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Inquiry Targets Disputed Psychotherapy Methods

Times Staff Writer

A charismatic psychotherapist who attracted thousands of patients to the Hollywood Center for Feeling Therapy during the 1970s--although he and most of his colleagues were not licensed as psychologists until years later--contends that multiple complaints filed against him are false and, in some cases, simply delusions.

The patients’ allegations of beatings, seductions, humiliation and financial coercion, the therapist testified, come from troubled people who have faulty recall, a tendency to exaggerate or a lack of insight into the unorthodox techniques of his “feeling therapy.”

Richard J. (Riggs) Corriere, 39, is fighting to retain the license to practice psychology in California that he received in 1978, seven years after founding the center with several other therapists. He currently makes his home in Aspen, Colo., and New York, however, where he bills himself as a “personal coach” and “counselor.”

Corriere is one of 13 people, including his wife, Konni Pederson Corriere (a psychiatric technician), and four other psychologists, who are defending their actions in license revocation hearings before administrative law judges here. The proceedings--the biggest psychotherapy malpractice case in California history--began late last summer and are expected to last through the end of this year.

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In an accusation filed by the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance, the psychologists are charged with violating the state Professions Code by "(having) engaged in and/or aided and abetted the unlicensed practice of psychology; committed acts of dishonesty, fraud or deceit; committed corrupt acts; engaged in sexual misconduct and other physical abuse of patients, and committed numerous other proscribed acts constituting grossly negligent conduct. . . .”

After an earlier, separate hearing, the license of psychologist Gerald Binder was revoked. A recommendation that the license of physician Lee S. Woldenberg be revoked but that he be given 10 years’ probation instead is under final review by the board. Hearings for other defendants are still not completed.

Deputy Atty. Gen. William Carter said the state’s investigation was triggered by complaints from more than 100 former patients about their treatment at the now-defunct center.

Earlier this year, a civil lawsuit against the center by former patients was settled, reportedly for about $6 million.

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In presenting the state’s case against the psychologists, the prosecution portrayed the center as a cult run by greedy, manipulative therapists who “brainwashed” patients into subservience.

The defense, however, in hearings that are now nearing an end, has painted a very different picture of an innovative “therapeutic community” that troubled young adults seeking a fuller life freely chose to join.

Corriere testified that the idea of forming such a community had grown out of “how lonely (therapy clients) were” and that it had evolved as “a group of people who had access to each other, gave each other support and help, who were dependable--(it was) probably more akin to a small town mentality of the 1950s. . . .”

Defense attorney Thomas Larry Watts refused a reporter’s request to interview Corriere but said his client has refuted each charge.

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In some instances, the defense contends, the recollection of a complaining witness may have been colored by a personality that tends to exaggerate and over-dramatize. In others, the person may be simply unable to face painful problems from the past. Sometimes, there may be very little disagreement over what was said or what happened but a great difference in each side’s interpretation. And in some cases, the alleged events just didn’t occur, Watts said.

Corriere was one of several founders and therapists at the center. But over the years he emerged as its leader, and when it fell apart, was the prime target of many former patients’ anger.

Patients Testified

Former center patients testified that Corriere persuaded one woman to have an abortion, had sex with another, repeatedly struck several, made ethnic and religious slurs, pressured patients to donate large sums of money and controlled their personal and professional lives.

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But the psychologist denied many of the charges and explained others to Administrative Law Judge Robert A. Neher during a week on the witness stand. For example, he said:

- A patient who testified that he was beaten and taunted by Corriere was in fact a depressed alcoholic with schizoid tendencies and no direction in life. During a 1974 therapy session, after he had complained of being bored, Corriere grabbed and pushed him from room to room where other patients were crying or acting out anger, asking, “Is that boring?”

Left Alone

The therapist then left the young man alone with instructions to start feeling instead of intellectualizing; when he returned a short time later, the patient was crying very deeply and feeling better.

