armchair analyst

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Mad Men’s Traumatized Sally Draper

Will Sally Draper ever find parental satisfaction on Mad Men? Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

It’s every teenager’s nightmare: walking in on their parents having sex. Except in Sally Draper’s case, things get even worse. In the Mad Men episode “Favors” [spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it], 14-year-old Sally stumbled into seeing her father, pants around his knees, making love to their neighbor Sylvia, who — just to compound the embarrassment — is the mother of Sally’s crush. Don later tells his mortified daughter that the situation is “complicated” — which, for him, it’s not, particularly, but it certainly is complicated for Sally. Even if she recovers from the humiliation, how will she trust her father again? Or anybody, for that matter? To find out if Sally will be scarred for life, or just become a giant hippie, we turned once again to UCLA-affiliated psychiatrist and Mad Men obsessive Dr. Paul Puri.

So, how traumatized is Sally likely to be after walking in on her dad?
I would say that the impact on Sally will be big, but not necessarily catastrophic. The likelihood is that this is going to cause a very big rupture between Sally and her father, and she’s most likely going to reject a lot of things about him — reject him wholly, not just in terms of his sexuality or relationships, but really question everything that he says. Because he’s still lying about what he did, even after she saw it with her own eyes. Sally has, for a long time, rejected Betty and been “daddy’s girl,” even in the face of Don being kind of an absent father. And now he really has been shattered in her eyes, too. So I would suspect that she’ll start being more of a rebellious teen, because she can’t identify now with either of her parents.

Sally walking in on Don mirrors the event we saw in a flashback, when young Don saw his stepmother sleeping with the brothel owner. What effect do you think that similar incident had on Don?
This woman was telling him, “You don’t do those kinds of things,” and then she was doing it. And so there’s a lesson in duplicity there: You sleep with people but you don’t talk about it. You use sex when you need to use sex. As Don got older and more powerful over time, it really connected with his narcissism that he could sleep with people whenever he wanted to — but he still sees sex as something to hide. It’s both shameful, and something that you do when you want to do it.

When Don saw his stepmother having sex, it drove him straight into the arms of the prostitute who mothered him, then took advantage of him sexually. Is Sally likely to fall into a similar trap: looking for an alternate parent figure, and setting herself up to be taken advantage of?
In Don’s case, he rejected his mother figure, and then he had someone taking care of him when he was sick who then slept with him. And so that tied motherly care to sex, and thus there’s probably some link in his mind that causes him to seek it out in all future relationships. When he wants some kind of caring or attention, he will seek it out through sex. For Sally, we’re still missing the component of what she’s going to link her own sexuality to. At this point, she doesn’t quite have that. She is just missing any type of attention: Her mother doesn’t really like her, and her father loves her, but he’s a shattered figure who can’t really be believed. So she’s going to seek out attention wherever she can get it, not necessarily from a parent figure.

Now that I think about it, Sally’s friends on Mad Men have all seemed more sexually aware than she is. Might this have something to do with Don and Betty’s messed-up attitudes about sex?
It could be from her parents, in that they both keep sex in the shadows; nothing is ever talked about with the daughter. When Sally was masturbating, her mother didn’t say, “We’ll have the-birds-and-the-bees talk.” She said, “You don’t do that alone, and you especially don’t do it in public.” So there’s been a denial there, in trying to infantilize her, even at this age. The friend we saw in “Favors” is the only person right now who is encouraging Sally’s development into adulthood, so to speak. She’s encouraging her to grow, maybe too fast for her age, but I think that’s someone to whom Sally will gravitate now.

Let’s talk about Betty, who has already done a number on Sally. She’s always been cold and controlling, and we’ve definitely seen Sally begin to push back.
With people who have distant or cold parents, they often feel neglected, unloved, or unappreciated, and again, they will often seek out affection in other forms from other people. If they are tied to that parent for whatever reason, they may end up seeking attention and affection in any form that they can. It may be through rebelliousness and getting punished, or it may be through trying to meet an impossible amount of approval.

Sally has been doing both, in a way: desperately trying to get her father’s approval, and rebelling from her mother at every turn.
Absolutely. And I think there’s a level on which she doesn’t want to be her mother. I think she’s aware, at least to a degree, that her mother has been miserable a long time. As far as a model goes, in terms of whom she wants to grow up to be, her father had all the freedom, her father had all the power, and her mother was miserable. So whom would you want to be?

And yet Betty married a decent guy. You’d think that Henry Francis would be able to fill that gap a little more, as a father figure.
I think he’s done it quite a lot, actually. He is consistently the voice of reason and sense when Betty overreacts. He’s actually the one that got Sally into therapy when she was grieving over the loss of her grandfather. Betty had overreacted and slapped Sally, and Henry was the one who calmed her down. But his fatherly influence has mostly been indirect; it’s been through Betty, and restraining Betty. We haven’t seen a lot of direct connection between him and Sally. And it’s probably because she’s been so bonded to Don the whole time.

And then, on the other side, there’s Megan. Who seems more like a big sister than a mom.
I’d agree with that. I think Megan has been another figure who’s been encouraging Sally’s development, so to speak, in allowing her some level of freedom. With Megan, it’s not about keeping Sally a child. But even with all of that, Sally doesn’t feel a direct affiliation with Megan. And the reason I say that is because she kept the affair a secret after finding out. She did not reveal it to Megan at dinner. She felt torn about it, because she was upset; but she didn’t feel connected to Megan strongly enough to tell her, even though she knew Megan was being betrayed.

Remember when Megan accidentally told Sally about Don’s first wife? Sally got angry at Megan, not her father.
I think that Sally wants to be the favorite to Don. Megan almost never has any bad intentions. She’s never controlling, she never says anything negative, she’s really pretty much the model woman for Sally. But right now, Megan is more prominent in Don’s life, and I think Sally sees her as a little bit of an obstacle. She’s competition for her father’s affections.

At the end of the episode, when Don tried to explain himself to Sally, she told him, “You don’t get to talk to me anymore.” I thought that was an interesting choice of words.
I think that moment really reveals that Don has lost any authority as a parent. Most children are looking for someone to trust, and someone that they can rely on. And Don has just broken that. He’s broken it by lying to her, and then even after her witnessing it, he’s still lying to her. And therefore there can be no direct trust until he owns up to it.

What could Don do to fix this? He’s not going to, but if he wanted to, could he?
Could he fix his relationship with Sally? To a degree, he could be honest with her about what’s happening, and honest with her about his relationships. The problem is that he’s still modeling secrecy and a lack of honesty in relationships, because he’s keeping it from Megan. So really, the only way he could fully repair this is if he comes out with it to Megan, and Sally’s aware of it, and he repairs the relationship with Megan.

But if he starts coming clean, does he then have to be like, “Oh, and also I slept with your third-grade teacher, and that secretary, and …”
I mean, if he was absolutely honest, then sure, he would have to do that. But I don’t think that’s necessary to repair this incident. Because Sally has no awareness of all the other stuff that he’s done. This is really about an issue of dishonesty and breaking the trust. When you say you’re going to be monogamous and you lie about it in front of me and you lie about it to your wife, how can I believe you about anything? So that’s really about where the break is that he has to repair. He doesn’t necessarily need to confess and tell his entire life story.

Now that she’s rejected both parents, do you think Sally’s now going to do what everybody’s been predicting since season one and become a hippie?
I could see her embracing the hippie culture, where everything she dislikes about her parents is scorned. It might also be a psychological escape where Don’s behavior is more acceptable, because, “Love whoever, man.”

A Psychiatrist Analyzes Mad Men’s Sally Draper