An Experience with Enchantment, by Curtis Knecht

Implications and information on various therapies and self-therapy that deal with the emotional connection of childhood experiences

An Experience with Enchantment, by Curtis Knecht

Post by Mojo »

Shelley contacted Curtis Knecht to ask his permission to post his article once again. He said he would like his email address to appear with the article. To avoid the risk that it might be picked up by spambots I'll write it like this:

"chknecht" goes before the AT sign, and "" after it.

If a discussion gets started he said he might join in. Here is the article:

Primal Therapy -- An Experience with Enchantment

by Curtis Knecht, MFCC
Copyright Curtis Knecht 1991

The year was 1970. Nixon occupied the White House. His troops occupied Vietnam and Cambodia. A decade of the civil rights movement, assassinations and social upheaval had confused and polarized American families. Feminists attacked the male power elite. Parents and kids glared at each other across a "Generation Gap." The American dream was under siege. Best Picture that year was "Patton." The Beatles had broken up. Baby Boomers struggled into an uncertain adulthood. Gasoline contained lead. DDT was thinning the eggs of the Brown Pelican. LSD was expanding the consciousness of young kids. It was a time of extremes.

On the national bestseller list was a book titled The Primal Scream written by a Los Angeles psychologist named Arthur Janov. Subtitled "Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis," it described a process which transformed people into "a new kind of human being," not only curing their neuroses but inspiring them to "make a new world in which to live -- a real world designed to solve the real problems of its inhabitants."

During a therapy session one day, Janov heard a client scream from the depths of his soul. He described it as "a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office." Janov followed the path of that scream to discover something he called Primal Pain. This Pain, Janov hypothesized, gets locked into childrens' unconscious minds as a way of protecting them from trauma and deprivation which they cannot handle. It remains locked in the child's unconscious being as he grows up. From this forgotten place, it causes endless suffering (neurosis) until it is released in an emotional experience of great intensity which Janov called "Primalling."

Through this "Primalling," adults re-experience their original childhood traumas and deprivations. It's an intense feeling process that frees a person from the destructive effects of his unconscious Pain.

Janov wrote that he'd developed a predictable, scientific method of eliciting this Primal experience in people. His therapy, he said, was "revolutionary, because it involves overthrowing the neurotic system by a forceful upheaval. Nothing short of that will eliminate neurosis." It was a dangerous process, dealing, as it were, with the nuclear power of the psyche. Only Janov-trained therapists were competent to do it.

The results, however, were stunning. Gone were depressions, addictions, tension, marital problems, phobias, overwork, sexual malfunctions and perversions, criminal behavior and psychoses (these took a little longer but eliminated the need for drugs). Even homosexuality, which Janov defined as a "disease" and "the denial of real sexuality," was being cured by his therapy. Results were being attained within weeks and months. Janov flatly stated, "By the time someone has reached his eighth month (of therapy), he is generally well." This meant, according to Janov, that a person would never need therapy again. It was quite a contrast to the years required by the psychoanalytic therapies.

To replace neurotic suffering, there emerged a "tensionless, defense-free life in which one is completely his own self and experiences a deep feeling and internal unity." Like the Velveteen Rabbit, one becomes Real.

From all parts of the world, people came to Los Angeles to undergo Primal Therapy at Janov's Institute. In 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came. They spoke of their experience with enthusiasm. There was a lengthy waiting list to get into the therapy despite the large fee which was paid in advance. It was an American phenomenon, the hula hoop of the 70's.

I remember clearly the Sunday eighteen years ago when I read Janov's book and knew without question that Primal Therapy was the answer for me. It was January, 1973.

I was an idealistic, 24-year-old white man from an affluent, well-educated, and very troubled family -- one of the heirs to the American dream of my parents' generation. I was confused by childhood demons and changing times. I was terribly unhappy with my life and desperate for a change. I'd tried psychedelic drugs, "counterculture" life, conventional psychotherapy, even college and hard work. Nothing quelled the pains in my heart.

Janov spoke to that torment and confusion, my deep longing for guidance and initiation. It promised an arduous inner journey, heroic battled with my worst fears and deepest desires, then the rebirth of a Self filled with power, freedom, and authenticity.

Janov made it clear that Primal was the only way to achieve what I desired, and I believed him. His words made such sense to me, and the testimonials of his patients confirmed it. I had to go, no matter what.

