John Wilson never did anything halfway, including destroying his own career.
In the 1970s, he was among the first to recognize the ongoing nightmare in which many Vietnam veterans lived. His work at Cleveland State University forever changed the way psychology treated veterans. He went on to care for patients involved in major disasters, train medical workers in war zones, and consult for the United Nations.
March 13, 2001, started like so many other days for the esteemed psychologist -- listening to a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He'd flown to Portland, Oregon, to meet with a survivor of a plane crash.
The attorneys handling the case hired Wilson to evaluate the woman. They had no way of knowing that he was grappling with darkness as well. The woman would later allege that far from helping her, the engaging, professorial doctor turned into a drunken predator before her eyes. Though Wilson had stumbled many times before, that strange afternoon would mark the beginning of a free fall.
Many good people fall into bottles. Wilson's descent, however, was especially steep. His drinking exacerbated other self-destructive habits hidden beneath a meticulously polished surface. Alcohol wasn't his only intoxicant; success was also his drug.
Wilson left his parents' home in Columbus the day he graduated from high school in 1965, moving to Washington, D.C., with his best friend.
But as American involvement in Vietnam escalated, the two were faced with a choice. Wilson became a full-time student at Baldwin-Wallace College, thereby avoiding the draft. His friend and another longtime friend enlisted in the Marine Corps.
When they returned from Vietnam two years later, Wilson took them out for a beer. He wanted to reconnect, to know what war had been like.
"They didn't say anything. They just sat there, tense, you know?" he recalls. "And I said, 'Hey, c'mon, what happened? Talk to me . . .' And they just turned and looked at me with this really intense sort of scowl on their face, and said, 'Talk to you about it? You weren't there, you wouldn't understand.'"
Wilson went on to earn a Ph.D. in personality and social psychology at Michigan State University. In 1973, Cleveland State offered him a teaching position. He was surprised to learn how many Vietnam veterans were students there.
"They stood out," with their beards and long hair and olive jackets. "You could feel their anger. It wasn't manifest in any overt way, but when they would ask questions, particularly about psychology issues that dealt with real-world situations -- Nazi holocaust, obedience to authority, why don't people always act in accordance with moral principles, stuff like that -- you could sense their intensity."
They began dropping by his office. And when they opened up about the war, he listened.
Word spread. More and more vets visited Wilson. He formed evening discussion groups.
"One of the recurring themes was 'I can't talk about this. I can't tell my parents about this, I can't tell my girlfriend about this, I can't tell other people. They don't understand. They wouldn't believe it,'" Wilson recalls. "And there was a lot of fear that if they told the real truth about some of the ugly stuff in Vietnam -- burning villages, killing women and kids and old men . . . How are you going to tell your mom and dad you did this stuff?"
Wilson also conducted interviews with hundreds of vets. He describes those encounters in an essay he was asked to write for a book on trauma specialists: "I began to sense the uniformity and common suffering of their postwar lives: the nightmares, flashbacks, isolation, anger, loneliness, loss of identity, binge drinking and feelings of betrayal and abandonment. In varying degrees, they all shared a 'syndrome' of sorts . . . I often had the feeling that I was looking at the tip of an immense iceberg whose depth of dimensions scared me."
In 1975, the year that the North Vietnamese took Saigon, Wilson began seeking research grants to expand his work. One year and numerous polite rejections later, he considered abandoning the effort. Then he met Henry Vasil.
A 6-foot-4 former weight lifter and track star, Vasil had been manning a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. The explosion ripped away parts of his limbs, chest, and head. Shrapnel shredded what was left. He spent more than two years in hospitals and was a thin and badly scarred engineering student when he met Wilson.
Vasil asked frequently how the research proposals were coming. In 1976, he picked up the phone, called the Disabled American Veterans' headquarters in Washington, and asked for national commander Dale Adams. After introducing himself, he handed the phone to Wilson.
Soon, a $50,000 check from DAV arrived. The Forgotten Warrior Project was under way.
