The Martha Mitchell Effect

Matt Freeman DNP, MPH

 

“It’s all happening. It’s happening now.”

I could smell a hint of whiskey or bourbon on my patient’s breath. His knee bounced up and down with anxiety; his eyes scanned the room. His speech  was forced hard to follow.

“She’s in the waiting room now. She could be calling them. I don’t know. She has been checking my phone. She eavesdrops. She knows people.

The patient had a long and complex story about how his criminal history prevented him from owning a business. Therefore, everything was held in his wife’s name, and she had been threatening to turn him in: to the police, the FBI, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

His speech grew louder, he fumbled for words, occasionally losing himself mid-sentence. He stood up, paced, eventually sitting back down.

I assured that my patient was not in any immediate danger to himself or others, but I struggled to figure out how I could help him. I was happy to listen, but it seemed like he needed a divorce lawyer, maybe an immigration lawyer, perhaps treatment for substance abuse.

Naturally, I wondered about hyperbole. Was this man wanted by the FBI? Did he have a crippling criminal past? Was this a delusion?

 

One phrase stuck in my mind: “The Mouth from The South.”

In one of his interviews with David Frost, Richard Nixon remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Martha Beall Mitchell (1918-1976), was former schoolteacher from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Her second husband was John Mitchell, former Attorney General under Nixon and subsequent head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The Mitchells ironically lived in the Watergate Building.

Julie_Nixon_Eisenhower_with_Martha_Mitchell_-_NARA_-_194649Martha Mitchell with Julie Nixon

 

Amid marital spats, prescription drug abuse, and alcoholism, Mrs. Mitchell called Washington journalists, often late at night. She spoke with Helen Thomas, Carl Bernstein, and Bob Woodward. Although the exact conversations were not recorded, Mitchell reportedly revealed her husband’s complicity in “dirty tricks” operations of the Nixon administration, particularly her husband’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP).

The phone calls famously came from her pink “princess phone.” Her Arkansas twang earned her the nickname, “The Mouth from The South.”

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Martha Mitchell became a celebrity, posing for television interviews and magazine covers such as People and New York.  She called for Nixon to resign, clarifying that the public was well aware of Nixon’s misdeeds. Her histrionic demeanor could have been inherent, a reaction to her husband’s efforts to silence her, or a function of alcoholism.

Mrs. Mitchell stated, “I’ve been persecuted more than anyone since Jesus Christ.” She made it clear that she wanted to be known as “Martha Mitchell, not Mrs. John Mitchell.” Her draw for attention was famously exemplified by her clothes. “What I wear,” Mitchell said, “nobody else would buy.”

Her motivations were not political. Although she clearly detested Nixon and CREEP, her “phone capers” erupted after learning that John Mitchell was reportedly dating one Mary Gore Dean. A snub to her ego and image pushed her to pick up the “princess phone.”

John Mitchell
John Mitchell subsequently served 19 months in prison

 

Motivations aside, Mitchell was billed by some as a hero. She spoke openly and publicly about a corrupt political administration. Coming across as a deranged and attention-seeking, Mitchell incited even greater interest in journalists, eventually leading to the downfall of the Nixon Presidency.

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The Martha Mitchell Effect

The Martha Mitchell effect in psychology and psychiatry refers to a failure of a clinician to verify potentially plausible claims of a seemingly delusional patient.

When I took abnormal psychology in 1994, I remember my professor, a clinical psychologist, citing an example. A patient of his claimed that he was being followed by the FBI. In attempt at reality testing, the psychologist and the patient sat together as the psychologist called the FBI. He inquired if his patient was under investigation. Indeed he was under surveillance.. The patient had written a threatening letter to Lyndon Johnson. The patient may have been paranoid, even struggling with a thought disorder, but he was still being followed by the FBI.

 

The patient who came to see me with stories of his wife, ICE, the FBI, was under the care of a psychologist. I relayed to her his concerns, and therefore left it up to her to pursue any investigation into the veracity of his claims.

Was his anxiety and paranoia due to an actual pursuit by the government, or was he delusional? I will never know.

 

The message is critical for any clinician: We all hear outrageous or bizarre claims of persecution, spying, and other threats. Even a patient under the influence of alcohol or drugs, even a psychotic patient, even a patient with a personality disorder can still be telling dangerous truths.

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References

John N. Mitchell Dies at 75; Major Figure in Watergate. The New York Times. 10 November 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/10/obituaries/john-n-mitchell-dies-at-75-major-figure-in-watergate.html?pagewanted=all

Maher B. Anomalous experiences and delusional thinking: the logic of explanations. In Oltmanns and Maher B (Eds.) Deulsional Beliefs. Chichester: Wiley. 1988.

Martha Mitchell speaks out about Nixon, Watergate. 15 June 2012. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-18436516

McLendon W. Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell. New York: Random House. 1979.

 

This blog entry was originally a lecture I gate at Pacific Lutheran University.

All images designated as public domain

© 2016

 

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