I applied to enter the therapy and was quickly accepted. In May, 1973, I left my work, family, and friends to move to Los Angeles and enter the Primal world. I thought that within six or eight months I would return home, transformed by Janov's remarkable discovery.

Nine years later, February, 1982, I emerged.

It had certainly been an odyssey. During those years, I ate, slept, breathed, and lived Primal Therapy. I entered as a patient and soon became a therapist. I married a therapist, and all my friends were therapists.

I returned to school to receive the degrees and license which would permit me to practice psychotherapy in the state of California. I did this so I could be a Primal Therapist. I believed it to be the only real work anyone could do. Arthur Janov trained me, challenged me, abused me, and turned me into an expert Primal Therapist.

I became a trusted lieutenant, Senior Therapist, privy to the inner circle. I shared a special power: I could Feel. I shared a special knowledge: I knew how to make others Feel. I believed deeply in what I was doing, even when outwardly critical. I held to aspects of that belief with a tenacity which still amazes me. I learned much on my journey. I learned with skill and precision how to express my deepest feelings, and how to elicit that expression in others. Grief, rage, fear, terror, and desire were daily companions (either mine or someone else's). Primal Theory and its practice became second nature to me.

So did the workings of the Primal Institute. I learned how the therapists lived and worked and ran the business. It was a small, insulated, and intense world which Art created and we maintained. It was my world, and I learned it well.

Ultimately, I learned that Janov's promise was a lie.

At times a wonderful lie, a well-constructed lie, even a lie which contained pockets of truth which could be fresh and effective in their application. But at base-root-bottom, it was, and still is, a nasty little lie.

The therapy did not work. Primal Therapy did not cure neurosis.

Art's promise drew people into a closed therapeutic system wherein therapists used experimental techniques to elicit intense and painful experiences in their patients. Patients' defense systems were broken and assaulted in many ways -- some quite abusive -- in order to elicit the Primal experience. Their experiences could be real and powerful. They could easily convince one of the veracity of Janov's discovery.

However, there was no "scientific and predictable" curative process occurring. It was hit and miss. Positive changes couldn't be attributed to this Primal process with any certainty.

Negative changes could. People became dependent on the therapy, addicted to "having Primals." Their lives took on a similar, Pain-oriented style. They were the walking wounded. They focused only on Pain, spoke a common "Primal" language, and followed the Primal rules. It created a narrow and, ultimately, destructive mentality.

The majority who came for the transformation seemed to leave the therapy feeling they had experienced something important, but certainly not what had been described by Janov's books. Most did not deal with the original issues which had brought them to the therapy. Others left after becoming more fragmented and disoriented than before, with at least two becoming violent toward the Institute. A significant number became so distraught that they killed themselves.

Janov claimed to have discovered the Truth about human Reality. I discovered that he ran an extremely profitable business for himself and a chosen few based on a promise that was never fulfilled. Technically, it was a therapy business, but mostly it was a cult movement with all the characteristic dynamics.

Those cult dynamics were:

A Charismatic leader or Central Belief: Janov and his "Discovery" that the expression of repressed pain cures all ills.

Oppositional: it set itself up in rigid opposition to the values of the dominant culture and all of psychotherapy.

Exclusivistic: it was the Only cure; Primal possessed the Truth; Janov said, "The Truth (Primal) is highly intolerant of untruths (everything else)."

Legalistic: many rules and regulations for correct "Feeling" behavior.

Subjective: emphasis on feeling and experience; anti-intellectual.

Persecution Conscious: this special community possesses the Truth; people were always attacking Janov out of their ignorance.

Sanction Oriented: if you don't do Primal Therapy, you'll be neurotic forever, doomed.

Esoteric: the inner truth shared by therapists was different than the outer truth presented to the patients and the public.

The important question: was it a destructive cult, or was it neutral?

Janov claimed that his therapy would transform people into a new kind of person. I found the therapists and the Janovs to be the same old kind of people. The running of the business was based on human greed, deep hypocrisy, and a need for fame and fortune at whatever cost.

Nor were therapists the "Post Primal" people Janov described. Many had disturbing personal problems which had easily survived their own therapy. The Institute was a difficult workplace. Training techniques were abusive. The political infighting and positioning among the staff was the same as any business which offers lucre at the top. The humor, for the most part, was mean- spirited. Attitudes were arrogant and insulting of anything which challenged the Primal belief system.

