New York, NY
by Rick Whitaker
Ohio, 1976: the babysitter is a witch. She told us that if we were insane enough to go into the bathroom at midnight when the moon was full and scream “Bloody Murder” three times into the mirror, we would die. She showed us our first horror film: The Blob, which gave me nightmares. One night—during a full moon—she took us out for a late-night drive in the country in search of cattails which she needed for an elaborate spell she was casting. When she spotted some cattails in the headlights, she stopped the car and got out into the dark with a flashlight. Moments later, she screamed—a full-on terrified scream, the first I’d ever heard—and ran back to the car. As she was driving us away, she told us she had seen a skull—a human skull—in the ditch.
Saratoga Springs, New York, twenty years later: a friend told me that a woman he knew, a ballet dancer, was doing “scream therapy”. Once a week, he said, she would go with her Primal Therapist to a remote location, sit with him beside a tree, and scream. She had told my friend that it was exhilarating and fun, but not particularly therapeutic. (She was in love with the therapist.)
According to Primal Therapy, a mode of psycho-intervention now rather hilariously situated among the wrecks of the late 20th century, I should be a hopelessly split-off neurotic, incapable of deep feeling. Perhaps I am. Little Rick, like so many of the people I know, did suffer childhood trauma; he endured Primal Scenes; he was made to understand, over and over again, by his bully Butch dad that he was a worthless fag. Little Rick was often lonely, he was abused, he witnessed the shock of the sexually “adult,” he sobbed, many times, in horrible abjection, feeling ill-loved. I’m a good candidate for Primal Therapy: I’m always up for a good cry, and I believe it would be good for me to scream my way out of the past. I want to feel deep feelings and be cured of my neuroses, and I’m willing to follow the line of pain all the way to the bitter end. If I believed it were true that screaming and raging would unlock and release latent feelings doing daily damage, I’d be game.
Reading Arthur Janov’s 1970 book “The Primal Scream” is itself, I imagine, almost as excruciating as doing Primal Therapy with him would be. Like Tom, a patient described at length in the book, I threw my back out while engaged with Dr. Janov’s sadistic palaver. “You are here because you’re a loser,” he tells Tom, a 35 year old divorced schoolteacher. Tom is described in Dr. Janov’s book as entering Primal Therapy “a fairly typical American” with “no obvious neurosis. He was functioning well, was responsible, was a good parent, but felt something was missing in his life.” Enter Dr. Janov. “Before Tom came for therapy,” Dr. Janov sneers, “he classified himself as an intellectual.” Tom complains about being bored teaching history to teenagers. “It won’t make any difference what kind of a job you have,” Dr. Janov informs Tom. “You’ll still be miserable. You’re a loser.” Together, they dig into Tom’s feelings.
I agree with Dr. Janov that ordinary “talk therapy” and “insight therapy” often will not do. And my intuition tells me that working through “deep feeling” is a desirable therapeutic ambition for someone like myself inclined to anxiety and existential ennui, not to mention writer’s block. But I have learned time and again that intensity does not equal depth, and feeling pain cures nothing.
Dr. Janov is 90 now, living to all appearances rather high on the hog off the proceeds of his devilish work. “Primal Scream: The Musical,” according to Dr. Janov’s website, opened just last week—for one night only—at the Smothers Theatre in Malibu. “All proceeds from the play will go to The Primal Foundation for the continuation of brain research,” he says. In his latest blog post, Dr. Janov bluntly ascribes both heart disease and Alzheimer’s to repressed childhood trauma. Nothing is easier than mocking Dr. Janov, who was wrong about so many things, including his outrageous homophobia. Yet I agree with much of what he wrote, including this little nugget of wisdom: “Defenses operate continuously, night and day. An effeminate male does not suddenly become masculine while asleep. His effeminacy is a psychophysical event which goes on awake or asleep; it is built into the organism.”
Among my favorite primal screams in modern literature is Thomas Bernhard’s deadly final novel, Extinction, in which he brought his unique style of large-scale linguistic exaggeration to its grim apotheosis, expressing something horrifying about the human condition, namely the irresolvability of our desperation to connect with one another in order to make life meaningful. At the beginning of Extinction, the narrator is informed that his parents and brother have been killed. In the following scene, he examines two photographs, one of his parents, the other of his brother, “an embittered man, ruined by living alone with his parents.”
“Naturally I never thought I would outlive them. In fact I always imagined that I would be the first to die. The present situation is the one situation I’ve never envisaged, I thought. I had considered every other possible situation time and again, but never this. I had often dreamed of dying and leaving them behind, of leaving them alone without me, of freeing them from me by my own death, but never of being left behind by them. The fact that they were now dead and I was alive was not only utterly unforeseen, but quite sensational. It was this sensational element, this overwhelming sensation, that I found shattering, not the simple fact that they were dead. Though my parents had been pathetic in every way, I had always regarded them as demons, and now suddenly, overnight, they had shrunk to the ridiculous, grotesque photo that I had in front of me and was studying with the most shameless intensity. The same was true of the photo of my brother. All your life you feared these people more than any others, I thought, and this fear cast a monstrous blight on your life. All your life you tried repeatedly to escape from them, but you always failed. You went to Vienna to escape from them, to London, to Paris, to Ankara, to Istanbul, and finally to Rome—all to no avail. They had to have a fatal accident and shrink to this ridiculous scrap of paper called a photograph before they could cease to harm you. The persecution mania’s over, I thought. They’re dead. You’re free.”
A more recent literary primal scream is Filip Noterdaeme’s impressive new poem GRUNT, a word-for-word parody of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, which achieves a perfect pitch of primal protest as it comes to its climactic end:
Phony the suffering poet! Phony the last cry of
Bohemia! Phony the socially engaged
artists! Who dig New York I HEART New York!
Phony Brooklyn Phony San Francisco Phony Portland &
Seattle Phony Berlin Phony Basel Phony Miami
Phony Abu Dhabi!
Phony life in serenity phony serenity in life phony the
universal coverage phony the social contract phony
the peace talks phony the agents of change!
Phony the city phony the country phony the unions phony the
low emission car phony the image phony the congratulations
phony the “likes” phony the camera phony the progress!
Phony forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Phony! Ours!
Vanity! Pretense! Egomania!
Phony the profitable extra-manipulative advertised
kindness of the soul!