Mel Gibson is currently the schadenfreude special at the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Internet tabloid world. Alleged audiotapes of his contretemps with ex-girlfriend and baby mama Oksana Grigorieva are being released by RadarOnline.com at about the same frequency that nurses give out meds in a psych ward, except with the opposite effect: they've made the Internet go nuts. Jokesters quickly spliced the Gibson rants together with tapes of an enraged Christian Bale, inscribed some of the choicest phrases over pictures of kittens and started a Twitter feed called MelGibsons_rage that tweets random offensive bile at other Twitter users.
Perhaps the tapes have inspired so much mockery because the ugliness they contain is very hard to contemplate straight on. Gibson, panting as if he's either calling from a hill on the Tour de France or having a panic attack, is excessively vulgar and makes nutty physical threats. The language is so bizarrely repulsive a David Mametesque fusillade of F bombs and C words, punctuated by racist and sexist insults as to be almost comical. But there's also a weird familiarity to the star's fury. It's reminiscent of the turmoil that can be seen among acquaintances and family members, or even from strangers on cell phones in the street, as a relationship reaches its breaking point. If we strip away the potty-mouthiness, is Mel Gibson all that different from the rest of us?
TIME asked marital counselors whether Gibson's behavior was the kind of insanity that required medical or law-enforcement intervention or just a Hollywood-size version of the behavior often seen during the breakup of an epically bad relationship. The most consistent answer we got, apart from regret at having to hear the tapes, was that Gibson needs help with issues that had clearly been building for a long time. But not all the therapists agreed on how far beyond the pale his behavior really was.
"I've witnessed thousands of arguments at this point, and in my opinion, this is not typical," says Sharon Rivkin, a psychotherapist who specializes in arguments and affairs and is the author of last year's Breaking the Argument Cycle. "I think he's got some very serious psychological problems. I think he's dangerous at this point. This goes beyond just a bad relationship. Even if he's been drinking, that's too much."
As for Grigorieva, Rivkin thinks she was wise to make the tapes as a way of settling the he-said, she-said issues that often arise in domestic-abuse cases. But Michele Weiner-Davis, a psychotherapist and the author of Divorce-Busting, says Gibson's ex is not handling the situation in the best possible way. "Mel's being despicable, and she's letting it go on. The first time he said 'F___ this, you c___,' she should have ended the call and laid down some boundaries." Not that she's blaming Grigorieva. "I'll bet every penny I've ever made that he was abusive in all his previous relationships."
And yet behind the rage, notes Weiner-Davis, there's another dimension to the calls. "Listening between the vulgarities, part of what he was saying is that he was disappointed she wasn't emotionally available to him. That does not justify his behavior, but it's a little too easy to say this guy belongs behind bars."
That plea for help, albeit primitive and expletive-laden, is what psychiatrist Scott Haltzman finds familiar from other couples he has treated. "There's nothing about this call that's healthy," he stresses, "but these themes are not uncommon when I see men. He feels she doesn't appreciate what he does, doesn't make his life more comfortable and doesn't engage in sex with him in the way he would like. These are recurrent problems."
Unlike his female counterparts, Haltzman says Gibson's behavior is not off-the-charts crazy. "Very few therapists know what really goes on in people's households," he says. "I think a lot of couples with poor communication skills and built-up anger reach the point we are hearing on these tapes."
The emotional intensity may be common to many arguing married couples, but Steven Stosny, a psychotherapist and the author of Love Without Hurt, says that's just half the story. In other respects, Gibson "sounds like most of the 4,000 abusers I have treated in my career he sees himself as the victim and feels justified in any kind of retaliation. He is completely incapable at that point of seeing anyone else's perspective." The whole argument is heightened by what sounds like a panic attack, which Gibson may be dealing with by using alcohol or anger. "The adrenaline rush of anger regulates the powerlessness of the panic attack. He feels temporarily empowered, but the extra jolt of adrenaline turns the anger into rage."
And while the freak-show thrills the tapes elicit may be enjoyable for a while, the therapists caution that playing around with the viscera of a nasty breakup is going to leave everyone with gunk on their hands. It's not only that most of us would be mortified if some of our private conversations were made public, says Weiner-Davis. "Part of what keeps men in this cycle of abuse is shame. They feel bad about themselves and fail, and it makes them act worse."
There may be one person who could be helped by listening to those phone calls again. As one of the tapes revealed, Gibson is already working with a therapist. Let's hope it's a good one.