Above all there were unethical and unprofessional practices built into the system: dual relationships (business and sexual) between therapist and patient, false claims of results, false advertising, interns working beyond their level of skill, treatment of patients who were too disturbed for this kind of "therapy," emotional harm caused by a system that opened people up to intense feeling without adequate follow-up, perhaps even medical malpractice by the neurologist who prescribed medication according to "Primal" guidelines.

In this context, even therapists who wanted to provide effective therapy would fail. There were well-meaning and creative people who worked hard to make Primal Therapy live up to its promise. We failed. The system was too destructive.

That it took me eight years to learn this indicated how desperate my life was when I went to the therapy, how much I needed to believe in a powerful and omniscient world view, how isolated I was in the world, and how well Janov's promises matched my personal desires as well as the political and cultural forces of those times. It also speaks to the effectiveness of the Primal indoctrination techniques.

I also think it is an indication that there are aspects of Primal Therapy which contain therapeutic value. The techniques for eliciting painful feelings can be quite effective. The grief process is well understood and may be healing, depending on the context. Patients' experiences are often quite real and dramatic. Unfortunately, whatever there was of value was completely overshadowed and negated by the destructive superstructure within which it was housed.

I worked hard to become a competent therapist. I struggled against the drawbacks in the system. I became competent, but the system burned me out. When I left that world in 1982, it was a shock. I realized I'd been in a cult. As with anyone who leaves a cult, I had to learn different ways of looking at the world and myself in it. It was a confusing and disorienting process which challenged my beliefs on many levels.

I experienced deep ambivalence. My self-esteem suffered tremendously. I know how destructive the Primal world had been, yet I couldn't reject it completely. I had given such a big part of myself to it. I had to believe there was value there. I rejected the Institute and its destructive practices. I could no longer be a part of that. But I wasn't sure about the theory.

After almost a year of "floating" and "decompression," I decided to continue working as a therapist. I wanted nothing to do with Primal Therapy. This meant I needed to open up to other ways of thinking and working in my profession. Even though I was already a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, I knew I needed to start learning my craft all over again.

So I worked a year doing psychoanalytic psychotherapy, trained a year in a therapeutic preschool using behaviorist and psychodynamic thinking, trained three-and-a-half years at the Family Therapy Institute of Southern California, worked in South-Central Los Angeles treating sexually abused children and their families, then worked as a Family Therapist at the Los Angeles Indian Center.

I read books, took classes, attended workshops, and was trained to provide effective and ethical therapy. I worked with couples, families, and children. I was drawn to the thinking of the Family Therapists. Their work was respectful, effective, and filled with life and creativity.

Initially, I consciously rejected the psychodynamic approach to therapy. This is the Freudian approach on which Janov based his theory. It basically says that repressed childhood trauma must be worked through in one way or another for healing to occur. I was tired of people talking about their childhood feelings.

After a while, though, I learned to value it where appropriate in an overall treatment plan. I began to separate human feeling from "Primal Feeling" and its inherent cultism. Primal Therapy became a memory, like the social upheavals of the Sixties, of a turbulent and self-involved time whose meaning eluded me.

I began to develop competency working with people who had different problems -- from child abuse to marital conflict to depression. I worked for a number of different agencies and within different legal and bureaucratic contexts. I worked with three different cultures: African- American, Caucasian, and American Indian.

I found some good teachers and supervisors. I learned from them, from my clients, from my successes and my mistakes. With difficulty, I learned the value of taking a point of view yet keeping an open mind: developing a flexibility in my therapeutic approach. Over time, I filled the gaps until I began to work as a reasonably competent therapist.

My personal life had grown along with my professional life. I had widened my social world, developed a variety of interests and friendships. I married and had a daughter. I took a primary and active role in her beginning life. I felt I had rejoined the human race.

As with other "Post Primals," I discovered my problems hadn't been cured. I needed to return to therapy at different times over the years. In some ways, the Primal experience had made it even harder to accept help from others. I had been burned, and trust came less easily. Yet I also knew of a certain depth of feeling within me, and I wanted a therapy which attended to that. So Primal thinking still worked, in part, to isolate me from effective treatment for my problems. Certain basic issues remained untreated, issues I'd entered Primal Therapy to cure when I was 25 years old.

