Arthur Janov, Psychologist Who Set the World Screaming, Dies at 93
“Few treatments have been more dramatic, more highly touted or quicker to catch on than primal therapy,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1971.
Mr. Williams, the article continued, had publicly counted Dr. Janov “as one of history’s five greatest men (along with Socrates, Galileo, Freud and Darwin).”
Dr. Janov appeared to concur. Primal therapy, he told an interviewer in 1971, was “the most important discovery of the 20th century.”
The therapy’s premise was simple: All adult neurosis — and with “neurosis” Dr. Janov cast a wide net — stemmed from repressed infant and early-childhood trauma at the hands of one’s parents.
He called this trauma “primal pain,” and it was manifest, he said, in a cornucopia of ills that could include a variety of mood disorders as well as heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis, drug addiction and stuttering.
He also listed homosexuality among the ailments that primal therapy could “cure,” and continued to list it long after the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as a psychiatric disorder in 1973.
Dr. Janov maintained that the way to relieve primal pain — and cure its associated ills — was to relive it via primal therapy, which entailed a regressive return to those distressing, now-accessible early memories.
Reporting in 1971 on a visit to the Primal Institute, which Dr. Janov had established three years before, The Boston Globe wrote:
“He has equipped his therapy chambers with an array of nursery props — teddy bears, cribs, playpens, dolls, football helmets, baby rattles, security blankets — all to help adults turn the clock back.”
The primal scream that could result from these sessions (“It sounds,” Dr. Janov told People magazine in 1978, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered”) was not the objective of the therapy per se. It was rather, he said, a sonic barometer of its liberating effects.
Such behavior quickly came to be called “having a primal” or “primaling,” and soon a new noun and verb were deposited into the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Primal therapy is not just making people scream,” Dr. Janov wrote on the website of the Janov Primal Center, a treatment, research and therapist-training facility that he established in 1989 and operated with his second wife, the former France Daunic. “It was never ‘screaming’ therapy.”
Primal therapy was in many ways of a piece with its time. The quest for happiness amid postwar suburban anomie had already spawned Dianetics, the metaphysical movement first propounded in 1950 by L. Ron Hubbard, who four years later rebranded it as Scientology.
The ’60s counterculture saw the birth of the human potential movement, with its promises of enlightened personal fulfillment. The ’70s would see the advent of EST, the set of self-improvement seminars established in 1971.
“Janov’s primal therapy is a classic instance of being the right charismatic therapist at the right time — it’s the zeitgeist,” John C. Norcross, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, said in a recent telephone interview. “There was also a belief that repressive strictures of society were holding people back. Hence a therapy that was to loosen the repression would somehow cure mental illness. So it fit perfectly.”
However, Dr. Norcross added, “There is no evidence that screaming and catharsis bring long-term emotional relief.”
In the popular press, early reviewers of “The Primal Scream” were intrigued if cautious.
Writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1970, the book critic Robert Kirsch sounded an admonitory note about its “hyperbole” and “evangelic certainty.” That said, he continued:
“Where he deals with theory and practice rather than the effort to convert disciples, Dr. Janov is an impressive writer and thinker. Certainly, it is a work worth reading and considering.”
Psychologists questioned the book’s assertions from the beginning. They cited, among other issues, the unverifiability of its central claim of the existence of primal pain and the lack of independent, controlled studies demonstrating the therapy’s effectiveness.
But the rhapsodic public endorsement of Mr. Lennon, who, with his wife, Ms. Ono, underwent primal therapy with Dr. Janov in 1970, caused “The Primal Scream” to be heard round the world.
Mr. Lennon’s album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” a post-Beatles recording released in 1970, was by his own account a reflection of that therapy. It included anguished, half-sung, half-screamed songs like “Mother” (“Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, you didn’t want me”) and “My Mummy’s Dead.”
In a companion album, “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band,” Ms. Ono recorded similar anguish.
The Primal Institute was soon receiving 100 calls a day from prospective patients. At its height, it had branches in New York and Paris.
Although primal therapy has not, as Dr. Janov widely predicted, rendered other forms of psychotherapy obsolete, it has managed to outlive the ’70s by a considerable margin.
The English rock group Tears for Fears, founded in 1981, took its name, and the subject matter of many of its songs, in homage to the method.
Today, the original Primal Institute, now overseen by Dr. Janov’s first wife, the former Vivian Glickstein, continues to treat patients. So does the Janov Primal Center.
Yet much of the psychotherapeutic establishment now regards the therapy as marginal. A 2006 article by Dr. Norcross and colleagues in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice reported that their survey of more than 100 “leading mental health professionals” had found primal therapy to be “certainly discredited” — together with treatments including angel therapy, crystal healing, past-lives therapy, future-lives therapy and post-alien-abduction therapy.
