‘Janov is awfully good at taking people apart,’ says a critic, ‘but not so good at putting them together’
Since psychologist Arthur Janov published his book The Primal Scream in 1970, more than 3,000 people—including John Lennon, actors Robert Mandan (Soap) and James Earl Jones and UCLA anthropologist Bernard Campbell—have undergone the regression-to-birth therapy he advocates. Janov’s original clinic in Los Angeles is flourishing, and he recently opened a New York branch. He has written four follow-up books, and three more are in progress.
All are aimed at an understanding of what he insists is a global crisis. “The world,” says Janov, 53, “is having a nervous breakdown, and Valium is the only glue that holds it together.” Critics disagree with Janov’s cosmic fears and especially his claim that his treatment of neurosis is the only one that works. “He’s good at taking people apart,” says one L.A. psychologist, “but not so good at putting them back together.”
In Janov’s view, the repressed pain of traumatic childhood experiences eventually produces an emotionally damaged adult. These experiences include not only obvious physical and psychological injuries, but also subtle slights like parents’ failure to comfort a child. Janov’s “cure,” Primal Therapy (a trademarked term), involves reliving the trauma in cataclysmic, emotional outbursts called “primals.” Through them patients exorcise the pain and alleviate such psychosomatic ailments as colitis, asthma, etc., caused by its repression.
“Our research,” Janov declares, “shows that patients after eight months of treatment have a permanent lowering of such vital signs as pulse, blood pressure and core body temperature. This has real implications for the prevention of hypertension and heart disease.”
The therapy costs $6,600 and lasts for at least a year. It begins with 24 hours of total isolation followed by an intense three weeks of daily one-to-one sessions. After that the patient attends primal groups once or twice a week, and some may continue with occasional private sessions.
Janov, son of a Los Angeles butcher, is a UCLA alumnus with a psychology doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School and had a conventional practice until 1967. He stumbled upon the basic idea for Primal Therapy when a patient told him of his fascination with a comedian who wandered around the stage dressed in a diaper shouting “Mommy! Daddy!” Janov persuaded the young man to dredge up memories of his own parents, and the patient began to sob. Finally an ear-shattering scream welled up and convulsed his whole body; then he became calm and said again and again, “I made it. I made it.”
The scream is crucial to the therapy. “It sounds,” says Janov, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered.” Some critics have suggested that patients scream because they are expected to. Janov answers: “It comes from a person’s depths and cannot be fabricated.”
He has organized three research projects in an effort to document the effectiveness of Primal Scream therapy. At least part of Janov’s theory has apparently been supported by an English study that found lower levels of adrenaline in patients’ blood, indicating reduced stress. One Los Angeles psychoanalyst, Joel Shor, continues to be skeptical, however. “I see Janov’s work as malignant regression. Regression can be benign, but Janov fails to provide an adequate relationship in which a person can feel safe.”
Whatever the acceptance by his peers, Janov’s clinics, writing and lectures enable him to maintain a modern Hollywood home that he has shared for the past five years with a French public relations woman whose name he will not reveal. He and his wife, Vivian, are separated but still friendly. They have a son, Rick, 22. His older sister, Ellen, died tragically two and a half years ago in a house fire.
Having himself gone through periodic primals (most notably after Ellen’s death), Janov is outwardly poised, but there is one subject that arouses him: the “charlatans” who, he says, have copied his methods but not his precautions.