I first discovered what
psychologist Arthur Janov terms "Primal Therapy" in a therapy group I
was leading years ago, before I was familiar with the term. Several of
the group members were very much out of touch with their deep emotions.
One of them, a young married woman in her early thirties, had been in a
mental institution a number of times for brief periods.
"My parents did their best," she said, "but they were unfeeling persons who didn't want me to express any emotions. They were determined that I should be a 'good girl,' which meant being compliant, obedient, never angry, always polite - in other words, a sweet little robot without feelings. The worst sin in their book was to express anger or even irritation. God didn't like naughty little girls. So I buried all feelings in order to win their love and approval. I guess a kid needs that approval so much that no price is too great.
"In my twenties I had so much anxiety from repressing all of my deeper emotions that they sent me to a psychiatrist. It didn't do any good: Talking "about" my feelings proved a waste of time. I now know that I desperately needed to "feel" my emotions, not just discuss them. Eventually I cracked up from all the boiling, turbulent, unexpressed frustration and anger inside me, and they sent me to a psychiatric hospital.
When they locked me up in my little room, I felt so relieved I began to beat on the walls and scream. Those screams came right up from my toes, wave after wave of emotions I had wanted to express all my life - rage, frustration, anger - you name it. It felt so good to be able to express those long-buried feelings, but I had gotten out only a few full-bodied screams before two or three attendants rushed in, shouting, "Here, here! You can't do that. Now quiet down!" Then they gave me a massive injection of something and I slept for eighteen hours.
Those poor, misguided psychiatric nurses and doctors didn't know that all I needed was a sound-proofed room where I could scream out a lifetime of repressed feelings. I was in and out of that place several times. Eventually they found a balance of antidepressants and tranquilizers which kept me from flipping out periodically; but I was still bottled up and rigid, fearful of something unknown. I'd have to phone my husband at work five or ten times a day just to hear the sound of his voice in order to get relief from the terrifying, nameless anxiety and dread.
"Then, in this group I discovered the answer, and my healing began." She smiled. "I still have some more work to do on this, but I am experiencing release, and I know that this is the answer."
Phyllis had been a baby-faced, unresponsive, emotionally deadened person, barely surviving on a monumental mixture of drugs that kept her from flipping into psychosis but did not permit her to feel any thing except the diffused depression that results from shutting down on all emotions.
Her healing began in an experimental vein. The psychiatrist she saw periodically warned me that one should not probe too deeply into her feelings lest a Pandora's box of terrible fears and memories be released. He was content to let her remain an emotionally rigid, fearful, half-dead woman whose greatest hope was to remain sane enough to avoid going back to a mental hospital.
At that time I knew nothing of what is now called Primal Therapy, or in some circles, "the healing of memories," but felt led to follow up on a deep conviction. It was that depression is not an emotion, but the shutting down on all, or almost all, feelings. I knew that instead of opening a Pandora's box of "evil emotions," I could help her by making her aware of her feelings. Most emotionally troubled people need to be given permission to express their long-buried feelings of fear and hurt that have been shut off since early childhood.
Relying on some inner urge rather than experience, which I did not have at that point, I had her do some deep breathing for several minutes, then regressed her to childhood and told her to float around for a bit between ages three and six. By utilizing some other techniques since refined through thousands of hours of experience, she was triggered into a series of ear-splitting screams. She directed them at her mother first: rage, fear, indignation, pain and hate.
This placid, frozen-faced young woman suddenly became a feeling person for the first time in her life, except for the brief moments when she had screamed in the mental hospital. When her rage at mother seemed exhausted, she began to scream at daddy, only now it was a mixture of hurt and a longing for daddy to love her, cuddle her, talk to her. She continued until she was completely exhausted. Then she began to sob almost uncontrollably. These were primal sobs, in the voice of a little girl, tears of hurt and loneliness she had never been allowed to shed, for crying was as great a sin as anger in her home.
"What a relief it was to get those screams and tears out at that first session," she said. "I knew there was much more down there, and it did come out in later private sessions, but I had never experienced such relief in my entire life as I did when I was allowed to scream my anger and hurt. I knew right then that I could get rid of all those pills I was living on." Ultimately, she was able to function without her tranquilizers and antidepressants.
