On the Soap Shrink’s Couch: General Hospital’s Spinelli

Thinking Fans Comment Update: Karen likes Spinelli just as he is, thank you very much … antmunoz thinks “different” characters reflect the real viewing audience more than the “ultra-gorgeous” do … while S. Woods feels Spinelli “is one of the few redeeming characters on bloody bullet-riddled General Hospital” … and more. See Comments below.

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By Damon L. Jacobs 

When the Journalistic One approached the Soap Shrink to offer supposition about the Jackal, he wondered if his recitation may present too capricious or deprecatory.  After all, the Soap Shrink is trained in the intricate branch of diagnosis, and our dear Spinelli appears to disavow and impugn such declarations.  

But then I thought, why the heck not?  

Because behind Damien Spinelli’s strange speech and puppy dog eyes there is a young man coping with classic symptoms of Asperger’s Disorder.  Individuals who carry this diagnosis typically present with impaired ability to socially interact with

In a soap universe filled with perfect looking people,  it is refreshing to see someone stand on the outside and reflect the goings-on around him.  This used to be a staple on soaps …

others, and with restricted and repetitive behaviors (ideal for a computer hacker).  They frequently have a hard time connecting with peers, can’t make small talk, have limited ability to follow social conventions, make minimal eye contact, and may be seen by others as “eccentric” or “strange.” Because of these labels, they are more often inclined to bond or connect with others who also do not fall into typical societal roles, i.e., cognitively limited mobsters such as Jason Morgan.   

Dr. Matt Hunter recognized these features in Spinelli (played by Bradford Anderson) last summer, and all but spelled out, “Asperger’s” as a diagnosis.  He approached Spinelli about doing more personality testing by asking, “Aren’t you interested in changing aspects of your personality, things you’re not happy with?” The implication in this statement was that Spinelli “should” change parts of who he is in order to fit in and become more “normal.”  Spinelli, in kind, maintained he is quite “happy” with who he is, and declined any further testing or analysis on behalf of Dr. Hunter or anyone else.  

The tug-of-war between Matt and Spinelli in this scene highlighted a growing controversy within the psychiatric field, particularly of importance for those diagnosed with Asperger’s.  At what point are diagnoses helpful, and at what point are they limiting and stigmatizing?  Are therapists trying to help people lead happier lives, or are we trying to force people to conform into cookie cutter figures of normality?

In Spinelli’s case, we can see he is hardly suffering because of his symptoms.  He has been able to utilize his repetitive and obsessive focus to gain access into forbidden rooms in cyber-space.  And in the upside-down world of Port Charles, Spinelli has found himself a best friend in Jason, a girlfriend in Maxie (Kirsten Storms), and supportive peers such as Lulu, Johnny, and Claudia.  

In a soap universe filled with perfect looking people,  it is refreshing to see someone stand on the outside and reflect the goings-on around him.  This used to be a staple on soaps, which has since gone the way of Wallingford on Another World, Calliope on Days of Our Lives, Opal on All My Children, even Timmy on Passions. If all these characters had been “fixed,” what would that have done to the landscape of the shows we loved?

So at what point, dear Thinking Fans, do you think a label is helpful?  Certainly all of us watching soaps and reading these columns have fallen outside of social norms for one reason or another.  Is there some benefit to fitting in to the world around you?  Or is it better to be like Spinelli and not to compromise your individuality?  The Soap Shrink wants to know.

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Damon L. Jacobs is a family and relationship therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of  Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve.  He blogs regularly at www.shouldless.com.

Comments

  1. Jason says:

    I am not sure I would categorize Spinelli as one with Asperger’s Syndrome. For many years, I knew of someone with this disorder and cannot see any similarities between him and Spinelli. Spinelli may be a nerd, yes, but not one that looks like he has a form of autism.

    I have to disagree with the therapist.