My marriage broke up in 1988. In the aftermath of that, Primal Therapy reentered my life and invited me back into its world -- in the form of a job offer. I couldn't believe it. No therapist who'd left there had ever come back, and I'd been gone seven years.

They said much had changed: Art was gone. Vivian was about to retire. All the abusive and unethical practices were gone. It was a smaller organization devoted to doing good therapy. They were neither isolated nor arrogant as in the past. They didn't think Primal was the "only" way any more. They respected other therapies.

It was a good offer. Part time work for better pay than my full time job. I could start a private practice that was separate from the Institute. I was being hired to provide competent Primal Therapy, but I didn't have to buy into a "Primal Party Line." I could see couples and families from time to time.

Strangely enough, I accepted the invitation. For four months I lived again in the world of Primal. Partly, it was the job; more than that, though, I think it was because I needed to come to some concrete resolution about the meaning of Primal Therapy in my life. It was like stepping into a time warp. Primal had been my life for so long, so intensely. I discovered, though, that I was different now. My world had grown and gained complexity and depth.

I saw the Primal Institute as an employer, not a calling. There was a job to do, and it ended when I left there. I did the job as well as I knew how, with the skills, creativity, and perspective which I'd gained. I respected the basic psychodynamic principles on which Primal was based, and I figured I could deal with whatever cult aspects remained.

The Institute had changed, mostly for the better. The more obvious unethical practices were a thing of the past. The staff was smaller and appeared to be better trained. There was more follow- up built into the system. The clients were highly motivated, a pleasure to work with.

Quite soon, though, I realized that serious problems remained. People were still being seduced into the therapy by the old promise of quick transformation. They expected to be blasted into intense re-experiences of their childhood traumas, followed by the elimination of lifelong problems and symptoms -- all in a short time.

This just doesn't happen. The Primal Therapy described in the books had stopped being practiced years before, because it didn't work. That "assault" on the defense system that elicits "Primals" creates more problems than it cures, and they knew it. To state this publicly, though, would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

So, when patients start therapy, they learn that Primal has "evolved." Their expectations are out of date. Primal Therapy had been "improved" by time and experience. It's neither as intense nor as speedy as expected. It goes at a "natural" pace. To an outsider it might seem to be a hybrid psychodynamic therapy, masquerading as something called Primal. This is not what the newcomers are told.

They are told that Art's basic theory remains a beautiful and revolutionary discovery. It stands alone in the world of psychotherapy.

Its uniqueness is revealed by the intensive three weeks in the dimly-lit padded rooms, the Primal language taught to newcomers, and the complex world view of Primal. Patients are taught that Primal is the "only reality;" all else is "false;" without Primal, one remains "split off" and "unfeeling;" everything is secondary to "feeling your old feelings;" you have to "be straight," "take risks," "stop acting out," and follow a host of similar rules and regulations (some stated, others implied). Repression, above all, is forbidden. "Feeling" is everything.

Most of patients' "present reality" is seen as a symbolic acting out of "old feelings" from childhood. Patients learn to "use" their present feelings and relationships with others to "get to" their "old" feelings. The Past replaces the Present.

After the three weeks, the Primal community reinforces these Truths and maintains the rules. This is done in Primal houses, Primal boxes, Primal jobs, Primal parties, and, of course, the Primal volleyball game. One house even flew their own Primal flag.

The therapy is now a kind of "Bait and Switch" operation. The bait is what people read in Janov's books ("old-style Primal Therapy"). The switch is to the hybrid psychodynamic therapy being practiced. The initial three weeks is used as a complex indoctrination and rationalization to explain why the therapy isn't what it was advertised to be; that, instead, it is something better.

The recipients of this are desperate, emotionally troubled people who come from a distance to a new city. They come here for a short time, stay here (illegally for some) to finish the therapy and find that years pass. They wait for that Primal which will transform them, and it never seems to come.

When they object to this, or question it, they are encouraged to feel the underlying "feelings" to get to the childhood root of the problem. If that doesn't work, they are told they need to do different things "in their life." Complaints are treated as "struggles," and they are told to stop it if they want to become real. If they don't, they are eased out of therapy, labeled as "neurotic," "unreal," or "untreatable."

