Behind the Scenes of A&E’s “Monster In-Laws”

High School Rivals episode

I arrived at the Chepan home to tape High School Rivals not sure exactly what to expect.  The producers and the director informed me of everything going on with the family before I got there so  we had a game plan.  That changed the minute I walked through the front door and into the firestorm.

The first thing I noticed when I walked through the front door of Brian and Laurie’s home was Brian’s sister Elizabeth tucked deep into the corner of the couch as far away as possible from the two of them, acting like a three-year-old who’d just been told she can’t have dessert after dinner.  I pointed this out to Elizabeth immediately.   Her body language explained it all in the first 5 seconds I was there.   I could see anger, jealousy and betrayal in her eyes.  I saw a look of sadness and hopelessness in Brian and Laurie eyes; the same look you see in a person who’s just been informed that a loved one has been injured in an accident or something.

The first thing I needed to accomplish with each member of this family is the same thing I need to accomplish  in every episode and with every client of mine that I meet for the first time at my private practice, and that is to develop a rapport with each one of them, to connect with them so they know that I fully understand where they’re coming from and that I’m on their side.  This is an extremely important skill that a professional like myself absolutely must possess if I have any chance of helping a anyone.  They absolutely must trust me and have faith in me.   Elizabeth was no easy customer.

The main issue in this family was that Elizabeth desperately wanted to be heard, to be understood and to be accepted by her brother and sister-in-law.  And the irony is that she was.  She just couldn’t see it.  Her way of trying to get through to them was by throwing tantrums and keeping journals of all their wrong doings.  Brian and Laurie had had enough and it was up to me to put the pieces together and to somehow help Elizabeth “get it”.   It took me 5 twelve-hour days for crying out loud, about eight hours of footage and you only get to see 22 minutes of it.  Imagine what that was like for me dealing with this craziness.

The most eye-popping incident for me was when I had Laurie and Elizabeth do an activity that required them to write down on a big piece of white board all of the hurtful things that the other has said over the years..  I had them put a piece of string through the top of the white board and wear it around their neck and face-off with each another about these issues.  This activity was all about “seeing” the problems loud and clear, right in their faces.  You’ll see about 1 minute of this play out in the episode but it was really about an hour long shoot.  At the end of this activity I asked them what they wanted.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when Elizabeth looked at me, took the whiteboard off her neck, and began tearing to pieces.  Laurie reciprocated and the two of them embraced.  I was thinking to myself, “holy sh@t this is too early for a resolution; we still have 3 days of filming.”  That ended in a hurry because right after the hug with Laurie, Elizabeth reached for her journal and said, “but there is one last thing I need to get off my chest.”  I was stunned and so was Brian.  The camera picked up his response as he sort of rolled his eyes and drooped his head  as if to say, “I cannot believe this is really happening.  Did she really just do that?”  Great job camera guy.

Later we moved on to the swimming pool activity because believe it or not, Elizabeth’s jealousy of Laurie began back in high school as Elizabeth claims Laurie stole her spot on the swim team.  She was still holding on to that after all these years I  needed to settle this nonsense once and for all.  That scene took several hours by the way, even though it’s only about a minute of tv time.  When I had the two take their positions I could see that Elizabeth meant business.  From the word go Elizabeth catapulted into that pool like a torpedo.  She beat Laurie and to be honest with you I think Laurie let her win, which was probably a good idea.  The moral of the story in that activity:  who gives a crap who the better swimmer is and let’s bury this nonsense.  There are more important things in life to worry about.  Lesson learned.

As the week progressed, I continued to work with the family and drilled the importance of communication and listening into their heads.  The final day of the shoot is what we call, “The Final Decisions”.  I brought the three of them to a high school, which represented the starting point of where the problems began.  We sat in a semi-circle in a hallway for a long time, rehashing everything that was learned that week and what the next step would be.  Would Brian let his sister continue to be a part of his life?  Would he not?  Brian was very unsure what to do and actually did both during that long dialogue.  Elizabeth freaked out at one point and burst off the scene and into the bathroom.   I’d about had enough so I followed her and tv magic happened with “the mirror scene”.  I was in the woman’s bathroom with her trying to calm her down and get her to come back out and work things out.  This is when the mirror scene happened.  If you watched the episode you’ll see that I brought Elizabeth in front of a full-length mirror in that bathroom and asked her to take a look at her herself and how pathetic she looked.  I wanted her to see just how babyish she was acting.  Although I wanted to jump down Elizabeth’s throat, I had to control my temper and be gentle because Elizabeth was that fragile.   It worked and I got her back out there.  Elizabeth and Laurie agreed to work on their relationship and Brian accepted her back into his life, as it was clear that Elizabeth was actually trying.  The rest is history.

I’m going to write more of these posts to give you an idea of what really happens during the Monster In-Laws filming.

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  • edgibb

    I’d like to see your whole comment on community.aetv.com so viewers get to understand what is involved and what goes on behind the scenes. Elizabeth was quite a case. I would also like to hear of updates with these episodes as it’s hard to believe their problems can be solved so easily (though the counselling took several days, most people don’t change their ways so quickly unless they have a true  epiphany). 

  • J. Vahle

    I have recently begun working with Elizabeth at our local YMCA. She is a lifeguard there and very proud of the fact that she has been a lifeguard for the past 20 years. She just got remarried and I know that her brother and sister-in-law were not at her wedding. I don’t believe she has any contact with them anymore but unclear if that is her doing or theirs.

    Elizabeth seems to still struggle with relationships that she finds adviserial including with her fellow lifeguards who she feels superior to because of her number of years of experience. She has even taken to singling out a few lifeguards at the YMCA and claiming that they are in a power struggle together and demanding that their schedules be arranged so that they are never working together. This is problematic in that Elizabeth was responsible for creating the schedule and was cutting the work hours of anyone that she didn’t like. Finally a supervisor stepped in and had to remove Elizabeth’s control of the schedule to ensure everyone got equal time on the job. This of course didn’t go over too well with Elizabeth. Only time will tell if she ever matures enough to stop seeing her entire life as a competition and learns to accept people for who they really are.