. Keith and his show."

Viewer appeal

Apparently, they're not alone. Since debuting Sept. 11, the show ranks second in viewership among the four new syndicated talk shows this year, behind TV cooking personality Rachael Ray and ahead of comedians Megan Mullally and Greg Behrendt.

"There's a different daytime viewer at home, smart, educated women, and he appeals to them," said Ablow co-producer Cathy Chermol, a former Baltimore resident who previously worked for Maryland Public Television, Good Morning America and The Tyra Banks Show.

"He's not a chair thrower - nothing against chair throwers, but he's not one - and that appeals to women," Chermol said. "Right now, he's the No. 2 [among new talk shows] with women 25 to 50."

The show has given Ablow an outlet for what he believes is his calling: helping individuals and families probe their inner selves for catharsis and healing.

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It was a calling he said he discovered during his third year at Hopkins, when a path toward ophthalmology was derailed. He discovered that, as one of his professors put it, his fellow ophthalmology students enjoyed looking into others' eyes while he enjoyed looking into their lives.

"He's such a lively person and interactive with the faculty, you couldn't miss him," said Hopkins psychiatry professor Dr. Paul McHugh. "He added to the good spirits in the place."

He pursued many interests at Hopkins, including publishing a book on how to get in and stay in medical school and writing freelance articles on medicine for Newsweek and The Evening Sun. He also produced several novels and a New York Times best-seller, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson.

Though he continues to write, Ablow found his niche in psychotherapy. His talk show is an extension of his practice.

"I noticed at Johns Hopkins that my colleagues were scrambling to get into the [operating room], and I was scrambling to get out to talk to the wife whose husband was going through brain surgery about their marriage," Ablow recalled. "I wanted to talk to their kids about what was going through their minds.

"That's why I love doing this. It's given me an opportunity to showcase the best of the healing arts," said Ablow, 44, who co-produces the show. "When you listen for the truth and ask people to do their best, you can have moments of epiphany where people change and remake parts of their lives."

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Comparisons

He's aware that comparisons to McGraw, who became the most celebrated of TV psychiatrists after his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, are inevitable.

"For better or worse, I'm not Dr. Phil," he said. "I'm very committed to looking into the past and finding people underperforming as parents or spouses. They can make choices that ultimately serve to make them stronger.

"Dr. Phil has a leg up on me in terms of having a ready supply of fuel because he's a behavior therapist. He's using rules for living, and people like to hear about clean rules. Mine is less comforting. I'm challenging people to take care of their own lives."

He doesn't discriminate on topic or subject. Guests include regular people as well as celebrities.

For example, Monday's show, titled Public Headlines, Private Pain, included a conversation with Alison Clinton, a former friend and nanny to Sara Evans, the country music singer and former Dancing With the Stars contestant who accused Clinton of having an affair with her now-estranged husband. The episode also featured talks with Tyson Vivyan, a former page for former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who is accused of sending sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to boys. Foley sent him inappropriate messages in 2004, Tyson said.

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An exclusive interview in September with John Mark Karr, the former schoolteacher who was briefly charged and had falsely confessed to the unsolved murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, helped the Ablow show gain prominence.

Ablow interviewed Karr in Chermol's Manhattan office with a hidden camera and then again in a studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The two-part show aired last month.

Portions of the interview were aired on the Today show before it was shown in its entirety on the Ablow show. After the Today show airing, Karr and his attorney, Rob Amparan, claimed that portions of the interview were taped without Karr's consent. They also claimed that someone on the set induced Karr with alcohol before the taping.

In response to Karr's allegations, Laura Mandel, vice president of publicity for Telepictures Productions, which produces the Ablow show, said, "He did not receive any alcohol, and we followed all normal procedures for talk shows."

Much of the Karr interview was graphic and disturbing - even for Ablow.

"Sitting with him was like sitting with a person wearing a mask," Ablow said. "You get a very scripted John Mark Karr when he knows the cameras are rolling. But when he didn't know, you get a classic portrait of a pedophile. He believes children are not unlike adults, with their own set of desires that need to be indulged.

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"Did he kill JonBenet Ramsey? No. Does he make it clear that he's sexually attracted to little girls and he believes they're attracted to him? Yes."

Ablow lives on Long Island, N.Y., with his wife and two children after years of moving between the coasts. He said he relishes his time spent in Baltimore, and not just because it's where he discovered his calling.

"It remains my favorite city in the world. I've never reproduced the good feeling I've had about a place in any other city," he said. "The people there consider being from Baltimore such a central part of their own stories."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Dr. Keith Ablow

Age:

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44

Born:

Marblehead, Mass.

Personal:

Married, with two children

Education:

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Bachelor's degree (magna cum laude) from Brown University, 1983; medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 1987

Occupation:

Host and co-executive producer, The Dr. Keith Ablow Show; individual and couples therapist for 15 years; assistant clinical psychiatry professor, Tufts University School of Medicine

Background:

Freelanced medical articles for The Evening Sun; wrote his first book, Medical School: Getting In, Staying In, Staying Human, while in medical school. In 1990, after a close friend was murdered, he wrote the first of his best-selling crime-based series of novels, Without Mercy. Has written several nonfiction books, including a New York Times best-seller, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson.


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