    Damon says: Actually, Jason, Autism can appear very different in different people. From a purely diagnostic standpoint, he does meet certain criteria based on the DSM IV-TR, as mentioned in the article, and on the show itself last July. BUT, the question I posit is, do you or others feels it’s beneficial to diagnose Spinelli, or anyone?

  2. Karen says:

    I do like Spinelli the way he is. I enjoy his quirks. I enjoy that Asperbergers is played in the common ‘mild’ form on GH, as opposed to the ‘hit you over the head’ form used recently on Grey’s Anatomy.

    That being said, I think GH and a capable writer (paging Sri!!!) could script a well written, informative storyline that officially diagnoses Spinelli and discusses the implications of being unmedicated/treated. It could be a real public service (but not preachy) story about autism, which affects so many today.

    Damon says: I completely agree, Karen!! If Spinelli were officially diagnosed it could open a wonderful opportunity do discuss pros/cons of psychiatric labels and explore Spinelli’s own mixed feelings about this. Unfortunately, the only diagnoses GH seems interested in exploring are those that come with a bullet wound.

  3. antmunoz says:

    Soaps make big deals about having “different,” “realistic,” or “normal” characters, whether they be overweight (DAYS’ Nancy, OLTL’s Marcie, GL’s Ashlee…formerly), gay (ATWT’s Hank, Luke, Noah, Brian; AMC’s Bianca, Lena, Reese, et al), or comic relief/wacky sidekicks (the above-mentioned Calliope, Wallingford, Y&R’s Boobsie, SB’s…well, half the cast, and so on), but while these characters probably reflect the real viewing audience moreso than the majority of the ultra-gorgeous, got-it-together cast, they’re often the lone member of their cast, or one of a pair. Spinelli has been a good character. The introduction of his female counterpart was to be expected; I just hope it’s a real story, as “real” as her character is expected to be. (Hope the model for her is VERONICA MARS’ Mac.) Whether or not Spinelli suffers from Asperger’s doesn’t matter to me. GH failed miserably trying to reflect the real-life manic depression of star Maurice Benard in Sonny’s storyline, despite Benard’s endless interviews for years regarding his own condition. The show just couldn’t pull it off. (Cass’ own struggle with depression on AW was done better, if all but forgotten afterwards. But, then, aren’t most “social issue” storylines these days? GL’s aforementioned Ashlee’s weight loss…Abigail’s cochlear implant…OLTL’s inablility to really let Viki or Jessica move beyond their multiple personalities for fear of not being able to drag them out again and again for future stories…) I would rather GH not directly address the issue if they’re not willing to deal with it realistically. The days of “educating” the soap audience about social and medical issues is long gone, replaced by every talk show known to man. “Relevance” (remember that oft-used term since OLTL in the late sixties/early seventies?) is over. I’d personally welcome a soap that dealt with medical issues realistically, and taught me something at the same time. But when even a primetime medical show, GREY’S ANATOMY, fumbles an Asperger’s character, why should I expect daytime’s version of THE SOPRANOS to succeed with one? I don’t. Don’t bother.

    Damon says: Well, of course you’re right, but a shrink can hope, can’t he? IMO there was a time when soaps did a lot better job of educating than prime time. I do think AMC is making an effort to tell a socially relevant storyline with Iraqi war veteran Brot. But this is the same show that gave us the famous unabortion, so who knows? There is a golden opportunity with Spinelli on GH to educate the audience and challenge them as well, but it seems unlikely to happen at this point.

  4. Marilyn Henry says:

    I agree there is no good reason Spinelli has to “fit in” and he is smart and lovable (if annoying) just the way he is. My son once had a friend who was a bit like Spin, only this was before the computer age, and the friend was into “Creative Anachronism,” or medievalism. He joined a group, talked a little like Spin and generally didn’t exactly “fit in,” except with his group, where he fit in fine. Like Spin, he did have trouble getting a date and life wasn’t always kind, but I don’t see how he could have been other than he was.

