Primal Therapy and Psychohistory

by Henry Ebel

Henry Ebel, Ph.D., was like a shooting star in the realm of psychohistory, particularly a light in Lloyd deMause's Journal of Psychohistory. His qualifications were unique as he was able to tap into his own feelings reservoir because of his sojourn into primal therapy.
His regressive experiences gave him an intimate understanding of the human condition and resulted in much clarity of thought focused in individual and group motivations. In 1987, unfortunately, he abruptly dropped out of the Psychohistory scene.

In his Introduction to Ebel's work in psychohistory, Bernhard Grünewald writes that Ebel's ". . . chosen field of specialization had always been to attack the defensive armors of his audience by looking for the things they didn’t want to know, or would at least prefer to keep taking for granted, and then finding the most effective way to throw it in their faces. He was widely recognized in these circles as “psychohistory’s enfant terrible.”

"He also gives deMause credit for having given him the crucial encouragement he needed to 'let go, be personal, to not write in the preposterous academic mode.' While Ebel, in turn, gave deMause the impulses to trace adult grouplife to fetal and birth experiences, an area which has since dominated much of deMause’s thinking." op.cit.

Dr. Ebel has recently published a collection of his most outstanding work in three volumes, titled Jews, Germans and Other Disasters, Our Major Institutions Are Killing Us and Death and Birth. A generous portion of their contents may be read at the website.

A man is lying, fully clothed, on the bed in his apartment. He is alone, and he is about to have a “primal.” He senses that “something” is about to happen, but typically he is not sure of what it will be. There is a feeling of tension, a feeling radiating upward from spine and bowel toward the base and then into the body of the brain. Then the “primal” strikes, with full force. His body is straightened as if by an invisible hand: it becomes rigid, hands clenched at the sides, spine slightly arched. The invisible hand tips his head upward and back, bringing the base of the skull closer to the top of the spinal column.

Most often this is the moment at which his mouth opens to an impossibly wide stretch and there issues from it the contorted roar or scream so characteristic of “primalling.” But today is different. The force of the “primal” rises entirely into the brain. The sensation is of right lobe and left lobe literally pulling apart. His face contorts, widens, splits in two. He feels his mouth stretch to left and right and knows, with the curious onlooker’s lucidity that is also part of the process, that behind closed lids he has gone wall-eyed. From ear to forehead and from cheek to cheek, brain and face and head are being pulled part until even he, with a year of “primalling” behind him, fears that his skull will split, so intensely do its contents seem to be pushing at it from the inside.

When the pressure seems to have reached its highest point of conceivable intensity, it intensifies again. His back has lifted clear of the bed, his body is supported in its arched position by head and heels only, and his brain feels like burning napalm.

The process continues for five minutes. Then his body slowly subsides. He feels left lobe and right “grow together” again, and, as a veteran of many comparable experiences, understands that at the age of 35, he will finally begin to achieve the integrated functioning, the harmony of right-lobe feeling and left-lobe analytic power, that has eluded him all his life.

That evening, still a trifle shaky from his experience, he goes to hear an acquaintance deliver a talk on “primal therapy” at a New York psychoanalytic institute. The speaker is a therapist who has spontaneously begun to apply the “primal” process to his work with his patients, and he is going to try to convince his colleagues that the technique works.

Most of his colleagues can barely conceal their hostility and disdain. When he shows videotapes of one of his patients thrashing and roaring in a characteristic “primal,” their mutterings get louder. “Certainly a lot easier than working on the transference,” one of them sneers in an Olympic whisper. “Abreactive,” hisses her companion. The discussion that follows the videotape is mostly a disaster. There is an exaggerated suspiciousness in the air, the brimstone odor of the witch-hunter poking about with his needle for the secret spot that will identify a minion of Satan. Though he has been invited to a post-lecture get-together, our protagonist, his brain barely recovered from the day’s experience, slips away as soon as he can and sends the speaker a note to explain his behavior.

The protagonist is me.

There is really only one fact worth knowing about the “primal” process. It works, and nearly everything that Arthur Janov has to say about it is true. And to those who persist in believing, or in claiming to believe, that the “primal” process is all an over-rated fraud or just another quack form of instant mental health, one can do no better than to quote the heraldic motto of the British royal family: Honi soit qui mal y pense, which can be rendered in free translation as “If you don’t like it, don’t blame me.”

Now, it is my own firm conviction that the patients whom Janov has been dismissing for many years as cured from neurosis after six weeks of therapy cannot possibly be the healthy new specimen they believe themselves to be, though they are of course infinitely healthier than when they began. Also, Dr. Janov, in every issue of his magazine and every book, monotonously reasserts his warning that “Primal Therapy” is dangerous unless is happens to be undertaken at his Institute in Los Angeles or under the supervision of one of his trainees. Every reader is regaled with anecdotes about those who – particularly when they experienced their first “primal” under the impact of cannabis sativa or LSD – underwent psychotic breakdowns and, in some cases, near death.

