I stood in line at the pharmacy, holding my psychotherapist Cerise’s death certificate. I had gotten a copy by telling the Alameda County Coroner’s office I was family. I wanted confirmation of the cause of Cerise’s death. At her funeral her sister had said, “I warned her—don’t die for love, don’t die for love.” Cerise had a younger boyfriend—another therapist named Herb. He had fallen in love and gone off with my girlfriend Claudia.
On the death certificate the details of Cerise’s cause of death were handwritten sloppily. All I could make out was the word Seconal. Sleeping pills. In high school we called them red birds, sleeping beans. I handed the death certificate to the pharmacist and asked, “Would this amount of Seconal in her stomach indicate suicide?”
He squinted at the thick, official paper. His eyes widened, and his hand jerked in surprise. “Uh, yes, I would say twenty-four capsules of Seconal would indicate suicide.” He shoved the death certificate back across the counter. He wanted nothing more to do with this. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe I hoped he would give me a gentle handshake of condolence and ask for details, but he had moved on to his next customer.
My girlfriend Claudia and I drove across the country from Minnesota to California to undergo Primal Scream Therapy. We had read John Lennon’s interview in the Rolling Stone, where he discussed his and Yoko Ono’s therapy at the Primal Institute in West Hollywood. My favorite post-Beatles album is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. He sings about his mother, and there is a lot of screaming. Listening to those songs is like being with John Lennon in a mental institution.
Primal Therapy is based on the theory that if you lie in a dark, soundproofed chamber and sink into your memories, old feelings will come up. And doing this repeatedly will pop the cork on your neuroses and drain away your reservoir of pain. Everybody has things to scream about. I am a middle-class orphan. When I was seven my mother died of breast cancer. When I was thirteen my older brother Pete died of kidney disease. And three months later I found my father dead of a heart attack on our bathroom floor. By the time I turned fourteen I was considering studying mortuary science.
After reading John Lennon’s interview in Rolling Stone, I went to the library and took out two books: I’m Okay, You’re Okay by Thomas Harris, and Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream—the book that brought John and Yoko to West Hollywood. After a chapter of I’m Okay, You’re Okay, I thought, I’m not okay. And I set out on a quest for Primal Therapy.
As a little boy I had a recurrent daydream that there was a heaven where workstations were built on clouds, and television sets played back incidents from my life, vindicating me from issues of guilt and blame—sort of like Albert Brooks’ movie Defending Your Life. And I had a childhood fantasy about adult life. One day I would live with a girlfriend in an apartment filled with books and music, and together we would explore what our childhoods had done to us. A psychic once told me, “Something traumatic happened to you when you were nine months old.” According to my aunt Caroline, that’s when my mother stopped breastfeeding, and weaned me. The dictionary definition of the word wean is: “To free from an unwholesome habit or interest.” I was interested in my mother’s breasts. She developed breast cancer. I concluded it was my fault.
My mother did me a generous favor that I’ll always be grateful for. She introduced me to the concept of seeking help. I don’t know if she envisioned four decades of psychotherapy and its attendant costs. But one afternoon I came home from second grade, and sitting in our living room were my mother, my older brother Pete, and our Unitarian minister, Dr. Carl Storm. My mother said, “You boys know Dr. Storm as our minister from church, but he’s also a psychotherapist. And every week when I come home late for supper, it’s because I’m with Dr. Storm. I talk about my cancer, how I worry about Daddy, and how I love you boys. This is what you do when you’re in crisis. You seek help.”
A month later my mother died of breast cancer. An abysmal quiet fell over our house. My dad busied himself with work. Everyone pressured him to find a new mom for me and my brother. A year later he married Erma Jeanne, an executive from work—our new stepmother. Erma Jeanne had a cabin on Lake Zimmerman with a motorboat, she was a great cook, she taught us how to play golf. We partied. One night Erma Jeanne came up to my bedroom to tuck me into bed. She was wearing a rather revealing nightgown. As she leaned over to fluff my pillow, her breasts hung over my face like moons over Saturn. I punched one of them.
“Ouch. Why did you do that?”
I didn’t know. I wasn’t in therapy yet. When I was in eighth grade, my brother Pete died of chronic glomerulonephritis. And soon after, my father dropped dead of a heart attack. I was stuck with my stepmother. Whose breasts I admired. Her family warned her, “Get this boy into therapy.” They sent me to the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology. Dr. Sherman E. Nelson, PhD, wore horn-rimmed glasses, black suits, and skinny ties. The elastic had gone out of all his socks. He smoked Salem cigarettes down to the filter. When I talked, he put his chin in his hand, cigarette smoke curling up into the air. He looked like he was really listening. I liked him. After a year and a half of treatment, Dr. Nelson told me, “I think our work is done. You’re an emotionally mature young man. The problem is your stepmother. She drinks too much, and she refuses treatment.”
I was vindicated. I was to blame for nothing. I was done with childhood. And I went off to college—five times. I was a journalism major, a theater major, a film studies major, a general studies major, and a creative writing major. It was in the theater that I met Claudia.
