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The Primal Doctor

Arthur Janov treats neurosis with screams and counts John Lennon among his fans

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Hollywood — Arthur Janov is the perfect Marlboro man (although he does not smoke): tall, lean, a corona of graying curls over a tan face etched with laugh wrinkles, with an affection for flared slacks and leather jackets, and his wife, Vivian, who assists him as one of the Institute’s eight therapists, is a vivacious little brunette with hair chopped close to her head and a good, sincere smile that must be as pleasing (reassuring) over cocktails as it is across the therapist’s couch.

While their 14-year-old son Rick plays the bass and guitar and is a student at a “free school” and their 17-year-old daughter Ellen was, when she was 11, hooked in with Henry Mancini and Walt Disney as a singer/actress, when she was 14 was signed to both Capitol Records and Albert Grossman, but since then has decided she wants none of that. Both have gone through their father’s Primal Therapy.

The Primal Institute is flush up against Beverly Hills in West Hollywood, within a block of the Troubadour, leading folk music club, as well as the Factory, one of the flashier private discotheques for movie stars, and the Figaro, the espresso shop transplanted from MacDougal Street. Closer are the decorator supply houses and poodle groomers that give the section its real personality.

Inside the one-story stucco building which houses the Primal Institute — until recently a private club — the decor is just so: magenta wall-to-wall carpeting, indirect lighting, vermillion flock wallpaper and dark wood paneling, padded black furniture with an occasional director chair.

And now Janov is part of the media. In the past few months he and his theory (about which more soon) have appeared with the ex-Beatle’s name in the national magazines. Today there is a writer from Playboy preparing their article; Nova from London is in Janov’s office asking for color photographs, and David Wolper is considering a documentary. Janov himself is trying to break his contract with E.P. Dutton, publishers of The Primal Scream, so he can take his second book to another company where he might be able to get as much as $100,000 advance against future royalties.

It was the first book, The Primal Scream, that attracted John Lennon to Janov, and Janov has only himself to thank, for when his publisher asked him to whom he’d like review copies sent, his list began with Peter Fonda and John Lennon.

“Dutton mailed the book without any letter explaining why they were sent,” Janov complains. “John got his copy about two weeks ahead of publication, he read it, and he came to me. Listen to his new album if you want to know what he got out of it. I played it for our group scene on Saturday and it was a milestone session. There were 50 people in the room, which is more than we usually have, and every one of them flipped. There were so many people screaming — having Primals — you couldn’t hear yourself think.” He paused. “It was wonderful.”

Art delivers this remembrance as he takes us on a tour of his building, waving an arm around the huge room used for group sessions (there’s a punching bag in one corner) and while sitting in a director’s chair in the staff room, one eye on a closed circuit television set that shows a middle-aged woman sobbing in a therapy session not 20 feet away. He explains that that room also has a one-way mirror on the wall, for closer, more personal observation.

“We watch, we listen, we learn,” he says.

Across the carpeted hall is another therapy room which doubles as the Institute’s research lab. In it is a compact but intimidating machine called a dynograph and nearby, the door to a closet-sized, padded, copper-lined cell. Both the machine and the cell are used for measuring brain waves.

“It also serves as a dungeon,” Art says, matter-of-factly. “Twenty minutes in there, in the dark, with no sound and nothing to touch, and that’s it. No more defenses. Want to try it?”

He presumes you have read his book, which begins with the story of his “discovering” the Primal Scream. It came, he says, when one of his patients told of a theatrical performance in which someone dressed in diapers shouted “Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Daddy!” throughout the act, then vomited, distributing plastic bags to the spectators, asking them to vomit, too.

Janov says he was fascinated by this and asked his patient to cry for his own “mommy” and “daddy.” The patient was reluctant, but finally agreed. “

As he began,” Janov writes in his book, “he became noticeably upset. Suddenly he was writhing on the floor in agony. His breathing was rapid, spasmodic … and finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes, and I had no idea what had happened. All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel!'”

