Institute's Brand of Counseling: Therapy, Religion or Both?

Marblehead Reporter/February 22, 1987
By Kenny Wooton and Erica Spaberg

Marblehead, Massachusetts -- A common thread runs through the ads. They usually mention some kind of "active collaborative" approach to psychotherapy. One reads: "Ideal for skeptical thinkers, agnostics and students." During one recent week, three such ads appeared in the Reporter. A quick scan of the Yellow Pages under "P" reveals even more.

The reason the ads sound similar is because the people who placed them are all affiliated with an organization called the Cambridge Psychotherapy Institute (CPI). They are also members of the Soc., a religion started by the institute's controversial founder, Dr. Peter Gill. Gill's ideas and approaches to psychotherapy have earned him admiration in some circles and erision in others.

Therapists who adhere to Gill's teachings say he is brilliant, and claim he has changed their lives for the better. But some mainstream psychotherapy question his beliefs and methods, and a state regulatory board has moved to revoke his license. (See Story, p. 6.) The issue of licensing psychotherapists, the "cult" associations some people make when they hear about the therapists' affiliation with Gill's religion, and the negative publicity generated by Gill's problems all serve to cloud the potential merits of Gill's brand of therapy.

None of the local institute-affiliated therapists contacted by the Reporter is a licensed mental health care professional. In fact, several don't have undergraduate degrees. But no law in Massachusetts says they have to be licensed and no law says the have to have degrees to practice psychotherapy. Anyone can practice psychotherapy in Massachusetts. Psychiatrists and psychologists, on the other hand, must be licensed to practice in the state. To obtain a license, psychologists must have a doctorate, they must have completed an internship and they must pass an examination. Psychiatrists must hold medical degrees.

Gill formed the institute in 1973 to train therapists. Based in Gill's Newton home, the institute has about 80 members who all receive individual and group psychotherapy from either Gill or one of about a half-dozen senior members of the institute. They also attend at least one seminar each week run by Gill and one supervisory session each week with Gill or a senior member.

Among the institute's basic beliefs are that the patient is a consumer and is viewed as an active collaborator with the therapist. The institute also maintains that psychotherapy must be done in the context of an important loving relationship and that the therapist should encourage the patient to consider and incorporate new beliefs. "An important friendship develops within the therapeutic relationship," said Deborah Bohnert, a Swampscott therapist and one of the institute's senior members. "But we don't believe in socializing together. Objectivity must be maintained."

Another important aspect of the institute's teachings holds that the purpose of life is to enjoy, not to engage in self-sacrifice. Members also believe that personality is learned and that there are no bad people, only good and bad behavior. "All people are born innocent," said Barbara Ball, a Marblehead therapist trained at the institute. "The quality of life - how happy you are - is very important."

These beliefs take on a religious tone for good reason. They reflect many of the basic tenets of the Society of Natural Science - Gill's religion. And some of these beliefs, Gill asserts, are the basis for much of the criticism leveled against him. Part of the reason the religion was started, he says, was to exercise and teach his beliefs without interference from the mainstream psychology community. "Religion is one of the bastions of free thinking that isn't controlled by some licensing board," he said.

Gill believes religions and psychotherapy share much of the same turf. That belief was another factor in the formation of the religion. "It's a natural outgrowth of where we've been evolving since the institute was formed in 1973," said Gill. The religion also holds that the scientific process is the only reliable and acceptable methodology in the attempt to discover and clarify the truths of man's existence. It also maintains that Mother Nature is God and that the truths of man's existence can be found through understanding the laws of nature. The religion defines selfishness as man's natural responsiveness to his own motivation, and asserts that man's behavior is always selfish except when physically forced from without.

Man's basic function and the purpose of life, according to the religion's tenets, is the gratification of his own motivation, or hedonism. It also holds that all religions are psychologies, and all psychologies are religions. The older religions are primitive psychologies established before the development of the modern scientific method, according to the religion's tenets. "The development of our thinking has led us into the realization that we are dealing with the most basic of all issues," said Gill. "Psycho-religious issues."

