Debunking the Debunker

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.


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4 Replies to “Debunking the Debunker”

  1. I have a dream..

    According to those involved, there are often two reasons why something occurs, one specified reason, and one that is real. I have always given my own colored version for my behavior and for how my life has evolved. That was the reason why I wrote the story of My Epileptic Journey, with the intention to give the true, real story behind my epilepsy, which to such a large extent has dominated my life, my feelings and thoughts.

    I think that because of the way my life and conditions have developed, I have had more luck than bad luck and that I have had an interesting and stimulating life. There are probably many who think that my life has been hard and scary. However, it was not an easy life which was engraved into my body and mind from the start, so my subjective assessment of what I have been through is positive.

    After having written my story of my Epileptic Journey, I have a dream. It is a dream about that many more than I should have access to physical an psychotherapeutic support to achieve a healthy mind in a healthy body. To give an example in a nutshell: To lower the heart rate from >70/75 to 55/60 per minute, to lower the blood pressure from >140/80 to 110/60, and to lower the body temperature by 1 – 1,5 degrees. I am convinced that there are treatments available to peel off mental blockages and neurosis down to imprints created in the womb life as well as there are techniques to release the physical consequences of the mental deadlocks and imprints. I have had the fortune to have had access to therapies from both sides.

    Regarding the treatments, I have undergone in Primal Therapy and Rolfing, I understand with increasing clarity that I have been a lucky case, almost a kind of exception. I have been fascinated by two exceptional personalities during 30-40 years, Dr Art Janov and Dr Ida Rolf. Their ideas/theories of a natural way of healing mind and body, fit into my needs and experiences in my search for a cure of my epilepsy and its negative psychologic aftermaths. I was early convinced of the geniuses of both and with more luck than skill, I could get help.

    My dream is that the best of Dr Janov could be merged with the best of Dr Rolf into a professionally managed therapy. Dr Janov, he loves words and to write and has over 40 years written a number of wonderful books, which however, need to be boiled down to one thin Primal handbook, copying the dynamic recipe from the success of the Primal Scream. Dr Rolf, she was a chemist, physisist and doer who hated to write, even if quite a few of her wise philosophies have been documented. As with Primal Therapy a thin, accessible, handbook would be helpful.

    Next step in my dream is to see a test center being built around the treatments of the Janov principles of “Evolution in Reverse” and the Rolfing Physical Restructuration and run by professiona trained therapists from each side and of course with administrative resources to manage, train, document and make a responsible follow up. The test center has to be connected to a university for adequate scientific and research follow up.

    I cannot see any obstacles for the establishment of a test center of the kind I mention. The principle of “evolution in reverse” like the principle of gravity and Fascia are free rights, available to anyone. There may be some legal aspects to consider if the names of Primal Therapy and Rolfing are being infringed.
    Primal Therapy has over 30 years not succeeded in a follow up on the research they talked about in the early 80ies and important handbooks in Psychotherapy for university students in USA, and Europe does not after decades with a word take up Dr Janov and the Primal Therapy. On the contrary, a certain skeptical attitude prevails in many circles and the values of the Lennon effect has worn out long ago. This is especially painful to experience for a person who has regained a good life after having gained access to the repressed mental pain, following the advice of Dr Janov. I realize with growing conviction that there is nothing wrong with the ingenious ideas of Dr Janov to resolve imprints of pain. It is the organizational and administrative ambition, ability and quality that are lacking to find solutions, find new ways and to make contacts.

    Maybe the time has come to start from scratch with a new name. This can, if done correctly, with the explosive effects of the internet, be done rapidly and at low cost. It can be a success if dedicated and knowledgeable people can be gathered around a project with a scientific platform and with a serious strategic mission. The people in the whole world need a solution like this and with the right approch authorities, scientists and people with economic resources will back it up. Without a solution like this the genius of Dr Janov will never have a chance.

