They are self-fashioned revolutionaries who summon the spirit of Karl Marx. They call upon the ghosts of intellectual luminaries like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, fashioning their linguistic and psycho social discoveries into a home brewed concoction called social therapy.
Social therapy challenges the dominant psychological paradigm by rejecting the individuated self as a myth, no more than a social construct. It focuses not on the individual psyche, but on the social therapy group as the “unit of growth.” The social therapist treats the group itself, not its individual members, and as the group grows and develops, so do those that comprise it.
Development is the key, the panacea for every emotional challenge, every relational issue, every societal and political problem, the fulcrum to lift the world beyond its atrophied state of non developmental being to a growthful, transcendent level of ongoing transformation.
The magic lies in the ZPD, the Zone of Proximal Development, the social environment created by the social therapy group and the facilitators who guide the group in its process of transformation and growth. The ZPD was a discovery of Vygotsky, whose research showed that the linguistic development of children was an inherently social process. Social therapy generalizes this discovery to the therapeutic realm, holding that adults grow emotionally and socially by creatively imitating those who are more advanced in their development. Humans are inherently imitative by nature, so give them an opportunity to imitate those more developed than themselves, more advanced, and they grow.
Does social therapy cure the emotional ills that ail you? Or, as some claim, is it a surreptitious way to insinuate the political ideas and ideals of a group of sixties leftists into the hearts and minds of its vulnerable patients using as a ruse the stated aim of helping them to “develop?”
The late Dr. Fred Newman, the philosopher, playwright and activist who created social therapy, wasn't one to be coy about his politics. Nor was he inclined to draw firm distinctions between politics and therapy or anything else, for he considered such distinctions to be false. To him, therapy was inherently political because political values underlie the purpose and aims of therapy. Social therapy was based on some very explicit political values.
Social therapy is about nothing less than revolution. But not the kind of revolution involving guns and bearded rebels. Revolution that starts by mobilizing the revolutionary potential of those who join the social therapy group to become the active creators of their own lives. Once they do this, they are only one step away from spreading that revolutionary fervor to the rest of the world via social therapy's sibling enterprises, a youth development program called The All Stars Project and an independent political movement based on the same foundational premises. Development is the key - in therapy, in culture, in politics.
Dr. Newman was indeed a brilliant man, a “world-class thinker,” as he was routinely described at the seasonal “institutes” that provided him a forum for addressing his flock. A Stanford trained philosopher turned activist, playwright and political power broker, Newman parlayed his Marxist-Leninist sympathies for the downtrodden and disenfranchised into significant artistic, academic and political achievements. Several books about his social therapeutic approach, numerous political plays, a youth development program for inner city kids and a political movement that helped elect Michael Bloomberg mayor of New York City three times all sprouted under his direction, with the help of his devoted followers. Not lightweight accomplishments, and all worthy of admiration and respect.
The social therapy group was for many the entree into Fred Newman's psycho-politial world. Many of those who worked closely with him over the years came to him as therapy clients, including some who became his lovers and live in partners. The fact that people joined in Newman's political and cultural efforts after coming in contact with social therapy raised many an eyebrow of those critical of Newman's community, the reason being that people in therapy are often needy and vulnerable to manipulation. Such concerns fell on deaf ears in the Newman community, responded to with the rejoinder that therapy patients should not be related to as weak and incapable of making their own choices.
This is a questionable assumption. Yes, therapy clients are able to make choices, but the choice to make any major life change, particularly one as far reaching as joining a left wing activist community that demands an ideological commitment from its members, is best made when one is strong in one's life, not when one is weakened by emotional distress and difficulty. When your life is in crisis and you are confused and unhappy, you are not dealing from a position of strength. In fact, you are in no condition to sensibly consider devoting heaps of time and energy to a community trying to change the world.
My own backstory goes like this: I noticed a classified ad in the back pages of a local weekly that read something like - We don't plumb the depths of your psyche. We help you make choices and move on with your life. It was just what I wanted to hear. I did not want to make a long-term commitment to psychotherapy. I wanted a quick solution.
I called the number in the ad and made an appointment. The therapist, I'll call her Martha, was a bird like woman in her late 40's with short wavy blonde hair. Martha was pleasant, a very nice woman, and I explained to her that I was in a romantic relationship and wanted out, but I just didn't have the nerve to do it. Help me get out of this relationship, I told her.
This demand led to numerous questions, such as, Why do you want out of the relationship? and Why do you find it hard to do on your own? and What does the rest of your life look like? A few weeks became a few months and before I knew it I had joined a therapy group where, I was told, I would get the help I needed to break up with Miriam and build my life.
"How long do you think I'll need to be in group til I am cured?" I asked Martha, as if inquiring about the length of a jail sentence.
"About six months," she said.
Six months (and not a minute more) seemed tolerable, I said, although it sure wasn't the short-term deal promised in the ad.
