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N. Texas psychologist helps Dr. Phil stay centered

When the TV host needs advice, he turns to G. Frank Lawlis

02:19 PM CST on Sunday, December 3, 2006

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

LOS ANGELES - Steven Perkins was a gawky kid in a burr haircut, a borrowed suit and a story made for intervention television.

The 19-year-old had threatened to burn his grandmother alive. He made a hobby of tormenting his kid sister. He had been booted from five jobs and three schools. He snarled on a video clip that it'd take a SWAT team to get him off the family couch. His mother, a single parent preoccupied by her own bad childhood, volunteered on camera that she felt "empowered" the day she decked her 6-foot-6 son.

Frank Lawlis counseled clients recently at his
Lewisville office after they appeared on "Dr. Phil."

"I haven't given up on you," Dr. Phil McGraw boomed to the teen and his studio audience, setting up his famous punch line: Did Steven really want to change? Lips quivering, the teenager said yes. Then the cameras swung to a white-maned man smiling in recognition from the front row - an avuncular answer to Dr. Phil's Dutch uncle, with a twang twice as thick.

Steven Perkins, meet Dr. Phil's personal Yoda: North Texas psychologist G. Frank Lawlis.

"We will have you go to Dr. Lawlis' diagnostic center and work you up like a Thanksgiving turkey," Dr. Phil said.

"You won't believe everything that we're going to figure out about you."

"We can do this," Dr. Lawlis said backstage, patting the red-eyed teenager who seemed to have just morphed into the world's biggest 5-year-old.

As Dr. Phil's gatekeeper and resident sage for his show's 10 production teams, Dr. Lawlis, 66, has screened every guest since the program started in 2002. He has treated a number of them for free at his Lewisville clinic. He takes particular interest in children and teens, because he was labeled "retarded" at birth and struggled with learning disabilities. He has consulted on Dr. Phil's self-help books, and has the second of his own - The IQ Answer -on the New York Times bestseller list.

Dr. Phil says their 40-year relationship endures because Dr. Lawlis offered intellectual challenge and personal kindness when he didn't have to and has been there for him ever since. They met in 1976 at the University of North Texas. Their relationship evolved from teacher and student, to mentor and acolyte, to colleagues and lifelong friends.

"I would need something, ask something, need time, need this, need that, and Frank never said no," Dr. Phil said. "And the guy has an encyclopedic knowledge of psychology and medical psychiatry. He's scary smart."

Dr. Lawlis was a pioneer in mind-body medicine long before Dr. Phil became a pop-culture icon. Dr. Lawlis' eclectic body of work ranges from statistical methodology to exploration of shamanism and tribal drumming.

His key role in daytime TV's No. 2 show - chatting each morning with Dr. Phil, guiding producers by phone from his cluttered home office in Sanger and shuttling monthly to Hollywood - surprises no one who knows him. He has always meandered between medicine and psychology and spirituality, shape shifting from professor to inventor and even to chewing-gum consultant.

He has worked at five medical schools and started a corporate wellness program in Japan. He headed a prayer foundation in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology near San Francisco.

Some of his methods and ideas are unconventional, to the point that Dr. Phil sometimes rolls his eyes about his former professor getting too big a dose of Santa Fe before reclaiming Texas. Dr. Lawlis laughs that some of what he embraces is "a little spooky," but he uses what he has seen work.

"You have to honor the science. Otherwise, nobody's going to listen to you. You have to use the right language, and science is a language," he said. "I just don't buy into the rigidity of science. Nearly all statistics are based on linear thinking, and nature is not linear. It's kind of a human frailty to try to lump everything into one system."

Former Dallas physician and Santa Fe resident Larry Dossey, a leading thinker and author on spirituality and healing, calls his friend one of the first "great world authorities" on biofeedback. He notes that Dr. Lawlis was among the earliest to teach patients to use visualization and imagery to ease physical suffering and heal.

"Frank is one of the most creative, inventive and intuitive psychologists I have ever met. He is extraordinarily charismatic and has a marvelous grasp of what makes people tick," he said. "Some people are gifted quite naturally at understanding human beings. Others acquire it through training. Frank is all of the above."

Slow start

At first, nobody thought he'd even finish high school.