The Therapy takes responsibility for changes that are positive. Failure is always the fault of the patient.

Patients' vulnerability, low self-esteem, and high expectations make them easy to indoctrinate into the Primal mind-set. Perhaps if the therapy were effective it would be okay. But when the results don't happen, it becomes a destructive process.

So, it is still a lie, based on the false promise of the original lie. Without lies, though, there is no Primal world, no therapy, no community.

The community of Primal People lives in Los Angeles, Europe, and around the world. It has taken on different shapes and sizes over the past twenty-odd years (and they have been odd), but the basic mind-set remains strong and relentless. It strands so many in a limbo of waiting and hope and denial and despair. It came clear to me that "Primal Therapy" was a construct which didn't work at any level. The original theory was straight out of the Freudian paradigm with some added twists. The main purpose, though, was to make Janov famous and rich. Even without him, it remained a cult. I didn't want to be a part of that. Two months after I returned to work there, somebody burned down the Primal Institute. If I needed any further evidence of the problems inherent in perpetuation of this lie, that was it. I left the Primal Institute for the last time. I went into private practice full time.

Only this time, I didn't leave Primal behind. Instead of forgetting, I decided to explore the meaning of Primal Therapy for myself and others. I wanted to give it a context and perspective that made sense and resolved -- or at least made public -- the contradictions, lies, value, and experience which makes up the Primal world.

I spoke in public last year about my conclusions. This article is the second step. I'm working on a much longer manuscript which I hope to finish soon.

Art's lie is a tricky one, easy to dismiss and easy to misunderstand. Those who believe it are left in a vulnerable and confusing place. Those who have left remain silent. Those who remain only write variations on the basic theme. From outside, it's easy to dismiss Primals as weirdoes. From inside, it's the True and Only way. All non-Primals are doomed to unreality.

For two years, part of my private practice has been providing therapy to people who've been involved in Primal Therapy. I have realized how stuck people get in the Primal thinking. I have treated people who have been stuck for almost two decades. It's frightening to see the power of enchantment which Art's words have cast over people. It's heartening to see that people can break the spell.

Janov has come out with his book, The New Primal Scream. I can't imagine there could be an interest like there was twenty years ago, but stranger things have happened. Reagan, after all, was re-elected president.

Janov now claims that his therapy can strengthen the immune system to provide protection and/or alleviation from cancers and AIDS symptoms. He describes how Primal Therapy reversed the symptoms of a three-year-old girl who had AIDS. He is aiming his promise at vulnerable and desperate people in an unforgivable way.

I feel a deep responsibility to share my experience with the community which I helped to create. Perhaps as part of my own healing process, I need to give something back.

So Primal Therapy doesn't work. Once this is acknowledged, alternatives become possible. None are easy. There's no simple, quick cure. Healing is a complex process.

The following are some steps people might find themselves taking if they decide to leave a cult:
  1. Physical separation: One must actually separate from the people and places which reinforce the cult mind-set.
  2. Breaking the ritual: Stop the addictive habit of thinking that you need to "feel a feeling" to solve every problem or whenever you feel bad.
  3. Decompression: a floating kind of disorientation, ambivalence, and depression. Uncertain who you are or where you're going. Expect it; watch out you don't try to "Primal" it away; experience it -- it'll be a part of your life for a while.
  4. Anger and loss: As with an eating disorder, Primal intrudes into an essential area of human activity, our emotional life. These feelings need to be dealt with in a different way. Sometimes long periods of repression are necessary at first. Remember, it's okay (even necessary) to repress things at times.
  5. Reconnection with the person you were before you came: your hopes, dreams, desires, and interests. This can be an exciting time of discovery as the world begins to open up for you. Expect uncertainty and anxiety as well.
  6. Creating a place in the world for yourself; friends, family, work, fun, community. Widen your context and your perspective. There are many possibilities in the world.
  7. Acknowledge and honor the needs which attracted you into the cult and which were satisfied by that tightly controlled world.
  8. If necessary, get professional help: this could include groups with others who have shared the experience. This is not always necessary. Many can leave without professional help, if they have work, friends, and interests which are supportive.
  9. Attend to the problems which made you seek Primal in the first place: Chances are some of them will still be around causing you havoc. It's a terrible feeling to have spent years "in therapy" only to discover the same old awful problems in your life. A lot of anger and hopelessness here.
  10. Hanging on: If you do seek professional help, watch out for all the comparisons you'll be making wherein the "new" therapy won't compare well at all with the Primal one. You'll ask, "Don't you BELIEVE in FEELINGS?" and the therapist won't know what you mean. Remember, feelings are just one of many human processes and experiences: there's nothing to "believe" in. Also, the new therapy won't satisfy your addictive need for intensity. That will be hard [at] times but ultimately is a good thing.
  11. Shame: It brings many to Primal Therapy in the first place, and it finds a convenient hiding place in those dark rooms and that "special" world. When you leave, it can emerge like a serpent from hell to torment you. It is tamable.
  12. Separate what has been of value in the Primal experience: It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some of what you learned and experienced may be of great importance in your life. Honor that.
I'm writing this from my experience and the perspective it's given me. Other people, obviously, have different views of the "same" events and processes. I see reality as a multi-leveled complexity through time and space -- ultimately unknowable. We see bits and pieces, and these change even as we are observing them. It's wonderful and frightening. I am glad we can't know it all. It makes for an interesting journey.

