He thinks she doesn’t love me as much as she used to. He doesn’t see she’s really concerned about him and trying to help. He misinterprets it as criticism. She thinks he doesn’t see how much I need his help, that I’m going through a lot of stress and anxiety too.

"The 'zero tolerance'stuff (for children)drives me insane. I read that in one grammar school a kid was handcuffed for having an Advil in his possession. In another, a 6 year boy who kissed a girl in his class got into all sorts of trouble. When the media asked the principal what the charge was, she said “sexual harassment”. Now no parent wants a child hounded, but don’t you think we’re going a little too far here?"
Tom Curcio




Thomas Curcio’s therapy practice, at 9 North Main Street, East Hampton, contains clients from the working poor to the wealthy.

Most of them are dealing with the reality or the threat of unemployment, foreclosure or other extreme financial pressure. On March 7, Tom and Richard Rossenthal recorded this interview.

Richard Rosenthal: How are your clients affected by the recession?

Tom Curcio: - Bottom line – they’re frightened.

RR: -How does this play out in their daily lives? –more--

TC - With cutbacks, they must handle a heavier workload. The first thought is to protect your position. People don’t say lets cooperate and support one another. They’ve been trained to think it’s an every man for himself situation and if you do question having to do more hours for less money, you’ll be told if you don’t like it you can leave. They’re not doing as good a job and they know it. They’d like to do better, but are being asked to do more than they can do well. People become depressed and anxious.

This hurts the community as well as families. We see this all the time, but don’t connect it.– the rude credit card “debt counselor”, the long telephone hold that ends with a mumbling, rapidly speaking employee we can’t understand, the snippy cardiologist’s assistant who doesn’t call you about your test results. It’s not personal, just someone looking at the clock and saying there’s no way I can be finished by 5 or 6 or 7. The tension gets passed around in all sorts of ways.

RR - What’s happening with families?

TC - Parents are working harder, sometimes both of them at two jobs. They want to protect each other and their children, but they lack the time and energy to do it well. This often results in incorrect beliefs and a disconnect between husbands and wives.

This is the usual scenario. I see it over and over again. He thinks she doesn’t love me as much as she used to. He doesn’t see she’s really concerned about him and trying to help. He misinterprets it as criticism. She thinks he doesn’t see how much I need his help, that I’m going through a lot of stress and anxiety too. If he has no job, he feels deeply, deeply ashamed, potentially suicidally ashamed, that he’s failing as a protector, especially if he’s become unemployed and can only find minimum wage work.

It’s almost a cliché, but men have an awfully hard time asking for help. The shame makes it even harder for him. That’s maddening to her. If she were in his shoes, she’d go to friends, talk to people, which is a practical response. When he avoids this, she becomes very frustrated with him and tells him, “just do anything, go work for minimum wage.” He sees no sense in this and will not do it. You can work 80 hours a week at minimum wage and still be unable to protect your family. But she sees his refusal as false pride.

RR - So the fuse has been lit. You have teenagers as clients. What changes have you noticed with them?

TC – Mostly an increase in what’s already been there. When I ask them what their plans are for the future, the answer will likely be like this, “Go to a good college, get a good job, make a lot of money, retire when I’m 30.” I’ll say “what will you do then?”They’ll say “chill” I ask what does “chill” mean and they’ll say “You know, just chill!.”

But behind this, the kids see their dreams being shattered and their parents worrying and arguing. Many kids, especially boys, criticize their fathers as the very thing fathers dread, as poor protectors. They might actually call him a “loser.” To his face. Often a wife will not support her husband in that conflict, so now they are fighting more and the kids are involved. It’s become circular and hard to break. The mother thinks the father is not understanding his children any better than he is her. The father is devastated his son disrespects him and his wife is not backing him up, That’s enough disgrace for anybody, let alone someone who can’t find a job for more than $8 an hour.

RR- I am struck by the unfairness of the current tax situation. Very rich people remain taxed at the lowest rate in the last 70 years while working people are being scolded to accept benefit and pay cuts. Do you hear more political interest in such things?

TC- Not yet, What happens is people are OK with being called middle class, but to be called a working person! That lumps them with the “losers”. The people they see as pulling the strings and getting an unfair share - those are the “winners”. People don’t want to associate themselves with “losers”. And they fear speaking out will backfire and harm them. Better to keep quiet.

RR- Have you any “winners” as clients?

TC - Not big winners. But a few who are prosperous. A lot of people we view as wealthy don’t see themselves as winners, even though they might have a few million. Instead, they see themselves as having been taken. And they have been. Let’s say you had $30 million and Bernie Madoff made off with ten and you lost ten “the old fashioned way”, in investments. You wouldn’t feel good or secure. You’d feel manipulated by the people at the very top.

RR – I’d still have ten million.

TC - True, but feelings of powerlessness go much higher on the income ladder than you might think. Here’s an example. A friend of mine works for a large firm. She and her husband had planned intelligently. When one didn’t do well the other did. To spend more time with her two young children, she cutback to 30 hours a week and took less money. But then the company asked regular personnel to work 50-60 hours a week so she was now expected to work 45, more than what used to be considered full time, for the 30 hour a week salary and was being told to do it or lose her job.

She finds she has to resort to distasteful tactics with her staff to meet her employers higher expectations. If some project is promised to a client by 9 the next morning, she’ll say something like, “I know you all told me this job is done. I don’t have time for a further review right now. If anything’s wrong with this we’re all in trouble, so if you’re not 1,000% certain everything in here is correct you’d better take a look at it overnight.” She doesn’t feel good about it, but she’s getting a lot of pressure to produce, and feels she must pressure the people who work for her.

RR - Is this really a big change from how it used to be?