And of course, there are dangers. But since Janov now goes to court to sue anyone who is not a graduate of his Primal Institute and has the temerity to use the registered trademark “Primal Therapy,” one might think that he is as interested in litigation as in therapy. [Editor's note: This article was written in the 1970's. The name primal therapy is no long copyrighted. ]So it is a good thing that an International Primal Institute [Editor's note: The organization is the International Primal Association] has been formed that is independent of his control. Indeed, I will now let a large cat out of my well-stuffed bag and say outright that it is possible to “primal” with no therapist at all, once you get the hang of it. I have been doing it myself since January 1973 and hope you will believe that my family and friends find me, so to speak, a different person.

So, the time has come to pass onward from trying to convert the unconvertible and to ask what the implications of the “primal” process are, for example, for the history of childhood and the future of the human race. And the first question I would ask is whether this process that was first fully described by Arthur Janov was in fact, as he claims, discovered by him – with some spadework by Wilhelm Reich and the Gestalt school. Or did he merely resurrect an archaic technique for the attainment of mental health?

Let me suggest to you that you go as soon as possible to a good library and study every account or illustration you can find of the process once called “exorcism.” Ignore, if possible, the black and winged devils shown emerging from the possessed person – usually from his or her mouth – and observe instead the posture of the body, or the literary description of the possessed person’s behavior.

If you give my suggestion a fair try, and keep one eye on Janov’s books like The Primal Scream and The Feeling Child, I believe it will be difficult for you not to agree that the “primalling” process is closely related to what the authors of the New Testament and the folk of the Middle Ages designated as “exorcism.”

Need we stop there, however? Here is a passage from Plato’s dialogue Ion, in which the professional reciter of Homer responds to Socrates’ question concerning the impact of his recitations on his audience:

As I look down at them from the stage above, I see them, every time, weeping, casting terrible glances, stricken with amazement at the deeds recounted. In fact, I have to give them very close attention, for if I set them weeping, I myself shall laugh when I get my money, but if they laugh, it is I who have to weep at losing it.

In other words, it is pure projection on our part to imagine that a Greek audience listened to Homer the way you or I might watch a performance of Hello Dolly!. When the Greeks listened to Homer – and quite conceivably, when they observed a performance of Attic tragedy – they “primalled.” It is this and this alone that Aristotle is trying to convey in his formulation concerning the catharsis of pity and terror, and it is no accident that the New Testament word for evil spirits is akathartois, “those who are unclean, those who have not yet been expelled.”

Now, what lessons can we learn from Arthur Janov, and particularly from The Feeling Child? The first and most important one, it seems to me, is the one that might also be called the final step of the Freudian revolution. Freud himself never succeeded in penetrating very far beyond the Oedipal threshold of human experience, the stage of our development roughly correlative with the ages of three, four, five or six. Melanie Klein, that great and greatly underappreciated genius, carried us back to the earliest weeks and months of human development, though with an inevitable margin of error in her assessment of the entirely pre-verbal stages of our development. Joseph Rheingold, the comparative unavailability of whose books (both published in the 1960’s) is one of our major publishing scandals, established in his admirably thorough and solid way that maternal hostility is not only a far more prevalent cause of mental illness than anyone had previously dared to suspect, but that it may also be experienced during prenatal life.

Janov has capped and consummated all of these advances by demonstrating, quite beyond a shadow of a doubt, that prenatal and early-infant experiences are traumatically imprinted on the total organism of the individual, that these earliest traumas are the true foundations for the neurotic layers of personality first explored by Freud, and that they can be dismantled only through the “primalling” process, by whatever name we use for it.

A second lesson is that Janov’s work confirms what we might reasonably have guessed: that the life of the fetus is a life of intense sensation and feeling. And feeling, as Janov’s title suggests, is what we degree-laden and articulate grown-ups so conspicuously lack.

What makes The Feeling Child the richest and most useful of Janov’s books to date is its systematic organization. It takes us from the prenatal experiences and traumas of the individual through birth, breast-feeding, early infancy, and into considerations – like childhood sexuality – that overlap somewhat (but always reinforce and enrich) the comparable discussions in The Primal Scream. A paragraph from Chapter Nine, “Long-Range Effects of Early Experiences,” neatly summarizes the scope of the volume:

What we need to understand is that life in the uterus begins our orientation to the world. We are already receptive-perceptive beings in the womb and if it is a comfortable place, then our initial life orientation after birth may be a positive one. If it is uncomfortable, if the mother is chronically tense, has a fast or irregular heartbeat, jerky movements, and smokes and drinks and takes drugs, then the fetus has an unconscious orientation that the world and life is unsafe and not to be trusted. This in utero experience, plus a harsh birth process and lack of proper handling in the first few months, solidifies an inchoate orientation that began in the womb. It will be conceptualized later when the child can form concepts, and his ideas will be “No one can be trusted. The world is a rotten place” etc. All these so-called paranoid ideas have real roots – in the real experiences of the child dating back to his uterine life.