The Panhandle doctor who delivered him in 1940 declared Frank brain-damaged - probably hopelessly retarded.

His father, trained as a math teacher, tutored him until the shapes dancing through his schoolbooks became numbers and solvable problems. His mother channeled his dreamy disorganization. Both parents praised the smallest accomplishments of Frank and his older sister, Nanciruth Autin of Bay City, Texas.

His mother decided to test his IQ while studying to be a school counselor. The results stunned everyone: The boy labeled "dunce" was way above average.

A Levelland football coach helped Dr. Lawlis learn to play tackle well enough to win a scholarship to the University of North Texas. He got a math degree and passed up the chance to play pro ball to be a coach in the West Texas town of Andrews. There, he said, he found out he was a better cheerleader and collaborator than know-it-all. He racked up losses in football but produced winners in basketball and track - the sports he had to learn alongside his kids.

His principal inspired out-of-the-box teaching methods, too. So Dr. Lawlis played piano, juggled wooden blocks and cut apples to get slow kids to grasp complex math. From then on, he says, he favored quirky, playful approaches because they got ideas across.

He considered following his mother and sister into counseling, but family history, an influential professor and pop culture pushed him in another direction.

When Frank was 19, his father died of cancer after a long string of business failures and a local political drubbing. Frank and his sister recall that their father always saw the good in everyone else but had seemed to lose all hope and surrender to the disease.

His mother had ailments like other moms collected knickknacks. She had operations every summer, and her children recall her constantly downing prescriptions. She dosed her son with phenobarbital, a powerful sedative, Dr. Lawlis said, until his first IQ test showed he wasn't retarded.

A Texas Tech psychologist electrified him with talk of revolutionizing medicine by integrating psychology into healing arts.

A TV drama, The Eleventh Hour, glamorized psychologists in 1962 and 1963. Its heroes - a passionate, young psychologist and his older, wiser teacher - gave hope to troubled patients.

"I was, like, OK! Psychology!" he said. "I was just going on a fantasy."

After earning his Ph.D. at Texas Tech, Dr. Lawlis started teaching at the university level and began exploring ways to help people labeled medical failures.

He was fascinated with helping people muster inner mental, emotional and spiritual resources to get well. Showing a back patient how to balance on two bathroom scales could teach them to ease their aches without drugs. Giving chewing gum to young underachievers improved their breathing, sharpening mental focus. Drumbeats could soothe chronic pain and anxiety.

"You can change your body. You can strengthen your muscles. You can really change everything," he said. "But you've got to know how."

He questioned convention that technology and drugs were be-all-end-alls and older healing pathways were hokum. And he began learning from native healers, who treated disease as a rip in the social, emotional and spiritual fabric of families and communities. "A lot of their wisdom," he said, "we need to recover."

Meeting Dr. Phil

He returned to University of North Texas in 1976 to join the psychology faculty. A young Phil McGraw signed up for a graduate seminar, Dr. Lawlis said, "and we spotted each other immediately."

Dr. Lawlis started the first class by throwing out questions. Fourteen students ducked their heads to scribble notes. One, a large, balding 30-something, just kept looking at him.

"I was thinking, 'This guy's either really stupid or he's really smart,' " Dr. Lawlis said. "When you see something like that, you almost get offended."

So he aimed his questions at the future Dr. Phil, who fired back provocative answers. They kept going after class and ended up restructuring the seminar together. Soon, Dr. Lawlis was Phil McGraw's dissertation adviser, and soon after, his friend.

"He was always right there for me," Dr. Phil said. "We talked every day."

Dr. Phil was harder-edged, certainly less woo-woo than Dr. Lawlis, who was already gaining a national reputation as a sort of academic mystic.

But the professor and Dr. Phil shared rural Texas roots. They were only sons of families that had known hardship. They'd gotten to go to college because football paid their tuition. Both had been through divorces and had kids. Professionally, both were doers who weren't big on talking cures or magic chemical bullets. They preferred plain speaking and step-by-step treatments that started with patients taking responsibility.

The two men collaborated on research after Dr. Phil joined his father in a Wichita Falls psychology practice, and Dr. Lawlis also pitched in when Dr. Phil set up a pain clinic. Dr. Phil used Dr. Lawlis as a speaker and consultant as he moved into self-improvement seminars and a trial strategy firm in Dallas.

