By Samantha Miller
November 23, 1998 12:00 PM

Three decades after he gave the world the primal scream, Arthur Janov can barely talk. In fact, for weeks after a throat operation this summer—his seventh since contracting a severe infection in the 1950s—the maverick psychologist communicated mainly by typing messages on his computer. Ironic, isn’t it? “Yeah, I know,” the woolly-maned 74-year-old whispers, rolling his eyes. “I get that all the time.”

In the era of bell-bottoms and smiley faces, Janov gave America’s lungs a workout. He burst onto the psychotherapy scene in the late ’60s with a far-out alternative to frumpy Freudianism. In his so-called primal therapy, patients clutching teddy bears and baby bottles tried to overcome problems by reliving childhood pain, then releasing it with weeping, writhing and “primal” screams. His 1970 book The Primal Scream has sold close to 2 million copies; John Lennon, James Earl Jones and other celebrities beat a path to the door of his Primal Institute in L.A. “People would drive by and do the primal scream out their car windows,” Janov says. “It was really wild.”

Today, Janov’s life is significantly quieter. Having closed his clinics in New York City and Paris, he now runs just one, in Venice, Calif., with his wife, France, 56, and seven other practitioners. Although he has gotten used to primal therapy’s lack of mainstream respect (“Most modern psychologists don’t use [it],” says Michael Haley, executive director of the California Psychological Association), he spreads its gospel in books, including 1996’s Why You Get Sick, How You Get Well, and continues to research what he says is its ability to reduce blood pressure and stress.

Recently, Janov also found unlikely success as a songwriter. In the ’80s, he and composer David Foster started work on a musical called Scream, about a psychotherapist and his patients. When Foster let pal Celine Dion listen to one song, it became the title track of her 1993 album The Colour of My Love; Dion even had it sung at her wedding. The musical had a test run at the Venice clinic, and “we hope to bring it to Broadway,” Janov says.

The seed of Janov’s interest in psychology may have been planted early: His mother suffered a nervous breakdown when he was 5. (His father drove a meat truck.) Janov earned his psychology Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School and had worked as a conventional psychologist for 17 years when he hit on the basis for primal therapy. A patient told him of a theatrical performance in which a diapered actor regressed to babyhood. Janov later persuaded the patient to try it. “He put his thumb in his month and yelled, ‘Mama, Mama,’ like a little kid, and he fell off the chair and started screaming and writhing,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like it.” After about 20 minutes, Janov says, the man stopped and “said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever felt my senses.’ ” Janov refined the technique, then shut down his regular practice in 1968 and staked everything on helping patients relive their early childhood traumas. “We help them go back into everything that hurt them,” he says.

One patient was John Lennon, who sent Janov an early tape of his 1970 album Plastic Ono Band, which featured primal screams and lyrics such as “Mother you had me, but I never had you.” James Earl Jones told Newsweek in 1971 that, among other things, the treatment helped him stop womanizing. Primal therapy passed into pop culture, with college students gathering for screaming sessions.

In 1980, Janov and his first wife, Vivian, a psychologist, divorced (they had one son, Rick, 42, a primal therapist). He wed France, a former Primal Institute patient, the next year. She helps run the Venice clinic, which now has about 100 patients who pay $6,000 apiece for the initial three weeks of intensive therapy. France says her husband is “incredibly mellow” but still rankled by primal therapy’s lack of acceptance: “He’s found something important and people choose to ignore him.” Janov, who lives on the ocean in Malibu and spends off-hours swimming and kayaking, still swears by his therapy. “If you’re in pain,” he says, “it’s for you.”

Samantha Miller

Johnny Dodd in Malibu