In the report completed two years later, Wilson painted a bleak picture of the toll that the brutal guerrilla war, then little understood by the public, had taken on soldiers, who averaged 19 years old.
As psychological studies go, Forgotten Warrior was a bombshell. Wilson was called to testify before a Senate panel investigating the fed's woefully inadequate veterans' services. The White House asked him to assist in developing an outreach program for the Veterans Administration. After President Carter signed the bill that funded the program, he sent Wilson a framed copy of the original.
The media also took an interest in what had come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder. A few hours after appearing on 60 Minutes in 1980, Wilson received a phone call. On the other end was a voice he hadn't heard in 13 years -- his best friend from childhood, who'd gone to war and come back a stranger. "Jack, ol' buddy," he said, "I need to talk to you. Can we meet somewhere?"
When Wilson was a boy, one of his role models was a Methodist minister. The reverend was also a psychologist and social activist who, as Wilson puts it, "walked the walk."
Wilson wanted to be that kind of psychologist as well.
"Being a college professor is a wonderful job, it really is," he says. "But [working with veterans] was challenging . . . It's the challenge of sitting across from a human being who's had his soul ripped apart by the worst experience imaginable and trying to be there with him and understand it, and under other circumstances, to help him."
Wilson identified with the veterans. In conversation he even sounds like a vet, citing Vietnamese locations and military unit numbers with authority, and using the slang "walk point" to describe his leading role in PTSD treatment.
Years later, Wilson concluded that the helplessness he'd felt while watching his father's slow death from cancer made him better able to relate to despair. That he'd witnessed profound change in two longtime friends helped as well. But only much later would he recognize the downside to being attuned to the pain of others: Their symptoms can be contagious.
"In the early years, I was lonely, I was alienated," he recalls. "I can look on that today and just say that was inevitable. But at the time it was painful."
At social gatherings, colleagues began to avoid him; he was too quick to talk about the depressing study he was engaged in. Eventually the invitations stopped coming.
Even the recognition and opportunities that came with being a dynamic young expert in a new field of science had unintended consequences. In addition to teaching at CSU and working with vets, he wrote extensively and launched a legal consulting practice, which was lucrative but time-consuming and often required travel. The time away from home took a toll. He had an affair -- and learned that his wife was having one with a vet whom he knew. They divorced two years later.
Through it all, Wilson took on more and more work. And like the suffering veterans he treated, he sought relief in the bottle. At one point a vet told him, "Doc, you look like one of us now."
He remarried in 1986 and would later tell a therapist that he and his new wife were very happy together, traveling and decorating their home with objects collected along the way. But he continued to work and drink obsessively, telling himself he could manage both. He made increasingly frequent visits to war zones: Kuwait, to treat Americans rescued after the Iraqi invasion; Bosnia and Croatia, to help refugees and aid workers. In his first hour in Sarajevo, he saw corpses of those gunned down by Serb snipers.
While conducting an evaluation in Houston in 1998, Wilson suffered chest pains. He was diagnosed with a potentially serious heart condition and told to avoid stress. Of course, he didn't.
By 2000, he was drinking so much that his wife insisted he seek help. He spent a month in rehab that summer, then sought additional support at the Cleveland Clinic. In October, he told his wife they needed to take some time off and travel. She counter-offered by asking for a divorce.
The papers were served in January 2001, but he and his wife were still sharing a house. That same month, he returned home early from a business trip to find her having sex with their heating contractor -- a friend of the couple's. They hadn't heard him enter. He spent 45 minutes in the kitchen, fuming, pacing, wondering how to confront them.
Singapore Airlines Flight 006 had reached about 165 miles per hour, too fast to abort takeoff, when the pilot realized his mistake. The runway was blocked.
Flight 006, carrying 159 passengers and 20 crew from Taiwan to Los Angeles, had attempted to use a runway that was closed for repairs. The Boeing 747 collided with construction machinery, breaking the fuselage in three places, which resulted in a fiery explosion. The October 2000 crash left 83 people dead, most of them in flames.