Copyright Curtis Knecht 1991

Post by Phil »

I am going to repeat some of the things I said about this article when it was posted on the other forum.

I went to Janov's New York Primal Institute some years ago for therapy.
It was a very positive experience for me. I have never regretted getting therapy there. I have always thought that my own primalling verified for me the truth of many of the things that Janov said. Specifically that primals do take place in the way that he said and that it is a very healing process. It does involve a cognitve aspect, it isn't just about feelings, contrary to what Knecht says.

It is easy to get stuck with the therapy and not concentrate on "real" life.
And this is partially because of Janov's many exaggerated claims.
The therapy works but it is much more difficult then he explains, it takes much longer, and no one would agree that it cures neurosis. It does however, heal in a very deep way that I don't think is possible with other therapies. No, it isn't proven to prevent or cure cancer etc etc.
It is not really scientific, but what therapy is? But this does not invalidate what it can and does do.

At least at the New York Institue, I wouldn't say that the therapists ever encouraged a cult like atmosphere.
They did encourage people to get on with their lives. At least that was my experience and observation. The therapists there were excellent and completely fulfilled my expectations.

This article is impressive because it is from one of Janov's former senior therapists. It is well written. But it is still one person's thoughts and experiences. It may reflect things that went on at the LA Primal Institute
but I don't think that it is an accurate statement about primal therapy.
Knecht 's conclusions are not really convincing for me. My own experiences tell me otherwise.

It's fine to post it here but I don't see why it is of such importance that it should have a prominent permanent place on this web site.


Post by Mojo »

I think the point at which a therapy becomes a cult is when adherents don't want to acknowledge that it doesn't work for everybody, or that there are dangers. Like you said, Janov's exaggerated claims haven't helped primal therapy. Your experience of it was at the New York Primal Institute. A different team of therapists. But in California there were clients who committed suicide and an arsonist actually burned down the institute. The term "primal therapy" is the sum total of techniques used by therapists who practice it. As in all walks of life there are good and bad practitioners. Four weeks before posting the article I started the topic and asked for feedback. The article will only remain at the top if Dennis chooses to flag it as a "Sticky" topic. On the PPP message board several people asked for copies of the article after it disappeared.

Post by Guest »

Maybe the therapists who went away to start the NY branch office were glad to put a distance between themselves and AJ at HQ.

Post by Guest »

I think primal therapy is much more than a cult. Though I had never been in f o r m a l therapy, the process has done a lot for me. It has removed a lot of pain and tension from my body system, and life seems to evolve now like a calm and balanced stream. I'm content.

Certainly the therapy has not taken me to a feeling wonderland where everything is blissful, coloured and shining, certainly it cannot c o m p l e t e l y "undo and redo [my] history" (Janov) because in my conviction no therapeutic approach in the world, starting in adulthood, can do that. This is surely an exaggerated claim of Janovs'. But I have profited a lot from primal therapy and I am really content with the outcome of my personal primal process.

Whatever had happened in the Primal Institute, I don't know and to be true, it doesn't interest me a lot, but I think it's very unfair to take primal therapy to the realm of cultism. It is a scientific approach and it has worked for so many people. Mr Knecht seems to be one of those persons who have experienced primal therapy as a complete flop. Why does the process work for some but seemingly doesn't at all for others? I don't know.

