by Bruce Wilson
Anyone searching online for information about primal therapy may have come across a website purporting to “debunk” the therapy. This is an elaborate site with many pages consisting of arguments drawn from clinical psychology, philosophy of science, and the rules of critical thinking, all aimed to expose primal therapy as a pseudoscientific fraud. (As a science writer, I have nothing against critical thinking, but I do object to its improper use as demonstrated on that website.) The author is an insider, an ex-trainee at the Janov Primal Center, so he has a patina of authority that sets him apart from ignorant critics such as Martin Gardner, who wrote a horribly misinformed article in the Skeptical Inquirer called, Primal Therapy: A Persistent New Age Therapy. Despite that, the author cites Gardner’s article in his section, “articles exposing primal therapy” along with other misinformed or irrelevant books and articles, many of which have nothing to do with primal therapy. (The author of the website writes anonymously, so I will called him LP to preserve his identity.)
To those who are sympathetic to primal therapy, that is, those who have gained benefit from it or see the truth in it, it’s clear that something went terribly wrong with LP’s therapy and training. I have no doubt that he became engaged in a dispute with the management at the Janov Center; I saw the same thing happen at the Denver Primal Center: a therapist trainee disagrees with some aspect of the therapy and the fight begins. Eventually, the therapist quits or is fired and goes off to practice on his own, often with severe, public criticism of his former associates. This has happened hundreds of times throughout the history of psychotherapy, with primal therapy being no exception. But in the case of LP, the schism led not just to a difference in philosophy of how to do primal therapy, but a complete rejection of it.
My point of this post is not to question LP’s experience at the Janov Center or the experiences of the other disgruntled people who post their stories on his site—there are two sides to every story and we are only hearing one side from people who didn’t get what they’d hoped for in primal therapy or had a run-in with the therapists. My first aim is to challenge his depiction of primal therapy as a dangerous, useless, and ineffective therapy, without any merit whatsoever to anyone. My secondary aim is to address his accusations of primal as a pseudoscience. I must admit that LP has presented some valid critiques here, but he bases many of them on a philosophy of science that does not neatly fit with psychotherapy, despite the attempts of many clinical psychologists to do so. There are so many other points on his site which don’t hold up under analysis, which I will address on future posts.
Is Primal Therapy Useless?
On his site, LP states that most people do not get well with primal therapy. At best, he says, they go on for years attending sessions and spending a fortune with the hopes they’ll improve. At worst, they decline or may even commit suicide. (Admittedly, there have been suicides among primal patients, but suicide alone is not sufficient to judge the value of a therapy, primal or otherwise. There are always other factors to consider.) He posts testimonials from people unhappy with the therapy or with the therapists. He does this despite his own warning not to draw conclusions from testimonials. These stories are presented without verification and with no indication of how representative they are of other patients’ experiences. So what is the point of posting negative testimonials to balance positive testimonials? All it does is show that some people did not get what they expected from the therapy. This is true of all psychotherapies, not just primal.
The alleged claims of bad behavior among therapists is not something I can comment on, although I know two people who had bad experiences at the Janov Center. In both cases, there was a major personality clash between them and a therapist which sadly was not resolved. In one case, I am convinced that attention from another therapist would have cleared up the problem. Primal therapy is full of wounded people, and that includes senior therapists. The truth is that a client can trigger feelings in a therapist which the therapist may be not be able to immediately recognize or resolve. This can spiral out of control and before you know it, there is a war between client and therapist. This is one reason why I think the therapy should be done in a center with many therapists so disputes can be resolved when they arise.
I saw a similar situation at the Denver Center; many people reported tremendous benefit from primal therapy, others struggled along for years without much change, and some got worse, dramatically worse in a few cases. But in most cases (my subjective assessment) those who got worse were disturbed to begin with, some had a history of psychosis or severe, constant or early trauma; others were barely functioning. Those who struggled usually had trouble getting access to their deep feelings. (The reasons are still unclear to me but this would make a good research question.) Often, they engaged in disputes with the therapists because they were not getting what they expected from the therapy and often blamed the therapists, justly or unjustly. In LP’s case, the dispute seems to have escalated into an obsessive project to damage the therapy in the name of “critical thinking.” Because the therapy did not work for him, it cannot work for anyone and if people do report improvement, then they must be delusional, or fallen victim to “groupthink and group confirmity,”or caught up in a belief system ungrounded in reality, etc.
Primal therapist Jonathan Christie writes, “those for whom Primal therapy has worked are probably unanimous in saying there is no alternative. Those for whom it hasn’t worked, whether because of poor technique, impregnable repression or a loss of the ability to cry – or for lack of opportunity – need ways to live with their pain.” One of the ways to live with that pain is to escape deep into the intellect and become skilled at logic that takes you ever farther from your feelings. This appears to be the path that LP has chosen; he is obviously intelligent and uses his version of critical thinking to justify his attack against primal therapy. But the obsessive quality of his attack and neglect towards the supporting evidence for primal theory belies his image as an objective thinker. (In future posts, I’ll address how critical thinking can cause one to ignore important truths about human nature.)
It seems to me much more work is needed in identifying and helping individuals who do not respond to primal therapy. Primal is not for everyone and alternatives should be recommended to non-responders. Those who value thinking over feeling might be better served with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
My observation (again subjective) is that people who can gain access to their deep feelings without being overwhelmed, and who have the ability to connect to those feelings and gain insights are the ones who do best in primal therapy. Although they may not get “cured” in the classic sense of the “post primal patient” (an obsolete concept), they improve. They feel more, they experience more joy in life (along with the sadness), they are able to find love and friendship; they have more strength to finish their studies and build a satisfying career. Their emotional and social intelligence improve. I have a friend at the Janov Center who went from being a frightened, self-effacing victim of abuse to a strong, courageous, assertive woman who will take no crap from anyone. She is now fully enaged in life with a satisfying career and hopes for a bright future. Yet another testimonial, yes, but one which cannot be discounted because her change was almost entirely due to primal therapy.
But LP does not recognize the fact that people get well with primal therapy. In a condescending tone, he insults those who improve as “intelligent and charming people” lacking sufficient critical thinking skills to question the therapy. (For me, who has responded well to the therapy and who has worked in the medical sciences for years and sees a scientific basis for primal therapy, this is a howler.)
In my next post, I’ll address the question, “is primal therapy a science?” This will take some unpacking as I’ll need to address the question whether it is appropriate to rely on a strict, Popperian definition of science as the ultimate authority for the efficacy of a psychotherapy. There is a heated debate in this area. In future posts, I’ll discuss how primal therapy can be improved through an organized research program, involving independent scientists and primal therapists.
The Debunking the Debunker by The Primal Mind, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.