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Over the years I have heard many appalling stories of childhood trauma; for example, children witnessing a parent killing the other parent, relentless alcohol-fuelled beatings and abuse, children locked in dark cupboards and horrendous neglect.
These events are truly horrific and as a result I have found myself asking “ So why am I in therapy? Nothing so shocking or horrific happened to me”.
I now believe this to be an effective defense, this little voice in my head that says “my stories are not important compared to……” Little did I know.
After all, my early childhood appeared idyllic, middle class, ‘privileged’, set in a beautiful, tranquil, unspoiled part of England, I had enough to eat and beloved pets.
My behaviour consisted of being shy, the proverbial good girl, with the occasional act of willfulness (my father’s word) bursting through. As a teenager this all translated into a mix of behaviors. At once silent, sullen and rebellious coupled with neediness and people-pleasing. It wasn’t too long before a new phase of my life began. It consisted of young married life and raising my children . This for some time became my main focus.
Eventually however grandiose thoughts and behaviors began to surface. Looking back I see clearly my impulsiveness and depression. It was all punctuated with a wild phase of drugs, alcohol and nymphomania not to mention an inability to be employed for any length of time and a lack of trust within my relationships. It may be difficult to understand but at the time I was unaware that any of the above might be act outs. From my late teens onward I was ( and still am) a mixture of outgoing and introspective. As a result I did have reflective moments, moments when I realised I was suffering, hurting or fearful as these act outs wove in and out of my everyday life.
These were the clues (ha! ) that lead me to think that all was not so idyllic. Eventually these revelations led to my decision to begin Primal therapy. I grabbed that opportunity about 15 years after reading ”The Feeling Child”.
What began to unfold over time was the true impact of specific events in my life. A very early hospitalisation that I was told about, two subsequent hospitalizations that I vaguely remembered, and being sent to boarding school at seven years old just to name a few. I began to feel and remember that I had experienced terrifying trauma after all…
(Note the various definitions of trauma in a thesaurus…agony; anguish; blow; confusion; damage; injury; ordeal; shock; strain; stress; suffering; torture; upheaval; wound; collapse; derangement; disturbance; hurt; jolt; outburst; upset)
I found that I could name at least 12 of the above definitions that were relevant to me.
…I thought mine was (merely!) the normal middle class somewhat ’subtle’ trauma that results from communication by a myriad of facial expressions, disapproval, some direct anger, sadism, and being sent away to school stood out. This was all true and clearly painful but still I had no real sense as to how deeply damaging it really was.
What has, at times, felt like snail-paced progress created an awareness that “I’m not important” is actually a feeling , a memory and that to eventually feel “not important” in my case means “I am someone who my mummy and daddy did not want”.
Now in my 70’s, I feel I’m a work in progress, still some of the layers have peeled away. Thanks to persistence with Primal, I am more able to realistically look back at my life. I find I have far more access to my memories and the feelings attached to them.
The experiences I have of suffering emerges frequently in the present. They remain profoundly hurtful as I feel pieces of my trauma and with that I gradually become more in touch with the terrifying reality of feeling unwanted and alone.
I’m not diminishing the feelings from my past so readily any more, especially now that with the pain, I can also and often experience moments of real joy, contentment, hilarity, creativity, and receptivity to love.
The following is a personal view of some of Arthur Janov’s ideas. It does not proport to be a survey or an accurate description of his thinking but rather how his ideas were used by me, both personally and professionally. It is my own tribute to the man and his teachings.
When we meet or hear of an arrogant person strutting around, exploiting others, putting people down, singing his own praises, controlling others; or a very suspicious person seeing lies and conspiracies in each and every corner, constantly feeling maligned or exploited by powerful forces beyond his control such as foreigners, the hostile media or Jews; most of us are likely to become moralistic and say something like: “He thinks only of himself”, or “He’s completely paranoid” and “He needs to constantly control others”. It takes a Janov to say: “He has suffered a trauma”, that what we see and experience on the outside is the debris – or some other outcome – of a psychological disaster.
And Arthur Janov didn’t settle for that but went on to describe many of the details of the trauma, the conditions under which it comes about, its lifelong aftermath and, characteristically optimistic, its possible resolution. For this he had to dig deep, sometimes very deep, aided by a special procedure he devised (or as he would have it, stumbled upon). And interestingly, that procedure, the Primal, wasn’t only means by which neurotic resolution can come about but also, just as important, the digging shovel itself, a research tool with which to penetrate as far back as he could reach into the earliest times and origins of the psychic universe, his own giant telescope peering as it were into the endless mental space of which only the arrogant or paranoid tip, now distorted by Pain, is evident in plain sight.
Having defined his theory – like psychoanalysis defined itself – in terms of traumas and their persistence, it is striking to realize (at least for me) that underlying Janov’s focus on correcting the individual human predicament is his implied proposition that man is forever split. And thus, forever lost. Or even, to take that proposition a step further, that to be human is to be split, that this tear in our existence is part of what defines us as human beings. No one, after all, had such a perfect upbringing, such a smooth inner life, that trauma – and hence the tear, the split – is precluded from his or her life. And being split, man – as Janov’s theory articulates and practice aims for – harboursa persistent wish to reunite with his split-off part and heal the tear, to return to and regain the state of being whole, to find his way back to, and through the gates of Pain reenter, the wholesome garden of Eden from which he was once upon a time so traumatically expelled.
