The premise of talk therapy centers on giving a person the space to discuss and process their innermost feelings, fears and desires with a mental health expert in a professional setting. Though great in theory, in some situations, the uniquely intimate relationship between a therapist and their client can go very wrong. This dynamic — and its potential for abuse and undue influence — are the subject of a new true crime podcast, The Shrink Next Door.
The six-episode podcast, which launched on May 21 and is currently the number-one show on iTunes, was written and hosted by Joe Nocera, a veteran journalist who is now a columnist for Bloomberg. It’s the latest offering from the Wondery, the podcast network behind Dirty John and Dr. Death. The Shrink Next Door begins in 2010, when Nocera and his wife Dawn purchased a home in the Hamptons. Shortly thereafter, a man who appears to be their neighbor’s gardner invites them to a party next door, hosted by the man they thought was the owner of the property, a psychiatrist named Isaac “Ike” Herschkopf.
During their visit, the doctor was aggressively self-promotional, to the extent that he had a wall with hundreds of photos of him with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields and O.J. Simpson. After finding out that Nocera was then a columnist for the New York Times, he asked him to take a photo to add to his collection. Once they returned home that night, Dawn said that she never wanted to go back. “I remember saying to Joe it was a cross between a scene from Meet the Fockers and something — what was the other thing?’ Dawn asks during the podcast, before Joe fills in the blank: “[Federico] Fellini, you said” — and Dawn agrees.
The following summer, Nocera’s neighbor from across the street informed him that Marty Markowitz — the man who they assumed was the gardener — actually owned the home. Stranger still, his neighbor told him that Herschkopf was Markowitz’s psychiatrist-turned-roommate, but that he had recently kicked his shrink out of his house. Nocera’s interest had been piqued.
“A few weeks later, Marty came by with his sister Phyllis. The first words out of his mouth [were]: ‘This is my sister Phyllis. I haven’t seen her in 27 years,’” Nocera tells Rolling Stone. “At that point, I thought that this was something I wanted to know more about. Then, as Marty started showing me all the documents and photos he had [of his time working with Herschkopf], that’s when I knew it was a story I wanted to tell.” A few years after meeting Markowitz and Herschkopf and learning about their unconventional relationship, Nocera began working on an article about it. However, the draft never made it to print, and sat in his bottom drawer for about five years. At that point his son Nick told him to listen to Dirty John. “When I asked him why he told me to listen, he said, ‘Dad, that’s how you need to tell your story,’” he says. “I gave the draft to Bloomberg and they said they were interested. Much to my delight, [we] partnered with Wondery. The rest is history.”
But you can’t make a podcast solely from a great story — you also have to have characters who are willing to participate. Herschkopf declined a recorded audio interview, but he did communicate with Nocera via emails which were read by an actor on the podcast. According to Marshall Lewy, chief content officer at Wondery, getting access to people like Markowitz, Phyllis and three of Herschkopf’s other former patients was a credit to Nocera’s ability to connect and relate with people. And other former patients have gotten in touch since the podcast started airing. “I’ve heard from other patients since it’s come out — we haven’t covered that yet — but that’s been surprising and interesting, and validating,” Lewy tells Rolling Stone.
Though the full extent of Herschkopf’s influence over Markowitz both in and out of the psychiatry office isn’t evident in the first few episodes, the theme song — a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” — is a clue that this supposedly therapeutic relationship takes a dark turn. Without giving too much away, Herschkopf’s control over Markowitz spanned not only his mental health care, but also his personal life and professional work. Fortunately, Markowitz kept track of it all.
“Since it was such a long and unusual relationship between these two people, with so much documentation along the way, a serialized podcast felt like the right way to tell it,” Nocera explains. “It was as if there was a mystery unfolding in my backyard and it got more elaborate and confounding as I pored over 30 years of contemporaneous documents.”
Even though Nocera did a significant amount of reporting when he initially wrote the unpublished article for the New York Times, Lewy says that they essentially started from scratch for The Shrink Next Door. “Doing a podcast is very different than doing a print story,” Lewy explains. “So he did multiple interviews with Marty and with Phyllis, and started going through all the materials, and talking to other people — other patients — some of whom he had connected with earlier back when it was reporting it back in 2012, but some of whom were new.” In addition, as part of his research, Nocera says that he spoke with several experts in psychiatry and ethics to get a better idea of exactly why boundaries between therapists and clients are so important, and the extent to which Herschkopf abused that relationship.
Part of the appeal of The Shrink Next Door, Nocera says, is that millions of people have been in therapy, and this voyeuristic component of getting an inside look into another person’s sessions. It also explores the idea that something like this could happen to any of us in therapy — at least hypothetically. “A therapist said on Twitter recently that therapy isn’t a friendship between the therapist and the patient. It is a professional arrangement designed to help the patient,” Nocera says. “People who go to therapy need to keep that in mind…Anything that happens beyond the four walls of the therapist’s office should make you question whether you are with the right therapist. It is a relationship like few others.”