Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama by T. J. Scheff, Ph.D., University of California, 1979, pp. 246

Reviewed By John A. Speyrer

Dr. T. J. Scheff defines catharsis as a process of emotional discharge which brings relief from emotional tension. A sociologist and college professor, Scheff had his first experience with Reevaluation Counseling (RC) in the early seventies. RC is a form of lay directed cathartic psychotherapy in which two partners exchange roles of participant and observer. Scheff found this deep feeling therapy method produced profound changes both in himself and others.

As his interests grew, he began studying the phenomenon of catharsis by participation in various forms of cathartic psychotherapy and by researching literature on the subject. This book is the result of that investigation. Though the first mention of catharsis in drama was by Aristotle, it was not until Freud and Breuer published Studies In Hysteria in 1890 that a more than cursory examination of catharsis was made. At first they believed that a verbal description "coupled with a memory of the (traumatic) event was sufficient." Very soon, however, the use of catharsis by these Vienese physicians was abandoned because it was believed by them that the results obtained were only temporary.

According to the author, what is needed for catharsis to be effective is repeated emotional discharge. Freud's and Breuer's technique did not entail repeated sessions of abreaction, so Scheff believes that was why they concluded that the technique did not work. Even so, Scheff feels that Freud gave very little evidence that catharis did not result in permanent improvement.

In Catharsis, Dr. Scheff introduces his concept of "distancing." This refers to the ease or difficulty in which the past repressed feeling can be triggered in the present based on its similarity to an earlier repressed feeling. If the distancing is close, the experience can increase the tension level. But this seems to be unoriginal and simply asserts that the feeling can hook or trigger the repressed feeling if it bears a similarity of emotional content to it.

In evaluating the scientific theories of emotion, the author states that the effects of weeping have not been adequately investigated in the past, although some authors have believed that it is beneficial. Others, however, consider the weeping as almost as an illness in itself. For example, Dr. Scheff believes that Nichols and Zax (Catharsis in Psychotherapy) are not convinced of the universal efficacy of cathartic discharge. In a discussion of the cathartic theories of Williams James, Symonds, Borquist, Candland, Averill, Tomkins, Selge, W. B. Cannon, Heilbrunn, French and others, the author considers them all to be lacking in important substance.

Arthur Janov is dismissed with a few words and not included in the discussion of the authors listed above in the chapter on "scientific theories." What is the fault of Janov and primal therapy? Scheff claims that Janov defines a primal "too simply," since ". . . no attempt is made to classify different kinds of feelings involved, or the distinguishing marks which differentiate primals from the other kinds of emotional processes." This is a specious argument. The Journal of Primal Therapy has published many articles prior to the publication of Dr. Scheff's book about the characteristics of a primal feeling. For example, the Winter, 1976, issue contained an article entitled Primals Versus Non-Primals by E. Michael Holden, M.D., which specifically addressed this question. Even earlier, in 1971, in The Anatomy of Mental Illness, Janov, details the characteristics which distinguish primals from non-primals and abreactions.

In any event, Dr. Scheff believes that the evidence for the effectiveness of catharsis is limited to indirect evidence, but that this evidence supports the hypothesis that catharsis is an effective form of therapy.

In the second half of his book, the author uses his distancing concept in an analysis of emotion in rituals and in mass entertainment. Catharsis in drama and the effects on tension by humor and comedy are also discussed.

The author feels that more studies of the effects of deep emotions in controlled settings are needed. He also offers suggestions for possible directions for such studies. Dr. Scheff proposes a formal hypothesis of catharsis and repression which can be reduced to two algebriac formulas. With five variables, and with the use of the author's distancing concept in the equation, Scheff introduces his theory of catharsis which shows the interactions between the amount of trauma, degree of repression, and possibility of cathartic release.