The I-Scream Man Cometh

by Michael Rossman

        One December night, Dr. Arthur Janov, entrepreneur of the Primal Scream, gave a talk in Berkeley, at seven dollars a head, and our friend James came by at midnight to review the performance for us. We often enjoy his capacity for amazement at discovering the mundane in the exotic, and wondered what he would make of Janov, who has always seemed to us to be the Liberace of the consciousness movement.

         Well, James found Janov to be utterly charming, candid, and delightful—"pure Beverly Hills"—and radiant with the cheerfulness of a man who has found his life's work. He did display a kind of smooth continual twitch, like someone needing to itch; but James thought it might just have been his enthusiasm for his subject and for the audience, which Janov said was the best he'd ever faced. Often his audiences scream at him and interrupt the speeches which he no longer likes to give; so this night he had written a paper which his research assistant would read. After these brief remarks his research assistant read the paper. It concerned the physiological concomitants of Primal Therapy, and was quite long. No one interrupted. But it was the movie which followed immediately that set James to chuckling, not at all disrespectfully. It featured the Therapist, the Screamer, and the Researcher.

        "It was a bit odd from the start," James reported. "The Screamer is lying there with a mask on, and asks the Therapist should he start, and she says no, wait 'til the Researcher finishes wiring him up; and then he does and she says go, and the fellow just starts screaming, working himself into an awful state. Later we find out that he's really their champion screamer, he's been in Primal Therapy for four years, twice a week, he goes and pays them a lot of money and screams. And he's really good, he can do it just like that, at a signal, they don't even have to waste time warming him up, and by now he's a pro at being wired up too.

        "So he's working up momentum, we see his facial contortions, the fat all over him quivering in time with the music. Meanwhile the camera keeps cutting to shots of the Researcher, bending over the dials of the electrocardiograph and the sphygmomanometer, their needles also quivering in time, as he announces their readings. Passion and passion. And then suddenly they cut the movie, censor the middle part because, as they tell us, they don't think we can take it. I think they didn't want to show us the orgasm, but anyway Janov now comes on to answer questions. Someone asks him where his papers have been published. Only in the journal of his own institute, he says, because the scientific establishment is dead set against any disruption of its orthodoxies. Which is pretty much true.

        "Someone else asks him to compare primal with other therapies. Comparison is difficult, says Janov, because 'other therapies teach people to cope, but ours doesn't, ours is the only one that teaches them to feel their pain.' It's essential—the pain, not the screaming, which is only a by-product—and he says it's horrible. Someone asks about the Screamer, how well he can cope with life now. Janov says cheerfully that he's a mess and can't cope at all now; but that the pain is there in any case, 'and is it better not to feel it?'

        "Janov's people call it 'primaling' and get huffy if you call it screaming. And they do have a point there—it's not your everyday urban shriek; they try to get it to come from the core. The Screamer's physiological response was really remarkable—his pulse went up to 220. Janov says if your average man in the street screamed like this he'd drop dead, but that the Screamer has really trained well and can take it. It really is a kind of athletics; I had a vision of the Guinness Book of Records and international competitions. 

        "Meanwhile, the Screamer is still writhing and screaming, while Janov is talking, and they turn on the projector's light to show us the end. We find out what he's screaming about: his mother gave him a present for Father's Day when he was nine, and if he hadn't repressed the pain of it he'd have gone crazy or died. He got down to the incident in his very first session, and has been screaming about it for four years. I think he's learned to do it very well; it shows what practice will do for you. And it's a mistake to dismiss him as just a pain junkie, because he's clearly enjoying himself and proud of his accomplishment.

        "There's a very touching scene near the end, where he's explaining how the Father's Day trauma keeps on making it impossible for him to relate to women who are weak, because they demand him to be strong, which he resists; and to women who are strong, because they demand his weakness, which he also resists. And the camera pans back slowly, revealing him in his blindfold, the tangle of wires, the machinery, the Researcher, as he says to the Therapist, 'What I want is to have the same kind of a relation with a woman as I have with you,' and reaches out and touches her foot. Really, it's exquisite, you should see it.

        "At the film's end the Screamer is asked whether he thinks the therapy is successful. Of course it is, he says, he wouldn't do it if it weren't—which seems reasonable. And he should know, he's the champ. Then Janov comes back to answer some more questions. He's very impatient with theoretical structures, he has a simple criterion of success: does it get to the pain? No other therapies do, he says, so they're irrelevant. He himself has never been through a full primal, because it wasn't available when he invented it, but he did spend a week last year screaming with a therapist he trained. He says it was just horrible. The therapist, who is there, says that getting to the pain is what's hard, and that after that he personally loves it; and says 'you loved it too, Art.' Art thinks, and agrees that he loved it too.

        "But it's very dangerous, he says, to start Primal Therapy and open up the pain, and then discontinue therapy before you've learned to handle the pain. About 700 people have gone through authentic Janov screaming, though there are inferior imitations abroad now; most of them are still going through it. Most of the graduates have become primal therapists themselves, though a few flunked. It's a pretty straightforward kind of school: you learn to do something well, then you teach others to do it. Someone asks Janov what his graduates are interested in, besides screaming. 'They're interested in living,' he says, 'but they have come to believe that society is essentially hopeless.' They work three weeks on and one off, and go skiing a lot.

        "Then Janov tells us how he came to invent Primal Therapy. He went off in his garage with his dog, and screamed. Pragmatic science. I think it's wonderful, no funded lab would undertake the kind of physiological research he's doing. Janov's wife thought he was off the walls, but the dog didn't mind. He sees the dog as the model therapist: it licked his hand while he screamed, and never said much. The full introductory version, before they put you on maintenance, involves being in his clinic for three weeks, around the clock. No drinking or smoking; you go through a fast and a dietary regimen, and a long buildup 'til you get to make your first scream. The elements are all pretty traditional: isolation, deprivation, anticipation, and suggestion. You can teach people a lot of different things that way. Brainwashing and the vision-quest both use it.

        "Myself, I think there's a lot of truth in Janov's basic message, that everyone in this society is in a lot of pain and neurotically out of touch with it. Of course, he says his way is the only way to get in touch. But why hold it against him; everyone says that. Someone asks him, well, what happens after you do get in touch with the pain, where do you go from there? Janov says it's a sticky question, he doesn't really know. What he did was to start a school, to teach therapists how to teach other people to reach the pain. He hasn't found a way to measure it yet, but his researcher is trying; and when they do I imagine they'll give prizes. But it does sort of avoid the question of what to do for an encore.

        "Janov is really a perfect model of what's going around now, better even than the Maharishi: a guru teaching one obsessive yoga, surrounded by dependent devotees. That business of starting a school in his image, it's the custom with all the new therapies—I guess he picked it up by being a trained Freudian, before he went maverick—and in spiritual circles in general. Everyone who thinks he's made a breakthrough freezes up when he tries to market it as the answer, and it freezes the people who need to buy it.

        "I still do believe that I'd be a better person if I could scream like the guy in the film, though; it was really impressive. But the pain I feel has a lot to do with the whole society that Janov feels is hopeless, and with the way everything is so sane and so insane at the same time, and I'm not sure what screaming will do for that. But I'm willing to give it a try, from time to time."

January 1976

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