Oprah Winfrey's lawyers hired Dr. Phil's firm in 1998 to help defend the "mad cow" slander suit brought by West Texas cattlemen. She started having him on her show to dispense "life-strategy" advice.

If the guests seemed interesting, Dr. Phil said, "I'd call Frank, send him some notes and talk." So when Ms. Winfrey's Harpo Productions proposed Dr. Phil start his own show, Dr. Phil said, "I wanted Frank on board."

By then, Dr. Lawlis was back in the Dallas area after years of living in California and Santa Fe. He had a new home in Sanger, so everyone agreed to let him consult long distance for the show.

Producers have run every proposed story idea and guest past Dr. Lawlis. "He'd tell 'em what I would tell 'em," Dr. Phil said.

The show's formula is simple: Present a problem that viewers can identify with, involving characters they relate to. Dr. Phil then offers no-nonsense advice applicable to viewers' lives. "It's not a talk show; it's a to-do show," Dr. Phil said, "and Frank is central to that."

Dr. Lawlis said he vetoes some ideas and guests - involving pathologies or "people who cannot handle the intensity of being on TV."

Anyone seeing a therapist must get written OK to be on, and guests' therapists are often flown in for the show's tapings. Dr. Lawlis adds that everyone must grasp that "there may be some risks to their community relationships and their family relationships, too."

"If they're not, then I won't let them on," he said. "These people share their guts with 7 million people a day."

Terrifying behavior

The recent TV episode featuring Steven Perkins, the troubled teenager, is typical. His mother wrote in last summer, complaining about her son's terrifying behavior. A producer called the family in Spokane, Wash.

Dr. Lawlis approved Steven and his mother as guests and wrote his ideas. Steven was fatherless and starving for male role models. He had been on heavy attention-deficit drugs from kindergarten to sixth grade, ending up with a big man's body and a 5-year-old's impulse control.

He also knew he was messing up. So a male authority like Dr. Phil might turn him around by offering encouragement and help if Steven agreed to do his part. Dr. Lawlis' synopsis was a key part of the thick notebooks Dr. Phil reviewed the night before the show.

By 7:30 a.m. on the day of the taping at Paramount Studios, Dr. Lawlis huddled with Dr. Phil on the first floor of the Mae West Building, headquarters for the show's staff of 250. In the next hour and a half, he juggled calls on his Blackberry, hunted a polygraph expert for another episode and talked about a previous guest just out of drug rehab.

By 9:30, Dr. Lawlis was parked on the front row of the cheering studio audience. An hour later, he left Steven Perkins in a bare, dim holding area offstage, giddy about going to Dallas.

"Great show!" Dr. Lawlis told the segment producer as they crossed a back-lot alley from Studio 29 to Dr. Phil's office. "We had tears and drama, we had laughter - real emotion."

"Steven felt better," the producer beamed. "He needed an older guy to talk to him. He's never had that before."

Dr. Lawlis ambled across "the floor," a warren of cluttered desks for the show's production teams. As he paused at an office door, a scrum of staffers chorused, "Dr. Lawlis!"

"Are we having a meeting?" he said, prompting laughter.

He shuttled back and forth, with occasional stops in Dr. Phil's executive suite, sometimes only long enough to joke. Lacking a desk in a building where even Dr. Phil's dog Maggie has office space, Dr. Lawlis laughed that he's "the invisible man," appearing and disappearing as needed.

Back in Texas

A week later, Dr. Lawlis had reappeared in Texas, watching Steven Perkins and his mother make the rounds of his clinic in a strip office center west of I-35. Dr. Lawlis' partner, child psychologist Barbara Peavey, supervised Steven's workup, including biofeedback, testing, and training in breathing and relaxation.

Between sessions, Steven swigged Mountain Dew and sprawled in an office chair, chatting with his mother. There was none of the menace he'd radiated the week before.

Steven's assessment was a shortened version of the workup that has drawn patients from across the U.S and as far away as Saudi Arabia. The clinic sees only two patients a day, many of them children with learning disabilities who haven't responded to ADD drugs or whose parents don't want their kids on medication.

