Social Therapy from a mental health perspective

December 20, 2002
By a former Social Therapy trainee

I would like to share my thoughts as a licensed mental health professional. The following are my opinions based upon my own Social Therapy training and research. This is an overview of my experience and concerns.

I was involved in a Social Therapy during for almost two years as a "therapist intern." Thus, my interest and involvement with this approach was never political, but rather clinical and professional. I became aware of Social Therapy through a flyer picked up at a mental health agency and was quickly taken by the descriptions of "cutting edge psychology" and "postmodern, non-diagnostic" methodology.

At the time, I was in need of an internship site and felt bored by traditional approaches to mental health. After attending a Social Therapy workshop and having extensive contacts with the center in my city, I decided to complete my training at their site. This was under the direction of the local director, a licensed clinical social worker and one of the founders of the East Side Institute in New York.

My initial experiences with the group were extremely positive. I felt welcome, understood, and extremely supported. My supervisor seemed to take special interest in me and was generous with his time and enthusiasm. Although I had never heard of the founder, Fred Newman, the office was filled with his books. Photos of Newman and a woman named Lenora Fulani were hung on the walls. Newman seemed important, but I wondered why I hadn't heard of him?

The staff told me about various projects Fred Newman had initiated besides the therapy centers. This included an "independent theatre," the "All Stars" program for inner city youth and a consulting firm called "Performance of a Life Time." It was emphasized that these groups were able to thrive without government funding due to their grass roots and innovative, people-to-people approach to fundraising.

My background included dramatic arts, as well as an interest in "postmodern" therapy approaches, so I was easily convinced that this was the ideal center for training. Within a couple months, however, my supervisor began to talk to me about the role of politics in therapy. He said, "All therapy is political." In retrospect, I wish that I had fully understood what he meant by that.

I began to read more about the organization behind Social Therapy and learned that it was once called the "New Alliance Party," as well as many other names. Though I hadn't heard of Lenora Fulani, my supervisor began to describe another project, which involved her and the Reform Party, or at least one branch of it. A political party supposedly based upon the idea that "the difference between the right and the left had diminished" and therefore an "independent party" was needed that rejected any particular ideology.

They said it doesn't matter what you believe, or what you espouse, but rather how people work together. Thus, even though they considered themselves "Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries," the political alliance Fulani formed with Pat Buchannon was somehow not a contradiction. They explained that working with different ideologies afforded a greater chance to make reforms.

While I found the group's political ideas challenging and intriguing, it was uncomfortable talking about politics with my supervisor and I questioned what this had to do with our clinical work. My supervisor emphasized that everyone is a "choice maker" and that there was nothing problematic about a therapy practice involved in a political movement.

Because of the close relationship that I developed with my supervisor and his calm, sincere manner and obvious intelligence, I immediately wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It seemed improbable to me at the time that my supervisor was using a therapy practice to recruit vulnerable patients. And any lack of trust was taken personally by my supervisor. He once said that my critical questions made him "feel taking a shower."

As the months went by, I continued to get more involved in center activities. My supervisor began to play an enormous role in my work and in my life in general. Claiming that dual relationships were "growthful" to patients and trainees, there was a myriad of other activities at the center. In addition, supervised sessions became more intense and personal, sometimes feeling a lot more like therapy sessions than clinical supervision. But whenever I raised questions about the blurred boundaries, they said such traditional assumptions about the need for distance in therapy and supervision were "limiting." What we were doing was "developmental" and we would "build with it."

This was an extremely vulnerable time in my career. I was hoping to become licensed, which had previously been put off due to raising children. My supervisor and his opinion were pivotal to my career development. I trusted his intentions, but felt that political activities had nothing to do with our work. He told me about all his projects (political, cultural, clinical) and said that my involvement was not necessary. However, I continued to receive literature about Fulani and our conversations were frequently political. In time, my supervisor became one of my closest friends. Our families mingled and I even did babysitting for him during some center events.

After seven months my involvement intensified. Despite early misgivings about going to New York do a Social Therapy "training program" I agreed to do a yearlong program. This was a big stretch both financially and time-wise. I was not making much working at the center and had a family. But one social therapist insisted that I shouldn't feel guilty about asking my spouse for financial support and that if I didn't ask I was "denying him the chance to fully give." She said her parents gave thousands of dollars and this "brought them closer together."

