Maverick Life


Is primal ‘scream’ therapy a thing? Again?

Is primal ‘scream’ therapy a thing? Again?
Aaron Blanco Tejedor for Unsplash

Yes and no, say experts. So should you try it? We explore.  

At some point, after the first verse and a couple of carefully sound-engineered screams, the siblings break into chorus: “Somebody please have mercy, cause I just can’t take it! Stop pressuring me, just stop pressuring me, stop pressuring me, you make me want to scream!” It was 1995, I was 16, very 16.  And felt I had a lot of things to scream about in the way that a teenager navigating their way through identity might feel there’s a lot to scream about.

There was something cathartic about singing and screaming along to Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 hit, Scream, even mildly therapeutic. I imagine drivers singing out loud, along to some songs while behind the wheel in traffic might experience similar short-lived moments of catharsis.

That said, not all screams are born equal. For one formerly celebrated American psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr Arthur Janov (1924 – 2017), the father of Primal Therapy, the right kind of screaming therapy could cure “alcoholism, smoking, psoriasis, ulcers, bad skin, menstrual cramps, drug addiction” and… (wait for it) “homosexuality”, according to an article published in the Boca Raton News on June 16, 1971.

Many of his claims have been put under scrutiny and labelled as unproven and potentially harmful pseudo-science. While this criticism, and our need to move on to the next cure-all therapeutic relief from ailments both physical and psychological has greatly decreased the popularity of primal therapy, the practice has remained, and continues to pop up in professional therapeutic practice, cults, and wellness fads.

A variant of primal therapy can be seen in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, practised by the followers of Osho, aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Even to this day, the Santa Monica based Primal Centre, continues to practice under the guidance of Dr Janov’s second wife, Dr France Janov.

But firstly, let us differentiate between the chart-topping cathartic screams of pop stars and primal therapy. “Some years ago, I heard something that was to change the course of my professional life and the lives of my patients. What I heard may change the nature of psychotherapy as it is now known – an eerie scream welling up from the depths of a young man lying on the floor during a therapy session. I can liken it only to what one might hear from a person about to be murdered. This book is about that scream and what it means in terms of unlocking the secrets of neurosis. The young man who emitted it will be called Danny Wilson, a twenty-two-year-old college student. He was not psychotic, nor was he what is termed hysteric; he was a poor student, withdrawn, sensitive, and quiet,” wrote Dr Janov in his seminal 1970 book The Primal Scream.

That encounter with “Danny Wilson” would lead Janov to pioneer a form of therapy that would go on to turn him into a celebrity, and be adopted by numerous celebrities. John Lennon and Yoko Ono took to it, and underwent primal therapy under Janov’s guidance. Would-be Darth Vader voice, James Earl Jones, was reported to have claimed that it cured him of smoking and haemorrhoids; pianist Roger Williams called Janov one of the five greatest men alongside Socrates, Galileo, Freud, and Darwin.

“Danny’s fascination with the act impelled me to try something elementary, but which previously had escaped my notice. I asked him to call out, ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ Danny refused, saying that he couldn’t see the sense in such a childish act, and frankly, neither could I. But I persisted, and finally, he gave in. As he began, he became noticeably upset. Suddenly he was writhing on the floor in agony. His breathing was rapid, spasmodic; ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ came out of his mouth almost involuntarily in loud screeches. He appeared to be in a coma or hypnotic state. The writhing gave way to small convulsions, and finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office. The entire episode lasted only a few minutes, and neither Danny nor I had any idea what had happened. All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel’,” wrote Janov.

He then tried this form of primal therapy, at the time as yet unnamed on different patients, and the results led him “to regard that scream as the product of central and universal pains which reside in all neurotics”. In a nutshell, Janov held the view that all neurosis were rooted in early childhood, that the child some of whose early needs were not fulfilled for a period of time, would then repress feelings of hurt, anger and frustration, which he called “Primal Pains”.

“I call them Primal Pains because they are the original, early hurts upon which all later neurosis is built…These pains often are not consciously felt because they are diffused throughout the entire system where they affect body organs, muscles, the blood and lymph system and, finally, the distorted way we behave… Primal Therapy is aimed at eradicating these pains. It is revolutionary because it involves overthrowing the neurotic system by a forceful upheaval. Nothing short of that will eliminate neurosis, in my opinion,” he wrote.

A 2006 paper published by the American Psychological Association titled Discredited Psychological Treatments and Tests: A Delphi Poll, groups Primal Scream Therapy along other scientifically unproven methods such as angel therapy, use of pyramid structures, orgone therapy, crystal healing, past lives therapy, future lives therapy, treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by alien abduction, rebirthing therapies, colour therapy, primal scream, chiropractic manipulation, thought field therapy, standard prefrontal lobotomy, and aromatherapy.

“We believe that our study offers a cogent, positive first step in consensually identifying the ‘dark side,’ ‘soft underbelly,’ or ‘quack factor’ of modern mental health practice and in providing a more granular analysis of the continuum of discredited procedures. Mature sciences and professions should have the ability to publicly shun discredited practices,” wrote the researchers of their findings.

Elements of scream therapy have made their way into recent wellness trends, like Taryn Toomey’s The Class, “a fitness method and ‘practice of self-study’ that incorporates cardio, meditation, and therapeutic yelling”, and championed by the likes of Hollywood actress and Goop founder, Gwyneth Paltrow, and loved by other celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Christy Turlington and Gisele Bündchen.

Although it is no longer the “rage” it was in the Seventies, and has been criticised in numerous articles and papers, primal therapy remains a controversial practice, but it has its proponents. The Primal Centre continues to publish and do its research. According to the centre, the therapy is no quick solution, it begins with a three-week period in isolation in a motel or somewhere where they can be alone, during which “it is recommended that patients do not work, make phone calls, snack, smoke, take drugs (unless prescribed), etc”.This is then followed up by a year-long stay, on average, at the Primal Centre.

And according to a “warning” on their website: “Primal Therapy is not Primal ‘Scream’ Therapy. Primal Therapy is not just making people scream; it was never ‘screaming’ therapy. The Primal Scream was the name of the first book by Dr. Janov about Primal Therapy. Those who read the book knew that a scream is what some people do when they hurt. Others simply sob or cry. It was the hurt we were after, not mechanical exercises such as pounding walls and yelling, ‘Mama’. This therapy has changed what was essentially an art form into a science. This therapy is dangerous in untrained hands… Do not be misled by false advertising.  The only people qualified to do proper Primal Therapy have been trained only by Drs Arthur and France Janov.” DM/ ML


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