Art confesses he was baffled at first, but when, months later, it happened again with another patient, he began experimenting, and with each cry for a patient’s parents, there came a piercing, shuddering scream.

“I have come to regard that scream as the product of central and universal pains which reside in all neurotics,” Janov writes. “I call them Primal Pains because they are the original, early hurts upon which all later neurosis is built. It is my contention that these pains exist in every neurotic each minute of his later life, irrespective of the form of his neurosis.”

In other words, obsessions and phobias and all the rest in the neurotic’s bag have but a single source, what Janov calls major and minor Primal Scenes, all traceable to the patient’s relationship with his parents. Say, for example, the patient was pushed beyond his limits as a child; Janov says that each time the parents exerted pressure — to crawl sooner, walk sooner, be brighter, etc. — a minor Primal Scene was created. Then after several years of this — usually between the ages of five and seven — an “understanding” accompanied one of the minor scenes, and the child realized that his parents wanted him to be a “good” child and didn’t like him the way he was. So suddenly, and painfully it became a major scene.

Thus neurosis is born, and from that moment forward the child, and then the man, builds a set of defenses that create an “unreality.” Janov says that if he can get the patient to relive that major Primal Scene lucidly enough, the only recourse is to let go with the Primal Scream – which will begin to “cure” the neurotic, allowing him to lower his defensive walls and step forward as his real, “feeling” self again.

This goes contrary to the Freudians, who believe a system of defense is not only necessary, but healthy. Janov’s theory goes the other way and says the “normal” person is the defenseless one.

Art says anything Freudian is “horse-shit.” He leans back in his director’s chair and says with finality, “The world has passed them by and they don’t know it. They’re fooling around with men’s minds and they don’t know what they are getting, except $50 an hour – and you may quote me on that.”

Other approaches, from rational therapy to psychodrama to transcendental meditation get equal time and shrift. (He admits that meditation may be fine for relaxation, but says that otherwise it is “anti-Primal.” “We must remember that one can meditate daily and still not reduce the need to meditate,” he writes. “Somehow the demon arises anew each day to be meditated away. The rituals, flowers, and robes would seem to be an elaborate going-through of the motions of relaxation, for rituals are not necessary in order to relax.”)

The mechanics of Primal Therapy are equally unorthodox. Prospective patients are not interviewed, but accepted on the basis of hand-written autobiographies. And when they are accepted, following a complete physical because Janov says a man with a weak heart literally won’t live through what is in store for him, they are told to check into a hotel room 24 hours before their first session with a therapist begins.

In that hotel room he is to remain isolated. No television. No telephone. No visitors. Nothing to read. (Writing is permissible, however.) And no cigarette, alcohol or drugs – for the remainder of his therapy. He may additionally be asked to remain awake the full 24 hours, so that when he reports the following day (“suffering,” Janov says) his defenses will have been lowered by fatigue.

This procedure may be repeated over the next three weeks of therapy (or use may be made of the Institute’s “dungeon”), during which time he is the only patient seen by the therapist. This last is important. Janov breaks another tradition by ignoring the 50-minute hour and offers patients open-end therapy – two, three, five, seven, ten hours, whatever is necessary, day after day after day.

For the patient this is a painful period. It hurts in the telling (re-living) and it hurts in the techniques employed by Primal therapists in getting those experiences told; when Vivian or one of the long-haired, Ivy League-suited young men on the staff punches the patient in the stomach to halt “neurotic breathing” or brutally squeezes the muscles of the shoulders and neck to get the tension out.

“I hurt people,” Janov says simply. “I need access to the pain centers in the brain to get at the Primal Pains. The pain channels need to be opened. So I dig in.”

Back, back into his childhood the patient goes, often re-living his earliest years with such clarity he is reduced to a baby’s vocabulary and lisp. Sometimes he even re-lives his birth. And sooner or later, Janov claims, there comes the cry for “mommy” and “daddy” and the first of the Primal Screams.

