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Primal Therapy Resurgence?

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The Psychotherapy Networker is a journal for psychotherapists. A recent edition of the journal under “The Therapy Beat” featured an article titled “Rage Rooms: Stress Relief’s New Darlings,” by Chris Lyford, who introduces his article with the following historical background:

Fifty years ago an unusual brand of psychotherapy took the country by storm, exciting clients looking for a quick fix and rattling the talk-therapy establishment. Evening news reports called it brash and fashionable. Movie and pop stars sang its praises. John Lennon dedicated a segment of his 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band to it. James Earl Jones claimed it had cured his hemorrhoids and helped him quit smoking. And pianist Roger Williams credited it with fixing his cold hands, listing its progenitor among history’s greatest men, including Socrates, Freud, and Galileo.

“The annals of psychiatry have been filled with dramatic new treatments for which extravagant claims have been made,” wrote reporter Martin Kasindorph in a 1971 issue of Newsweek. “But few treatments have been more dramatic, more highly touted, or quicker to catch on than one that has gaudily burst upon the American scene this year.”

The new method was called primal therapy. Its founder, Arthur Janov, then a 47-year- old psychotherapist treating veterans at a hospital in upscale Brentwood, California, had come up with it four years earlier after a session with a client in the throes of a traumatic memory.[1]

In our first book, The Psychological Way/The Spiritual Way,[2]published in 1979, we described Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy as follows:

Within the muddy waters of the psychoanalytic stream are numerous tributaries of Freudian theory, and among them flows the questionable therapy of the Primal Scream, created by Arthur Janov. Janov superimposed his theories upon such basic concepts as the unconscious determinants of behavior, the vast influence of the early formative years on present behavior, and the need to return to the past to uncover early traumas which are buried in the unconscious.

There is a little psychoanalytic leaven in-almost every psychotherapeutic loaf, but Primal Therapy has a particularly strong Freudian flavor. However, Janov invented a novel twist to the Freudian framework. He has taken the basics and added some excitement, drama, and stimulus for violent expression. He has popularized the psychic trip into the past and claims a 95 percent cure rate for customers.[3]

Soon after Janov completed his doctorate in psychology from Claremont Graduate School in 1960, he opened his private practice. The beginnings of Primal Therapy occurred during a session with a college student whom he calls Danny Wilson. In this session Wilson told Janov about a comedian whose act consisted of wandering around the stage dressed in diapers, drinking out of a baby bottle, and calling out, “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!” The comedian ended his act by passing out plastic bags, vomiting into a bag, and inviting the audience to do likewise. Because of Wilson’s obvious fascination with the act, Janov suggested that he might want to cry out “Mommy” and “Daddy” just as the comedian had done. Although Wilson first refused, he finally gave in and began calling out, “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!” The next few minutes provided the basis for Janov’s new therapeutic system.

Janov noticed that Wilson became very upset and began turning and twisting in agony, with his breathing becoming rapid and sporadic. Then Wilson screeched, “Mommy! Daddy!” His movements became more convulsive and finally he let out a piercing, deathlike scream. And with this scream, Janov launched the much-sought-after Primal Therapy. Janov began trying it out on other clients and developed his theory accordingly. Then, he published a description of his methodology in his book Primal Scream in 1970, which has exceeded 200,000 copies sold.[4]

In order to dispense his brand of therapy, Janov had to build special, soundproof facilities to protect the community from the ear-piercing screams and violent verbalizations expressed during the sessions. He soon opened the Primal Institute in Los Angeles both to conduct therapy sessions and to train therapists. He recently opened a second institute in New York, and, although he originally directed everything himself, he has turned over the major operation of his institutes to his son and his ex-wife.[5] Nevertheless, Janov still maintains his authoritative influence as the Primal pope.

Primal Therapy is currently one of the very popular forms of therapy for those who can afford the $6,600 fee. The demand is so great that many psychotherapists read Janov’s book and then offer similar treatment. Janov, however, would consider them unauthorized and unqualified if they have not been certified by his institute.

The sacred words of Primal Therapy are Primal Pain, which are always capitalized for emphasis. It is around these words that the central doctrines of Primal Therapy revolve. According to Janov, as the child grows he has a dilemma between being himself and conforming to the expectations of his parents. During this period of development, the child accumulates Pain from the injuries of unmet needs, such as not being fed when hungry, not being changed when wet, or being ignored when needing attention. Primal Pain occurs as the result of the conflicts between self-need and parental expectation. Through the process of growth as conflicts continue to occur, the accumulation of Primal Pain results in what Janov calls the “Primal Pool of Pain.”

When the Pool gets deep enough, just one more incident supposedly pushes the child into neurosis. This single significant incident is labeled the “major Primal Scene.” Janov contends: “The major Primal Scene is the single most shattering event in the child’s life. It is that moment of icy, cosmic loneliness, the bitterest of all epiphanies. It is the time when he begins to discover that he is not loved for what he is and will not be.”[6] It is at this point that the child finally gives up the idea of being himself in order to gain his parents’ love. In the process of gaining parental approval, the child supposedly seals off his real feelings and becomes an unreal self. Janov calls this disassociation from one’s feelings “neurosis.”

Janov believes that the Primal Scene occurs between the ages of five and seven and is buried in the unconscious. The individual builds a network of defenses against even the awareness that the Pain is there. He develops a life-style that hides the origin of the Pain and merely releases the tension caused by the Pain, but he is not able to eliminate it.