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- Another patient who complained of being struck by Corriere with a fist on numerous occasions suffered from a borderline personality disorder with hysteric tendencies. The incidents about which he testified were in fact only instances of “shadow boxing” by the two men as part of therapy.

Similar complaints from another patient stemmed from several encounters in which the two men talked, joked around and pushed each other--"it’s the way jocks interact,” Corriere explained.

- A young man who said Corriere tied him up, wrapped him in Styrofoam, blindfolded and gagged him and left him alone to listen to a tape of his own voice suffered from “borderline personality with periodic delusional states.” His accusation was only another fantasy; on other occasions he would see billboards moving and believe that people in cars next to his were thinking bad thoughts about him.

- A woman who testified that she had sex with Corriere after being assigned by her group therapist to have weekly sex was not Corriere’s patient at the time of their sexual relationship. Before dating her, Corriere had asked permission of her individual therapist at the center, who had initially diagnosed her as having both a dissociative mental disorder and a mixed personality disorder. Several years after the relationship ended, the woman joined a special therapy group led by Corriere.

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- A woman patient, who claimed that Corriere and psychologist Joseph Hart each told her that she must have an abortion for her therapy to be successful, had telephoned Corriere in a state of anxiety on discovering that she was pregnant. He sought to calm her down, talked with her about her feelings and the responsibility involved in rearing a child and advised her to call Hart, her regular therapist. The decision to have an abortion was her own, and at her request, two therapists accompanied her to the hospital for the procedure.

Talked at Length

Corriere also testified at length about a woman patient who had alleged that he humiliated and brutalized her and made her feel crazy. On one occasion, she said, he ordered her to disrobe in front of other patients.

But Corriere, denying the charge, said she was a hysteric who hid her feelings behind a seductive facade. In 1974, he recalled, she came to a therapy session wearing “a four-button blouse with two buttons loose, her bra showing and a provocative skirt. . . .”

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“We were talking about her career, (but) her eyes kept wandering, looking at different men,” Corriere said.

“I pointed out the incongruity between what she was saying and how she was behaving; she denied being seductive. . .,” he said.

“What do you want from those men?” Corriere testified he asked her. “What do they have that you don’t have?”

Question Answered

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“I want them to notice me,” he said the woman replied.

“How far do you want to go?” he said he asked.

“I don’t know,” he said she answered.

” Will another button do it?”

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“I don’t know.”

He then remembered saying, “Unbutton another button. Let’s see if that brings them over to you.”

She then got anxious, Corriere said.

“Will another button do it. . . .?” he recalled saying.

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She unbuttoned the fourth and final button, he said, then started to cry.

“I had her lie down, and I began to work with her. . . . The more she cried, the more I could ask her what it was she (was) feeling so deeply . . . (it was) this incredible longing to be loved.”

Corriere described the session as “a major breakthrough for her.”

Suggestion Made

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A rebuttal witness, however, later insisted that the woman was completely undressed and that Corriere lined up several male patients, suggesting that it might be therapeutic for them to have sex with her.

While such therapeutic approaches may appear unorthodox to some, the defense contends that they were part of the center’s “transformative therapy,” which was designed to “help patients or clients develop life styles where they felt they were moving toward and acting from their potential,” Corriere testified.

Many patients were diagnosed as sociopathic, immature, depressed, schizoid or sexually perverted when they entered the program, he said, but improved over the years.

Corriere also denies he practiced psychology without a license, maintaining that he was acting only as a psychological assistant to Hart.

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Filed Complaints

Although more than 100 former patients filed complaints, only about a dozen actually testified against the therapists--"a fraction of the thousands who went through (the center’s program) who aren’t complaining,” Watts noted.

Furthermore, Watts said, two experts called by the defense, Albert Marston, professor of psychiatry and psychology at USC, and Perry London, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Harvard University, testified that the defendants’ handling of various therapeutic situations--as described by the defendants--indicates “no extreme departures from the standard of practice (of psychology) and would demonstrate a very good, excellent, practice.”


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