Following the three-week period of intensive therapy alone, the patient is moved into what Janov called “the group experience,” meetings held for three or more hours twice weekly. Currently there are at least 20 and as many as 50 attending these sessions. Janov says the major function here is to trigger new Primals; when one Post-Primal patient screams, he says, usually another will. Seldom if ever do the patients inter-react; there are therapists present for that.

The group sessions may continue for several months before the patient is “cured” and for this, he pays a flat fee of $1,650 for the three weeks, $20 for each group experience afterward. By Janov’s reckoning, this means Primal Therapy costs about one-fifth of what traditional psychoananlysis costs, in time and money.

Nor is that all. Janov also contends his therapy probably cures asthma, epilepsy, allergies, colitis, headaches (migraine as well as ordinary) and perhaps half a hundred others in the neurologist’s catalog of hits. This, he says, is because neurosis is not mental but physiological, an ailment that affects the brain and body physically, a claim he says he supports in technical detail in his second book, as yet unpublished.

Part of the support for these claims lies in reports showing changes in temperature, blood pressure and pulse (all of which he says drop measurably following therapy), sometimes even in height or foot size.

As if on cue, one of the Institute’s therapists enters the room, shoots a look at the middle-aged woman on the television set and takes a seat. He is wearing a three-piece suit, a white shirt and narrow tie, and his hair is in a natural the size of a beach ball. He begins talking about his patient, a young woman whose breasts have been growing noticeably since she’s been experiencing Primals. Janov asks him if he can get her to write a letter to that effect, documenting her pectoral growth. The therapist says she’s just started on the Pill again and it could be that causing the development, not the therapy.

“See if she’ll write a letter,” Art says.

Another therapist, working with Janov on editing the second book, enters the room, looking for the last of the manuscript.

“Is this the cure for everything, Richard?” Art asks.

“I think it is.”

“He’s serious,” Janov replies. And suddenly the room is filled with laughter. It is laughter born of confidence. Art crosses his legs, glances at the television set, comments on the position of the patient’s legs (foetal) and looks at some temperature charts offered by one of his research therapists, while Vivian and some of the others begin talking about the Primal Pains they’ve experienced. They talk in the way other folks might talk about golf scores or recent movies they’d seen.

There is an evangelical fervor in Janov and his associates, tempered by heaping portions of charm and what can only be described as faith in theory and self. There also is a good natured camaraderie, based (in part) in the fact that all are on the most intimate terms, having used each other as “patients” in training to become therapists. This is shown when one congratulates another and says, “Have a Primal!” the way others might say “Have a cigar!” or “Have a drink!”

And the rap itself is comfortable, a blend of the expected psychological jargon and street talk, with words of four and five syllables followed by a barking “right on!”

In many ways Janov has tied himself to Charles Reich’s “Consciousness III.” On his office wall is a famed poster of Lenny Bruce. (“My hero,” says Janov.) He boasts of walking out on Nureyev, because the ballet was, after Primal Therapy, an “unnatural” art (“Nobody dances on their toes …”); he says: “I used to be a ballet freak, but now I believe rock is where it’s at.” And in the manuscript for his second book he writes:

“One of the reasons that the youth is the hope of the future is that they are young and still have enough reality about them to want change. They are not yet old enough to have been totally crushed … by the unreal system.

“The youth, sick though it is with drugs and crime, still have so many elements of health — in their music, in their outlook about money, in their attitudes about politics and power, in their relationships to one another. They are the hope. They want to feel — the widespread use of LSD and marijuana is testimony of that as yet unconscious desire. They feel their suffering and want to feel better. They know there is a better way even if they don’t know what it is. They have thought that drugs (thanks to Tim Leary, et al.) are the way, which they are not. Primal Theory at least begins to offer them a real understanding of what inner change is about; they will do the rest.”