Among the survivors was an American couple heading home to Portland. They retained Kreindler and Kreindler, a New York law firm known for its work on air disasters. The firm arranged for the wife to be evaluated by a specialist with whom it had contracted before, Dr. John Wilson.
They met in a hotel room in Portland. After spending the morning talking about the crash and her life since, Wilson and the woman went to lunch. The following account comes from the six-page complaint later filed with the Ohio State Board of Psychology.
Client D, as she is identified in the board's thick file, says that at the restaurant, Wilson requested a secluded table, telling the hostess they were lawyers. Wilson ordered wine.
Their conversation was wide-ranging. He told her of clients he'd helped in the past, including a female zookeeper who'd been mauled by a tiger.
By the time he was on his third glass of wine, she politely refused more, explaining that if she continued drinking, she'd be in no shape for the psychological tests. "He said that we weren't going to do the actual tests today," she wrote in the complaint. "I found this confusing as I understood that I had to undergo formal testing. However, as Dr. Wilson was the expert and in charge of the evaluation, I assumed that he knew what was best to do . . ."
Wilson asked the waitress to call them a taxi. Client D told the driver to take them to the hotel, but Wilson said no and named another restaurant. "As he had previously asked me how I was in a restaurant, I thought this was part of the evaluation," she wrote. "I thought he was trying to see how I reacted or behaved in environments that were familiar to me."
Over champagne, Wilson asked about her husband, and suggested that he evaluate him too -- though he admitted that might be difficult. When she asked why, he explained, "It's always hard to evaluate a man when you want to sleep with his wife."
She tried to change the subject, but he persisted, noting that from what she'd said in the interview, there seemed to be little passion in her marriage. "He then told me that he was great in bed. I said 'Oh, come on!' and he said that he could give me the phone numbers of women in Zagreb [Croatia] who could attest to his sexual prowess . . . He subsequently told me, in some detail, how he had discovered that his wife had been having an affair with the plumber and that they had split up."
Remembering that Wilson had previously told her he was meeting friends later, she urged him to call them. Plans were changed, and they returned to the hotel and joined his friends in the restaurant there. Wilson drank more wine amid a discussion of Irish poetry. "I felt uncomfortable in the setting," she wrote, "and felt totally confused and unsure about the direction of the evaluation. I knew that I needed to discuss this with him."
Wilson eventually returned to his room. Client D intended to discuss the afternoon with him. "At that stage, Dr. Wilson physically jumped on top of me (I was sitting on a chair) and pinned me to the chair. He asked me to go to bed with him, and said he wanted to be my tiger . . . I said no. He said he had fallen in love with me . . . He said that he had enjoyed my company and that he had been watching me during the interview. He clarified this as watching my body (including my eyes, my lips, my hands, body movement) and said that he had been attracted to my voice on the phone before he met me. I asked him why he was doing this and did he know how much damage he was doing to me. He didn't respond other than to offer me the best sex that I'd ever had . . ."
Wilson suddenly let go and lay down on the floor, indicating that he might be having a heart attack. Jumping up again, he said he needed his medication, and she helped him search the bathroom for it. She said she was going to call her husband, but he asked her not to. "Now terrified, I locked myself in the bathroom and used the bathroom phone to call home," she wrote. But she got the answering machine.
Leaving the bathroom again, she found him lying on the bed. He declined her requests to call the front desk or take him to a hospital, but begged her not to leave. He talked about his dissolving marriage, and how when he'd been hospitalized in Houston, his wife never visited.
"I sat at the end of the bed until he seemed to be calmer and more stable," she wrote. "At that point he again started asking me to have sex with him, saying that he was a real tiger. I said that I had bad biological news for him, that male tigers wander in groups because the female (who is solitary) will not accept a single male as that shows inferiority. He asked if this was true, [and] when I said yes, he sighed, and that ended his sexual advances."