While the local therapists approach their work from a viewpoint framed by the tenets of Gill's religion, none mentions their association with the society or the institute in their ads. But no law in Massachusetts says they have to. and none of them say they attempt to hide the affiliation with the society or the institute. Therapist Maryclaire Wellinger who has practice in Marblehead for four years, said, "I think all my patients know my training and my association with the institute." Said Ball: "Eventually, people will realize that we good people whose first priority is treatment of our patients." Asked whether patients are encouraged to join the religion, Ball responded, "absolutely not, it's up to the individual what they want to do."

Another central belief of the institute and the society is that the tenets of both are subject to intelligent skepticism. That belief trickles down to the relationship between patient and the therapist in which the patient is viewed as a consumer. The institute does not regulate fee structures. Local therapists contacted by the Reporter charge between $25 and $50 per session. Patients are not charged for up to three initial interviews and are encouraged to carefully question their therapist before deciding to hire him or her.

"We support good consumerism," said Swampscott therapist James Moineau. Gill's problems with the licensing board, the psychological association and the malpractice suit have generated publicity, much of it negative. What effect, if any, has the negative press had on local therapists' practices? Robert Merrigan, a part-time therapist in Swampscott and Bohnert's husband said, "It's helped us. Our patients are objective thinkers who take on the status quo."

Despite Gill's problems, the therapists insist that the philosophical foundations of the therapy are sound. "All I can say," said Bohnert, who's been a full-time therapist since 1977, "is that it's improved my life by 80 percent."

A Sidebar article by Kenny Wooton was published with the article

Gill's Plight Raises Licensing Issues

Depending on whom you listen to, Dr. Peter Gill is either a victim or a villain; an innovator or a rogue. But one thing is sure, his problems with the state Board of Registration of Psychologists and the American Psychological Association have revealed flaw in the system and raised questions about the practice of licensing and regulation in the state. In 1983, Wallace Ralston filed a complaint with the state Board of Registration of Psychologists alleging, among other things, that Gill - through his treatment of Ralston's wife as a patient at the institute - ruined their marriage. As a result, the licensing board began proceedings to revoke Gill's license.

Gill is also the defendant in a malpractice suit brought by Ralston, himself a former patient of Gill's. Gill has responded with a defamation of character suit against Ralston. Ralston also complained about Gill to the American Psychological Association which voted to expel him in 1984. Gill countered by resigning his membership. Since the 1983 complaint was filed, the licensing board has persisted in its efforts to revoke Gill's license. Gill asserts he has been denied due process. And in 1985, a magistrate in Division of Administrative Appeals ruled that the board did not have enough evidence to issue a show cause order. The order could have led to the revocation of Gill's license to practice psychology.

Following that ruling, Gill tore up his license, intending to "resign" from that board's jurisdiction, as well. But neither the registration board nor the psychological association accepts Gill's resignation, arguing that someone under investigation cannot resign. The board of registration action against him is still pending. Gill argued that the administrative justice settle the matter of the complain with her 1985 ruling.

And in an interview Monday, Gill said his resignation wasn't an attempt to "slime out" of any charges against him. "The real interest in this story is the danger of runaway government," he said. "I want to be able to do what I think is a sober, idealistic, innovative thing." And he added, "I want to be left alone." The root of his problems, Gill asserted, lies not in the merits of any charges against him, but in the clubbish attitudes of the psychological establishment who want to maintain control over who can or cannot practice. "The establishment would like to maintain a monopoly in this field," he said. Gill said he is perceived as a "traitor to my own breed." He said, "I'm a rebel, I'm a maverick. I know damn well I'm not training people who will ever be licensed."

Dr. Herbert Hoffman, a member of the board of registration, said the board accepted the administrative justice's decision. But he argued that Boston magistrate Sarah H. Luick considered only the process and not the merits of the case. Arguments were heard before the state Supreme Judicial Court January 9 in a suit Gill h as brought challenging the board of registration's jurisdiction over him. A ruling is expected in that case in a few months.

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