Article Review - Primal Scream: A Persistent New Age Therapy by Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June, 2001, pp. 17-19.

By John A. Speyrer

Martin Gardner is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and author of over forty books. A brilliant scholar, talented magician and mathematician, he has for many years written a monthly column in Scientific American magazine. Like the late Isaac Asimov, Gardner has seemingly made all of knowledge his province and in his early eighties continues to debunk positions he considers pseudo-scientific.

In the May/ June, 2001 issue of Skeptical Inquirer the author sighted primal therapy in his lens and moved in for the kill. In 1987, Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D., had made similar criticisms in an article in a 1988 issue of the same journal. [See my earlier review of that article, The Skeptical Inquirer Inquires About Primal Therapy ]

I do not want to be too picky in my criticisms of the factual details in Gardner's article, but I should mention that the author has confused the names of Arthur Janov's present wife with his former wife. His former wife's first name was not France, but Vivian. France is the name of his present wife.

The author writes: "The basis of primal therapy . . . came to Janov like a revelation from on high . . . ." That was hardly the case as it was not like a revelation but more like an observation of his, made as a professional clinical psychologist noticing what happened when a client was encouraged to call out to his mother under certain specific conditions. Later when these circumstances were closely replicated sometimes the results were the same. This exercise was more scientific than revelatory.

Gardner terms the process in which one becomes able to reclaim the memory of early traumas, primalizing. Rather, it is called primaling; sometimes spelled with two l's.

He writes: "The entire process is, of course, faster and cheaper than psychoanalysis, which can go on for years." Not so, as primaling can also go on for a lifetime. During the therapy's early years it was thought to be quite rapid since some neurotic symptoms were often shuckled off quite rapidly. For example, in just a few months of primaling, my continuously congested nose was cured; psychosomatic stomach pains took months longer to cure but after decades of primaling I still have some persistent symptoms. The fact, acknowledged by Janov, is that some symptoms, which are the result of very early and/or very severe traumas can take a long, long time to resolve -- perhaps even an entire lifetime. This may also be because memories of the trauma may not present itself for resolution until after decades of undergoing the therapy have passed!

"Janov was a pioneer practitioner of what later came to be called the 'false memory syndrome.". . . "Janov is not particularly concerned with memories of sexual abuse since any old kind of early childhood trauma will do."

These are serious and unconscionable charges and are completely false. The primal therapist does not implant memories. The therapist only sets up the environment so that whatever was repressed may become un-repressed and expressed in a supported primal re-living. There was/is never an agenda or preconceived memory to feel.

What always comes up is the next feeling in line to be felt, determined intentionally by neither the therapist nor the client. I have long ago given up trying to anticipate what repressed feeling will come up when I lay down to feel a primal feeling. Oftentimes, it is more of the last feeling felt, but at other times the subject matter is a complete surprise to me! The surprise relates not only to the timing but even to the existence of the specific trauma itself!

"Prior to primalizing (sic), patients spend a week in a hotel room without radio, television, or anything to read. They are not allowed to sleep the night before their first session. In his section on primal therapy. Pendergrast quotes Janov as saying, 'The isolation and sleeplessness are important techniques which often bring patients close to a Primal. Lack of sleep helps crumble defenses.'"

This early technique is currently seldom used.

"Of course there is not the slightest reliable evidence that any adult brain harbors repressed memories of birth. Nor, for that matter, any memories of the first one or two years of life, or of pre-birth memories of life inside the womb as Janov also believes -- a belief he shares with L. Ron Hubbard, Stanislav Grof, and others."

Those of us in the therapy feel that each primal we have is "reliable evidence." Obviously, convincing someone else is very difficult. If this were not so primal therapy would be much more popular than it presently is. It is rarely convincing to read about the primal process. The experience is what really convinces. When I first read one of Janov's books I was completely turned off by this "hysterical approach" to psychotherapy. Later, after the primal re-livings began spontaneously as a result of gestalt therapy, I no longer needed persuasion.

I believe that no matter how many scientific studies are made attempting to prove its validity, the therapy will remain on the fringes of psychotherapy for the indefinite future. But it is inevitable that one day it will become generally accepted. Even psychoanalysis is beginning to incorporate its features.

The re-living of the birth experience could be scientifically replicated even though many obstacles would have to be overcome. To the question of whether birth primal re-livings are scientifically replicable, British psychiatrist, Frank Lake wrote:
"Yes, so long as you don't try to cut any corners.' It would be fatal to replication to omit, for instance, the deep togetherness that happens in the group, as a result of the two days of leisured introductions, in which each person has had opportunity to speak of the life-problem that brought them here, with total freedom to be emotionally honest, and then to recollect and speak of the bodily sensation patterns and specific feelings which take hold of them when the ancient affliction strikes. . .

