Catharsis in Psychotherapy - Michael P. Nichols, Ph D. and Melvin Zax, Ph.D., Gardner Press, Inc, New York, 1977

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

Catharsis in Psychotherapy is a compelling book for anyone interested in the feeling and regression therapies. The authors give a concise history of the uses of catharsis from ancient healing rites of Babylonia, shamanism and voodooism to present-day evangelical religious movements. There is an entire chapter on Breuer and Freud's innovative use of catharsis in the early days of psychoanalysis. A detailed explanation as to exactly why Freud did not continue using abreaction and discontinued it in favor of his `talking therapy' is given. This chapter is the most interesting in the book and its reading is a must for anyone interested in the background of primal and perhaps might help to answer that perrenial question: Did Janov discover primal or did he merely rediscover early Freud? The history of abreactive hypnosis and the treatment of traumatic war neuroses is also discussed. The works of Wilhelm Reich (Body Armouring), Alexaner Lowen (Bioenergetics), Ida Rolf (Rolfing), Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy), Harvey Jackins (Re-Evaluation Counseling), Daniel Casril (Scream Therapy) and others are covered.

The rest of the book deals with catharsis in group treatment and the psychology of grief. The conclusion reached is that there is limited value to catharsis except in cases of recently occuring emotional traumas.

Primal therapy is discussed in a chapter on ``Recent Emotive Approaches to Psychotherapy.'' Arthur Janov is excoriated since he makes his therapy so easy to criticize! The therapy is accused of producing scores of ``walking wounded.'' The authors feel that defenses are a necessary part of a person's psyche since the undefended person will probably be at the mercy of his impulses which will cause frustration and wasn't this the problem to begin with?

Another criticism of primal is that, it ignores the therapeutic relationship between patient and therapist. Because of this, Nichols and Zax feel that an important determinant of success in any form of cathartic therapy, is ignored. It seems that primal therapy has been criticized by some patients as ``intolerable emotional brainwashing.'' Moreover, there is no proved relationship between a drop in vital signs and improved emotional well being. Passive noninvolvement is certainly not an appropriate model for psychological health, the authors have decided. Janov is chided for refusing to acknowledge the work of his predecessors and ignoring the history of psychotherapy as well as common sense. Deep emotional release techniques were extensively developed and used by Fritz Perls in Gestalt therapy while W. Reich pioneered in the interplay of repressed traumas and physiological blockage many years before primal, the authors claim.

Janov, futhermore, ignores the possible psychological traumas of adolescence and adulthood since all problems are not the result of childhood/infantile traumas. Primal therapy has a tendency to orchestrate the feelings of the patient to conform to primal theory and the feelings which erupt are, thus, not spontaneous. The traumas are not stored in the brain in a ``pure form'' and it is more logical to assume that the ventilated feelings are, in reality, present day adult frustrations. People who are emotive are attracted to the therapy and become prepared for what is to happen. Yet in spite of all their criticisms the authors conclude that all of the evidence is not yet in to judge whether or not primal therapy is effective.

In regard to actually re-experiencing one's birth in primal therapy, the authors say that primal clients only think that they are doing so, but actually they are only discharging tensions from much more recent hurts.


I think that we are all guilty of the errors of the authors of Catharsis in Psychotherapy. All of us examine new evidence from our own old, sometimes limited, viewpoints. When a new model appear, we try to make it fit our old vantage point. Sometimes this approach works but sometimes it fails. I do not believe that it is possible to intellectually convince anyone, regardless of his educational or professional qualifications, that it is possible to re-live very early traumas and even less so, one's birth. The conviction, that it is indeed possible, will only occur when the skeptic re-lives his own birth.

I am not making any attempt to answer the objections to primal therapy discussed in Catharsis In Psychotherapy. Those of us who are intimately involved with the primal process have our own answers. And some of us may even agree that some of the authors' criticisms have varying degrees of validity. To accept the basic tenets of primal theory does not mean that it is without weaknesses. One day there may be something better, but until it comes along and we learn about it, primal therapy will be relieving suffering and giving hope to those of us fortunate enough to be involved. Others, who feel that primal therapy is a big rip-off cannot be persuaded by intellectual arguments. I was a slow learner and kept up with neurotic attempts to convince others of the efficacy of the primal process for far too long.