In the long running show, “The Simpsons”, the main characters Homer and Marge take on a variety of jobs across the series. These virtually always finish with the main characters back in their careers at the end of the episode, Marge as a housewife and Homer as a Nuclear Safety Technician, but they provide an interesting venue for exploring how people react in different situations.
In episode 4F18, “In Marge We Trust”, Marge Simpson decides to volunteer for the church. When the Reverend finds himself unwilling to take calls from his congregation, Marge picks up the phone and identifies himself as the “Listen Lady.” She becomes a respected lay counsellor before the Reverend rediscovers his passion and Marge relinquishes her role.
Although Marge is portrayed as an effective counsellor in this episode, is she really? I thought I would take this opportunity to examine Marge’s contact with the community in this episode from a non-judgemental perspective.
Clergy as Counsellors
Church counselling runs the gamut from untrained counsellors who donate their time, to paraprofessionals (like distress line workers with 10-30 hours training) all the way up to Masters-level clinicians trained in therapy. Most church professionals have some degree of training in mental health and counselling through their professional education (Royal, 2003).
It’s important that individuals working in spiritual services who wish to provide counselling, whether as laypeople or as professionals, seek the appropriate training and supervision to make sure that they do not harm their clients.
Marge Simpson’s Church Counselling
Marge first observes Reverend Lovejoy answer the following exchange:
Lovejoy: Lovejoy here.
Skinner: Reverend, this is Principal Skinner. I’m facing a crisis, and I didn’t know to whom to turn.
Lovejoy: All right.
Skinner: Mother’s gone too far. She’s put cardboard over her half of the television. We rented Man Without a Face. I didn’t even know he had a problem! – What should I do?
Lovejoy: Well, maybe you should read your Bible.
Skinner: Um, any particular passage?
Lovejoy: Oh, it’s all good.
Skinner: All right. Thanks anyway.
She notes that his advice is not particularly helpful. Rather than empathizing with his feelings, he merely redirects him to a resource, without any guidance. This is obviously not a tailored response and Skinner does not feel heard.
Later, when Lovejoy refuses to pick up the phone, Marge does, and the following happens:
Marge: Who is this? Oh, well, this is, um, the, uh- the Listen Lady.
Moe: Yeah, well, listen, lady. I got so many problems l-I don’t even know where to begin here.
Marge: Okay. Uh, why don’t you start from the top?
Moe: All righty. Uh, number one, I’ve lost the will to live.
Marge: Oh, that’s ridiculous, Moe. You’ve got lots to live for.
Moe: Really? That’s not what Reverend Lovejoy’s been tellin’ me. Wow! You’re good. Thanks.
While Marge’s reassurance of Moe that he has lots to live for is more helpful than telling him he doesn’t it also comes off as dismissive. Marge calls his suicidal thoughts ridiculous, and has done no exploration of his problems before jumping in with her interpretation. In real life, Moe would probably not feel heard at all by this interaction.
Marge’s next counselling session is with Lenny Leonard:
Lenny: See, all along, I’ve been telling Carl I’m married to a beauty queen. Now he’s coming over for dinner.
Marge: Oh, Lenny, I’m sure he’ll like your wife no matter what she looks like.
Lenny: No, no, no, no! It’s worse than that! I don’t even have a wife. I just said I did to, you know, be a big shot.
Marge: Oh. Well, it’s time to start telling the truth. Now, when I have to tell my husband the truth I cook him a big delicious dinner. By the time he’s done eating, he’s too full and tired to care what I have to say.
Lenny: Wow, that’s great! When Carl comes over I’ll stuff him till he don’t know what’s what.
Again, Marge skips the exploration to run right into interpretation and solution-finding. Minimal self-disclosure is helpful here, but do we know if Carl even has a big appetite? Also, Marge’s “Oh” was accompanied with a frown and a judgemental tone which would certainly dissuade Lenny from disclosing information like that in the future.
Later, Marge receives a call from Lovejoy’s wife, Helen.
Marge: Hello, Listen Lady.
Helen: Marge, people say you’ve got a real knack for solving problems. Well, this is a little awkward but, um, Tim came home from church so despondent today. He’s just been playing with his trains all afternoon.
Marge: We all need a little time to ourselves, Helen. Just give him a day or two, and I’m sure he’ll be back to his old dynamic self! Okay.
Rather than asking Helen if his behaviour is unusual, if he’s ever felt this way before, or exploring what she thinks might be causing his depressed mood (to say nothing of Helen herself talking to her husband about what he’s doing through), Marge simply tells her it’s a phase that will pass. Not good!
Problems begin to mount when Ned calls Marge to talk to her about some teenagers outside his store:
Marge: Listen Lady.
Ned: Uh, I’m in some hot soup here, Marge. Some teenagers are hanging out in front of the store. l-I think they could start slacking at any moment.
Marge: Well, Ned, you don’t have to stand for that. You just march right up to those youngsters and tell them to vamoose.
Ned: Yeah, well, if you’re sure that’ll help.
By taking ownership of the situation, Marge has not given Ned any dependence. She hasn’t explored any options or asked Ned what he thinks would be most effective. Unfortunately her oversight gets Marge in a lot of trouble, as we hear later:
Marge: Listen Lady.
Ned: Uh, Marge, I appreciate your advice but things have gotten- well, th-they’re, uh, a lot worse. [cut to boys riding their minibikes around Ned, who is standing on top of an overturned garbage can
Marge: Now, Ned, troubled boys need rules and discipline. They crave it! You just lay down the law!
Ned: [Stammering] Yeah, I know but they’re on their minibikes and all!
Marge: Oh, all right. Let me talk to them. Put me on with the lead boy.
Ned: Boys, there’s a call here for ya. [boy cuts phone cord]
Marge: [hearing dial tone] Hmm. Oh, well.
Because Marge failed to explore the situation properly, she didn’t learn that Ned was in danger, and she makes no attempt to follow up or explore his situation.
Later, when Marge goes to Lovejoy to explain that she’s put him in danger:
Marge: Reverend, I gave Ned Flanders some bad advice. Now he could be in real trouble.
Lovejoy: Oh, what happened now? Did he swallow a paper clip?
Marge: No, he’s disappeared. Oh, I’m in way over my head. I mean, where do the helpers turn when they need help?
Finally as the episode closes, Ned is rescued from the gas station he stopped at (the boys had been chasing him all night), and Marge gives up her role as church counsellor. It’s obvious that her work was very solution-focused and spent little time on exploring emotions. This clearly caused Marge a lot of issues, and other lay counsellors would be wise to avoid making similar mistakes.
Royal, C. (2003) “Knowledge of Suicide Intervention Skills: Do Crisis Line Volunteers and Clergy Differ?” MA Thesis. Trinity Western University. Accessed at http://www2.twu.ca/cpsy/theses/royalchristine.pdf on January 26, 2015.