Notice here, as with the Freudian process of blame and the voyage into the past, Janov’s culprit is the parents and the solution is to be found in the past. In both theories only a return to the early years can bring healing for present anxieties. Janov not only specifies a single cause of neurosis: blocked Pain; but offers a single cure, the one and only cure in all the world for neurosis: Primal Therapy.

Janov theorizes that to be cured, the neurotic must return to his major Primal Scene where he decided to give up his real self and his real feelings in exchange for the possibility of parental love. He must experience the emotions, the events, and the expectations of others as well as the accompanying Pain in order to be cured. The experience of returning to the Primal Scene and suffering the Primal Pain is called a “Primal.” Primals are a necessary part of the healing process as far as Janov is concerned.

In reading Janov’s book we see an absence of joy in the Primals. They seem to be universally filled with such negative human emotions as anger, fear, loneliness, and rejection. Although Primal Therapy involves both a talking out and a feeling out, feeling is supreme. The way into and out of neurosis, according to Janov, is through feeling. He says, “Neurosis is a disease of feeling.”[7]

Primal Therapy, like most contemporary therapies, promises a quickie cure. It involves three weeks of intensive individual therapy, followed by six months of weekly group sessions, and culminating in one week of intensive private therapy. After this, the patient is free to have Primals on his own. During the first three weeks of individual therapy, the patient usually has his first Primal. After that, he continues to have more Primals during post-period group sessions. The therapist does everything he can to encourage the patient to get in touch with his internal Pain. A number of props, such as baby bottles, cribs, cuddly toys, life-sized photographs of parents, and even a birth simulator made out of inner tubes, have been used during these sessions.

In group sessions there is little interchange among those present. The Primal is king and the individual experience is supreme. As you can imagine, it would seem like utter chaos and outright bedlam to stumble upon such a group. Visualize some adults sucking baby bottles, others cuddling stuffed toys, still others in adult-sized cribs, one man standing with his genitals exposed, and a woman with her breasts uncovered. Then there is the birth simulator for those who want to experience the Primals that go all the way back to the womb and the birth process. Additionally, picture thirty or forty adults on the floor, gagging, thrashing, writhing, gurgling, choking and wailing. Listen to the sobbing and screeching, “Daddy, be nice!” “Mommy, help!” “1 hate you! I hate you!” “Daddy, don’t hurt me anymore!” “Mommy, I’m afraid!” And all of this is punctuated by deep rattling and high-piercing screams.

Does Primal Therapy really bring emotional stability into a person’s life? Janov enthusiastically claims a 95 percent cure rate. But it depends on whom you ask. Just as with many forms of therapy, there is much in the way of testimonials, but little verifiable research. Some of Janov’s critics have accused the patients of either consciously or unconsciously faking the Primals. No doubt there is some self-hypnosis and gullibility involved. Others have warned that this type of treatment could cause psychological deterioration or permanent psychosis. Some former patients have even called it emotional brainwashing.

If one listens to the testimonials of satisfied customers, one might well be impressed with the glowing claims of emotional healing and the elimination of migraine headaches, ulcers, arthritis, menstrual cramps, and asthma. Janov states that many dramatic physical changes result from his therapy. “For example,” he says, “about one-third of the moderately flat-chested women independently reported that their breasts grew.”[8] Janov claims that Primal Therapy is a cure-all when he declares, “But Primal Therapy should be able to do away with all symptoms or the premise—that symptoms are the result of Primal Pains—is not valid.”[9](Italics his.)

Such testimonials are not backed with any kind of unbiased research. Since the Janovs rule the institute and do not allow outside research teams to conduct studies, the success or failure of Primal Therapy cannot be determined apart from the subjectivity of testimonials which range all the way from praising to damning. Without outside validation from objective research groups, we cannot know the extent of help or damage that occurs.

This sick, sick, sick psychotherapy is only one of a host of similar therapies that are attracting a large number of adults seeking to find solace for the troubled soul. It is impossible to tell how many are in Primal Therapy or any one of its “friends and relations.” The Primal Institute alone has numerous applications each month, in spite of the $6,600 fee.

Another therapist, Daniel Casriel, in his book A Scream Away from Happiness, describes his method of group scream therapy.[10] He claims that thousands of people per week engage in this form of group encounter which relies heavily on screams and verbal assertiveness. During Casriel’s sessions, group members hold hands and are commanded to scream. In addition to the use of the scream technique, there is much encouragement to verbally assert oneself. For example, the leader instructs the participants to assert themselves by eyeball-to-eyeball contact, with aggressive statements such as “I’m entitled!” repeated over and over again. After a little practice, they are to assert themselves by repeatedly shouting, “I’m entitled!” punctuated by obscenities.[11] The more assertive, the better; the more ventilation of aggressive and negative feelings, the better.

Leonard Berkowitz, who has extensively studied violence and aggression, disagrees with the idea that it is desirable to let out one’s aggressive feelings. Those therapists that encourage such active expressions of negative emotions are called ”ventilationists.” Their therapies, according to Berkowitz, stimulate and reward aggression and “heighten the likelihood of subsequent violence.”[12] He declares, “The evidence dictates now that it is unintelligent to encourage persons to be aggressive, even if, with the best of intentions, we want to limit such behavior to the confines of psychotherapy.”[13]

Berkowitz criticizes the rejection of the intellect in these theories as well as the popular view held by ventilationists and others that it is unhealthy to suppress our feelings. He believes that “in the long run, our social and human problems can be solved only with intelligence.”[14]Regarding the popularity of such therapies, he quips, “most ventilationists are located on the East and West Coasts, but particularly in California; I regard them as part of California’s contribution to the American Dream, along with Hollywood and Disneyland.”[15]

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