Not everyone in Los Angeles will remember the Center for Feeling Therapy. But those who do may get a shiver when they hear about "Therapy Gone Mad," a book by Los Angeles writer Carol Mithers about the Hollywood therapy cult and community that had its roots in the pop psychology of the late '60s, flourished in the feelings-obsessed '70s, and crashed in the dawn of the money-mad '80s.
The Center for Feeling Therapy left wrecked careers, relationships and lives in its wake. And, of course, multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Mithers' book is a case study of how idealism goes sour, of the dangers of self-involvement, of how victims and predators will always find each other, and how people will tolerate only so much abuse before they rebel, even if rebellion comes too late to avert permanent degradation of the soul.
It is also a cautionary tale for the victim-oriented '90s.
Mithers had firsthand experience with the Center for Feeling Therapy. Twenty years ago, she was about to graduate from UC Irvine when her boyfriend announced that he was joining a radical new psychology movement.
The boyfriend, she said, had taken classes about a new kind of therapy--primal scream--taught by an Irvine psychology professor named Joe Hart. When Hart announced that he was starting his own therapy center in Los Angeles--the Center for Feeling Therapy--with a graduate student named Richard (Riggs) Corriere and several other therapists, Mithers' boyfriend decided he had to be part of it.
"I am learning how to feel," he wrote to Mithers. "It is exciting and difficult."
Eventually, she moved to the neighborhood where the center's clients were renting and buying homes. Over time, about 350 young men and women would pass through about 40 houses scattered among 10 streets west of La Brea between Hollywood and Sunset. Another 600 or so received therapy at the center's out-patient clinic.
Although she never became a patient, Mithers befriended many. She had no idea that brutalization was part of their "therapy."
"I thought they were a bunch of sweet people engaged in a really sappy '70s pursuit and this endless talking about 'my feelings,' 'my this,' 'my that,' 'I'm getting afraid,' 'I'm having thoughts.' It was just silly," Mithers said. What she didn't know was that on the night they went to "Group," they were beating each other up and being humiliated.
"Nobody talked about it. I think many, but not all, had a sense deep in their hearts that something really screwed up was going on."
In scores of TV and radio interviews throughout the '70s, Hart and Corriere promoted themselves as pioneers of a great new experimental psychotherapy, as "the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of psychology," as "the new Freuds."
Actually, a judge would later write, they were cult leaders.
On a late-summer morning in 1994, the neighborhood of original bungalows and Craftsman homes seems a throwback to an earlier time.
Strolling along the 1600 block of North Gardner, there is no hint that--as the book and news reports detailed--some of these homes were turned into a compound for the "founding therapists." No hint that patients were told who they could marry, that men and women were ordered to have sex with each other as part of their "therapy," that women were counseled to abort wanted children because they were not "sane" enough to have kids, that people were forced to strip or submit to beatings in "Group," or that they were made to take low-paying jobs with center-run companies that financially benefited the therapists.
Some of the longtime neighbors, if you talk to them, can tell stories about the young, good looking men and women who walked around the neighborhood back in the '70s, yelling about their feelings.
The neighbors called them "the Screamers."
The crash came in late 1980 and could initially be blamed on that most '80s of motivations: money.
According to "Therapy Gone Mad," about a million dollars--raised and donated by patients for a building fund--had been appropriated by Corriere and spent to maintain a money-losing Arizona cattle ranch owned by the center.
"Money had been stolen," Mithers writes. "The fact hit like a sledgehammer to the skull. It was one thing that no one had ever reached the dreamy end point of sanity the therapists had promised. That goal had been vague and elusive, and failure to reach it was something a patient always could blame on him- or herself. But money was hard and absolute . . . and if the therapists had stolen money, they were not the good men they had always claimed to be."
The lawsuits and license-revocation hearings lasted most of the decade and were covered extensively by The Times. Nearly 100 patients eventually settled for millions of dollars, paid by the center's insurance carriers.
In 1987, Mithers writes, an administrative law judge revoked the state psychology licenses of Hart, Corriere and others. In his decision, the judge said they had developed a "therapist centered" therapy in which they had "developed and enjoyed the seat of power in a cult . . . by any definition it was a cult." Hart and Corriere were found guilty of acts of gross negligence, incompetence, patient abuse, and aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of psychology.
None of the center therapists would talk to Mithers for the book. One said the center was not his "reality" anymore.
Patients with whom she spoke were promised anonymity. Some have gone on to professional and personal success and do not want it known they once belonged to a cult; some regard the experience as a positive one; some are very bitter.
A few are so damaged they have never recovered.
You finish the book half-wondering whether this kind of thing could happen again, half-knowing it will. This decade, after all, is increasingly infused with the notion that even the most evil deeds are excusable, that individual responsibility is becoming an outmoded concept, that everybody is a victim of something.
What fertile ground for exploitation.
"Most people are filled with fears and insecurity," Mithers said. "People like Joe Hart and Riggs Corriere could tap right into that." Their secret, she said, "was to make people feel loved and then threaten to take the love away. Under that dynamic, people will do anything. It is totally parental. It doesn't work on everybody, but if you have that kind of hole in you, you're gone."
* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.