Carol Mithers, Alice Miller and Primal Therapy

Alice Miller was an influential writer on issues surrounding childhood mistreatment and how to deal with its consequences in adulthood by means of psychotherapy. Miller's 1998 book, Paths of Life, is written in the form of seven fictional stories illustrating themes relating to Alice Miller's observations over the years.

Chapter 5 — Helga — consists of an exchange of letters between the character Helga and her best friend, Michelle. It addresses the potential harm that can result when a psychotherapy organization becomes a cult. Central to the story is a book by Carol Lynn Mithers about a spin-off organization which was set up by trainee therapists from Arthur Janov's Primal Institute. The following extract [page 78 in the Pantheon hardback edition] is from one of Michelle's letters:

"It was Carol L. Mithers' book that put me on to it, a book describing the birth and growth of a sect in the seventies. I'd like to tell you about it so that you can see that you're not the only one whose personal need has been exploited for others' gain. ... ... Did you ever hear of the "feeling therapy" that was all the rage back home twenty-five years ago?
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In the late sixties, lots of young people were fascinated by Arthur Janov's book The Primal Scream [actually it was first published in 1970]. The book contained reports by patients who had freed themselves of their symptoms by reliving repressed childhood feelings in therapy. After the book appeared, Janov was approached for help by thousands of people, and of course he couldn't take them all on as patients. Then, in 1970 [actually in August 1971], it looked as if there was an alternative for all those people who had drawn a blank with him. Two young psychologists who had trained very briefly at Janov's Institute of Primal Therapy opened a center of their own in Los Angeles.
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The therapy group numbered some two hundred persons, and it soon turned into a cult-type community like so many other groups of that kind."

Michelle goes on to describe the events recounted in Carol Lynn Mithers' book, Therapy Gone Mad: The True Story of Hundreds of Patients and a Generation Betrayed (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

The two young psychologists are identified in Therapy Gone Mad as Joe Hart and Richard Corriere. For their new venture they assembled a team of trainee primal therapists from the Primal Institute consisting of Werner Karle, Dominic Cirincione, Lee Woldenberg, and two Certified Primal Therapists: Stephen Gold and Jerry Binder [in some accounts his name is spelled Gerry Binder].

The character 'Michelle' in Helga's story mentions that The Primal Scream contained reports by patients who had freed themselves of their symptoms. One of those case histories was contributed by a trainee therapist — later a Certified Primal Therapist — who became one of the founding group of therapists at The Center for Feeling Therapy. According to Carol Mithers:

"Jerry had grown up poor and angry, a Boston street-fighter who was still filled with rage." [Page 57] ... "Jerry Binder shocked patients by saying that he'd been one of the case studies in The Primal Scream — and that a lot of what had been said was a lie." [Page 69]

Arthur Janov's second book, The Anatomy of Mental Illness, was published in 1971. It contains brain diagrams by Lee Woldenberg, M.D., one of the founding members of The Center for Feeling Therapy. At the time, Lee Woldenberg was the Medical Director of the Primal Institute.

The book also contains the case history of Werner Karle, who was given the pseudonym "Simon" by Arthur Janov [Therapy Gone Mad, page 55]. Karle had suffered from epilepsy since the age of sixteen and in the case history he claimed he now understood that his grand mal seizures were actually repressed primals and that as a result of the therapy he was completely cured. In Therapy Gone Mad it is revealed that Werner Karle's seizures returned not long after he left the Primal Institute. In fact, an epileptic seizure was the cause of his death in December 1986. On page 387 Mithers writes: "[He] suffered a grand mal seizure while on a ladder fixing the roof of his Orange County home. He fell backward, hit his head and died."

In September 1987 the longest, costliest and most complex psychotherapy malpractice case in California's history came to an end when thirteen of the Center's former therapists either lost, surrendered, or had severe restrictions placed upon their professional licenses. An article in the Los Angeles Times archives describes what went on during the hearings: Licenses of Mental Health Therapists Targeted in Major Malpractice Case. Details of the judgements for Dr. Lee S. Woldenberg and Gerald Binder are on page 5 of the article.

Is primal therapy a cult?

A therapist who spent many years at the Primal Institute from the early days when Arthur Janov was in charge, and again after he had set up a separate establishment, has come to the conclusion that there are many cultish aspects to Janov's approach. He wrote an article about his experiences which you can read on the Debunking Primal Therapy website:

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