Watching 'American Crime Story' With a Celebrity Forensic Psychiatrist
We spent an afternoon with celebrity psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, M.D., to talk about O.J. Simpson, El Chapo and the color pink.
"I think the show's going to be a hit," Carole Lieberman exclaims. Lieberman is a forensic psychiatrist, a former staple of nightly newscasts about the O.J. Simpson murder trial and a newly minted fan of Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which premiered on FX last night. "It combines glamour with gore and pretends to reveal secrets, allowing us to be flies on the wall of behind-the-scenes goings on," Lieberman says. "It seems more like a soap opera than a factually accurate biopic or documentary. It's like Dallas meets Criminal Minds meets Making a Murderer."
Perhaps when you hear the term "forensic psychiatrist," you think of tweedy men with over-stuffed folders of case files under their arms. Dr. George Huang from Law & Order SVU. Muted. Serious.
But Dr. Carole Lieberman is not your typical forensic psychiatrist.
She arrives for our lunch date in Malibu wearing big, white, heart-shaped Lolita sunglasses, a pale pink turtleneck, and a brown suede cape with fringe on it. She's petite and fit with frosted blonde shoulder-length hair and bangs and wears shiny, black leggings tucked into brown boots with fringe all over them. The boots match the cape. Clarice Starling, she is not.
Lieberman has testified as an expert psychiatric witness in high profile court cases like the Floyd Mayweather domestic case, Terri Schiavo, and the infamous Jenny Jones murder trial. She's also graced the witness box in divorces involving celebrities like Jim Carrey, Roseanne Barr, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
"He was an especially intriguing defendant," she says of Simpson. "I mean, if he had been found guilty and put in jail for life, I don't know that there would be that much interest. I think it's the fact that he got away with murder that makes us curious about how he did it."
For Lieberman, the racial dimension overshadows the more important issue: domestic violence and how a chronic wife-beater got away with murder.
Lieberman was born in the Bronx to what she describes as an "upwardly mobile Jewish family." When she was around eight, she read a book about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, and decided that she too wanted to be a doctor when she grew up.
"Then when I was a teenager, I read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and it was like an epiphany."
She went to medical school at a time when not many women were entering the field and did her residency at Bellevue in New York City, the infamous psychiatric ward with a storied history housing the city's criminally insane. Famous patients include writer Norman Mailer, and John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman. She describes the place as as "not for the faint of heart," and credits her entire career to her time there. "It was a petri dish of mental illness."
Today, Lieberman still sees patients once a week in her private practice, but she loves the camera. Even while she was in medical school, there was another passion brewing. "I had a fantasy," she starts laughing as she hears herself speak her childhood dream aloud, "of being on Broadway in musical theater. Never made it to Broadway. But I had this very theatrical nature to my personality. I wanted to find an outlet."
Lieberman found it in Hollywood. At one point, she was installed in the Young and the Restless writers' room to consult on all the sexual psychodrama of the frothy soap. "That was fun," she says of her work on the show. "I was on the writing team—I was honored by the Emmys."
Lieberman is braced to relive the O.J. trial through the series. She commends Murphy on the not so subtle psychological touches in the show about Simpson. "The larger than life statue of O.J. in his garden, a testament to his narcissism," she says, referring to a statue Simpson had of himself at his Brentwood home. "Like a neon sign giving advance warning of how desperate he was to keep up the image of his once revered power."
Lieberman believes that Simpson fits a classic model of a broken man with mommy issues.
"I write about O.J, in my Bad Boys book," she says, referring to one of her several books. She's written on topics ranging from relationship advice to terrorism, and even has a series of fear-of-flying relaxation CDs. "In my chapter on the "Prince of Darkness," a man who is abusive to his wife or girlfriend, when she triggers his memories of the abandonment he suffered from his mother as a child.
"O.J. Simpson's mother testified at his double murder trial that as a baby, he was literally replaced at her breast by a child who was born very soon after he was—and developed such a serious vitamin deficiency that his bones were deformed for years, and continued to cause him pain throughout his adult life. One look at the horrific photos of his ex-wife Nicole's battered face reveals how violent his jealousy of the sibling who stole his life-giving milk from him and his rage at the mother whose neglect wounded him to the bone, must be."