Looking back it seems like they manipulated me. My initial intention was only to build a practice, not learn a new methodology and attend expensive functions in New York. Everything was so subtle though. Whenever I agreed to do something, after the hype and suggestions, it seemed like my choice. And my supervisor assumed a very powerful and influential role in my life.

In addition to agreeing to go to New York on different training trips, which were costly, I was expected to attend and contribute to various "fund-raising extravaganzas" while in New York. Fred Newman's trainees actually paid to "volunteer" for things like that. There were also related expenses such as airfare and accommodations. I hit the streets with other so-called "volunteers," which included both patients and social therapists and asked people for money and/or if they wanted to get involved.

I did all this sincerely believing that we were working together to build a grass roots, multi-cultural, theatre that would involve people in many levels. However, what I eventually found out was that the theatre was anything but "grass-roots;" that decisions were made from New York.

We were asked to pay for the New York "dramaturg" to come out and help us with our "street performance," which was often a form of group promotion and fund-raising. Essentially, we were paying to work for them! We were all asked to make monthly contributions to the theatre, and many patients were told that street performance was "mandatory" if they wanted to be involved. At one meeting it was suggested that we take some money our group raised to finance trips for people to go to New York and train with Fred Newman on theatre building.

My supervisor went to New York regularly and had been involved with Newman for 25 years. Why did he still need "training"? Was this just a way to get money?

I now have seen Newman related flyers and letters going back many years, which say they are "building a theatre" in my area. But no theater was ever built, at least not what most people think of as a theatre.

The "play readings" we did seemed like just another way to raise money. And the plays often contained strong messages about Newman's political movement, as well as self-promotion. In one play we didn't have many props or even take the time to memorize lines. But people paid to participate and money was collected.

Readings were at times conducted in patients' or new recruits' home. This seemed unethical. Vulnerable people being recruited through their therapists to become involved with the theatre. But the leaders were charismatic and extremely enthusiastic, so doubts were easily suppressed.

Some patients would say, "I don't know why the plays don't make sense to me...I feel stupid; I don't get them." Often such questions and/or frustrations would be taken up in therapy sessions. Those who didn't "get it," of course had to have something wrong with them. And to make matters more confusing, some leaders would employ their postmodern gibberish and say, "You don't get it because there is nothing to get. Your 'knowing' paradigm will keep you confused."

If only Fred Newman and my former supervisor knew how right they were!

I was permitted to be a "co-therapist" in a social therapy group. When I asked about salary they said, "All the fees for the groups go to New York." Social therapists "volunteered." They did pay for my baby sitter.

Then I discovered what seemed to be an authoritarian and extremely unethical practice. People were coming in for help with diverse and individual struggles. But rather than getting specific help, they apparently were taught to suppress their egos and "build the group." Building groups is fine, but what about helping individual patients? It seemed like this therapy was eroding the individual ability to think critically.

My role as a "co-therapist" was simply "to back up the main therapist." I was told to remain silent and "watch" if I wanted to learn the approach. At that point I left. This apparently caused some turmoil because I spoke out about concerns in front of new recruits. They had no idea who Newman was, or what they were becoming involved in.

Earlier at a social therapy "study group" I was harshly reprimanded and humiliated in front of everyone for asking questions about Fred Newman and sharing my concerns about the independent theatre. But I had asked questions such as why did it only feature Fred's plays? And some of his plays were offensive, anti-Semitic and seemed deliberately confusing. Patients who were volunteers described similar feelings to me.

I wanted to drop out after that meeting. But my supervisor said what transpired was NOT Social Therapy and that instead a particular therapist was just too "zealous." Instead of dropping out, I rearranged my activities and focused exclusively on doing what my supervisor suggested. This included helping to build the practice at the center, theatre work, Social Therapy training and of course our sessions, which continued to be very personal and at times outright confessionals.

Later this would all connect with Robert Lifton's powerful work on totalitarian environments, which included what he called the "Cult of Confession." That is, people confessing their doubts and misgivings only to have them used against them later. What I thought was a private, confidential relationship, apparently was used for manipulation.