Although Mr.Knecht's article may contain a lot of truths about the Janovs and the Primal Institute, I can't help thinking that his article is an expression of his personal disappointment and his personal failure in primal therapy.

Post by Shelley »

I have now been involved in disseminating Curtis Knecht's article twice publicly, as well as providing copies privately to any number of people who have requested it. I will try to explain why.

I am a person on the periphery of the primal community in a number of ways. I have never worked with the Janovs or with any therapist trained directly by them. I learned primal techniques seven years ago from a solo practitioner who lives in a different city from me, so I have not been involved with any group that could be considered a cult. In addition, although I have found primal techniques useful in my life, over the years that I have used them, I have simultaneously grown more and more skeptical of the theory put forward to describe primal therapy. In these ways, my story is unlike Curtis's.

In another way, my story (and I'm willing to bet most of our stories) is quite like Curtis's. I, too, came to primal therapy desperate and deeply unhappy. I, too, had tried and failed to find relief in other ways. I was in horrible pain, and consequently, I was quite vulnerable. I wanted to believe, and, in fact, I did believe in the theory — for a while.

I find Curtis's story a moving personal and cultural history — one that is simultaneously sad, frightening, and hopeful. As Curtis's article has circulated through Internet groups over the past couple of years, I find myself constantly surprised by the negative reactions of some people in the primal community. Personally, even though I feel that primal work has helped me, I'm grateful to read about potential dangers in the therapy and the way that it's been practiced. I can then assess these potential dangers as they might apply to me. Knowledge is power, even for feeling people.

I've had the opportunity to meet many people involved in primal therapy, mostly over the Internet. The more primal people I meet, the clearer it is to me that primal people are not significantly different from the general population. Some are functional in their lives; others not. I have never met a post primal person who is free (or anywhere near free) of neuroses. I have noticed a significant number of long-time primalers who seem to be stuck in constant primaling, and who struggle to function in their daily lives. I would not want to live that way.

An email buddy of mine had been mired in primaling for two decades. He read Curtis's article, and something clicked for him. He made major changes in his life, and for the first time in years, moved forward. Among other things, he removed himself from the primal world, so I haven't heard from him in a couple of years. I like to imagine that by breaking with his primal lifestyle, he opened the door to a full and expansive life. Certainly, the outcome of Curtis's story leaves me feeling hopeful that my friend, like Curtis, has found satisfactions away from the primal world that he didn't find within it.

So, I help to disseminate Curtis's article because I believe there's value in it for all of us, no matter where we are in our therapy or what we believe about the primal process. Thank you, Curtis, for sharing your experience with us.

Alan Selk

Post by Alan Selk »


You made some good points in your response. I agree with you on people who Primal for many years, and as far as I can see never seem to make any progress. I still have some questions as to what they`re primaling on. I think it would be good for some people to get away form the whole primal trip for a while and get back to the hear and now full time.

Having said that, my experience with therapy was very different from Curtis`s. I never got into the primal lifestyle (whatever that may be). The irony is that after the thrill of primaling wore off after the first few months it got to be a real drag. I really disliked primaling. The idea of going back there and going through that junk was not a pleasant experience. But I did like the results. I found it very much a healing experience. I simply feel more whole.

I have no doubt many people would consider me neurotic. Another irony is that I just don`t care. Perhaps we need a new definition of neurosis.

I think what`s problematic about Curtis`s article is that he falls into the trap of thinking that what his experience has been is the end all be all. There`s just to many people who have had a much more positive experience with primaling. The problem is that primaling is not for everybody. For some people it just doesn`t work, no matter how much they may want it to. I think some people need to recognize when it`s not working and at that point get out of it.


Post by Shelley »


I agree with you that people's experiences with primal therapy seem to vary widely. Like you, I have also had a positive experience overall. In Curtis's article, he says that there are aspects of primal therapy that have therapeutic value. I suspect that the specifics of what those valuable aspects are also probably vary from person to person.

Perhaps this all simply boils down to honesty. Each of our therapy experiences is more likely to be helpful and safe if we can all be more honest with ourselves and with each other about both the positive and negative aspects of those therapy experiences.

