September 25, 2013

Don Draper and AMC’s “Mad Men”

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Paul King, MD

Parkwood Behavioral Health System, Olive Branch, Mississippi


“Mad Men,” the smash hit television series created by Matthew Weiner, has had 6 successful years and is preparing for its 7th season. The main character is Don Draper, played by the 2008 Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm. The success of the show is partly due to a cast of interesting characters and a setting in Manhattan in the 1960s with lots of drinking and smoking but is primarily due to the seductive complexity of the main character.

Don is almost always drinking and has been drunk numerous times. Is he an alcoholic? Don has had many affairs while married to beautiful, devoted women. Is he a sex addict? Don, who is really named Dick Whitman, stole the identity of Lt. Donald Draper by switching dog tags. He then is in the hospital, presumed to be Draper, and is awarded the Purple Heart. Is he a sociopath? As a child, Dick was beaten on a regular basis by his alcoholic father and only wished to kill him. His stepmother neglected him, and the only loving, maternal attention he received was from a prostitute, who nurses young Dick back to physical health and then has sex with him. When his stepmother finds out, she beats Dick with a wooden spoon and says that he is evil. Does Dick (or Don) suffer from PTSD and/or reactive attachment disorder? Don is handsome, vain, and successful and uses people (especially women) to feed his ego. Does Don have a narcissistic personality disorder? Does Mr. Don Draper represent all of these diagnoses and is therefore such a complex character because of these character flaws? In fact, a complex character does not have to be likeable; as long as he is not predictable, he will continue to hold our interest and attention, and Draper does this quite well.

I would like to show how Don Draper is a functional alcoholic who might be helped by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). As Don moves up and down in power, all of the other characters move in reaction to him. The basic AA text, The Big Book (4th edition), maps out this problem in the following passage: “Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate…. the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.”p62

The AA program replaces alcohol with God. The Big Book continues, “First of all, we had to quit playing God…. God was going to be our Director. He is the Principal; we are His agents.”p62 No episodes show Don with any spiritual tendencies; does anyone remember seeing him even setting foot in a church? In fact, Don punches a minister evangelizing in a bar. Don represents EGO, which can mean “Edging God Out.”

AA also helps one to overcome the anger and resentment that are often acquired in a traumatic childhood. The text states, “It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness…. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”p66 Connection to a Higher Power and/or God leads the alcoholic toward life versus the road to “insanity” and death.

This brings us to the last episode of season 6. In an advertising presentation to executives of Hershey Corporation, Draper goes back to his childhood to make the case that a Hershey bar provided the only comfort in an abusive childhood. Draper stated that, while growing up in a brothel, he would steal from the customers and get a Hershey bar. The effect of this pitch was destructive to himself and the other partners in the firm, as the Hershey executives exited as soon as possible. Alcoholics will destroy everyone around them. Draper is ordered to take leave from the company without a date set to return. How will season 7 begin? The complexity of this character leaves several different options—one of which may be treatment, but I doubt it.

Financial disclosure:Dr King had no relevant personal financial relationships to report.

Category: Mental Illness , Substance Use Disorder
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