He walked her downstairs to her car, where he noted, "You know, this could cost me my license." She gave him her number and told him to call, because they needed to talk to the lawyers about everything that had happened.
Wilson called two days later. But she was no longer in the mood to talk. A few days after that she received a five-page, handwritten letter.
"As I mentioned in our [phone] conversation, I'm very sorry that you were distressed and upset," he wrote. "The problem I was having was knowing why, since I had no memory of events that would have been upsetting. I now know why after speaking with you."
Whatever he learned in that conversation, he avoided mentioning it in the letter.
He explained that he is a recovering alcoholic and had experienced only "two brief relapses" since entering treatment the previous year. He thought he could handle a little wine, but went on to explain that he has a reverse tolerance -- even small amounts of alcohol can affect him. He also mentioned "blackouts." Returning to the hotel "is the last memory I have of the day."
Without stating the offense, he apologized repeatedly: "That I was in any way inappropriate or trespassing of boundaries is devastating and unacceptable. I must apologize and beg for your forgiveness. Ever since speaking with you last Thursday I have been praying continuously for your well being . . . I sincerely hope that this incident will not interfere with my mission."
The woman attached the letter to the complaint she filed with the Ohio State Board of Psychology in July 2001. In a meeting with Wilson's first attorney a few months later, a board representative noted that it was unusual to be handed such "clear confessional evidence of impairment," according to notes from the meeting.
Wilson first presented his version of events in an informal meeting with the board's staff in November 2001. After the evaluation, the woman didn't want to do the testing, he said. He admitted it was his idea to go to lunch, but insisted he was clear that they were done for the day. The champagne bar was her idea, he said, and she drank as much as he did. She was "affable" and "bubbly," he said, and when they returned to the hotel, she "was essentially following [me] around," according to notes from the meeting.
Then it gets fuzzy. When Client D showed up in his room, his friend was there, Wilson said. The friend left, returned quickly because he'd forgotten something, then left again. After that, he could recall nothing else. But he denied talking about sex or bragging about his prowess. "That's not who I am," Wilson said, according to the meeting notes. "I've never done anything like this before. I'm the same guy drunk and sober, just not as coherent when I'm drunk."
He makes a similar argument to Scene, walking a fine line between claims of a blackout and complete denial.
"She alleges I groped her, and I will flat-out deny that that happened," he asserts in an interview in his Cleveland Heights home. His current wife, Tally, sits nearby, book in hand; it's hard to tell how closely she's listening.
When asked later about this apparent contradiction, he explains, "I don't think it happened."
Wilson says that the woman had reason to lie. "I think she had a clear motive for what she did, but I don't think it has to do with me." Yet he refuses to elaborate, saying that it would involve "opening doors that are best left closed."
The Ohio State Board of Psychology is like a conventional court in one sense, at least: The accused can cut deals.
The board seemed to want this route as much as Wilson did. His first attorney was warned that "if we need to go to an adversarial process," the board would "seek to locate" a CSU student who'd previously complained about Wilson "and reopen that complaint as a companion case." The board had not acted on that complaint, but the meeting notes don't explain why, and an unresolved complaint is not a matter of public record.
In subsequent meetings and letters, an agreement was slowly hammered out. Wilson's license to practice was suspended. He entered a substance-abuse program at the Cleveland Clinic, joined a support group for impaired professionals, and submitted to weekly urine screenings.
He also was required to undergo psychological evaluations. In May 2002, the Center for Marital and Sexual Health in Beachwood reported that Wilson had responded defensively to questioning. And while maintaining that he did not remember the entire afternoon with Client D, he offered various rationalizations, including that she was not a patient because he was not treating her, and that she wasn't his client, the law firm was.
Wilson was trading in technicalities, and evaluators didn't buy it: "The defensiveness is likely to stem from his wish to have others see him in a positive light and his own overuse of denial.
