PLOT SUMMARY: The movie, The Prince Of Tides, is based on the novel of the same name by Pat Conroy. In this movie, the main character Tom Wingo is at a crisis in his life. He is a football coach who has recently lost his job. He lives with his wife and daughters, none of whom he seems to understand. One summer, his twin sister attempts suicide and ends up in a semi-catatonic state. Tom is called to New York to assist his sister's therapist in trying to piece together his sister's life for the psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein.
Tom in the stereotypical southern male - a football coach, a man's man. But his life has been shaped in many ways by the strong women around him; his mother who married "below her station," his fragile and damaged twin sister, his wife and daughters who remain an enigma to him. His father was a crude man, and domineering of his children yet lost at home with his own family. Tom is at loose ends the summer of his sister's breakdown, having lost his job as a football coach and having lost the motivation to do many things in his life - move on with his career, connect with his wife and daughgters, come to terms with his relationship with his mother and father and the loss of his brother (possibly the only positive role model in his life).
When Tom meets Susan, he is drawn at once to her calm and stable personality yet it is only once he is made aware of her own personal faults and weaknesses, especially her difficulties relating to her own son, that he becomes physically attracted to her. Tom and Susan become physically intimate, and Tom begins to remember and relate to Susan a traumatic rape and murder that is possibly the root of his sister's current psychiatric problems. He begins to be aware at this time how the traumas in his own life have in turn made him the man he has become. Tom becomes a coach and mentor to Susan's son and teaches him the only thing that Tom knows really well - football. Tom is also able to help Susan understand her relationship with her husband, and deepen the strength of her relationship with her young and sensitive son. As Susan and Tom fall more deeply in love, Tom is able to understand the things that made him who he is, and realizes that secrets he has been keeping to protect his family have only hurt him and his sister in the long run.
Eventually his sister wakes up from her semi-comatose state. Tom decides to return to his family in North Carolina. He feels more able to share with them and to learn more about who they are. But he leave knowing that he will always hold in his heart a strong love for Dr. Lowenstein.
ETHICAL ISSUES: The most important ethical issue to be raised in this film is about the relationship between Dr. Lowenstein and Tom Wingo. Tom is originally asked to come to New York to provide collateral information about his sister for Dr. Lowenstein, who has only been seeing the patient for a short period of time and who does not yet know all the background information she needs to help her client. In this case, Tom is the de facto patient for Dr. Lowenstein and therefore it is interesting that not only does she allow Tom access to her home, and tell him intimate details about her own family problems, she eventually gets into a physically intimate relationship with the patient's brother. The wisdom of these actions must be considered. Tom is at a particularly vulnerable period in his own life - he is unemployed, he is emotionally cut off from his own family and considering the wisdom on continuing on in his marriage. He has some significant issues regarding his manhood and he also has some significant feelings about the practice of psychiatry, seeing how it has "failed" his sister in her past attempts to seek help. Tom's vulnerability would seem like a flag to Dr. Lowenstein that she is in fact meeting her second patient from this eminently flawed family, and that she must treat him with kid gloves in order to shepherd him through the memories he must deal with to give the psychiatrist the pertinent background information she needs to treat Savannah, the sister. Instead, Dr. Lowenstein treats Tom as a collateral information source only and seems to have little insight into the significant psychic pain present in all members of this family. This can be at least minially excused in that she has little to no background information about Savannah, but an experienced therapist would probably be alert to the fact that a patient does not attempt suicide multiple times and subsequently descend into a semi-catatonic state without some element of historical trauma. Since Dr. Lowenstein obviously knows or believes that Tom can give her some background information about Savannah, it appears wrong that she would not also suspect that Tom himself is dealing witrh the same psychic pain but in a different way. She has accepeted another client, evidently without knowing or at least acknowledging it. She then brings Tom into some of the most intimate parts of her life, including her home, She allows him to witness her hostile relationship with her husband and as well gives him information regarding her poor relationship with her son, who is supposed to want to be a classically trained musician like his father but instead wants to be able to play football and be like one of the boys. When she enlists Tom to assist her son and give him private football coaching lessons, she crosses the line between therapist and friend. Many people would think that simply the personal and intimate relationship between Susan Lowenstein and Tom Wingo is the significant ethical issues within the "Prince of Tides" story line, but actually it is only a part of a more significant ethical dilemma - where do we draw the line in the amount of self-disclosure we allow to our patients and when can the self-disclosure become a problem in the patient-therapist relationship. While it is true that Tom is able to regain some of his own personal self-esteem in his relationship with Susan's son and his success there, it would seem inappropriate since a failure in this venture would have resulted in a personal loss for Susan and eventually impair the therapist patient relationship that exists between Tom and Susan. In addition, the physical relationship they eventually have would go way beyond the bounds of ethical behavior. Although technically speaking, Dr. Lowenstein does not sleep with her patient of record, as noted before Tom is essentially her patient as well as she takes him through the painful memories that are significant to Savannah's breakdown. When the relationship passes from the professional to the sexual, then the ethical bonds are broken, not only between Tom and Susan, but between Susan and Savannah. This would seem to be almost a triple problem since Savannah is in such a critical state. So ethically, Dr. Lowenstein fails in two important spots - she allows Tom Wingo to much access and insight into her own personal life and problems AND she engages in a physically intimate relationship with him, a married man and the brother of her patient, and essentially a patient of her own.
UNDERSTANDING OF THE ETHICAL ISSUES: First, it must be said that this is a Hollywood story and therefore has little in the way to do with real life. That understood it can be understood in the context of the movie and the background story how…