To say to a group of scientific workers, totally unused to having that quality of intimacy and mutual openness with the subjects of their highly "controlled" experiments, "you cannot cut this corner or you are failing to replicate the ground rules of the workshop," is to state firmly a limitation they probably would find difficult to overcome. . .

If there are serious investigators, honestly concerned to know whether these things are as we have reported, I would advise against trying to replicate this in a "scientific establishment." It simply would not be a replication of the experiment, but something totally lacking in too many respects, But there is nothing to prevent their joining, as an unpretentious member of a workshop, open to the same constraints on loose criticism, and fully ready to share themselves and grow through the basis of this, coming to a scientifically reliable validation or refutation.

To be scientific in these fields requires a stringency which the "Scientific method", as practiced in laboratories, has always strenuously evaded. I would guess that "unconscious" roots to do with foetal experiences that have made "knowng-by-emotional commitment" too painful and hazardous, and "knowing-at-an-emotionally-neutralized-distance" the only tolerable stance, have a decisive part in determining that deliberate subjective impoverishment that calls itself "scientific", but is not." -- Frank Lake, in Mutual Caring," pp. 73-75. (Quoted in Stephen M. Maret's Doctoral Dissertation, Frank Lake's Maternal-Fetal Distress Syndrome: An Analysis, 1992)

Janov has spent a lot of money in attempting to verify that primal therapy works; that regressing in a primal worked measurable physiological changes. In his studies the subjects act as their own controls. Does an injection of morphine need to be scientifically investigated to determine whether it can control pain? Does such a study really need double blind controls? The changes in blood pressure, core body temperature, pulse rate and EEG measurements which invariably occur after a connected primal feeling, Janov writes, point to a quieter body and mind - the proof that the therapy can succeed.

* * *

"In April 2000, in Evergreen, Colorado, a social worker named Connell Watkins and her three associates -- none with any training in psychiatry -- charged a Durham, North Carolina, pediatric nurse $7,000 for two weeks of therapy on her adopted daughter Candace Newmaker. The girl, 10, was said to be suffering from "attachment disorder," characterized by her inability to form loving relationships. At the culmination of "attachment therapy" the child was wrapped in a flannel blanket and large pillows shoved against her face."

"Candace cried out repeatedly that she couldn't breathe and was about to vomit, but the therapists kept pushing the pillows and urging her to fight her way out of the "womb" through a twisted part of the blanket. Candace soon stopped crying. A half-hour later the therapists unwrapped the blanket. Candace was lying in vomit, not breathing. She died of asphyxiation the next day at a Denver hospital."

What was truly tragic was that everyone involved was seemingly negligent in assuring that Candace's breathing was not impeded during her re-birthing/ attachment-type therapy. Her death had nothing to do with well practiced, re-birthing therapy, holding therapy, attachment therapy, primal therapy, or whatever you wish to call it. Her death was due to pure negligence.

In any event, it is not a type of therapy which Janov would use, even with proper assurance of unrestricted access of air to breathe. Janov does not believe in physical intervention which I personally find very helpful in accessing my primal material. In a recent interview on the Dr. Toni Grant radio show Janov said: "Once in a great while I'll touch a patient in a specific area to trigger off a memory." Wraping a person in a blanket to help access birth feelings is not a technique recommended or used by him or by his staff.

Gardner wrote that he was closing the article "on a depressing note." What was depressing to the author was that Prometheus Books published Janov's The Biology of Love, a book the likes of which they usually attack instead of make available to the public. One would have thought that the death of Candace Newmaker was much more depressing than what was to follow! Perhaps, he knew that her death had nothing to do with primal therapy but somehow wanted to interject that tragedy into his article to impugn guilt by association.

"On January 2, 2001, E. Patrick Curry, an articulate consumer health advocate in Pittsburgh, sent Paul Kurtz, founder and head of Prometheus, a strong letter protesting the publication. Long an admirer of Prometheus for its willingness to publish books attacking pseudoscience -- books other publishers are reluctant to take -- Curry urged Kurtz to withdraw the book and issue a mea culpa for the failure of Prometheus' editors to recognize Janov's book as bogus psychiatry."

Curry cited an incredible passage on page 319 of The Biology of Love that should have been a tipoff to Prometheus editors. Janov reports that a photograph of a primal, in which a patient is reexperiencing birth, shows the fingerprints of the obstetrician miraculously appearing on the patient's legs! "The first time I saw this," Janov writes, "I was as skeptical as I am sure many readers are now. But it happens and is not a chance occurrence."

Those of us in primal therapy or its variants clearly recognize that such reactions although "incredible" can and do occur. This was no miracle; the body remembers! Such bruise marks show outlines of the fingers and thumb - of course, not the actual grooves, ridges and whorls of the digits!

