The psychologist who believed in screaming
Arthur Janov 1924–2017
In the mid-1960s, psychologist Arthur Janov listened raptly as a normally withdrawn patient told him about a piece of performance art he’d recently seen. The artist wore a diaper, the man explained, drank milk from a bottle, and writhed around the stage crying “Mommy! Daddy!” Acting on a hunch, Janov asked the patient to do the same. “He released a piercing, death-like scream that rattled the walls of my office,” Janov recalled. “All he could say afterward was ‘I can feel!’” Inspired by the transformation, Janov devised “primal scream” therapy. People’s neuroses, he claimed, stemmed from repressed early-life trauma: “primal pain” that could be “cured” only by regressing to childhood and unleashing ear-shattering screams. The therapy was dismissed by many psychologists— one called it “ jabberwocky”—but it was a hit with A-listers, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the actor James Earl Jones. Primal therapy, Janov said in 1971, is “the most important discovery of the 20th century.”
Born in Los Angeles, Janov described his Russianborn mother and father as “indifferent parents,” said The Washington Post. “The great favor they did me,” he said, “was to give me enough pain to discover the role of pain.” He studied psychology after serving in the Navy during World War II,and practiced orthodox psychotherapy in California for 17 years before his screaming breakthrough. “After twice being evicted from offices because of his patients’ screams,” Janov founded the Primal Institute in Los Angeles in 1968, said The Times (U.K.). Sessions were conducted in darkened, padded rooms adorned with nursery props—teddy bears, baby rattles, security blankets, and cribs. Janov “announced his methods to the world” in 1970, with his best-selling book The Primal Scream. Lennon liked it so much, he immediately flew Janov to London so he could begin treatment and based his next album, the deeply confessional John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, on their sessions together.
In the 1970s, Janov “became a ubiquitous presence on the talk-show circuit,” said The New York Times. Insisting his treatment could cure almost any disorder—heart disease, drug addiction, menstrual cramps—he opened branches in London, New York, and Paris. Primal therapy fell out of fashion as more and more health professionals denounced it as ineffective and unscientific. Janov, though, remained a believer. “The No. 1 killer in the world today is not cancer or heart disease,” he wrote in 1991, “it is repression.”