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The Primal Scream, by Arthur Janov

October 15, 2010
The Primal Scream

The Primal Scream

According to Arthur Janov in his recent book, The Primal Scream, “neurosis is a disease of the feeling. At its core is the suppression of feeling and its transmutation into a wide range of neurolic behavior.”

In a culture whose educational goals are directed toward the development of the mind or, more precisely, the technological use of the mind, this is not a surprising diagnosis. Suppression of feeling is obviously a price we pay for viewing rationality apart from the energies of the whole man. But Janov does not “console” himself with the rationalization that we live in an age of neurosis . . .” He suggests that “there is something beyond improved functioning in socially acceptable ways, something beyond symptomatic relief . . . there is a state of being quite different from that which we have conceived . . .”

Janov believes that neurosis begins when a child is not loved and accepted for what he is. Not being able to be himself, not being able to feel his own real needs without a painful sense of contradiction, he shuts himself off from his feelings and begins to “want” those things which he believes will bring his parents’ love. But the denied needs do not disappear. The pressure generated by their lack of fulfillment accumulates in his organism, upsetling its natural balance, and causing behavior which becomes increasingly “symbolic.” This symbolic behavior eventually shields the neurotic from his own inner pain, and supports him in his “hope” that his substitute wants and needs will somehow be satisfied. He does not realize that his struggle for satisfaction is essentially historical, that it derives its energy from the pains of the past. As a result, the neurotic’s life is full of the tensions that arise from his constantly defending himself against himself. As Janov points out, “people go crazy to keep from feeling their truth.”

Janov believes that the entire process of neurosis and its cure can be understood in relation to energy transformations. “We know by the law of conservation of energy that energy cannot be destroyed; it can only be transformed. I view the original Primal Feelings as essentially neuro-chemical energy which is transformed into kinetic or mechanical energy impelling constant physical motion or internal pressure. The aim of Primal Therapy is to change this transformed energy back into its original state, so that there will no longer be an inner force pushing the person toward compulsive action.”

How is this change accomplished? It is here that Janov makes his most radical break with traditional forms of therapy. He claims that it is only by a “forceful upheaval” of the entire defensive system that the neurotic can become real. For unless this system is completely destroyed it wiil continue to “grind up and absorb” whatever truth may reach it, whether through explanations, analysis, insights or any other means. An obvious truth, yet perhaps ineffectual in itself because it is the “unreal system” which hears it and pretends to agree. The neurotic, therefore, cannot cure himself.

According to Janov, since pain caused the neurotic split in the first place, it is only through intentionally experiencing this denied pain that the kinetic energy of neurosis can be changed back to its neuro-chemical form—thereby depriving the defensive system of its source of energy, and freeing a man from his slavery to the past. To facilitate this process Janov believes that the therapist must help the patient lose control, the defensive control which keeps the real self suppressed. The therapist attempts to keep the patient from dissipating his energy (draining off his pain) through “symbolic behavior.” In the midst of a buildup of internal pressure the patient is encouraged lo “sink into” any early situation that evokes strong feelings and to experience that situation in its entirety. If there is any resistance to this in the form of talking “about” the past, instead of living it, the patient is encouraged to call out to his mother or father (or others who might be important in this situation) as though he were speaking directly to them, and to try to express what he really feels.

Sometimes the therapist has to work directly with the patient’s breathing. “Because neurotic breathing is designed to clamp down against the pain, forcing the Primal patient to breathe deeply often helps lift the lid of repression. The result is the emission of explosive force, something which has been diffused throughout his body, in the form of high blood pressure, elevated temperature, shaky hands, or whatever . . .”

When the Primal Scream occurs, it “is at once a scream from the pain and a liberating event where the person’s defense system is dramatically opened up. It results from the pressure of holding ihe real self back, possibly for decades.” Janov makes it clear, however, that it is not the scream which is curative, but the pain the patient experiences as a result of being “wide open to his truth.”

By the end of Primal Therapy, which consists of an intensive three-week period, along with three months or more of group therapy, the patient has undergone many such experiences through which he is brought into contact with his own real feelings. The post-Primal patient, says Janov, is a “new kind of human being.” He is able to live fully in the present, without fear, without moods, without depressions, and without unnecessary tension.

Whether or not we accept this claim, Janov’s work with neurosis makes clearer the importance of the feelings for human growth to take place. “The activities which will make basic changes in individuals must flow from their feelings. The flow must occur from the inside out.” Clearly, this is an important idea for a culture which believes that meaningful human change can be manipulated from without, lacking the active participation of man’s own will. The latest experiments in altering behavior through the use of electrodes implanted in the brain represents this position in extreme. Janov recognizes that it is the whole of a man’s being which is at stake, not only his behavior. The neurotic must be willing to undergo a new dimension of pain in the movement from unreality to reality, with full acceptance of what he discovers in himself.

It is just here that Janov’s work with neurosis seems to be changing direction. In his latest book, The Anatomy of Menial Illness, he reports that many of his patients have relived their birth, that is, they have experienced “birth Primals.” Since all life processes follow natural rhythms, it is important, as Janov states, for a child to be born in his own rhythm. To have a difficult birth, to enter the world already out of rhythm with himself, establishes in the child unconscious attitudes towards life, a matrix of experience that reverberates through the child’s whole being.