After my girlfriend Claudia and I read The Primal Scream, I built a scream box in our apartment. It looked like a particle accelerator. I crawled in through a small door, lay back on thick, vinyl-covered foam, and sank into my memories. At first I figured that I would simply lie there and think. I remembered my mother’s funeral and my father’s numbness. I thought about my brother and how he had once been healthy. I went to the box every day for a week. I surprised myself by crying vigorously. This terrified my neighbors. I was inducing my own nightmares.
I applied for therapy at the Primal Institute in West Hollywood. They rejected my application due to lack of staffing. But my feelings were rapidly coming to the surface. I had already begun to scream. I requested a referral from The Primal Institute; they provided one immediately. Apparently there were lots of places to scream. The Primal doctrine was spreading. Therapists liked the fact that their patients were doing something besides talking about themselves; they were screaming and crying about themselves. The Oakwood Beach Primal Center in Berkeley, California, welcomed us with open arms, for a $1,650 deposit. The Center was a green stucco house on University Avenue between a Discount Tire Center and a Thai massage parlor. The director was a middle-aged therapist named Cerise. The night my girlfriend Claudia and I arrived, Cerise escorted us to separate bedrooms and instructed us to keep a journal and told us that Claudia and I were to have no contact with each other for three weeks. Cerise was to be my therapist. Claudia would be in treatment with Cerise’s young boyfriend, Herb.
After only a week of therapy, Cerise turned me over to Herb and disappeared. I later learned she had a history of depression and was back in treatment with her psychiatrist. Listening to my story must have been difficult for her.
In my first session with Herb, he sat quietly in the darkened therapy room before he said, “Tell your father to pull his cock out of your ass.”
“That’s not exactly my issue,” I responded.
Soon my girlfriend Claudia informed me that she had begun studying with Herb to become a therapist. This news should have set off alarms. With her previous therapist Claudia had a four-year sexual relationship, which began when she was in the ninth grade. I asked her once, “Do you consider that child abuse?”
“No. I liked it,” she said. She would hand her mother’s check for the psychotherapy session to her therapist, and they would spend the fifty-minute hour having sex. I got up the courage to ask Claudia if there was anything going on between her and our therapist Herb; she was noncommittal. But one morning in our messy apartment, we awoke, made love, and I shit the bed. Perhaps my bowels sensed something that I hadn’t. We cooked French toast for breakfast, and Claudia began to cry. She told me that she was leaving me for Herb. I loved Claudia. We had been through a lot together. But through my veil of tears, I said, “I take you at your word. You say you’re in love with Herb. I believe you. I’m not going to run after you.” Soon I received word of my therapist Cerise’s suicide.
I was undeterred. I moved to West Hollywood and was accepted as a patient at the Primal Institute where John and Yoko, James Earl Jones, and the lead singer of Tears for Fears all came to feel their feelings. On group therapy nights seventy-five Primal patients lay scattered throughout various therapy rooms cradling pillows. The walls were covered with large soundproof panels, and it was dark. I could hear the muttering of therapists, and from the patients came muted crying and the occasional tooth-rattling scream. Many Northern Europeans underwent Primal Therapy, particularly Germans. One night in group therapy, a German man said, “I remember staring at my mother, who hated me, Mutti, Mutti, warum hast du mich gehassen?” He began to cry and gave out a sound like a dying mallard. Lying next to him, a young man from Redondo Beach said, “Dude, it’s Donald Duck having a Primal.” The therapy room erupted in laughter. The German jumped to his feet. “Kiss my ass, you fucking asshole, man.” Therapists leapt in and wrestled the two quarreling patients to the floor.
A few weeks later John Lennon’s therapist, the author of The Primal Scream, Arthur Janov, approached me. “You appear to be very much into your feelings,” he said. “I’d like to offer you a free therapy session with my wife Vivian if you will agree to be videotaped by Two on The Town for Channel 2.”
I thought, It’s Hollywood. I’ll be on TV. It might be a career move. They brought in the cameras. I screamed and cried. When my episode aired, I threw a viewing party. During the program my aunt Caroline called. “Honey, I’m watching you on TV. It’s very upsetting.” I was screaming and crying about her sister dying of breast cancer.
I continued Primal Therapy for a few more months. I did sessions with John and Yoko’s therapists. I spotted the occasional celebrity. In Hollywood nearly everyone does therapy. Later I met the woman who would become my wife; we did therapy. My father-in-law ran into the comedian Rodney Dangerfield in the bathroom of a Beverly Hills restaurant, and Rodney talked about his therapy. My father-in-law reported, “He was very funny.”
Years have passed. I have witnessed the diaspora of the Primal community—therapists and patients moved on to more traditional therapy practices, as did I. Happily, I have survived. I married and raised a family. My wife and I have been together for twenty-seven relatively happy years. I don’t scream so much anymore. But when I need to, I certainly remember how. Reliving all those memories about funerals, and loss, and loneliness, and precious memories of my mother, my father, and my brother allowed me to grieve and take stock and finally to move on with my life. There’s not much left for me to scream about. But if I look long enough, I’m sure I can find something.