As this paragraph suggests, The Feeling Child has the same ambivalent ecstatic/depressive impact as Janov’s earlier writings. The sheer extent of the assault mounted against the child – from gestation through schooling, the war waged against its feelings by every technique, from an “I-will-not-change-my-lifestyle-one-iota” pregnancy, through oral frustration, through the silent hostility that interdicts any show of anger or frustration – never ceases to dishearten me, particularly when I see the Janovian outlook confirmed each day in the elevators, streets and schools that I frequent.

In this sense, a nice companion piece to Janov’s books would be Bradley F. Smith’s Himmler: A Nazi in the Making, with its chilling portrait of an utterly overcontrolled and rigidified child whose diaries and correspondence are not its own, whose utterances and judgements are those of an elderly courtier, and whose passion for order at any price is nearly American in intensity.

But in America of today, as the overt brutalization of children has become somewhat unfashionable, and our passion for appearances has substituted the appearance of “happiness” for the previous imperative appearance of moral rectitude, childhood neurosis in America now increasingly takes the form of what Dr. Helm Stierlin calls “Pseudo-Mutuality”:

In pseudo-mutuality, only warm, loving, supportive feelings are tolerated and expressed. The [family] members often hold each other’s hands and exude mutual concern and care. Even in their individual Rorschach responses [...[ they see only nice, cuddly, “cute” animals, babies and people, populating a Pollyannish “Disneyland.” These families massively dissociate hostile, angry and other “negative” feelings, which therefore remain unavailable for the examination and integration into each member’s and the family’s image.1
Confronted with such an actuality, even that traditional therapeutic horror the “double-bind” pales into insignificance. For what Dr Stierlin describes in his calm and humane prose is a true apocalypse of inauthenticity, and one that – unlike a “nervous breakdown” – successfully deflects from itself the already half-hearted attention of our Disneyland society.

Yet the struggle for sanity must continue. And the highest heroism can only emerge when the cause seems lost.

Finally, I cannot resist observing that there is an admirable convergence between the work of Arthur Janov and the achievements of that jovial and courageous pioneer Lloyd deMause. Janov therapeutically and deMause psychohistorically have placed the hard floor of fact under the earlier psychoanalytic assumption that what we are and do as adults – and, more significantly, what is done to us – is determined not in the Pentagon or the Kremlin, but in the cradle and the womb.

A thought worth remembering when the train pulls into our destined Auschwitz, when an eerie light shines forth in the horizon, or when the bullets rip us apart.
1Helm Stierlin, Family Theory: An Introduction. Reprinted from Operational Theories of Personality, edited by Arhur Burton, New York, 1974.

Selected Quotations From Dr. Ebel's Writings

As all this implies, birth is not only an event that impinges on our memory systems and our daily lives, but a theme that is developed in the history of human culture – and that human culture may in fact exist to develop. In this sense, the period in the 1970’s when figures like Frederick Leboyer, Arthur Janov, Stanislav Grof and Lloyd deMause began to call attention to the significance of birth experience in psychological development can be seen as the culmination – the comingt "to" consciousness – of a concern that has been unconsciously acted out through much of human history; that may, in fact, have given birth to the very idea of history.
A Question mark

On my bed
flat I lie
what to make
of die.

Will the door shut?
Will it be open?
And that which lies beyond,
will it be dark?
Will it be light?
Will it be love
Will it be fright?

Will it be bad and turn
its back on little me?

Or the very best Mom
of all, who smiling sets you free!

"And aside from the deep concern with childhood that we find in some of the most important passages in the Iliad, and that I would characterize as the therapeutic meditations of a remarkable mind in an infanticidal period, we know of at least one Greek baby of astounding ugliness who, despite all the cultural injunctions to the contrary, was permitted by his parents to live. His name was Socrates, and it is most interesting to observe that his mother was a midwife, who must have seen a good many children consigned to a lonely death on a hillside outside the city walls."

"According to Diogenes Laertius, the pre-Socratic philosopher of Thales, who acted as a benevolent guardian for his nephew, was asked why he had no children of his own. He replied: “Because I love children.”

Primal Therapy and Psychohistory was originally published in The Journal of Psychohistory in 1975. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. Dr Henry Ebel's work is available through .

Go to the Primal Psychotherapy Page
Go to Lloyd deMause and Psychohistory on this website