“It’s both a discredited theory and treatment in mental health,” Dr. Norcross said. “Today, I look back at it as an unfortunate but understandable product of its time: believing that pure emotional release would prove therapeutic.”
Through the years Dr. Janov remained undaunted, continuing to write ardently of primal therapy’s power. It was a power, he argued in later work, that could ameliorate not only mental and physical problems but also societal ones.
“I believe this new primal consciousness is the only hope if mankind is to survive,” he wrote in “Primal Man: The New Consciousness” (1975, with E. Michael Holden). He added, “Primal consciousness certainly means an end to war.”
The son of Conrad Janov, a butcher and truck driver, and the former Anne Corey, Arthur Janov was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 21, 1924.
By his own account, he grew up poor and bellicose. Reared in a tough part of town, he was, as he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, “fighting Mexicans most of the time.”
After Navy service, he entered the University of California, Los Angeles, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in psychiatric social work.
“My mother had a history of psychological analysis,” Dr. Janov told The Chicago Tribune in 1983. He was drawn to the field, he said, “to try to cure my mother, you see, so she’d take care of me and get sane.”
He spent nearly 20 years providing conventional psychotherapy: He was on the psychiatric staff of the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital in the 1950s and later opened a private practice. Along the way he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from what is now Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.
Then one day in the late 1960s, as he recounted in “The Primal Scream,” came the experience that forever transformed his professional life: A patient told him about a performance artist he had seen in London, who took the stage wearing a diaper and proceeded to drink milk from a bottle; cry, “Mommy! Daddy!”; and, in cathartic culmination, retch.
Inspired, Dr. Janov asked his patient to cry out for his own parents. The patient demurred at first but before long “was writhing on the floor,” calling for them, he wrote.
Dr. Janov continued, “Finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office,” adding: “All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel!’ ”
After encouraging another patient to cry out for his mother and father, and watching a similar scene unfold, he began to develop his ideas about primal pain.
To undergo primal therapy, which typically lasts about a year, a patient had to relocate to Los Angeles to be treated at Dr. Janov’s facility. The cost in 1978, People reported, was $6,600 — about $24,000 in today’s money.
After writing “The Primal Scream,” Dr. Janov asked his publisher to send a copy to Mr. Lennon. He went on to treat Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono, first in England and later in California.
“Listen to his new album if you want to know what he got out of it,” Dr. Janov told Rolling Stone. “I played it for our group scene on Saturday, and it was a milestone session. There were 50 people in the room, which is more than we usually have, and every one of them flipped. There were so many people screaming — having primals — you couldn’t hear yourself think.”
“It was,” he added, “wonderful.”
In later books — he wrote more than a dozen — Dr. Janov extended the time frame for repressed trauma backward, to include the baby’s arduous passage out of the womb at birth and psychic trauma in utero.
A traumatic birth memory, he said, could even produce visible stigmata during a primal-therapy session.
“Patients reliving a birth sequence in my sessions have shown forceps marks on the forehead,” Dr. Janov wrote in “The Biology of Love” (2000). “Those marks never manifested themselves before because they had been gated away, stored as a memory.”
Dr. Janov’s marriage to Vivian Glickstein ended in divorce. In addition to his second wife, his survivors include a son, Rick, from his first marriage, who is also a primal therapist. A daughter from his first marriage, Ellen Janov, a child singer and actor turned primal therapist, died in 1976.
If Dr. Janov’s work was considered marginal by mainstream psychology, it appeared over time to have been marginalized by the publishing industry as well. Where his earlier books — including “The Primal Revolution” (Simon & Schuster, 1972), “Prisoners of Pain” (Anchor/Doubleday, 1980) and “Imprints: The Lifelong Effects of the Birth Experience” (Coward-McCann, 1983) — were issued by major publishers, his later ones were brought out primarily by small presses, vanity presses and print-on-demand houses.
Among these later titles are “Primal Healing” and “The Janov Solution: Lifting Depression Through Primal Therapy,” both published in 2007, and “Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives” (2011).
Dr. Janov’s most recent books included “Beyond Belief: Cults, Healers, Mystics and Gurus — Why We Believe,” published in 2016 by Reputation Books.
In it, he wrote: “Individuals whose agonies have no rhyme or reason, whose barely contained desperation impels them to search for magic, badly need bearers of good tidings. Enter the Dr. Feelgoods, who promise hope against hopelessness, help against helplessness, whose incantations calm, soothe and relieve.”
“Neurosis and psychosis have us believing that quartz crystals can make a sick person well; that by humbling yourself and giving yourself over to a higher power, you can follow 12 steps to salvation; that a greedy charlatan who wears white robes holds the keys to wisdom; that the rantings of a self-appointed messiah are God’s truth. So long as the feelings are inaccessible we remain prisoners of belief — more accurately, prisoners of pain.”
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