Subsequently she had between forty and fifty hours of individual therapy, letting out the accumulated Pain of her thirty-two years. Seven years of rather intensive "talk therapy" had been able to accomplish little more than stabilizing her as an emotionally depressed robot.
Can you remember some of the humiliation endured at the hands of your parents, peers or playmates - the demands, criticism, scoldings, whippings, shouts? If you can recall half a dozen such instances, you can be sure there are hundreds buried deep in your unconscious mind. We have listened to adults who thought they had a reasonably good childhood, as they sobbed, pleaded, cringed or begged for a morsel of love and understanding.
In 1930 Freud wrote of "the error of supposing that ordinary forgetting signified destruction or annihilation of the memory trace… Everything survives in some way or other and is capable under certain conditions of being brought to light again… when regression extends back far enough." (1)
It is not uncommon in In-Depth Therapy for the birth experience to be relived in infinite detail, and, where birth had involved an unusual amount of pain and fear for the infant, reliving this experience has often proved very therapeutic.
We know experientially that nothing is ever lost, nothing completely forgotten. Waiting to be recalled are the memories of all that has ever happened to us. The erosion of the years does not destroy any experience or event: the infant screaming for his bottle, the anguish of being born, the embarrassment experienced on that first date, the panic at being left at kindergarten, the shame of being ridiculed by other children, or the uncounted nights of terror when left alone in a dark room.
The mind is an incredibly sensitive photographic plate on which everything has been recorded with infinite fidelity. A very few of these memories are available to recall. More than ninety-nine out of a hundred childhood memories, with all the feelings surrounding them, are filed away in the unconscious mind.
But unlike pictures filed away in a cabinet, these thousands of pain-laden memories are exerting a profound influence on our lives today. They color our attitudes, and distort our ideas. Every adult relationship is in some degree affected by those childhood experiences and the primal Pain that colors them.
Randy was a pleasant, nice-looking young man m his early twenties. Slightly over six feet tall, he had a ready smile that masked a seething mass of turbulent emotions. There had been two older brothers who played together. Randy, nicknamed "Shrimp" when he was little, was never allowed to tag along. "My younger sister Alice never had to do anything in order to get love. She was cuddled and praised, while I sat across the room and looked on enviously. My older brothers were good at everything. I couldn't read as fast as they could, or do math problems as well. In fact, they did everything well and I did everything poorly. So dad yelled at me, and mother criticized me. I did everything wrong. Dad beat me so hard I was sure he was going to kill me.
In his first primal session, lasting two hours, Randy went right to the core of his hurt. Like most people in primals, he was on a "split screen," reliving his ancient Pain with one part of his mind, but conscious that I was in the room with him. From time to time he would open his eyes and discuss his feelings, then go back into his childhood hurts. There is no chronology to childhood hurts; scenes may flash on the screen from age three along with painful events at age five or seven, or at three months. These are not "remembered" but "relived," with as much intensity as the original experience.
Randy began, in a little boy's voice, to talk to his father. "Daddy, I love you; please don't hit me, daddy; I love you. Please be nice to me, daddy; don't yell at me. Please love me, just be nice to me, daddy. I want you to hold me, daddy. Don't hit me.... Why don't you take me fishing like you do Freddie and Jack? I want to be with you, daddy. You scare me, daddy. I know I'm no good. I'm bad. I'm awful bad. I do everything wrong, but can't you love me just a little? I know my grades are bad, daddy, but I can't think good. Everybody does good, and I do bad. I'm just no good, and you hate me; but daddy, please love me. I love you, daddy...." A long silence, then a scream: "Daddy! Don't kill me! Don't kill me! I'll try to be better."
