Who Discovered the Regressive Psychotherapies?

By John A. Speyrer

It cannot be said that Janov discovered abreaction since even Aristotle mentioned the benefits of abreaction in drama. Indeed, Janov's claim for initial discovery rests or falls on the question of whether or not a primal is more than an abreaction. While both are on the continuum of feeling, primals can permanently reduce the level of intensity of a neurosis while abreactions on occasion merely temporarily reduce tension.

To determine who should get credit for the discovery of the primal process depends on how much weight is given to the work of predecessors. Without the existence of the gasoline engine the Wright brothers would not have been able to invent the airplane. Thomas Edison could not have invented the electric light without using that ancient invention, glass. Recognition as a discoverer of a new process or invention does not mean that the inventor must be completely original. All discoverers must stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

The progress of any science is measured by the addition to its body of knowledge after it has survived scientific testing and scrutiny. Contributions of predecessors are often used when they are in accordance with the new model being developed and does not detract from the contributions of an innovator.

Gleanings of the primal premise that infantile, and early childhood deprivations can result in neurosis can be found in hundreds of references before Janov and even before Freud, but it was not until Janov, S. Grof and Frank Lake that we had the data and proof to back up the theories of their predecessors. They proved others correct when they discovered a method by which mentally ill patients could relive their traumas totally and become less neurotic in the process.

To proclaim primal therapy as nothing more than rediscovered early Freud reveals an ignorance of the history of psychology or is a deliberate attempt to distort the truth. There is sufficient documentation to show that Breuer and Freud merely used hypnosis coupled with a cathartic form of expressive therapy to help their neurotic patients. A reading of Studies in Hysteria (1895) shows that primal therapy was not being used by them.

Catharsis was abandoned in psychotherapy by Freud because its use did not lend itself to an understanding of the origins of symptoms and because symptom relief was only temporary. In primal therapy the understanding of symptom origins is an automatic process. This shows that under Freud's ministrations resolving regressions were not occuring.

But the most persuasive argument of all is when one asks the question of how could Freud have abandoned an effective therapy as primal to begin practicing an ineffective therapy such as psychoanalysis? Primal therapy works. If Freud had discovered and used primal therapy, he would not have abandoned it.

Some critics of Janov contend that the idea of birth trauma of Otto Rank, (The Trauma of Birth, 1924) is antecedent to Janov's discovery of the birth primal. I had always considered Rank's book is merely a boring narrative of how many, through the ages, has recognized the significance of birth and that his work did not adequately relate to reliving traumatic births and instead emphasized a psychoanalytic infantile separation anxiety concept. And yet, and yet,--

"Otto Rank..."related the catastrophic fear attendant upon birth with the subsequent 'tendency of the child to equate any hurt with total annihilation'... Rank also showed that birth means the death of the original intra-uterine union. It is a dying to the old integration in order to enter life in a new one. If this process was so traumatic as to be an intolerable prospect (since what is dissociated and imperfectly recovered always appears as prospect, not retrspect), all subsequent dying-to-live will tend to evoke equivalent anxiety and resistence. Many subsequent transitions may thus be affected by birth trauma, among them, weaning from the breast to solid food, from mother to father, from the constant company of mother to separation from her, from home to school, from school to work, leaving home to marry, and the like." (Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology, 1966, p. 937)

Fitz Perls was definitely on the right track with gestalt therapy, but the feelings elicited by his techniques were not primals and although his work was proceeding in the direction of primal it never arrived there.

The credit belongs to the persons who were first. The history of psychology will credit Arthur Janov, S. Grof and Frank Lake as the originators of primal therapy and the honor for its discovery should rightly be theirs.

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