    And I know a man who might have been diagnosed as borderline Aspergers if that particular syndrome had been discovered then. It would have helped him with his father, who thought he was purposely annoying and difficult and who treated him with suspicion and even dislike. The boy was very smart, but had habits that got on everyone’s nerves, like popping his knuckles and poking anyone as they passed. It seemed a ploy for attention, but it so consistently got him the bad kind that he should have figured it out. In some ways he had a tough childhood there.

    Still, such a diagnosis would only have been useful at home, I would think. Not a good thing for his friends (he had a few good ones) or classmates to know. And his differences were fairly interesting — he was an individual and kept that individuality no matter what crowd he was in — which was a good thing, in my opinion.

    He married someone who is somewhat like him and they seem quite happy. And he is still both annoying and lovable. Would changing have helped him? Well, that’s a toughie. He might have had an easier time of it at work and in certain crowds, and it might have made him easier to be around — except it might also change some of those things that are interesting and admirable. Time has tempered some of his nature, anyway.

    No, I think Spinelli should stay as he is and be who he is. As long as he isn’t running around with Jason killing people, as long as his worse crime is a bit of hacking, let him keep the child-like demeanor and the elaborate speech patterns. Being different has become something too often thought should be avoided, but how bland and boring life would be if we all ”fit in” all the time!

    Damon says: Exactly, Marilyn!! This is exactly the type of thinking and questioning I was hoping to raise with this piece. You really explore pros/cons of “fitting in” vs. accepting the “awkward” role. Thank you!

  5. S. Woods says:

    Spinelli is one of the few redeeming characters on the bloody bullet-riddled General Hospital. His speech anamolies and the sweetness of his nature make him a rare bird indeed. I very much like the pairing of Spinelli with Maxi. She provides him with street smarts and he brings out the basic nice girl in Maxi that we all know is there.

    GH is a thing of much FF for me, I will pause to see Spinelli and the Docs and Lucky and Liz and Luke. Everything else is puerile sadistic glorified violence.

    What a joy GH would be if TPTB would go back to a soap with heart. A show centered on the Hospital and the drama and joys of the human condition would return GH to the glory days of “must-see” tv. And such a show would be the perfect vehicle for Spinelli and all the quirky characters that GH once featured regularly.

    Kudos to the Soap Shrink!! Well Done Indeed!

    Damon says: Thank you S.W. for your comment. I agree, Spinelli would fit into P.C. world with heart and charm.

  6. Mike says:

    Spinelli should continue to embrace his uniqueness, like others with Aspergers’s such as Bill Gates or Steven Spielberg. (In fact, it might not be a bad idea to have the character follow the arc of someone like Gates and become a computer industry titan.)

    Damon says: From your words to Guza’s computer, I LOVE that storyline idea.

  7. Karen says:

    Now that’s not completely true … they also enjoy diagnosing monkey germs and biotoxins!

  8. Jason says:

    To respond, I would welcome a show to explore a character having Asperger’s Syndrome to raise awareness on this disorder (trust me when I say that the person I know who is an Aspie has a HORRIBLE case of it! He could not be mainstreamed in school, noise was a big annoyance for him, he was loud and rambunctious. That is not his fault..it is the disorder and he cannot help it. Without the love of his parents, and a competent school psychologist and school speech pathologist, he would probably not have gotten the help needed at a private school. The school district, in the end, agreed to pay for his private schooling.) but not GH…the show is simply not capable of doing enough research or investing in a socially relevant story. AMC has done well on the autism front (with Lily), plus Y&R is good with telling tales of a social conscience. If this was 1993-1996 GH under Claire Labine, a story on someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I can almost guarantee, would be done with justice. Guza’s track record on social stories (like Emily’s rape and cancer) is not only insulting but embarrassing.

    I agree that autism appears differently with all subjects (Although Asperger’s, from what I have heard, tends to always be high functioning. Spinelli does not come off as a high functioning person). I know of a couple of friends who have autistic children. One of my cousins is autistic (there may be more than one). There could be another form of autism that Spinelli has (like autism spectrum disorder) but I do not have the credentials to diagnose it.

