The Passing of a Primal Therapist

Arthur Janov, the founder of primal scream therapy who died in October 2017 was the last of the “big personalities” of the psychotherapies and anti-psychotherapies that have been identified with the 1960s.  They were part of a uniquely American culture of celebrity therapists. Included this list would be Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, among many others.  Some would also include my father, the psychodramatist J.L. Moreno, though he died in 1974 and his work started in the 1920s. 

Janov rather pointedly denied that primal was related to psychodrama, an assertion that my dad was no doubt happy to embrace.  Yet as a child watching many psychodramas I witnessed an abundance of emotional catharses.  Whatever their therapeutic value the pain expressed in those screams is seared into my consciousness. 

For a time Janov was a substantial influence on his therapist contemporaries who were also in search of new avenues of personal growth.  I saw a group primal demonstration in 1973 under the noted group therapist and authority on addiction recovery Daniel Casriel, who clearly adopted some of Janov’s ideas.  His book, A Scream Away From Happiness, appeared in 1972, just two years after Janov’s The Primal Scream.  Both books joined a burgeoning self-help and insight therapy literature of the later 1960s and early 1970s. The 1969 movie "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" was a popular satire of encounter groups that featured a primal scream in the opening minutes. 

Despite its appeal to the counter-culture, primal therapy has not been accepted by the psychotherapy community.  It has been denounced as everything from fraudulent to dangerous.  But what I find more interesting is the question why it emerged when it did and what some common themes were from that era.   Like many of the therapies that emerged in that two decades after World War II Janov was profoundly influenced by psychoanalysis, both positively and negatively.  He accepted the idea of repression but not the “talking cure”, hence the need for emotional release to fully comprehend the patient’s traumatic past in her or his present. 

Primal therapy also shares some of the limitations of classical psychoanalysis.  Like analysis primal focuses on patients with neurosis and not other mental illnesses. In the 21st century some of Janov’s views are just as old-fashioned as those of other neo-Freudians, such as viewing homosexuality as “curable”. And like other “existential” therapies that claimed to be life-altering there have been continuing controversies about its scientific validation.

There is no doubt that Janov was an iconic figure of his time.  His death happened to coincide with the publication of an exhaustive biography of Rolling Stone magazine editor Jann Wenner.  Just as Wenner’s biographer views him as an embodiment, as well as a mover and shaker, of the 1960s, much the same can be said of Janov.  The first pages of that book remind us that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among the many celebrities who endorsed Janov’s approach. 

There might have been more to Lennon’s identification with primal than even he realized.  One historian of music has observed that pop music shares with primal therapy the “rock shout,” which makes sense to anyone who has heard Lennon’s vocal on the Beatles’ cover of “Twist and Shout.”  Whether therapeutic or not, the history of rock music as a protest against various forms of repression owes much of its appeal to the same human sources as Janov’s screams.

Originally published on Psychology Today, October 31, 2107.

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