Last week, Connell Watkins, an unlicensed Evergreen, Colo., "therapist," and her assistant Julie Ponder were convicted of reckless child abuse in the death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker, who died of asphyxiation during a "rebirthing" session. Now that the two women face up to 48 years in prison, now that the nation has expressed its outrage at the radical therapy that led to the tragedy and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens has signed "Candace's Law" banning rebirthing in his state, the temptation is to sit back, breathing a sigh of relief that justice has been done and a horror like this won't happen again. But it will.
As an example of therapy run amok, this incident involving a little girl wrapped tightly in a blanket, choking on her own vomit and vainly pleading for her life, was particularly grotesque, the stuff of nightmares. But it was far from unique.
For at least 30 years, stories of patients pursuing experimental treatments with similarly tragic outcomes to that of Candace and her mother, Jeane Newmaker, have surfaced at regular intervals. They all have at their center deeply troubled souls hungry not for help but cures, and programs that promised to provide them. In the 1970s, it was Synanon and the Center for Feeling Therapy, a Los Angeles program run by mostly unlicensed therapists who beat, abused, controlled and financially exploited 350 long-term patients, leaving their lives a shambles. A similar group, the Sullivanians, flourished in New York City.
The 1980s brought therapies for now widely discredited diagnoses of "recovered memory" and "multiple personality" disorders, which some therapists proclaimed the true cause of problems that ranged from depression to sexual dysfunction to obesity. In one typical case, a Des Moines woman who sought help for depression had her life ruined by a Chicago psychiatrist who encouraged her to believe she had 300 personalities, had participated in a satanic cult that plotted to kill her children, and that her father had ground human remains into hamburger for meatloaf. (Several hospitalizations and two suicide attempts later, she accepted a $10.6-million malpractice settlement.)
The '90s brought treatment for "reactive attachment disorder," a syndrome in which a deprived or abused child--like Candace--has difficulty forming intimate bonds. (The disorder remains controversial, because there's no consensus on the uncertainty of the diagnosis.) The kind of rebirthing process Candace went through was just one of the experimental therapies devised to cure it; another was "rage reduction therapy," a rough restraint of children intended to help them understand their emotional estrangement. It, too, led to excesses: A Utah 3-year-old died after her father attempted to apply the techniques, and a Tarrant County, Texas, practitioner was ordered to pay $8.4 million to a 15-year-old girl his treatment left covered with bruises. As early as 1998, Colorado medical examiners had accused psychiatrist Foster Cline, who pioneered the therapy, of grossly negligent practices.
Why do otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people embrace treatments that, in retrospect, seem so clearly mad? Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, points to desperation, tremendous guilt on the part of parents "when there's something wrong with their child that they can't fix." But there's another factor at work, too: widespread, unreasonable assumptions about what therapy should be and can do.
Nearly 50 years ago, humanist psychologists like Erik Erikson, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers challenged traditional Freudian claims that to be human was to be filled with inner conflict. Nor did they accept that the best analysis could do was help a patient understand and cope. Instead, they said, the natural state of humans is one of wholeness and joy, and treatment should aim to help everyone realize his or her full "potential."
By the 1960s, when economic prosperity made room for more self-indulgent pursuits like examining one's inner self, therapy, once drawn-out, exclusive and expensive, reached the masses in the form of encounter groups. The groups were frequently harsh and combative, and pushed the idea that change came fast.
By 1970, Arthur Janov, founder of "primal therapy" (made wildly popular by Beatle John Lennon), went one step further, flatly declaring that all neurosis came from infant trauma and that his therapy, which specialized in overnight transformation, could cure it.
Most '60s and '70s therapy programs didn't last. But they left deep and permanent changes in the way we view our lives (we are entitled to be fulfilled and happy), our problems (they have specific, simple, diagnosable roots) and, above all, the practice and role of therapy. We now turn to therapists, whether as self-help authors, commentators or actual practitioners, for advice that in earlier times would have come from clergy, parents and community. We expect therapy to be dramatically transformative, with frequent, climactic "breakthroughs" (an expectation encouraged by the culture of advertising, which tells us that anything from makeup to a new car can turn us into a new person). We accept that it may be harsh--an acceptance, notes Caplan, that taps into fundamentalist American beliefs that suffering is redemptive. Above all, we expect it to provide a "cure."
Although ethical, well-trained therapists refuse to go along with these beliefs, those who are less moral or more driven by their own convictions are happy to indulge. And the media, particularly talk shows, with their insatiable appetite for guests to fill airtime, help by parading every new guru who comes along, often without bothering to check out his or her credentials or the theory's validity.
But while the pain that drives people to seek treatment is often deep and legitimate, the sad reality of life is that many problems have a complicated stew of causes and no definitive cures. A marriage can go pale and sour because of the family histories of each spouse, their gender beliefs, their feelings about themselves, their pleasure or disappointment in their individual lives. An intensive therapeutic weekend aimed at "teaching intimacy" can't necessarily bring it back to life. Making peace with one's inner child won't guarantee weight loss in a sedentary, fast-food society. The despair of a man or woman stuck with a low-wage job and bad child-care options can't be counseled away. And poor Candace, whose childhood was marked by poverty, constant moves and multigenerational family dysfunction, whose birth mother twice lost custody to social workers and who Candace said once dropped her out a second-story window, may not ever have become the well-adjusted, affectionate girl that Jeane Newmaker so craved.
Sometimes, good therapy can help us understand, face and tame our demons. Sometimes, it can greatly improve our lives. But neither it nor anything else can prevent life from being hard and unfair. It can't guarantee happiness. It can't guarantee cure. These are the hard lessons of adulthood, and there's no sign that we as a culture have learned them. The next therapeutic tragedy is out there, waiting.
Carol Lynn Mithers Is the Author of "Therapy Gone Mad: the True Story of Hundreds of Patients and a Generation Betrayed."