For this is something Janov is explicitly – and one might add Americanly – adamant about: the originating point of the split must be sought and reached. The Primal experience may take us to early childhood, but if we find that wholeness is achieved only briefly, that this is not the end of the road, we will use the Primal telescope to look further back into toddlerhood, and then early babyhood and finally even into the pre-natal life of the individual or, by extension and yet further back, the prehistory of humanity. The search for wholeness, in other words, is endless, limitless, bottomless.
For man, according to this implicit view, is divorced not only from his own personal true nature but from Nature itself. It is not surprising, therefore, that every now and then the discussion on this blog veers toward an attempt at finding the root of not only personal pain but of human neurosis in general. Customarily, such discussions land at man’s prehistory, way back when man was supposedly, hopefully, closer to and part of Nature. At that point in time, it is argued, man was whole and even though current men and women – unbearably adult, irretrievably split, tragically lost – cannot but glimpse into or imagine these ancient, pre-split, pre-damage times, they can nevertheless by such historical affiliations sense some connection to, some type of union with, this wholeness.
It is my view that this search for wholeness, rather than its actual attainment, is at the heart of the Janovian oeuvre. It is this endless pursuit of personal truth and meaning, guided by the principles of feeling and emotional life, that allows us to grow and develop. It is not a state (wholeness) we’re after but rather a process. In other words, our primary need in adult life and aim in therapy is not only to exorcise and get rid of Pain in order to complete ourselves, but even more so to develop or regain something – let’s call that something the Feeling Child – so we can encounter our personal truth, process Pain and tolerate and even make use of our incompleteness. Guided, aided and accompanied by the Feeling Child out travels and travails through life, although incomplete, will be richer, more meaningful and more real.
Wholeness, on the other hand, connotes an end, a final stage and state. And, for the sake of exercise, once this presumed but elusive wholeness is secured, where do we go from here? In which direction can we further develop? What will drive us to seek new answers for ourselves? It is almost as if an answer is the question’s worst enemy: as long as a question is unanswered it is alive, every option is potentially available and each course may be taken; but once a final answer is given all roads not taken and options not exercised wither away as does the question itself.
So, to go back to Janov, we can think of the Feeling Child itself as more than merely a state evoking static adjectives such as ‘good’ and ‘whole’ which portray that state as a condition to be in, a ‘place’ to reinhabit: It is also a function of the mind of which expressing feelings is only a part. For example, I think that by emphasizing the emotive part of the Feeling Child we tend to neglect its crucial perceptive function, its astuteness. From this perspective, we must reach and recover a lost capacity to feel because in addition to helping us to express our feelings such a capacity is essential for sensing truth and thus for creating meaning. And because the Feeling Child is first and foremost a sense organ with which we perceive emotional reality, it engenders in us a capacity to deal with and process meaningfully the constant influx of emotional stimuli from without and from within.
In summary, the Felling Child seen as a process rather than a state has three interrelated but distinct functions. These functions, in reverse order of appearance, are: To emote (feelings), to process (emotional stimuli into feelings), to perceive (emotional stimuli). And as can be seen from this description of the Feeling Child as a process, and of course also learned from actual personal and clinical experience, the ability to feel, to express a well delineated feeling, is a developmentand cannot be taken for granted. In each stage something can, and quite often does, go wrong.
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It is natural for the question “What if” to come to mind when reviewing the progress of one’s life. In this instance, I ask myself what would have happened to me if I had not read the Primal Scream, met Arthur Janov in London and subsequently landed in Los Angeles at the very beginning of 1973 to undergo Primal Therapy.
It is, of course, impossible to say. To paraphrase someone else who was speaking about the past, what might have been is another country.
So I must rely on knowing what I, a reserved, privately educated, middle class Englishman lacking a real direction in life who smoked and drank too much did draw from this unlikely adventure.
I was able to release myself from the straight jacket into which I had been sown by my family’s forever unexpressed grief at the death of my mother when I was two with its lifelong and myriad ramifications.
I was invited to train as a Primal Therapist and in so doing discovered a passion and hopefully some talent for helping others to realise themselves.
I gained a priceless clarity of insight into everyday human suffering; that kind of silent, corrosive misery that afflicts so many as a result of needs unrecognised, neglected or abused. I came to understand what makes people “tick”, as they say. I took what I learned into a rewarding career managing people to help others.
I credit Arthur Janov’s ideas as a key factor in enabling me to have the life I have enjoyed since the day I took up residence in a cockroach infested studio apartment behind a famous liquor store on Sunset Boulevard in January 1973.
I am grateful to him for four things in particular: recognising the reality of primal pain, understanding its lifelong effects, realising it could be felt consciously and that this could facilitate recovery and revitalisation.