My supervisor and other members of the community, even Fred Newman, discussed my personal and professional struggles. When this got back to me I confronted my supervisor, but he said that any questioning about this made him feel bad and indicated that I didn't trust his intentions.

I was assigned to a social therapist, an unlicensed long- time supporter of Newman, to discuss my "issues." I paid for these "over the phone" services, but found it extremely uncomfortable. She was simply focused upon getting me to work better "as a political woman" in the community. My own actual issues and troubles, which this environment engendered, were rapidly worsening and the environment was becoming increasingly more authoritarian.

The experience from then on was very difficult and confusing. The blurred boundaries were extremely troubling. I lost weight, had trouble sleeping and was literally losing my hair.

More and more there were discrepancies, between the explanation of Social Therapy and the actual experience. The heat was turned up and staff was no longer open and/or patient with my questions. In fact the more I questioned what was going on the worse things became. There were fights with my supervisor who now was often angry and harsh.

Later, a much more subtle kind of punishment ensued, which involved shunning and secretive meetings I was not invited to. This was all extremely hierarchical and hurtful. But when the group made a decision about something there was nothing anyone could do or say to change it.

Having invested so much in the center and my relationship with the supervisor, it was so difficult to let go. In many ways, it was like an abusive relationship. In such destructive relationships it is not uncommon to mistakenly feel you deserve such treatment.

Clinically, the moment I realized how destructive the group was at the annual summer institute. A patient from our group was "invited" to come without my knowledge or consent. This was dangerous to do. This patient had mentioned financial troubles and the trip was costly. Newman sat up on the stage inviting long time followers to come up and speak. One by one, members went up with emotional testimonies about how Fred had "saved their lives." One person shouted emotionally, "I want in, I have been on the fringe for too long, I want in." Others used vulgar language to tell off all the psychologists who had "fucked up" their lives.

All this was extremely disturbing, and at one point a client asked me, "Is this a cult?" I was torn between my common sense and hope that this just couldn't be the case. It is very difficult to admit you have been conned. How could these people bring me into something deceptive and harmful? How could I be so naive?

I finally got out some months later. But it felt like ten years had passed. It was like being in some remote, foreign country, with a totally different culture, and then without notice, plopped back into your old life. Getting out was like culture shock.

Eventually I realized that that it was all a highly sophisticated program of thought reform. Everything I believed was turned upside down, or "deconstructed," as they say in postmodern therapy. They then reconstructed my beliefs and ideas to suit them or their purposes. Training wasn't about helping me; it was about how they could use me to build their practice and programs.

I left traumatized. And it was only after meeting people who had worked with cult survivors and talking to other former members of the Newman group that I was able to fully understand what had happened to me.

Simply put, my therapy training ended up as recruitment into what can be seen as a "political cult."

But group members probably see me now as a "traitor," "leftist," or even "dead."

It appears that Newman's followers and his Social Therapy is now infiltrating legitimate mental health institutions and associations under the banner of "post modernism." Certainly mental health and treatment is informed by the social, cultural and political context. But what seems wrong is to abuse postmodern concepts as a way to get people to stop thinking and then basically strip their egos so they will work for some group.

The Newman group constantly calls into question the idea that there is such a thing as an individual. There is a battle over autonomy that often renders people powerless and dependent. Gradually, the social therapist in this process gains more and more power and determines how clients should live their lives. I found that many of the long-term patients behaved like children around their therapists, seeking approval and not wanting to do or say anything wrong.

Therapy should be empowering and inclusive; it should help people build the lives they want. It should not be used as a recruitment tool for a particular movement.

Anyone considering cooperating or working with Fred Newman and/or practicing Social Therapy should first read whatever historical and critical information is available. There is substantial amount of information accessible through the Internet at various anti-cult web sites. Be fully informed before becoming involved.

If you are currently somehow involved with Fred Newman and/or Social Therapy and something doesn't seem quite right, recognize your own intuitive feelings, you are probably right.

What I learned the hard way is that anyone can be duped.

When you find an instant community, wonderful new friends who care about you and "speak the same language," take a second look at who you are dealing with. Real friends and a genuine caring community take time to build. And mental health professionals have a responsibility to their clients and profession to carefully consider what and whom they are supporting.

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