". . . From his perspective, Dr. Wilson's life began spiraling out of control as his professional reputation grew," the report states. "At the same time, his alcohol consumption steadily escalated. Even though he experienced episodic reflective moments of knowing he was in trouble, he felt that he could pull it out of the hat one more time . . . Contributing to his psychological and professional decline was his unbounded narcissism."
Wilson suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, according to Dr. Jeffery Hutzler, a psychiatrist and associate dean at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, who met with Wilson almost weekly for about a year, per the board's demands. (Wilson encouraged three doctors who treated him to speak with Scene, but only Hutzler replied.)
Narcissists "have to feel they come out looking wonderful" in every situation, and they are extremely sensitive to criticism, Hutzler explains. They differ from other self-absorbed high achievers in that their need for respect and affection is constant.
"Underneath it all," Hutzler adds, "is tremendous self-doubt, which is what drives the need for success."
Still, despite the early defensiveness, Wilson made tremendous progress, Hutzler says; the doctor was an eager and willing patient. "He made a real turnaround."
In July 2003, Wilson was accepted into the prestigious Fulbright program, which wanted to send him to Croatia as a visiting scholar. But there was still the matter of his deal with the psychology board, which called for 10 more months of therapy. The same month, Hutzler informed the board that Wilson "really no longer continues to need psychotherapy." The board seemed skeptical. Hutzler says his report was met with a suggestion that he'd joined Wilson's "fan club."
Wilson's lawyer, Barry Doyle, assured the board that Wilson would resume therapy upon returning from Croatia. But when he got back, Wilson was informed of an entirely new complication. The board had been sent a deposition from a wrongful-conviction case on which Wilson had been consulting. The transcript showed that Wilson described his suspension as "temporary" -- he believed that he would eventually get his license back. He also said that he'd been seeing clients he'd been working with prior to the complaint.
But the board read it differently. He'd mischaracterized the suspension -- he should have said it was "indefinite." And he'd admitted to seeing patients while his license was suspended. "So for those two reasons . . . they told my attorney that come March , they were going to revoke my license," Wilson says.
Facing months or perhaps years of continued wrangling, and having already spent about $100,000 on his defense, Wilson opted not to fight. In March he surrendered his license, effectively ending his career as a therapist.
He is capable of sounding remarkably at peace with the outcome. He can still write and teach. Yet he becomes animated and red-faced when discussing the fallout from the complaint.
Someone e-mailed copies of a Plain Dealer article to Wilson's colleagues around the world. The article stated that Wilson "admitted" he'd groped the woman and that he'd "lost" his license. Neither is true, he nearly shouts, his voice rising in indignation. But since the e-mailing began, he says, two researchers have changed their minds about contributing to a book he's editing, and an international trauma society has asked him to resign from its board.
He considered suing the paper, but was advised against it, due to the cost and small chance of winning. But he vows to sue anyone continuing to spread accounts that he considers slanderous. This vehemence seems at odds with how readily and unconditionally he agreed to be interviewed by Scene. He seems to believe that anyone who hears his side of the story will see things just as he does.
"Here's what I'm angry about: I did everything I was asked, and more. Everything, from in-patient treatment to random urine screens to attending meetings to psychotherapy . . . to medications I was asked to take for two years [for depression] . . . I voluntarily attended a minimum of three, usually five or six AA meetings a week . . . I've gone on AA retreats, and so on, plus I took courses on ethics and other stuff, to make sure I had all the bases covered."
He's convinced that the board wanted his career as a trophy. Less than a year before the complaint, Hutzler notes, The Plain Dealer ran damning revelations about how lax state boards were in policing their professions.
This would all be long forgotten had he been "some nobody, run-of-the-mill psychologist," Wilson argues, apparently oblivious to the notes of both self-pity and self-congratulation in his words.
Eventually, he recognizes that he's been ranting for some time. He pauses, exhales, and appears to deflate as he settles back into his chair. Students ask him how he's lasted so long in a field defined by suffering, he says. Yet over time, he's come to see the beauty in the transformation that trauma forces on us. Entering the abyss is inevitable, he says. It's what comes out the other side that matters.