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Post by Dennis »

Thanks for posting this article. It's an interesting perspective from an individual. I've always been sceptical of words like primal community or primal buddies. I'm even sceptical of the therapy. It looked like Janov underestimated the enormous defences in people. But he emphasizes too much therapy and not prevention. How about preventing neuroses? He shows very clearly action - reaction in his discoveries about human behavior. If the Pain is real and we had a life time of suppression or repression, our whole system, our body and mind has adapted to that over the years, out of survival. I once said that being a therapist has a neurotic base and I believe more in the value of enlightened witnesses (as Alice Miller calls them), but that can be a therapist in rare cases.

One of the hardest things for me was finding healthier people instead of hanging around my neurotic friends. Because that way I had to deal with my own neuroses. I can imagine that goes the same for therapists and many of them get burned out after a while.

Finally, primal theory/therapy taught me what reality is. If it's sensitive to cultism, then you find a lot of cultism in all aspects of society. It all comes down to the individual. I've always seen it as a tool that I could use to create my life as much as I like it to be. I don't get stuck in analysing the tool on itself.

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question for Curtis

Post by Guest 3 »

Were there any times when Janov and staff discussed dianetic therapy (or scientology)? Did Janov ever say that he read dianetics, tried "auditing", or visited an L. Ron Hubbard lecture?

It seems that Janov closely studied the bigger therapies (psychoanalysis, gestalt, client-centered, etc. - re: his online book "Grand Delusions") and borrowed techniques / ideas from them (e.g., reflecting questions back onto patients comes from client-centered therapy) and packaged them together with his own discoveries and views. Then he claimed that his was the only therapy that worked and denounced the other therapies. That is why primal became cultish - Janov was able to fixate suffering people's minds solely onto primal as the cure. But of all the big therapies, primal most closely resembles dianetics (which started in the 1950s) - yet he has never mentioned it. Both involve reexperiencing trauma and reexperiencing birth, and even have similar concepts like "tracking / time track", etc. One primal patient who experienced both has already commented on their similarity. So it would be good to know if this was just a coincidence or whether Janov specifically learnt things from dianetics.

Post by salago »

It is very welcome to read some critical text about primal therapy. What I?ve got out of reading Janov?s books is, that there were made many mistakes in the first years of practice. Janov himself didn?t talk much about them, only mentioned them in a single sentence. He did not make clear that some hypothesis from his former books were wrong.

Don?t get me wrong, I am gratful of the knowledge I?ve got out of them. But he has a tendency to ignore critical aspects. And that is what I have found in some other "primal-forums" too. There seems a fix on the words "primal" , "primal-therapy" etc. If there are other names for it or other kind of treatments, mostly it is ignored or not believed.

Here in Germany there exists a therapy called "accompanied reliving". It uses the same biology but did not call it primal. There are some interresting differences to PT (One of them is, that is is also used for the treatment of babys with a traumatic birth)
In Netherlands/Belgium there is the "Speyertherapy" which is also based on reliving past traumas.

Also there are the self-help-methods "Cure by Crying" and "Redirecting Self Therapy" which both based on the curative effects of crying (RST first deals with anger).

If you compare these therapys, you can find that Janov uses methods of marketing to make people believe, that there is only one curative thing called "primal". But our biology is not a human invention.

I would be glad about discussing other successful methods too.

Best wishes
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primal and dianetics

Post by guest 3 »

I emailed Curtis re: primal and dianetics. He says this:

"I ... never remember him [Janov] attributing anything to Hubbard's Dianetics/Scientology.

My best reading of his main influences is that they were the cathartic early Freud and the experiential stuff of the 60s and 70s coupled with the brain research of the times ... and the work of Frederick Leboyer and others on the birth arena.

... I think Art considered it [Scientology] in that vein [as a religion] at the time and probably would have included it in his thinking about religions.

We discussed other therapies all the time and I don't recollect Scientology being talked about. Possibly coincidental simolarities, possibly an unrecognized or uncredited influence, most probably the phenomenon of synchronicity of ideas."

So this really was an amazing coincidence. Both Hubbard and Janov developed reexperiencing-based therapies, and they both attributed the basis of their work to Freud's work. So Janov cannot claim to have discovered the only cure to neurosis. Rather, the therapeutic climate after WWII was ripe for reexperiencing-based therapy to be discovered - and, as Salago has pointed out - a number of people came up with the same solution.