‘Defending Jacob’ and defending psychiatry


The 2012 crime fiction novel, “Defending Jacob,” by William Landay was dramatized into a miniseries created by Mark Bomback that premiered on April 24, 2020, on Apple TV+ (and for those resisting a subscription, “The Morning Show” and “Defending Jacob” are both worth it). Both the “Defending Jacob” novel and the miniseries have themes that are of interest to psychiatry, especially to child and forensic psychiatrists, and both the literary and TV versions are excellent, albeit disturbing, diversions from the current pandemic.

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(Spoiler alert!) The story is set in the affluent town of Newton, Mass., where crime is generally low and homicides extremely infrequent. Protagonist Andy Barber, a 51-year-old Jewish assistant district attorney, is played by a younger Chris Evans in the miniseries. His wife, Laurie Gold Barber, a 51-year-old Jewish former schoolteacher and stay-at-home mom, is played by a younger Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame. In the miniseries, her character is actively working as a teacher and social activist for children. Other differences between the novel and the miniseries will be pointed out when relevant, but the overall narrative is similar. Both stories are cleverly told through Andy Barber speaking in retrospect as he is being questioned in front of a grand jury for a potential indictment.

When 14-year-old Ben Rifkin is found stabbed to death in Cold Spring Park before school one morning, Andy Barber initially takes the case despite his boss’s reservations that there may be a conflict because Andy’s son Jacob is a student in Ben’s class at school. As the title suggests, it soon becomes clear that Jacob may have had something to do with the murder. At that point, Andy is taken off the case and it is given to a junior colleague, Neal Logiudice, who demonstrates both admiration and contempt for his former mentor, perhaps because of underlying jealousy and insecurity. Neal Logiudice becomes the DA questioning Andy Barber.

Prior to Jacob’s formal accusation of murder, the Barbers appear to be fiercely loyal and unable to fully see and understand their son. The difficulty with objectivity and the reasons why family member physicians should never treat family members – and why family member attorneys should never represent loved ones – is abundantly clear in this story. When Andy receives an anonymous tip that Jacob’s childhood best friend, Derek Yoo, posted on Facebook, “Jake, everyone knows you did it. You have a knife. I’ve seen it,’ ” Andy then looks through Jacob’s drawers and finds a folding knife in one of his T-shirts. In the chapter aptly titled “Denial,” Andy, an experienced prosecutor, does not turn the knife over as evidence, but instead disposes of it – believing Jacob that he did not take the knife to school the day his classmate was stabbed.

After Jacob is indicted, Andy Barber confesses to his wife, Laurie, that his estranged father who left when he was 6 is actually in prison convicted of murdering and raping a woman. In the novel, his grandfather and great-grandfather are also convicted felons. Laurie reveals this family history to Jacob’s attorney, and the attorney subsequently refers the family to a forensic psychologist. In the novel, she is a large Jewish woman; in the miniseries she is played by a very thin Poorna Jagannathan (who incidentally has portrayed a therapist in the television series “Sorry for your Loss,” and a doctor in “The Act,” “Better Call Saul,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “House of Cards,” “The Game,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” “Rescue Me,” “Jonny Zero,” “An Actor Prepares,” “The Circle,” “Thanks for Sharing,” and “Montclair.”) Although the goal of the defense was a finding of “not guilty,” a psychiatric defense was going to be used as a last resort if necessary.

Dr. Karen B. Rosenbaum is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in private practice in New York. She is an assistant clinical professor at New York University Langone Medical Center and on the faculty at Weill-Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Karen B. Rosenbaum

Laurie had already googled and learned of “the murder gene,” which was further explained by the forensic psychologist as a mutation called:

“MAOA Knockout. It has been argued in court as a trigger for violence before, but the argument was too simplistic, and it was rejected. Our understanding of the gene-environment interplay has improved since then – the science is getting better and very quickly – and we may have better testimony now. The second mutation is located in what’s called the serotonin transporter gene. The official name for the gene is SLC6A4. It’s located on chromosome 17. It encodes a protein that facilitates the activity of the serotonin transporter system, which is what enables the reuptake of serotonin from the synapse back into the neuron.”1

She further explains that there have been many studies on the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture question and that, with new developments in DNA studies, it is now becoming possible to study the “nature” side.

“Defending Jacob” explores the nature/nurture issue, as well as issues with forensic testimony in court and the criminal justice system in general. The issue of repressing feelings and hiding secrets and then having to confront both in a brutal manner is another theme addressed in the story. Andy tried to hide and forget that his father was in prison and the criminal history in his family, but he was forced to face this and his feelings about it when confronted with his own son being accused of murder. Of note, he does not seek help from a therapist despite these life-altering events. (Humongous spoiler alert:) The story that began with a murder of an unrelated child may end with a family murder, one that would be well described and could be understood by psychiatrists using the categories of motives initially described by Phillip Resnick, MD.2

Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman serves as the Phillip Resnick Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman

Once again, and unfortunately, as we have pointed out in other media reviews, the portrayal of psychiatric/psychological themes is problematic. Using a psychologist to explain the science of DNA and not a psychiatrist is an interesting choice. Diagnosing a 14-year-old with personality disorders also contributes to misunderstanding and stigma. In addition, no timely attempt is made to refer the accused Jacob for mental health treatment. The stigmatization of psychiatry in the media was addressed by the World Psychiatric Association task force guidance on how to combat stigmatization of psychiatry and psychiatrists,3 including breaking down negative views of psychiatrists and psychiatry in the general public, among medical students, other health professionals, and patients and relatives. The task force made recommendations for national psychiatric societies and for individual practitioners to help reduce stigma of the profession of psychiatry. We would argue that speaking to the media, including fiction authors, to help educate about mental health is an important role for psychiatrists. It would lead to more realistic portrayals in film and books.

Overall, “Defending Jacob” is a compelling story in both the novel and the miniseries. Despite some problems with how it depicts mental health issues, both are engaging and contain thoughtful, extremely well-written themes of interest to many clinical and forensic psychiatrists.


1. Landay W. Defending Jacob, a novel. New York: Delacorte Press, 2012.

2. Friedman SH. Family Murder: Pathologies of Love and Hate. Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2019.

3. Sartorius N et al. World Psychiatry. 2010 Oct;9(3):131-44.

Dr. Rosenbaum is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist in private practice in New York. She is an assistant clinical professor at New York University Langone Medical Center and on the faculty at Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Hatters Friedman serves as the Phillip Resnick Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. She is also editor of Family Murder: Pathologies of Love and Hate (Washington: American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2019), which was written by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Committee on Psychiatry & Law and was awarded the 2020 Manfred Gutmacher Award by the American Psychiatric Association.

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