    I guess I do not watch the show enough (I catch it every now and then, like a couple times a week) to see Asperger’s in Spinelli…but hey, I respect your opinion on this subject and look forward to buying your book.

    Thanks for your input! :)

    Damon says: Thank you Jason. I respect your perspective as well, and I really appreciate your thoughtful response. Please let me know what you think of the book!

  9. Rebecca says:

    Hi, I read your analysis of one of my favourite GH characters with great interest. I love Spinelli precisely because he is so different, and I truly do feel that each individual’s uniqueness is what makes that person special in his/her own right—therefore, I do not find the placing of labels to be particularly helpful, unless an individual has a clearly demonstrated need for assistance (i.e., the person’s life is completely unmanageable and chaotic, causing great distress, which is clearly NOT the case with Spinelli); in which instance, labels may be useful in helping to make a diagnosis for treatment. Simply being something of a social misfit, though, is definitely not sufficient to warrant treatment of any sort. I feel strongly that differences (that are not downright harmful) should be appreciated and celebrated!

    Damon says: I completely agree, Rebecca. If a symptom is not causing distress or impairment, why label it as a “disorder” or “different”? BTW – the diagnostic manual agrees with you as well — most “disorders” can’t be labeled “disorders” unless there is a significant impairment. What great responses, keep them coming!

  10. Anna says:

    My name is Anna, Long time GH fan and I adore Spinelli, I have struggled socially all my life. I’m 21 now. I have a Non Verbal learning disability and my doctor told me I have Asperger’s like signs. I was never formally diagnosed. I see myself when I see Spinelli on my screen. He struggles socially, sometimes it’s hard for him to express his feelings in the right way and sometimes people make fun of him for it. He connects more with the adults in his life. As do I. They’re more trusting, and they’re reliable.
    I wrote a note on my facebook journal last month on this very subject. I think this is such an important storyline to tell. It will help make people aware of this disorder.

    So Thanks Marlena and Dr. Jacobs for your thoughts on this important subject.

    Damon says: I am so touched that you shared this with us Anna! Thank you so much for your reply, it means a lot to me.

  11. Heather says:

    Hi, I just read your analysis on my favorite character on General Hospital or on any show really. I think the reason people love the character of Spinelli so much is because he’s unique. I believe that he’s a character people can relate to because he isn’t this perfect specimen. I think it’s good to be different. If we were all alike,the world be far less interesting.

    I think an Asperger’s storyline is something Bradford Anderson could knock out of the park. Actually I think he could knock any story they hand to him out of the park. I’m still waiting for Spinelli’s backstory to come out.

    Damon says: Yes, I agree we can relate to him because he is unique and doesn’t fit the standard soap cookie cutter character image. Wouldn’t it be great if soaps showed more of these kinds of individuals?

  12. HollyG3 says:

    Spinelli is my all time favorite soap character! I would love it if GH explored the idea of Matt still wanting to diagnose him. Matt could go to Maxie and say, “Why are you with him? The guy is autistic!” or some dumb ass thing like he usually says. Then Maxie could bring it up with Spinelli and he could tell her he was diagnosed as a child, but he doesn’t want treatment. I don’t want him to change, either. He could maybe mature a little bit, which he has been over the past year, but I want him to keep his unique qualities. He is to GH what Hurley is to LOST, in my opinion. The heart and soul of the town. Thank you for this column! =]

    Damon says: Reading your letter, Holly, reminds why I think the Thinking Fans would make such great writers! That would be a brilliant and organic way to introduce the story. I hope it happens.

  13. Jason says:

    Okay, Damon, I think you and I are best friends now because this is a third response from me LOL.

