The Founder of Primal Scream Therapy Has Died. What Exactly Is Primal Scream Therapy?

Arthur Janov believed encountering trauma from childhood could help free people from adult neuroses

primal scream
Close-up of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893) Public Domain

Over the weekend, Arthur Janov, the psychotherapist who created primal therapy, otherwise known as primal scream therapy, died in his home in Malibu, California, reports Margalit Fox at The New York Times. He was 93.

Janov's unique method for treating neurosis became a cultural phenomenon after he released The Primal Scream. Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis​ in 1970. At the height of the unscientific craze, celebrities including James Earl Jones and Roger Williams visited his Primal Institute in Los Angeles for Treatment; John Lennon and Yoko Ono were also patients.

So what is primal scream therapy?

Oliver Hotham at Vice reports that its origins date back to 1967 when Janov was running a group therapy session. One of the participants told him about a performance he’d seen where the actor just screamed “Mama!” at the crowd, encouraging them to do the same. Janov asked his patient to demonstrate, and the man complied, eventually falling out of his chair and writhing on the floor for a half an hour. “Finally, he released a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office,” Janov later wrote. “All he could say afterward was: ‘I made it! I don’t know what, but I can feel!’”

According to the Associated Press, Janov came to believe that most psychological neuroses in adulthood were the result of repressed childhood trauma. Those traumas included not being held enough as a child, or being properly fed or listened to. Later he expanded that list to include in utero trauma and the trauma of being birthed. Over time, he believed all those traumas build into neuroses. “When the pain is too much, it is repressed and stored away. When enough unresolved pain has occurred, we lose access to your feelings and become neurotic,” he wrote. “The number one killer in the world today is not cancer or heart disease, it is repression.”

Janov felt that if a person could regress back to the source of the pain and reexperience it, they could resolve it. And he thought the best way to identify that deep, often hidden pain, which he called “primal pain,” was to do what his patient did in 1967—cry and scream under the guidance of a therapist. Usually Janov would do a series of sessions with a patient around a three-week period. Often, Fox reports, his therapy room was decorated with cribs, rattles, teddy bears and other childhood objects to help patients regress.

Primal therapy was an offshoot of cultural movements that began coalescing in the 1960s and surfaced in the 1970s. “There was also a belief that repressive strictures of society were holding people back. Hence a therapy that was to loosen the repression would somehow cure mental illness. So it fit perfectly,” John C. Norcross, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, tells Fox.

Today, experts widely regard Janov's treatment as ineffectual and perhaps even harmful. And while there are still primal therapists out there, the practice is on the wane. ​​But even though his therapy is now viewed as pseudoscience, there are a few reasons to be thankful to Janov. Lennon and Ono took his sessions seriously, and the deeply personal songs probing childhood trauma on the classic 1970 solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band were said to have been heavily influenced by his therapy room.

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