NEWBURYPORT — A prominent North Shore psychiatrist is facing lawsuits from three female patients who say he lured them into degrading sexual relationships, including beatings, conversations about bondage, and, in one case, getting a tattoo of the doctor’s initials to show his “ownership” of her, according to court documents.
The women allege that Dr. Keith Ablow, an author who was a contributor to Fox News network until 2017, abused his position while treating them for acute depression, leaving them unable to trust authority figures and plagued with feelings of shame and self-recrimination.
“He began to hit me when we engaged in sexual activities,” wrote one plaintiff, a New York woman, in a sworn affidavit filed with her lawsuit. “He would have me on my knees and begin to beat me with his hands on my breasts,” she wrote, “occasionally saying, ‘I own you,’ or ‘You are my slave.’”
The malpractice lawsuits, two of them filed on Thursday in Essex Superior Court and a third filed last year, paint a picture of a therapist who encouraged women to trust and rely on him, then coaxed them into humiliating sexual activities, often during treatment sessions for which they were charged. When the New York woman had trouble paying her therapy bills, she said, Ablow advised her to work as an escort or stripper because the work was lucrative.
Although the women used their real names in their lawsuits, the Globe is withholding their identities at their request. The Globe does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
However, three women who worked for Ablow agreed to file affidavits, included in the lawsuits, knowing their names might become public. They said in the sworn statements that Ablow sexually harassed them, too. One former staffer, Amy Dixon, said she had sex with Ablow during which he would regularly hit her and that he told her he wanted a “master/slave relationship.”
Ablow’s attorney, A. Bernard Guekguezian, said he had not yet reviewed the two new lawsuits, but said, “Dr. Ablow has been a respected and highly regarded psychiatrist who has for decades helped countless patients. He denies any and all allegations of improper behavior or substandard care in their entirety.”
Ablow had previously denied the allegations in one of the cases, the lawsuit filed last year by a Minnesota woman.
“The plaintiff in this case was the subject of a no-trespassing order by me two years ago, was ordered formally to stop harassing me, and her account is in collections for non-payment,” he said in a statement to the Salem News last July.
Thursday, in a tweet, Ablow said he “categorically, completely” denies the allegations in the lawsuits. “I look forward to the court proceedings and will continue to offer excellent care to any patient who needs my help.”
In all three cases, the women say they relocated from other states, at Ablow’s request, to be closer to his Newburyport office where he used a controversial treatment for depression: infusions of Ketamine. The drug, an anesthetic that can induce a trance-like state and memory loss, is sometimes abused but is also used by some clinicians to treat chronic depression.
Andrea Celenza, a Lexington psychoanalyst who interviewed the women and reviewed their medical records as an expert witness hired by the plaintiffs, said in a letter filed with the lawsuits that Ablow’s behavior in the case of the New York woman “was sadomasochistic, anti-therapeutic, and constitutes a perverse use of his status and power.” The former patient said that, during their seven-year sexual relationship, Ablow persuaded her to get his initials tattooed on her arm.
Another expert said that Ablow appeared to be using Ketamine in conjunction with talk therapy to gain control over a third patient, a woman from Ohio.
“The patient appears to have become very dependent on this medication and dependent on Dr. Ablow to supply it,” wrote Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of the psychiatry department at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in expert testimony filed with the lawsuits.
Ablow is a prolific writer and commentator. In addition to his work for Fox, he has written numerous self-help books, novels, and works of nonfiction. A graduate of Brown University and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Ablow has taught at Tufts University School of Medicine and once considered running as a Republican for the Senate seat formerly held by John Kerry.
But Ablow, 57, has stirred controversy for combining psychiatric analysis with political views, once saying on Fox News that President Obama had “abandonment issues” and preferred Africa to America, though Ablow had never met him. He also criticized Michelle Obama’s weight on Fox News in 2014, saying, “She needs to drop a few pounds.”
The patient from Ohio said she came with her mother to see Ablow in early 2015, when she was 25, receiving Ketamine infusions from him. When she returned home, she said, Ablow encouraged her to e-mail him or text him daily.
“I had never had a therapist or any professional take such an interest in me,” the woman said in her signed affidavit, adding that Ablow told her to send him even her most trivial thoughts. “At some point, it became normalized and frankly necessary for me to communicate with Dr. Ablow several times a day.”
During therapy sessions conducted over Skype, the Ohio woman said, Ablow would compliment her on her appearance and tell her he missed her. Soon, he raised the topic of sexual preferences and asked his patient whether she preferred to be submissive or dominant.