The woman loves her Freud.
Lieberman also enjoys the series' treatment of the Kardashians, foreshadowing what she refers to as the family's "unending quest for fame." By showing the wee Kardashians in "an excited frenzy at seeing their dad, Robert Kardashian, on TV, you can see their minds processing how great it is to be on TV and wanting to grow up to make this happen for themselves," she says.
In the series, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays O.J. Simpson as an erratic man—in one moment fragile, the next panicked, the next lashing out at everyone around him. The performance rings true to Lieberman. "He was so volatile," she says. "He was cornered. I mean, I felt he was guilty from the beginning."
Of course FX's dramatization takes liberties, bringing viewers inside rooms and conversations that the public never could have seen. The most noteworthy being inside the white Bronco during the now-famous chase when Simpson fled after police asked him to surrender in connection with the two murders.
In the series, Gooding Jr.'s Simpson has a gun to his head, threatening to kill himself.
"I remember watching it (in 1994) and they did say he had a gun," says Lieberman. "The question is—was he really suicidal?" Lieberman shakes her head. "It's unlikely. He's so narcissistic and he wasn't really grieving over Nicole's death, so he wouldn't kill himself over that. He was contemplating killing himself because he was in deep trouble! All of a sudden the walls were closing in!"
"By showing the wee Kardashians in an excited frenzy at seeing their dad, Robert Kardashian, on TV, you can see their minds processing how great it is to be on TV and wanting to grow up to make this happen for themselves."
Lieberman's one gripe with the FX series is the opening montage—news footage of the LA riots which followed the Rodney King verdict. From a story standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Los Angeles was a city in crisis coming off the violent beating of Rodney King and the riots that left swaths of the city charred. Racial tensions coursed through every aspect of the O.J. trial, including where the trial would be held (urban and heterogeneous Downtown L.A. or tony and lily-white Santa Monica?), to the makeup of the jury. But for Lieberman, the racial dimension overshadows the more important issue: domestic violence and how a chronic wife-beater got away with murder.
"The footage of Rodney King sets the tone for the viewer to see O.J. as the victim of police and prosecutor discrimination and brutality. The message is: since Rodney King suffered a miscarriage of justice, poor O.J. deserved to be acquitted. The focus is more on racism than on domestic violence, which was really what the crime was about. "
I ask if she considers herself a feminist.
"NO!" she says abruptly, putting her hand out in a Stop-in-the-Name-of-Love move for emphasis. She pauses, looks up for a moment, then back at me.
"Why do you ask that?"
I explain that she has worked hard to create a brand, a business. She has written about domestic violence against women. Her values seem to be in line with feminism.
"I became a doctor when it was hard for women to get into medical school," she says, "But I didn't do it with any—" she raises her fist into the air, "'Women should be able to!'" She shakes her head and puts her hand back down on the table. "I just did it because this is what I wanted to do."
I think that's feminism though, right? What about equal pay?
"What I don't relate to is the anger that a lot of feminists have," she says. "I think a woman should be paid the same as a man—of course. Like there was the thing recently about Mulder and Scully? Which one's the woman?" She's referring to a recent interview with Gillian Anderson about her road to getting equal pay on The X-Files series. "That's ridiculous. Of course she should be paid as much."
I hate to break it to her, but I inform Lieberman that she might be a feminist.
"Some feminists lose their femininity," she says. "And I don't relate to that part."
Lieberman's website is all pink.
"It's my favorite color," she says. "Shocking pink, actually. It goes with my tweets!"
"I'm like the Donald Trump of Twitter-dom," she laughs. "Which might not be a good thing. I say what I think."
She has over 45K followers and will discuss anything: Relationship tips, attacks in Burkina Faso, El Chapo.
"I'll wake up and I'll look at Google News and I look for things that would make good tweets, things that make me feel strongly. My tweets are controversial."
"That was one of the ones that got the most responses," she says. "I knew that if I compared El Chapo to the Kardashians, that people would be outraged."
You can follow Carole on Twitter here.