TC - Yes. They used to have the manpower to get things done.

RR - You don’t get people who are infuriated and saying goddamn it, that isn’t fair? The tax system isn’t fair, the work system isn’t fair, I’m fed up with this, it’s disgusting. Or is it dealt with entirely in terms of the individual’s desperation?

TC - I hear tremendous rage at Wall Street and the banking system, that they toyed with people’s money and nothing happened to them. But mostly I see depression, people turning it inward and attacking themselves. Even the people who ventilate feel helpless. They were caught off guard and utterly mystified by what happened. As were the experts.

RR - How’s depression manifested?

TC - More fights at home, more substance abuse. Men especially feel they should have seen it coming. They say,” I should have been smarter,” “I should have hidden my money under a rock,” “I’m stupid, what was I thinking?” Of course, that’s passed around in their homes and the community too. In one form or another everyone ends up paying.

RR - How can you help someone who blames himself so fiercely.

TC - It’s not easy. One technique is cognitive therapy. We try to bring automatic negative thoughts out to the light of day where people can challenge them and start to take charge of themselves. It won’t solve the problem, but it’s helpful. And sometimes you can bring a family together and help them find ways of dealing with a problem they’re all sharing. But we’re supposed to be the nation of rugged individuals. No complainers.

RR – Yeah, John Waynes.

TC – Right. No Woody Allens.

RR – Richard Nixon once said John Wayne exemplified American heroism. And he sure could sit on his horse in those cavalry movies. But he was exempted from military service in World War II for health reasons. There were a lot of questions about that. It’s unreal.

TC - It always disheartens me when I see politicians cheered for proclaiming that the American worker is the hardest worker on the planet. It’s not necessarily true and once you push people too hard for too little, you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns and are actually endangering family values. But still, we’re supposed to feel great we work so hard. Our families are being harmed. When our immigrant ancestors worked hard it was for the next generation. But now, there’s a feeling that no matter how hard we work, we won’t be helping the next generation.

RR - What do you feel about cell phones and parents calling their kids a lot.

TC - Cell phones serve important purposes, but they also encourage more family dysfunction. Parents putting in another hour or two at work feel they can keep track of the kids by calling them on their cell phones. They can’t. They can’t even be sure where they are. One more ingredient is dropped into the dysfunctional brew. And parents are now expected to pay for their kids cell phones. Costs commonly come to $120 a month. That’s a lot for a child to text friends.

RR - Parents can’t control their kids on-line activity.

TC - They haven’t the time or the sophistication. They’re usually three or four steps behind their kids when it comes to computers and cell phones. Which creates another set of problems. Kids can be impulsive and cruel, text something as a joke like “lets blow up the school.” Problem is, with texting you don’t hear a tone of voice and can’t be sure they’re joking. So, if that message comes to the attention of school authorities they have to take action, sometimes official action that can result in $20,000 legal expenses for the kid’s family. It might seem like overreacting, but a school principal can’t ignore that. Not in the wake of Columbine and 9/​11.

RR – So, you have to be tough. Zero tolerance.

TC – No! The “zero tolerance “stuff drives me insane. I read that in one grammar school a kid was handcuffed for having an Advil in his possession. In another, a 6 year boy who kissed a girl in his class got into all sorts of trouble. When the media asked the principal what the charge was, she said “sexual harassment”. Now no parent wants a child hounded, but don’t you think we’re going a little too far here?

RR- What would you do with the six year-old boy?

TC - Have a very brief chat and say, “I believe you kissed Suzie because you like her, but sometimes people don’t like to be kissed, especially if they aren’t asked first. Even though I know you just wanted to show her you liked her, it might be a good idea, even as you get older, not to kiss any body unless they make it clear they want to be kissed.”

RR – I like that.

TC - On one hand we have kids who are probably more pampered than ever before. On the other, they are being eyeballed more than any previous generation. With the intention of protecting children, we often harm them.

When you and I were boys, (Tom is now 57) we went out and did the rough and tumble things kids like to do. Some of us got hurt. Fifteen year-olds who jumped on motorcycles and drove them into traffic sometimes got hit by cars or who climbed barbed wire fences got cut. But there was a viewpoint that this was what it meant to be a boy. Nobody took it too seriously. Now if a boy gets stuck climbing a tree the police will be called, people will be irate and say this boy has created a lot of problems and the parents will be told they should pay for the police presence, because an ambulance was called even though the parents didn’t call it in. They felt their son was just up in a tree.

We are teaching young people that every risk they take is dangerous and will evoke charges of criminal behavior? And then we hide behind credentials of expertise, and label them as sick. Johnny has this syndrome, Mary that syndrome. In our haste not to call them “bad”, as we did in the past, we do something more dehumanizing and potentially worse.

RR– Do you think we’re overmedicating?

TC - I don’t think medicating is in itself, a bad thing. But we use enough for some people to claim meds secreted in our urine are damaging our water supply.

RR – How do you assess the trend of so many women becoming a family’s main provider?

TC - We’re not sure yet how to deal with that.

RR – What’s to deal with? Isn’t it great women have opportunities and are bringing in money?

TC – Yes. And it’s certainly better than being broke, but it creates new roles society doesn’t know how to handle yet. Here’s one. Many more women than before are asking for prenuptial agreements and absolute control of what they earn. For young men, this is confusing. Their assumption has been that the income belongs to both, whoever makes it. As would apply if he were the main wage earner. It’s a cultural shift unique to civilization and creates difficulties in families and law. What happens if the wife is the primary wage earner and they get divorced? Who will be the primary caretaker of the children? If the father has switched to being the homemaker does he get custody?

RR – Why not?

TC – Well, the question is will men and women be able to handle it? And, in this climate of insecurity, will this be good for the children?