(Photographs of such body bruises may be viewed on page 210 of Janov's Why You Get Sick, How You Get Well (1996) and in the Summer, 1973, issue of The Journal of Primal Therapy, page 65. Also see, on this website, the third to the last paragraph in Thoughts on Seeking the Truth in Primal Theory )

But, what's a guy to do? Would Gardner have preferred Janov not to mention this fact because it might not be believed? Janov is perhaps the most conservative of all the world's regressive therapy theoreticians. Even when his patients were primaling their births, Janov did not accept what they told him was happening since the experts he consulted - the neurologists and obstetricians alike - had told him that this was impossible.

Janov lost a number of therapists and patients because of this issue. They left to form the Denver Primal Center. The patients believed they were reliving their births; their therapists believed the patients were reliving their births. Abandonment by the therapists who were working with him at his Primal Institute was the reward Janov received for relying on those who had the most up-to-date information medical science could provide.

Around this time, the aforementioned Frank Lake was also working with patients in the regressive psychotherapeutic modes. He wrote:

I was not prepared for the frequent abreaction of birth trauma. I was assured by neurologists that the nervous system of the baby was such that it was out of the question - that any memory to do with birth could be reliably recorded as fact. I relayed my incredulity to my patients, and as always happens in such cases, they tended thereafter to suppress what I was evidently unprepared, for so-called scientific reasons, to believe. But then a number of cases emerged in which the reliving of specific birth injuries, of forceps delivery, of the cord round the neck, of the stretched brachial plexus, and various other dramatic episodes were so vivid, so unmistakable in their origins, and afterwards confirmed by the mother or other reliable informants, that my suspicion was shaken. [Frank Lake, M.D. Clinical Theology, p. xix.]

Ashley Montagu has written: "(B)efore one can get to proof one must speculate, even fantasize." Consider this scenario: One is reliving his birth (details about which he knows nothing) and his birth records support exactly the detailed information derived from his birth primals. In such cases. whom do we trust - the scientific experts or one's own eyes and ears?

Others have written that the feelings of the mother may be transmitted to the fetus through "umbilical affect," that is, that the toxic emotion itself of the mother is transmitted to the fetus, not necessarily biochemically, but perhaps through some sort of unknown telepathic communication. Thus, if the mother-to-be regrets her pregnancy, the fetus might personally feel the specific maternal emotion directed against it. Janov, however, believes that this is all rank speculation and totally disagrees with this possibility. And he may even be among the minority of regressive theoreticians who hold this position.

Ironically, even though he is extremely conservative, the thanks Janov gets for his caution are continual attacks by the psychiatric establishment. Perhaps, this is because he has the highest profile and is one of the better known regressive theorists. No quarter is given to the discoverer of a discipline when the mental health establishment is so conservative that it still does not recognize the possibility of re-living and resolving birth trauma - experiences and results which have been occurring for many decades.

In a note at the end of his article, Gardner writes:

"One of Carl Sagan's rare lapses is his unfortunate chapter on Grof in Broca's Brain."

Perhaps it was akin to the memory lapse of the Committee For the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal when they invited Sagan to give the keynote address at their conference in 1994! Broca's Brain had been published in 1979. For those who might be interested in the chapter's contents, I will explain:

In his book astronomer Carl Sagan had theorized that those having near-death experiences were perhaps re-living their own birth and near-birth experiences. [See my article, Strange Encounters: Near Death Experiences and Birth Memories.] Dr. Sagan had gone even further and proposed that all religious experiences and even scientific theories were analogous to the birth experience. What an embarrassment - for one of their own members to subject CSICOP to such distress!

Such a horrendous lapse in judgment on Sagan's part! His theorizing had been so . . . well, . . . so regretably unscientific! Why the incident had been almost as shameful as claims by some like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch who reported that diseases could be transmitted by invisible organisms! What nonsense! And then there was that upstart Galileo who centuries earlier was convinced that he could see mountains on the moon by looking through a new fangled Dutch invention - the telescope.

The powers who were in control of the intellectual life of the time declined Galileo's offer to view the moon through his telescope. Why bother? They knew that looking at the moon through that tube and lens would be a useless exercise. Thankfully, the intellectuals of each era, in renouncing supposed errors, like evolution or plate tectonics, can always be relied upon to safeguard the consensual truths of their times.

"If you care to learn more about primal therapy you can read Janov's books, and A Scream Away from Happiness, by Daniel Casriel (1972)."

Dr. Casril's book, A Scream Away From Happiness is not about primal therapy and is not a proper source to learn about the therapy.

Read others comments about the Skeptical Inquirer article

Return to the Primal Page's Book Review Index