Janov’s therapist/editor passes a chapter from this second book to Vivian, several pages written by one of their patients. (“He’d been through ten years of traditional horseshit Freudian therapy and he came to us still a falling-down drunk,” Janov says. “In four months we cured him.”) Vivian reads a few paragraphs, her eyes begin to water and she wipes them, returning the chapter without finishing. She says, “I can’t read any more.”

A few minutes later the research therapist with the temperature charts begins to talk about how beautiful a person Janov is, and his eyes redden and become teary. “People ask us why we cry so much if we’re cured,” says Vivian, smiling warmly. “But that’s what we’re crying about. We have no defenses. We’re open about our emotions.” (In the first book Janov writes: “Next to mental illness, one of the major afflictions of humanity today is the treatment for it. Patients do not need to explain feelings and talk about them; they need to feel them.”)

Janov talks of a second “milestone group experience” in the Institute’s short and fiery history, the Halloween party attended by all the patients in costumes representing childhood fantasies and frustrations. Janov says one of the “mama’s boys” came in short pants, and ex-priest came in a diaper, a homosexual came in see-through pajamas, another patient came hanging from a seven-foot cross.

“We like to have parties,” Janov says.

The best of these, Janov says, was that held shortly after he received an advance copy of Lennon’s new album. Lennon always has been fairly honest, almost embarassingly autobiographical, in his recent songwriting, and in this album he has outdone himself. The album was recorded after John completed Janov’s crash course and it shows it. The first song on the first side, for example, clearly outlines the source of Lennon’s Primal Pain: “Mother, you had me but I never had you/I wanted you but you didn’t want me/So I got to tell you/Goodbye Goodbye.” The last two lines are sung — cried, shouted, croaked — repeatedly, turning into a Primal Scream.

Yoko Ono’s companion album provides more autobiographical material, more screaming. It is as if John and Yoko took Janov’s book as their theme, using their own lives as case histories. It is no wonder Janov is so pleased.

“John Lennon is my doctor,” Janov says. “Whenever I want therapy, I put on his new album. He has lived the didactic. The songs are what every patient experiences. The genius of the Beatles is proved. It is John. In this record, John has made the universal statement. I believe it will transform the world.”

Janov himself began to transform the world — if you believe Primal Therapy is as revolutionary as he says — just over three years ago. Until then, to hear his wife tell it, he was one of your ordinary Freudian insight psychologists (“fooling around until he found something”), with a big fat clientele (and homes) in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs.

He was raised in the Venice and Boyle Heights ghettos of Los Angeles, “fighting Mexicans most of the time,” he says, and it was during a three-year stretch in the Navy that he discovered he had a high IQ, which got him into UCLA where he began studying psychology and formed a jazz band called the Psycopathic Syncopators.

In 1951 he was a 27-year-old social worker with a masters in psychiatric social work. From 1952 to 1955 he was on the staff of the Psychiatric Department of Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. He got his PhD in psychology from Claremont College (not far from Los Angeles) in 1960. And then for seven years he pulled in $50 a 50-minute hour.

Then came the first of the Primal Screams, and he opened an office at the Beverly Hills end of Sunset Strip. Shortly after that he was evicted. He took another office on Sunset and was evicted again. Businesses in the adjacent offices couldn’t function efficiently above the patient’s screams. When he was thrown out the second, he bought the deserted nightclub on Almont Drive where he is today.

His book had come out, meanwhile, about the sametime he stopped individual therapy and became “director” of the Primal Institute. He was Lennon’s therapist, of course, once John had flown to the US with Yoko. But not since then has he been on a one-to-one basis with his patients; today he is present only during the Saturday group scenes.

Janov believes he is especially well-prepared to greet patients who have been through an extensive drug experience, whether it’s pot, acid or junk. (Although he admits it is extremely difficult to deal with a heroin addict so long as the addict continues to shoot up.) In that order, and from the first book:

Pot: “I believe that many users of marijuana are trying to be real but are going about it in an unreal way. In a sense, ‘getting high’ is symbolic. It means going through the motions of liberation and freedom. But real liberation means feeling that pained self, not temporarily freeing the self with drugs from oppression by the unreal system.”

