Arthur Janov, the pioneer of Primal Scream therapy, recently passed away. Here are some thoughts about the context in which developed his therapy…
Fifty years ago, in 1967, the California-based Arthur Janov was operating in a strange mental health environment.
That year Scottish therapist R.D. Laing published The Politics of Experience, which questioned orthodox therapies. Psychologist Timothy Leary’s psychedelic experiments were publicly called out in the pages The New Republic. In 1967’s The President’s Analyst, James Coburn played a psychotherapist more than willing to seduce his attractive female patients. Disenchanted, he eventually leaves Washington, D.C. to settle in a hippie commune. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was finally acting on the 1963 Community Mental Health Act. In 1966, the first Community Clinic opened. By 1967, 53 more opened across the country.
Arthur Janov, with degrees from UCLA and a PhD in Psychology from Claremont Graduate School and sporting a shock of curly hair, created Primal Therapy in 1967. Tapping into the California counterculture and appealing to celebrities with his avant-garde approach, Janov created an unconventional therapy that resonated throughout the 1970s and beyond.
Antiestablishment undercurrents challenged the American love affair with mental health expertise at this time. Debate was rife. It took place over psychiatric nosology (a fancy way of saying the classification of mental illnesses), scientific legitimacy, and the value of evidence-based diagnosis. The debate focused on the forces of modernization, psychopharmacology, (de)institutionalization, and social psychiatry.
There was significant chatter about mind control: The Manchurian Candidate. LSD brainwashing. MK ULTRA. This latter state-sponsored and well-funded CIA project, of course, included trippy research on behavioral therapy, chemically-induced brain concussions, brain wiping, hypnosis, extrasensory perception, cutting-edge polygraph techniques, sleep research, and on and on and on.
Ex-patient groups, whose members referred to themselves as ‘survivors’ or freed ‘slaves,’ garnered more attention. All this tumult was regarded as a “child of its rebellious, anti-establishment times.” Yet intra-professional restlessness was far from new, and it carried into the 1970s.
A majority of mental health experts recognized that the system was in disarray, a jumbled mess that President Jimmy Carter had to reform. To this end, Carter, who embodied for many the limits and austerity of the era initiated a presidential commission to investigate mental health in the U.S.
The term radical fluctuates from era to era and individual to individual, but this historical moment was definitely unique. Thinking about the 1960s-1970s probably conjures up images of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party, which was organized in October 1966 and challenged the status quo by activating and channeling African-American disenchantment – in addition to forming coalitions with domestic and foreign organizations. Yet, the 1970s also calls to mind the Weather Underground, a homegrown terrorist organization intent on fomenting revolution, and which detonated a series of bombs in 1970.
Biopsychiatry, antipsychiatry, and a host of alternative therapies rose against this backdrop. Amid these changes, Arthur Janov pioneered and championed primal therapy with his 1970 book, The Primal Scream: The Cure for Neurosis. It was a form of therapy in which patients entered extreme emotional states to allow for the jettisoning of any deep-rooted “Primal Pain” experienced in childhood. In addition, the method was often accompanied by shouting and screaming. These “post-Primal” patients would attain a genuine normality, thereafter occupying healthy, neurosis-free bodies.
As indicated in the title of his book, he did not shy away from the curative and indeed the transformative nature of his therapy. In a series of books between 1970-1972, including The Anatomy of Mental Illness and The Primal Revolution, Janov contended that patients who concluded his therapy effectively would overcome the diseased state common to most people. He suggested, too, that his therapy offered physical cures. Repression, in Janov’s estimation, stunted physical development, and successful Primal Therapy would enable the natural growth of breasts, hair, and hands.
Janov, born and raised in California, had worked as a psychotherapist for the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and Veterans Administration, among other places, when in 1967 he developed his theory. It was an atmosphere of questing energies and transformation in California, and one that also gave rise to Transactional Analysis and other New Age ideas.
Janov’s therapy struck a chord with the countercultural set and other Americans hungry for alternative approaches to the mainstream establishment. Finding the limelight, he went on mainstream television programs, called traditional psychiatry a hoax, and told how of how the establishment scorned him. His papers could not get published, and his colleagues walked out on his presentations. The press hated him, too, he said. Undeterred, Janov pronounced “Primal therapy is THE therapy, nothing can stop it.”
He cagily played around with themes of intergenerational antagonism, repression caused by postwar society, and the ways in which physical experiences and emotions as trumped neutral reasoning; more than that, he touted altered states of consciousness and the more specific view that personal (and perhaps national) liberation depended upon the violent overthrow of corrupt systems. These altered states, however, did not include pot, LSD, or MDMA, and had to be reached without any artificial aids. Janov fully rejected the use of illegal intoxicants, uninhibited sexual activity (“free love”), and transcendental meditation.
Seeking out altered states was not a pathway to fulfilment in his view but rather an unconscious compulsion of an unwell mind. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who of course experimented with many substances, underwent Primal Therapy in 1970 after The Beatles disbanded —and, along with a “primal concept album” John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band (1970), helped popularize the therapy.
In assessing the mental health landscape and Primal Therapy of the 1970s, Alfred Yassky, the Executive Director of the American Psychotherapy Seminar Center, based in Manhattan, held that the tectonic plates of mental health shifted. Americans were different. The therapeutic geography had perceptibly altered. As he put it, Americans are becoming alienated and are hungering for a sense of meaning, identity, happiness, and even salvation, we are wanting more from therapies and therapists. One way of putting it is that in many ways psychotherapy has taken over the function of religion. Therefore, the therapist is supposed to take over the function and roles of shaman, guru, wiseman, minister, rabbi, or priest. We are expected to help with spiritual matters on the one hand and scientific on the other…
Primal Therapy, which shone brightly until the 1980s, helped to fill that gap.
The mental health arena in the 1970s witnessed several new entrants, with the rise of patient groups, new therapies tailored for mass consumption, and the continuance of psychedelic psychiatry. Patient-consumers could dip toes into New Age medicine, and draw from the fountain of naturopathy and homeopathy, as well as Eastern-influenced medicine or teachings from sources like the Esalen Institute in California.
They might sample alternative mental health therapies, including Primal Scream Therapy or Transactional Analysis, or find psychic solace in the form of new religious movements. Primal Scream, in short, filled a void for many Americans. It let them shriek and wail to their heart’s content.
For more short pieces on strange therapies and radical mental health, see below.
This piece is about radical psychiatry and pacification in the 1960s
This article is about Transactional Analysis and its founding in the 1960s
Slightly different, this piece is about heroin and end-of-life discussions in the 1980s.