Sample - Primal Scream therapy


It was a black winter night outside, but inside the Brooklyn brownstone, fluorescent lights flooded the room. I slid my hand along a wood bannister as I followed Jack down the carpeted stairs into a windowless underground space, fixed up as a meeting room. The brick walls were grey. Eight wooden chairs sat in a circle on the dark industrial carpet. Even though it was below freezing outside, the air conditioner puffed away. I rubbed my hands together, glad that I’d decided to wear sweatpants. Who knew what to wear to a group therapy marathon?

A friend at work had told Jack that his therapy group was going to have a special all-night session. The purpose of this marathon, he’d said, was to wear down the controls and defenses that we hide behind so we can be more real. I liked the therapy part of the deal. But Primal Scream Therapy? Yikes.

Jack seemed jumpy as we surveyed the room that night but my spine felt like a steel rod. I was absorbing the fact that we were going to be in that pit with six other people, most of whom we didn’t even know, for the next fourteen hours. My breaths were shallow as I studied the room. Is there a bathroom? Is there a water fountain? Is there enough air in here for all of us?

The pencil-thin man who greeted us introduced himself as Paul, the group facilitator and the one who had set up the marathon. I assumed he was a licensed psychologist but I learned later he had no credential; he had simply logged many years of therapy and had done a marathon once before. He had been seduced by Primal Scream Therapy, one of the unorthodox techniques that were cropping up to help us all get in touch with our deeply-hidden feelings, anger being the most valued. He told us the session was planned to follow the recently published book, “The Primal Scream,” of psychologist Arthur Janov, who had treated John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They seemed good together, so with that nugget of information I was able to convince myself that something good might come out of it for Jack and me.

He and I took chairs next to each other. Paul began by going over the process. “The first few hours will resemble our regular sessions,” he said. “Our interactions will still be affected by the mechanisms that we all use to suppress the painful feelings holding us back from understanding ourselves and growing. But as the night wears on,” he said, “we’ll find that these defenses, these stories we create to hide behind, will slip away and we’ll experience the authentic feelings of anger, hurt and pain. We’ll go back to our very beginning, to the moment of our birth.” He suggested that if we were lucky, out would come the primal scream, and then, having come to terms with our deepest fears, and having banished our defenses, inner peace would follow, or something like that. My brain was too swamped to focus on his words.

We went around the circle introducing ourselves and talking about issues that had come up for us during the past week. Paul began. He talked about his struggles that week, every week apparently, as a writer who worked out of his home. He detailed his difficulty getting out of bed in the mornings, then his desire to remain in pajamas, unshaven, throughout the morning, then his reluctance to leave the apartment for coffee that had become a ritual necessary to get him moving. How will I bear fourteen hours of this? I thought.

Others spoke. When it was my turn, I talked about how my boss had been using me to type the manuscript for his book and how frustrating his indecipherable handwriting was. I didn’t mention Jack’s outburst at me while driving over. I didn’t even mention Jack’s name. I wouldn’t dare. I suppose that’s why he’d made sure his leg was touching mine. Others followed, documenting their daily woes.

Paul asked us then to tell the group about our early lives and the feelings we experienced as a child. This time, as someone spoke, the others looked around for tears or gritted teeth or any precursor to rage. Jack’s friend didn’t have much trouble. He ranted about his mother’s controlling ways, and he took to the floor pounding his fists. He cried. Paul encouraged him to tell her directly. He shouted and wailed, but no scream transformed him into a self-actualized being. He was just angry Frank lying on the floor. The furtive glances that whizzed around the room showed me that everyone was sizing up the others, wondering who would be the first to experience the primal scream.

 I was positive it would not be me. I knew I was disappointing the group by not getting angry when I talked about my family, by not screaming about my father’s inattention, by not punching the pillow Paul supplied to represent a parent. All that came out was a feeble whimper, “ . . . and he always stayed upstairs.”

There wasn’t a clock in the room, but I knew we had been there for hours.

It was Jack’s turn again. Expectations were high for him. He began to talk about his home life. He delivered his words carefully at first, “oldest of five children … father is a builder … “ but before long his voice changed, his face tightened and the words started spilling out. “ … punched me and kicked me … mother just stood there … ” The group was pleased to see him go back in time, so a few jumped in. “Yes, yes. Go for it.” They kept it up. “It’s there!”  I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t expect a scream. I feared a full-blown eruption. Stop! You don’t know what could happen!

“Ask your mother for help,” Paul barked. “Beg her to make him stop hurting you!”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jack jump up, fists clenching his wood chair and then, in the slow motion that follows disbelief, I watched it coming right towards my face. It cracked against the side of my head and knocked me to the ground. For a moment, I saw only black. Then looking up, I faced the wide eyes and open mouths of the people stumbling towards me before I closed my eyes again.  I don’t remember anything for a while after that.

Jack’s friend drove me to his apartment where I remember the warmth of a little bed with soft pillows and a fluffy white comforter. He brought me ice-cold cloths for my head and assured me there was no blood. Maybe he asked me if I wanted to go to a hospital but if he had, I would have said no. Going out into the world would only make this thing more real. I felt like I was in another universe. When he handed me a couple of white pills, I took them, not asking or caring what they were. All I wanted to do was sleep, and so much the better if I didn’t ever wake up.