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I recently received this email from a long time Primal Patient of mine. I was immediately taken aback by the nuance and seemingly endless permutations of our deepest Primal feelings. This patient’s ruthlessly honest personal inventory detailing the damage done to him and the damage done by him to loved ones and others is heartbreaking. The painful childhood filled with hurt, anger, neglect and abuse, the Primal/Existential horror of what was done to many of us seems to have its mirror image in the scar tissue we may have contributed to in the lives of the people we love. This depth of Primal reality is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Barry Bernfeld
“Letter to Barry” by Shane Roberts
Barry, This is the worst.
I was reminiscing about how I might have chosen someone who would have
been a caring, nurturing, supportive, partner to me.
Then I pictured all the women and girlfriends I have been with. I
remembered how I had been cruel to all of them and hurt them all. I
thought how this had undermined my opportunity for love.
Then Susan came to mind.
I spent three months dating Heidi in my sophomore year of high school.
She was 6 months older and a junior. Susan was a popular, beautiful,
petite, Jewish girl (reformed, her NY relatives were orthodox), who
made me feel more loved than anyone ever had.
I adored her. I couldn’t imagine life without her. I wanted her
I grew possessive, frustrated and angry. I hurt her. She left me. It
broke my heart. For years.
So I cried this morning about the lost opportunity with my one true
Then like some deep sea creature, some monster of the deep, broke the
surface of my consciousness.
First all the women I have abused. Then everyone in my life who has
Any time I might have offered refuge and comfort to a suffering
friend, lover or family member, and didn’t.
Barry I don’t think I would or could ever confess this to anyone but
And I’m not even sure why I’m doing that. I don’t know what it serves.
Some need I have.
It just came rushing in. Anyone who has ever suffered anything like
how I have, if I might have held out a hand, slung my arm around their
shoulder, offered some bit of comfort, some reassurance that they are
not just alone. Alone with their pain.
I aspired to be that person. I certainly held it as an ideal. A
humanitarian approach to my brother and sister fellow travelers. To be
a kind person. A sympathetic person. A generous person.
I just didn’t know how. Just did not have it in me.
I feel like Lenny in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. I don’t want to
hurt nothin’ but if I get excited and confused I squeeze the puppy too
hard and it dies. I don’t mean to kill it.
It’s the worst. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt. The worst.
I’ve howled and howled. I don’t know why but it is the worst. Nothing
has ever been worse. Not even the agonies of infancy.
This is definitely the worst.
I find myself posturing against the pain. I have to remind myself to
relax my body and breathe and not posture to grip against the pain.
Weird postures. Weird movements.
I’ve pictured catatonics in mental hospitals for years. They are no
mystery to me at all.
By the time I was ten we lived on one half acre with a horse coral, a
large swimming pool, huge yard, a large home in an affluent
neighborhood of Sacramento, California. Behind our fenced half acre
was a field with a modest shack of a home on it that we did not have
direct access to.
One summer a boy about my age and build (small and skinny) with ring
worm all over his scalp causing hair loss, showed up from the “shack
house” behind us to introduce himself and play. He was dirty and
shabbily dressed (about the way I would have been appeared a year or
two before, on our farm) and seemed lonely and eager for a friend.
I think I was intrigued at first, although somewhat put off by the
ring worm, and we played together the first time we met. I may have
played with him one more time and then he showed up at the window of
our back door one day.
I thought; “Oh god, this creepy kid is going to want to come around
and play with me all the time.” And I could feel his need. I froze in
the doorway of our kitchen staring at him. He waved and stared back. I
just stood and stared. Finally I walked away from the kitchen door,
away from him, and I never saw him again.
I felt ill. Sick inside. One of my worst memories ever. Always. I’ve
never forgotten. I felt like I took a poisoned dagger and just stuck
it straight into that kid’s heart. I knew I might be his only
“friend.” And I wasn’t his friend. I knew he desperately longed for a
friend and might have a hard time finding one.
I was wracked with guilt.
Another time I was walking the mile home from school and I saw three
boys bullying another boy. Pushing him down on the ground.
I thought that wasn’t right. Someone should do something. And I felt
weak and helpless. I should go stop those boys, not let them do that.
But I knew I wasn’t strong enough, or just too cowardly. I never would
have tried to stop them.
Some years later in high school two boys started a fist fight in the
hall. I stood back watching. John , an acquaintance of mine and
star of the varsity football team burst on the scene and broke up the
fight. I thought; “That was the right thing to do. Why didn’t I even
think of doing that?”
These are the incidents that came immediately to mind once I stopped
rolling around the house screaming with the shear agony of such an
Instead of being a refuge and a comfort to people in my predicament,
suffering, lonely, longing for love, I was another blind self-absorbed
hypnotic, incapable of seeing them, empathizing, recognizing their
suffering, their need for a little comfort, some kindness.
That hurts so much. That hurts more than anything. Nothing compares.
That I just wasn’t there for people who might of cared for me, loved
me, been kind to me, but I drove them away, adding to their load of
Oh god that hurts.
I feel so alone. So bad. So radioactive.
This is the worst. So far. This is the worst. I really hope it doesn’t
get worse than this.
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