The Dr. Phil Years

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 25, 2012

And instead of co-authoring with other academically credentialed bankruptcy researchers, Warren wrote this book with her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi. Tyagi, a management consultant, had just given birth to a daughter and didn't want to head straight back to the workplace. Warren invited her to be her research assistant; Tyagi asked to co-author instead.

"For an academic to pick up someone 22 years younger, and a non-academic — it's just not done," Warren says. But it turned out to be a crucial decision, she says. "She was the one person who had the nerve to say to me, 'That's boring! Skip it, or find a more interesting way to talk about it.'?"


Warren also took easily to the task of promoting the book. Miller says that Basic Books gave her no professional media training, but that she and a publicity director did some play-acting interviews with her in the office. "She learned very quickly," Miller says. "She was giving crisp, clean answers."

They didn't need to worry about her freezing up on camera; Warren was champing at the bit to be heard. Miller was watching from the green room when Warren was interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show. "Katie was trying to get her off," Miller recalls. "She kept talking and talking."

The same eagerness comes across on her first Dr. Phil appearance. Warren says that she had never seen the show, which was in its second year and drawing more than five million viewers a day. She thought she and Tyagi were going to be interviewed; only at the set did they learn they would be advising debt-ruined couples from the front row of the audience.

When Dr. Phil turned to her the first time, with a question, Warren says she was nervous, and blinded by the studio lights turning to her. "I couldn't see a thing — it felt like jumping in a river. I just plunged in."

On tape, however, Warren appears supremely confident, pushing her thumb forward in the politicians' gesture associated with Bill Clinton, as she warns the onstage couple against taking out a second mortgage. "That's playing roulette with your house," she says. "I think it's the worst single move homeowners can take."

"Who she is today is who she was 30 years ago," says Rabiner. "People's problems are not academic to her. She's not faking it. She didn't suddenly become empathetic."

In fact, Warren traces that empathy to the first Consumer Bankruptcy Project in 1991. For the first time, her team had asked people going through bankruptcy to fill out a form so that researchers could analyze their demographic profiles. At the bottom, it asked the respondents to turn the paper over and explain, in their own words, why they filed for bankruptcy.

When the first batch came in, Warren grabbed a stack on her way to the airport and took them out on the plane. "I started reading those stories, and I realized after an hour or so that I was sitting there crying," Warren recalls. "These weren't just numbers anymore — these were personal stories about the death of a child, what it means to lose a job, a husband who disappeared. People filled with self-loathing at the mistakes they had made, and people filled with a sense of astonishment that they had ended up here."

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