Acid: “It is possible that the first LSD trip may not be a bummer because there are defenses at work. But several trips seem to constitute an assault of the defense system, and then trouble may begin, for when there is pain, the trip must be painful. Not surprisingly, after a bum acid trip, the person is not likely to try the drug again, yet he is just the one who seems close to getting real. He stops before it happens, possibly because he senses that real and unreal are a package – the closer one gets, the farther one must flee. Primal Therapy patients at the very end of their treatment often feel they are going crazy when they are about to strip themselves of the last shred of defense against the total feeling of aloneness and hopelessness which has always been there. It is perhaps not accidental that we have had good results with people who reported several bad acid trips before therapy. I am wary of those with continuously beautiful trips because it means that the split is so deep that not even a powerful drug can affect it.”

Heroin: One of the most effective deadeners is heroin … The heroin addict has usually run out of internal defenses to stop his tension … In my experience, the addict is more treatable than many kinds of neurotics who have built up an elaborate network of defenses which must be dismantled. Treatment of the addict is quick and to the point.”

It sounds good and Janov, in person as well as in print, makes an enormous amount of good sense. Just getting rid of the 50-minute, $50 hour and taking the traditional noble/serf (therapist/patient) relationship out of therapy makes him worth listening to. The psychiatric establishment treats him with what he terms “monumental indifference.” He tells a story about speaking at a California State Psychological Association meeting, when only 30 of the 2000 in attendance came to hear him. Even grander: when he addressed the local association, there was no prior mention of the speech in the association newsletter and no comment afterward.

But he is also proud that a criminal court justice in Los Angeles has decided Primal Therapy just might be the answer for an exhibitionist now serving a sentence in one of the county jails. He is to arrive at the Institute for his first open-end session that afternoon. It is a test case, Janov says, and if the young man, who is strong and violent now, can be worked into a state of fat and flab, and then put into group therapy at just the right moment, when he can wave his weenie in front of everybody else and experience a Primal because nobody there cares, then, Janov says, perhaps the establishment will begin to accept his theory. In the meantime, there are a few scientists in his camp, he says – people like the head of electro-encephalogram research at a major California university and an anthropologist who had written their own (conflicting) theories about brain waves.

A few days pass and it is the day before Christmas. A bucket of fried chicken and a quart of potato salad has appeared in the staff room and Art sits in his director’s chair, talking with his youthful staff. In two years, he says, Primal Therapy will be the therapy.

“That’s all there is to it,” he says, matter-of-factly. “There will be pockets of other therapies, like there are pockets of Dixieland, kept around as museum pieces. I don’t say that in confidence, but in a historical sense. This is a real movement and real movements always win. That’s why the suffragettes won. That’s why the black movement has been so successful. It was inevitable. Primal Therapy is inevitable, historically.”

Art makes his brief speech casually and his fellow therapists nod enthusiastically. One of them talks about having some of the clinical testing done at an eastern university so establishment psychology will recognize the value of Primal Theory; if they continue to limit the research to “in-house” activity, he says, they will be ignored. Another therapist talks about how marked the preliminary results are, showing actual physical change, and wonders if it is possible, through the usual clinical tests (temperature, blood pressure, etc.) to diagnose mental illness precisely; everybody agrees it is possible. The belief in Primal Theory, the loyalty to Janov, the excitement of trying something revolutionary in a field already crowded with psychological and psychiatric splinter groups fills the room with excitement historically.

“I believe our discovery is the end of mental disease, and probably the cure of all other disease. I do not say that lightly. And I am sick of newspapers taking that statement and treating it sensationally. There is nothing sensational about it. We have the answer, that’s all there is to it.” He leans forward in his director’s chair, selects another piece of fried chicken, leans back and laughs heartily. Everyone in the room is smiling.

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