'Primal Scream' Psychologist Arthur Janov Dies At Age 93

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 8:24 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The death of psychologist Arthur Janov this past weekend brought back memories of a piercing sound from the 1970s. Janov, who was 93, championed what he called primal therapy in a best-selling book, "The Primal Scream."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Screaming) I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.

SIEGEL: This was a primal group therapy session. Janov's idea was that neurosis is caused by early childhood trauma, pain that has long been suppressed. In a 2008 video, he explained that the point of primal therapy was to get in touch with that pain and to get it unrepressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR JANOV: We need to talk to a brain that doesn't talk, that feels. And we have found a way to go to that brain that doesn't talk but that feels.

SIEGEL: One thing that made Janov and primal therapy briefly but immensely famous was an immensely famous patient.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Mama, don't go.

SIEGEL: John Lennon underwent primal therapy, and it deeply influenced his 1970 album "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER")

LENNON: (Singing) Daddy, come home.

SIEGEL: Primal therapy never overtook more conventional forms of psychotherapy. But it did express a spirit of the times back in the early 1970s - getting in touch with one's authentic, unrepressed self and ridding oneself of childhood trauma. It's still being practiced at The Primal Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. The Institute was founded by Janov, and it's now being run by psychologist Dr. Barry Bernfeld. He says all this screaming is misunderstood.

BARRY BERNFELD: The therapy has never been about, nor is it about, you know, just going into a room and screaming. Going into a room and screaming has absolutely no therapeutic value. The therapy is about grieving. And people sometimes, you know, when they're crying deeply, make noises. Some people cry very quietly. Some people cry out quite dramatically.

SIEGEL: Dr. Bernfeld speaks contemptuously of most other forms of psychotherapy and, frankly, the feeling is mutual.

RICHARD MCNALLY: It's far outside the realm of mainstream clinical psychology, which is fairly broad. This one's really not on the radar screen.

SIEGEL: Dr. Richard McNally is a psychology professor at Harvard.

MCNALLY: Traumatic events are remembered all too well. People are typically haunted by these memories. They're not repressing them. So right there is a fundamental problem with his approach. He's assuming that the first response to pain is to repress it, but the key thing about traumatic events is that they tend to be intrusive.

SIEGEL: While primal therapy didn't set the world of therapy on fire, Arthur Janov's phrase that was the title of his book lives on. The primal scream survives on several college campuses as a cathartic springtime mass ritual, unburdened by any theory of the origins of neurosis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Screaming).

SIEGEL: Some primal screams from Columbia and Northwestern that have little to do with the man who coined that phrase, Arthur Janov. He died at the age of 93 on Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.