Mainstream medical groups have called drug regimens proven treatment for ADD. But Dr. Lawlis says he has seen too many kids misdiagnosed and overmedicated.

"If you have a problem with your kid and I say this pill will fix your kid, you don't have to change anything you're doing," he said. "That's a more compelling argument than mine, which is that you're going to change the way you eat, you're going to have to change the way you sleep, and you're going to have to change the way you parent."

At the end of the day, Dr. Lawlis sat with Steven, reviewing the teen's things to do. The show was lining up a counselor for the family and a life coach and tutor to help Steven get a GED. Steven promised to look for a job.

He'd go home with a biofeedback device dubbed a BAUD. The device, the size of an iPod, emits rapid drumming tones into earphones. Dr. Lawlis developed it with his engineer son.

Dr. Lawlis told Steven he'd seen it help patients like him improve focus and control anger. "I'm betting on you," he added.

Weeks later, Steven's mother, Paula Oury, marveled at her changed son. He hadn't found a job yet, but he was looking. There were still problems, but he was trying. The amazing thing: The boy called Dr. Lawlis his new friend.

"I've tried so many different therapists, psychologists, counselors. He's finally realized - I think he's getting it," she said. "Maybe Steven is going to be the man I always, always, always knew was there."


At a Glance


Residence: Sanger, Texas

Birthplace: Stamford, Texas

Married to: Susan Franks, psychology professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth

Work: Chief psychological content adviser for the Dr. Phil show

Other current work: Supervising psychologist, overseeing testing and testing standards for Arlington-based American MENSA, the national organization for people with high IQs.

Founder and partner: Lawlis and Peavey PNP Center in Lewisville - a clinic offering mind-body evaluation and treatment plans for children and adults with learning disabilities and other psychological conditions. Dr. Lawlis founded the center in 2004 with Dr. Barbara Peavey of Grapevine. It charges a flat $6,975 fee - dubbed "a Dr. Phil Special" - for a two-day assessment and follow-up. The clinic regularly treats guests for free after TV show appearances.

Web sites: and

Excerpts from Dr. Lawlis' books

From The Cure (1994):

"The question that finally emerges is: How can we use all that is given as a means of stepping further into love for ourselves and others, including our disease and our emotions about our disease? Cancer is one of the most threatening to us because it means a definite change in ourselves ... All that is dear to us is threatened, and we come face-to-face with all of our values and concepts. We also realize the insignificance of our material possessions. We are naked to this disease, and being naked is extremely frightening. But nakedness can also be freedom, without the restraint of masks or pretension .... Disease is often a brutal and terrifying experience, but it is also a teacher."

From Transpersonal Medicine (1996):

"Humans as a species did not suddenly develop the capacity to heal with the advent of chemical technology ... Perhaps we should study the older forms of healing as an avenue toward understanding the phenomenon. The immediate result of looking at ancient ways is the recognition of the role of consciousness as critical to all concepts of rejuvenation ... At its root, transpersonal medicine recognizes that the power of love, compassion, community and intention are as important to healing as any of our pills and medicines, and possibly more powerful."

From The ADD Answer (2004):

"My interest in medicine and healing began when I was a child, growing up with a mother who had numerous surgeries spread out over many years. Being a good son, my first choice was to be a traditional doctor. However, I soon became aware of the limitations of medicine, and I eventually chose to become a psychologist who worked in the medical field. I quickly discovered that there are often a number of approaches to diseases and conditions that are very effective and scientifically valid but that never see the light of day. Many of these alternative treatments take longer than the typical seven minutes currently allowed in the doctor's office, so the traditional medical solution - a pill - is usually prescribed without even a brochure explaining the medical alternatives."

From The IQ Answer (2006):

"The first step is to realize that you have no real limitations. Then, you need to open your mind to the possibilities that exist for you. Your first step will be challenging, but stimulating, too ....

"There is no reason for you to accept 'average' grades or levels of performance. Nobody was born to be mediocre, so don't accept mediocrity in any aspect of your life. We can each find a way to overcome whatever has held us back or slowed us down. Insecurities, depression, anxiety, ADD, and even brain trauma are all challenges that can be overcome. The conditions cannot only be overcome, they can even be used to work in your favor."

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