    Jan Johnsson
    [email protected]

  2. Thank you for your January post, Bruce. I had a look at one article of the debunking-primal-website: “Observations of Janovs Miracle Cure in Other Participants.” In sum and put in a nutshell the anonymous writer says, that primal patients “…were meaner later in therapy,” “…became more angry than they were initially,” “….were more often without an intimate Partner,”….”had fewer friends on average.” Their “rate of physical illness is perhaps slightly higher….in comparison to a similar group of similar socio-economic status.” Moreover, there is “no evidence that post-primals live any longer than the rest of the population.” The rate of suicide among primal patients – as the anonymous author implies – is about 10 percent (“…Today I can acount for about twenty who did not commit suicide and two who did…”). All positive testimonies – as the writer suspects- are a result of “enormous social pressure involved in not being labeled a primal failure.”

    This is in fact the most negative depiction of primal therapy I have ever read. Nevertheless it does not impress me at all, because my own experiences with this therapy are positive. I can give primal therapy a good testimonial – not as a member of a group exerting “enormous social pressure” on me, but as an individual who has undergone the primal process. I would not agree to be labeled a “mean” person nor is it true that I’m more angry now than I was initially. The opposite is true.

    The other assertions must be analyzed point by point (as you have done yet partially in your post, e.g. the “suicide”-issue); as for physical illness, I would think that, before the start of treatment, the rate of psychosomatic illness among people who apply for primal therapy or psychotherapy is SIGNIFICANTLY higher than it is in a reference group of people of “similar socio-economic status” who are not interested in primal therapy or psychotherapy in general. So if, after some years in primal therapy treatment, the rate of physical illness is only slightly higher (compared with a similar group) this would mean that, as a result of therapy, many individuals have improved considerably. Each single assertion of the anonymous writer is attackable. For example his statement that there is no evidence that “post-primals live any longer than the rest of the population.” In order to make such an assertion he would have to watch a major group of persons over a period of SEVERAL DECADES. Five year are a completely irrelevant timeframe. Here the writer, in his overzeal to gather as much negative information as possible, discredits himself.

    What I have noticed as well is the title of an article on birth trauma: “The Stupidity of Trying to Relive Birth Trauma.” In my opinion this title points to the fact that the anonymous author has not understood primal therapy. Primal therapy is certainly not about “trying to relive birth trauma.” In primal therapy, the birth trauma is a natural reliving sequence that may occur in the course of a natural feeling process, provided this birth trauma does exist at all. In the end, it is the BODY-BRAIN-SYSTEM of the patient that will always be the highest authority to determine if and when dangerless reliving of such first-line-imprints (womb, birth, first postnatal year) will be possible –not the WILL of the patient or of the therapist. “Trying to relive birth trauma” clearly is REBIRTHING which is not practiced at the Primal Center. According to official Primal Center information they are even strictly against it. Nevertheless first line imprints – if they exist – are a factor that in the long term has great impact on a person’s overall state of health. Of course it is eminently important to winkle this factor out of the system, as far as this may be possible. Feeling and resolving first-line-pain is anything but an act of stupidity.

    My (subjective) conclusion: This debunking-primal-paper is a highly subjective, unobjective, personal depiction of the outcome of primal therapy treatment by a person who takes an extremely subjective and personal interest in condemning primal therapy as an useless or even harmful, dangerous method and presenting all people who sympathize with primal therapy as naïve and gullible humans. As you say in your January post, the most probable reason is that “something went terribly wrong with the author’s (LP’s) therapy and training.” It is like a public act of revenge: “You, Primal Therapy, have not given me what I have expected and hoped for. And now I’m going to execute you in front of all people.”

    So there are people who have gained benefit from primal therapy and some who have not. Why is it so and how is the numerical proportion of these two opposite groups to each other? Much more people who gain benefit than those ones who don’t (as I would assume)….. or the other way round? Important questions for an “organized research program.”

  3. Thanks for your comments, Ferdinand. You make some valid points and thanks for providing me with some additional facts. I am aware of several suicides occurring at the Janov center over the past few decades, but it is far, far less than 10% when you consider the thousands of people who have done the therapy there. There are always other factors to consider, such as life circumstances, drug use, and biological vulnerabilities caused by brain damage in utero or at birth. Distorting numbers while professing to be objective is a common tactic of skeptics and debunkers, who almost always have an underlying objective to cause harm rather than investigate deeper.
    – Bruce

  4. Bruce.Bumped into this aricle you wrote. Good rsponse.I read the other negative article in its entirety.The person definitely has a bone to pick with art, and primal therapy in general.Perhaps going to anger management might have solved his dilemna LOL.Cheers ernie

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