    I agree with your response to Rebecca about the DSM saying a disorder can’t be labeled as such without a huge impairment. I got diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder about three years ago and there definitely was a huge impairment. I had trouble sleeping, triggers that lead to huge meltdowns, and flashbacks at many times every day of the trauma. It takes a toll on not only your physical state but mental as well. If GH or any show can adequately display symptoms coming gradually and then manifest themselves on a character so that they are really impaired, there is potential to shed light on this major issue, whether it is Asperger’s Syndrome or any serious mental or mood disorder. When I watch Taylor on AMC, it is clear she has PTSD since I experienced some of those same symptoms (the difference is she denies that she has it whereas I knew I had it…and she also got hers from war but I got mine from another traumatic event).

    The good news with me is that I am doing much better now since I have been taken down on medication (and still take it every day) and also had a wonderful LCSW for a year (her specialty is eating disorders but she also takes on any case, ranging from PTSD to PPD to Bipolar Disorder, etc.) that the PTSD is basically just there in name only. It is not affecting my life so, for anyone with that diagnosis or any other (like Asperger’s), you can heal and get better!

    Damon says: I am so appreciative to you for sharing this, Jason, and I really appreciate that talking to a professional helped. So often people are afraid to come to a therapist and admit they are having difficulties. Your letter is a testament that asking for help can be the very best thing you can do. Please keep letting us know how things are going.

  14. AJ says:

    I love Spinelli! I would love to see TPTB bring Charles Keating (Carl Hutchins, AW) in to play Spinelli’s grandfather.CK has the skills to create a wonderfully interesting character, His poetic quotes would be the beginning of Spinelli-speak. Grandfather could be a loveable rogue who flirted with which side of the law to be on. I think there could also be some terrific interaction with Edward Q.

    Oops! I digress….

    As for whether or not to label someone, I believe that a diagnosis is a good thing if only to put the patient’s mind at ease. Without a diagnosis, the family always wonders if they have done enough. Knowing is better than not knowing, in most cases. I don’t think Spinelli has Aspberger’s. I think he had an unconventional upbringing.

    Damon says: Very interesting reply AJ. In my experience, a diagnosis can come as a relief to an individual suffering with a problem, and their family. Yet it can also be invasive if a person does not perceive themselves as suffering, as is the case with Spinelli right now. And ICA that Charles Keating would be a wonderful addition to GH. Unfortunately, I think we’d be more likely to see him as a cartoonish mobster than a lovable grandfather.

  15. Matt says:

    Until I read this, I found Spinelli to be extraneous, irrelevant and annoying. You really breathed life into this character and I see him in a whole new way. You have an incredibly talent for bringing humanity to a 2-D person on the TV! I still probably will roll my eyes at every line he speaks but I “get him” now. Thanks, Damon!

    Damon says:Thank you Matt! I think soaps used to do an excellent job of promoting compassion and understanding for those that are ” different” so we develop more tolerance in our personal lives. Maybe Spinelli is teaching us all something?

  16. Debra Davidson says:

    I absolutely love Spinelli. He is so loyal, so loving, so caring and so giving. Spinelli has a heart of pure gold. Does any one remember the movie Harvey staring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd? Elwood was a very kind, gentle and sweet person who just happened to have an invisible fiend that is a 6 foot rabbit named Harvey. In the movie his Family at first wanted him to have shock tenements, until they saw how it changes a person. They decided not to have it done, because they love Elmwood the way he is. That is how I feel about Spinelli. I absolutely love Spinelli the way he is. A very special person.

    Damon says: LOL, exactly! I couldn’t have said that better myself, Debra. Maybe through Spinelli we can learn to be more accepting of the “quirks” or eccentricities of the people in our own lives. Thank you so much for your reply.

  17. PJSoap says:

    I adore Spinelli. I don’t want him to be written as having Asperger’s. Why should those who are special, unique, and “march to their own drummer” be labeled as having a disorder? Not that those who do have such should be ashamed and social awareness does help the causes but the ABC soaps have already had more than their share of mental disorders.

    Please ABC, leave our beloved Spinelli ALONE!

    Damon says: Thank you for your response! You mention an interesting dilemma, which many have touched on above in their comments. Keep reading and commenting!

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