I had been in therapy groups before, a couple times, and had never stayed more than a few weeks. Never liked sitting around on pillows talking about my feelings. Never liked listening to others talk about their feelings either.
But this therapy group seemed different. A woman I'll call Sarah, another woman in her 40's, led the group and Martha co-facilitated. Sarah was brilliant. The group members, mostly gay men and gay and straight women, were friendly and supportive. I liked the experience, much to my surprise, and thought I was getting the help I needed.
My life was nothing to envy in those days, some 15 years ago. I had latched onto Miriam, (who, ironically, came to me by way of a personal ad in the same weekly magazine I found the therapy through) because I had nothing else going for me. I had no friends to speak of — for reasons I won't explain — and I was really isolated. I truly needed some kind of therapeutic help.
Within six months, I broke up with Miriam, greatly relieved to have done so, and began moving on with my life. Like any therapy patient, I just wanted to make my life work, to overcome my limitations. My aims were modest and ordinary. Make a few friends, find a lover – have a life. I was optimistic that I would get the support I needed to do that by continuing to work in the social therapy group.
In the early years, I raved to the sky about social therapy. Had you asked me then, I would have told you that it saved my life. I would have spoken of development, learning to be giving, building the group and life performance – all social therapeutic buzz words that had taken root in my mind. I would have mentioned philosophers like Wittgenstein, social scientists like Lev Vygotsky and revolutionaries like Karl Marx. I was intoxicated with heady, cutting-edge post-modernist ideas.
Why, then, would I say nothing positive about social therapy today? Because, over time, the Newman community ultimately became detrimental to my growth. How? By readily providing the very things my life was most lacking at the time — turnkey friendships, an instant social circle, a sense of purpose — the Newman community offered up a convenient illusion that I was all too willing to accept, that I was at last becoming successful at building relationships and breaking out of isolation when nothing of the sort was really happening. The Newman community came to my rescue at a critical point in my life, but in the long run, rather than empower me to create the life I wanted, it substituted itself for that life to further its own ends.
Psychologists have a term called co-dependency. Classic co-dependency involves one person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol and another who is emotionally dependent on that person in an debilitating way. But co-dependency can take other forms and it can involve not just individuals but whole communities.
I am convinced now that I was in a co-dependent relationship with the Newman community, that I was emotionally dependent on it in a very unhealthy way, and that I was manipulated into that dependency by self-serving representatives of the Newman community who used their positions of authority to turn me into fodder to advance their goals of political and social change.
What I am painting here is the picture of a kind of cult – not one as it's usually conceived, with spiritual gurus wearing flowing robes, brainwashing their followers and having illicit sex – but one based on political and philosophical ideals. In this cult, Fred Newman served the role of guru, for he was idolized and treated like a man whose every word bore the hallmark of profound truth.
The social therapists in the Newman community, many of whom had been with him for decades, were similarly regarded as infallible purveyors of truth and wisdom, their every word clung to like a pronouncement from Olympus. These modern-day holies were never challenged or doubted, but regarded as the highest and most evolved sources of wisdom. To question anything they said was the ultimate kind of insolence and disrespect, quickly bringing down on the head of the offending apostate the collective wrath of the social therapeutic following.
I recall a woman who had been a good friend of the group's “facilitator” (she wasn't a formally qualified therapist) summarily cut off when she objected to the “party line” held to by the social therapy group. Her sudden excommunication was ugly, mean spirited and cultish in its insistence on conformity to appropriately normative conduct. The lesson was clear: buck the system and you will be gone.
When I look back on the last 15 years, I feel bewilderment and a sense of profound loss. How did I squander so much time and energy serving the interests of others? How did I become a patsy for manipulative do-gooders wanting to “change the world,” sixties true believers who claimed not to have abandoned their values or acquiesced to corporate servitude? And how did I spend so much time in therapy without getting what I wanted from it?
Some tell me that I am too eager to play the victim, that I was at least partially to blame, that I should take responsibility for my choice to become so deeply involved in the Newman community's activities. Why couldn't I see I was involved in a secular cult, fanatics led by an idealistic ex-philosophy professor, true-believers who devoted their lives to achieve the ends he dictatorially set out for them? I had heard such accusations time and time again but I chose to ignore them. To be sure, the issue of my own culpability is one I must come to terms with.
Bad things happen to good people, but you don't expect them to be perpetrated by those in the white hats, the ones who want to alleviate poverty, advance democracy and improve race relations. But ideological fervor, like greed and ambition, can blind people to ethical concerns. The Newman community clearly puts its political ambitions first and is willing to exploit people in its quest for social and political transformation.
If I can find a silver lining in this story, it is of the school of hard knocks variety — I have a wariness of people who are fanatically devoted to high ideals and lofty goals formerly reserved for those driven by greed and ambition. I am now instilled with a deep skepticism regarding the motives of others and an awareness of the fact that I must always look out for myself because no one else will.
Least of all the Newman community.