The woman said the conversation made her uncomfortable. Still, in March of 2015 she traveled to Newburyport again, this time alone.
“I asked Dr. Ablow why he had such a terrifyingly strong effect on me and he told me it was nothing to be afraid of,” the woman said. “It was then that my sexual encounters with Dr. Ablow began.”
The Ohio woman said Ablow soon persuaded her to move to Newburyport. As a further inducement, he allegedly offered discounts for the Ketamine infusions and promised to arrange job interviews.
“He told me he could convince anyone of anything,” she said.
The Ohio woman said Ablow would have her undress and perform oral sex, although he was careful to stop her before climaxing.
“Much later, when I confronted him about this, he informed me that he had a lot to lose and did not want to leave evidence,” the Ohio woman said. The Ohio woman said Ablow asked her to get a tattoo with his initials, but, unlike the New York patient, she declined.
The woman also said Ablow would sometimes beat her as she kneeled.
“Sometimes he would use his hands and other times he would take off the belt he was wearing and use that to strike me,” the woman said. “This belt had a metal buckle with a skull on it.”
By early 2017, the Ohio woman said, she realized she had to stop seeing Ablow “for my own sanity.” Eventually, after she started seeing another therapist, she succeeded in leaving him.
“I decided that I couldn’t allow myself to be groped and used sexually and otherwise, or to feel so emotionally dead inside in exchange for prescriptions, even if I felt like I needed them, so I stopped seeing him,” she said.
The Ohio woman said she still fears Ablow and is plagued by nightmares in which he chases her with a gun, because he discussed guns with her during their therapy sessions.
The former employees said Ablow could be threatening, displaying his handgun or making subtle hints that he would retaliate if they provided anyone with unfavorable information about his practice. Dixon, who said she had a manipulative sexual relationship with Ablow off-and-on for years, said he once pointed his gun directly at her. During sex, Dixon said, Ablow could be so rough that “he often left bruises and abrasions.”
But the Minnesota woman who filed her lawsuit last summer said Ablow could also appear to be kind and generous. She said her sexual relationship with Ablow began after he promised to help her with her fledgling music career and set up a meeting with a friend who Ablow said was in the music business.
Two days after meeting with the music producer, the Minnesota woman wrote in her affidavit, Ablow met her in his office and took her to an adjoining room where they had sexual intercourse.
“I remember that my mind concentrated on a ticking clock in the office to get through it,” she recalled.
In November of 2015, four months after initially contacting Ablow, the Minnesota woman decided to stop seeing him.
“I knew it was no longer healthy for me, but part of me felt very dependent on him and terminating felt terrifying,” she said.
After telling Ablow she wanted to stop seeing him, the woman said, he accused her of refusing to leave his office, which she said never happened. She also said he informed her that he would be notifying his personal attorney and malpractice attorney.
Finally, in September of 2016, he sent her a form he had filled out indicating that she had trespassed on his property.
“This was not issued by any court and there certainly was never any finding by any court that I had ever trespassed on his property,” the woman said.
Ablow, in a legal filing, denied the Minnesota woman’s allegations and demanded a jury trial, accusing her of unspecified negligence. “If the plaintiff proves that he was negligent as alleged, the plaintiff was negligent to a greater degree than this defendant,” the filing says.
But Celenza, in her letter to the women’s attorney, said Ablow’s alleged sexual misconduct with the Minnesota woman amounted to “the most egregious violation” of the American Psychiatric Association’s ethical code.
“These behaviors are grossly unprofessional and unethical,” she said, adding that they “represent the worst and most damaging kind of abuse” in a therapeutic setting.
Clyde D. Bergstresser, the women’s attorney, said he was “very proud to represent these brave and courageous women who have come forward to report the trauma they have suffered. It’s also remarkable and courageous that three former employees of Dr. Ablow have come forward to support these patients.”
The former employees said they harbored misgivings about his treatment of patients, such as the frequency with which he prescribed Ketamine and his tendency to meet with patients outside of normal business hours.
Janna McCarthy, who worked for Ablow from May 2014 to July 2015, said Ablow would ask her to schedule appointments with attractive women who were “sad, lonely” and struggling with past trauma at times when no else would be in the office. “I was concerned that he was engaging in sexual contact with some of these women,” she wrote.
McCarthy said she wrote her affidavit hoping that, “by speaking out now I am able to prevent Dr. Ablow from doing further harm in the future.”