He opened his eyes and said, "Daddy wasn't trying to kill me, of course, but it felt like it. He was just whipping me, I suppose, but it hurt so bad I was sure he would kill me. I was a rotten speller, and he'd yell at me when I got a word wrong. He'd use flash cards to help us with math, and my brothers always got everything right. I was so scared of him I couldn't think, and he'd shout, 'Get it right, stupid! Get it right! You can do better!' Then I'd really freeze up." He closed his eyes and went back down into his hurting childhood. After a few moments of guidance from me he went to another point of pain:
"Daddy will hate me! So will everyone else. Can't they see I need them? I love them. I want to be with them. I want to go fishing with you, daddy, and to the movies, and the ball game. I know I'm little, but can't you take me just once? ... You boys tell me to go play with the girls. I don't have any friends. I must be bad. Sometimes mommy is nice. Mommy! Save me from daddy! Don't let him kill me! Don't tell him I was bad; don't tell him! He'll hit me... I'm always making mistakes. I don't do anything right. I'm bad. I'm just no good. Everybody hates me. What am I going to do? l want you to love me, daddy. Please? Please, daddy! Please?" Then followed long, anguished sobs, stifled through the years, but as fresh as the day the little boy felt rejected and worthless.
A typical session may last two hours, sometimes longer. Since no two persons have had the same childhood experiences and because each individual has a different defense system, there is no way to estimate the precise number of hours required to get the hurts out. However, many people manage to discharge enough Pain in daily sessions over a period of three weeks to make life seem radically different. Others, whose schedules do not permit daily sessions, have primal for two or more hours a week for a total of thirty to sixty hours.
Most of the several hundred people who have come for In-Depth Therapy at the Burlingame Counseling Center have previously had other forms of therapy. One woman, typical of many, had worked with a highly competent psychiatrist for six years. Though she functioned as a normal person, she could feel the stirring of some ancient, undiscovered hurt deep within, and it interfered with her peace of mind. Neither she nor her psychiatrist could account for the fact that, though she was an affectionate person, she was sexually frigid. In her third or fourth hour of In-Depth therapy she began to exhibit intense anxiety and, would say, intermittently, "It can't be! It can't be! I must be imagining this." Over a period of a week or more in daily sessions she relived the experience of having been raped as a young girl, and later molested by a relative. Both events were relived, a bit at a time, with all of the intense physical and emotional pain of the original events. After one session she said, "That just couldn't have happened. It's ridiculous. I would have remembered."
I recorded the next session and let her listen to it later. She listened in amazement, then said, "No, that actually happened. No one could fake those screams and that anguish." During three weeks of In-Depth Therapy she dealt with those traumatic events and many other childhood hurts. After returning to her home in another state, she wrote that not only the relationship with her husband, but with both her parents, had improved immeasurably. The vast, nameless dread and anxiety were gone.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of us except childhood hurts. Many people who come for In-Depth Therapy tell us, "I had a pretty good childhood. My parents loved me." In many cases they report, after therapy, "I never knew how much hurt and damage loving parents can cause; and I can see now that I am doing the same thing to my own children."
"It sounds scary. I wouldn't want to try that!" If you are living a fruitful, fulfilling life, wonderful! There is no need for a happy person, living without undue anxiety or tension, to experience any kind of therapy. As for the "scary" part, no one who has undertaken an initial experience at our Center has ever said, "That was too frightening; I don't want any more." The standard reaction is, "How soon can I come back for more?"
The individuals who come for In-Depth Therapy are, with few exceptions, thought of by their friends and associates as perfectly normal people. Most of the subjects are simply aware that "there is something down there" that prevents them from being as fully effective as they wish; or, as one brilliant educator put it, "By all standards, I am a highly successful individual. But I sense a vague, diffused 'something' inside that causes me to overreact with my children, and with my wife. I am highly successful, but I am not all that happy. There's something 'down there' in the subterranean chambers of my personality that needs to come out."
He discovered it in In-Depth Therapy and relived that unsatisfactory segment of his childhood. His wife wrote later, "It's thrilling to see him react to our children as a parent instead of fighting with them like a spoiled kid; and since I've gotten a lot of my own hurts out in the same way, I can relate to him as a husband, instead of the way I related to my Dad, with a mixture of fear, love and hate."
(1) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958).
The above is excerpted from a booklet issued by the late Rev Cecil Osborne, who practiced what he called 'In-Depth Therapy' and later, 'Primal Integration Therapy' in Burlingame, California. Cecil, who was a Baptist minister, wrote in a manner which would be helpful to practicing Christians, with much useful information for others too. His book "Understanding your Past, the Key to Your Future", is downloadable from the internet. Click HERE to read or download the book..