Janov has equipped his office with various devices to simulate the birth process, thereby producing sensations which can reawaken the buried memory circuits that plague the neurotic. He also suggests the possibility of a “Primal Machine for refractory cases”; he has found that primals can be induced by means of a strobe light pulsating at specific frequencies.

Whatever the importance of Janov’s latest discoveries, the stress he places on them seems to diminish the call to wholeness that one feels in The Primal Scream. One cannot help but be moved by this call. But the acceptance of the whole of oneself is an enormous undertaking for any man, neurotic or normal. Surely all of us have a scream waiting beneath the facade of our “reality”—the universal scream of mortality and incomprehension, of which the sorrows of parental conditioning are but one expression. But whom can we trust to bring this scream forward?

I wrote this review of The Primal Scream with a lot of help from the Material for Thought writing team, in 1971/72. Reading it again recently, it became clear to me that a lot of the material in this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first written.

To fully understand what this review meant to me, personally, it’s helpful to realize that, at least initially, I really didn’t want to write it. In looking for books to review for Material for Thought I had stumbled across the book in a bookstore, briefly paged through it, and decided it wasn’t worthy. I told no one.

Some weeks later, Lord John Pentland, who had been put in charge of the Gurdjieff Work in America by Gurdjieff himself shortly before his death, came to San Francisco, came into the writing team on our Sunday workday (it was his team), handed me The Primal Scream, and asked me to review it. I then told him I didn’t think it was a worthy book for us, but he insisted.

When I first began the review I had no idea what I was getting into. The way we worked on the team every Sunday was to work on writing the review and then read what we had written to the others on the team. There was usually a lot of feedback, not always easy to take but always given to one another in a respectful way, which generally helped each of us broaden our perspective on what we had written. When Lord Pentland came to town, we would each read our reviews out loud in his presence and he would make whatever comments he felt it necessary to make.

When I first read the review in Lord Pentland’s presence, he made it clear that I had to begin again. He said that I had not really faced my feelings in the review. And so it went, month after month. I would write and work with the team, he would come to town, I would read the review in his presence, and he would tell me that I hadn’t really faced my own feelings, and I would have to begin again. I felt like Milarepa (without the magical or spiritual powers) being told by Marpa to continually tear down, because of some imperfection in his work, the stone structure that Marpa had told him to build on a high rocky ridge. In my case, it had nothing to do with the writing itself, but rather with my inability to face my real feelings about this book and, more importantly, about myself. Each time Lord Pentland told me to begin again, he would give me a new thought or question to consider, which was an enormous help.

After about a year of beginning again and again, and actually beginning to learn to confront my real feelings, which was quite obviously no easy task for me at that time of my life, Lord Pentland came to San Francisco, listened to me read my review, and then remained silent for at least five minutes. Finally, he simply nodded his head yes and said, “Good. We’ll begin the next issue of Material for Thought with Dennis’ review.” Tears came into my eyes, as they do right now in recalling this moment, and I realized how important reading and reviewing this book was for me in relation to feeling my truth. How did Lord Pentland know? It doesn’t matter! He knew. He is no longer on this planet, but he was and still is my teacher.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2010 2:26 pm

    Hi Dennis,
    As always your writing is very inspiring and I enjoy and learn something new each time.
    Especially this one since I have mental illness in my family. I think with all illnesses, that we are removed from our True Self and healing is home coming to who we really are as human beings. I think it was an interesting process you went through and it also tells how much we can learn from a book. Thank you for sharing from your life.

    • October 16, 2010 7:40 am

      Lili, you are most welcome. I am so glad you picked up on aspects of my real intention in including the review here, which I wrote so many years ago. It was indeed a powerful feeling process I went through in writing it.

  2. October 16, 2010 6:12 am

    While Janov’s Primal Therapies, Ricke’s Primal treatments and Re-Evaluation Co-Counciling treatments focus on a somatic form of emotional discharge, The amount of trauma released from the body is minuscule compared to Crainio-Sacral treatments by the right therapist with the patient schooled in meditative relaxed attention and breath direction to affected parts of the body. This lack of effectiveness by the former three therapies mentioned , I believe, is from a lack of information on the physical dynamics of our bodies in two aspects: One: Traumas entering the body are stored unprocessed by the brain and go directly into certain areas of the body and are constantly available under any re-stimulation experience. Hence habitual behaviors. Two: The knowledge of electrical human processes and energy meridians of humans is clearly revealed under Upledger’s research and treatments. A third factor is how connected the patient is from his or her own body processes and the significant effect breathing, meditation and relaxation tech by the patient can have to assist the Crainio-Sacral therapist during treatments. I can attest to the permanent and profoundly freeing discharges that happen on the Crainio-Sacral table! Over the course of 3 years my body has discharged the lion’s share of traumatic tension and the rebuilding of the effected areas with a meditative relaxed breath into what many spiritual leaders call enlightenment. The relative slowness of the other 3 therapies is just a lack of quantity in the discharges as opposed to a direct physical approach that Crainio-Sacral has.

    • October 16, 2010 7:36 am

      Wayne, thanks for your thoughts on PT.

      I did not include that review here to promote PT, which I have absolutely no interest in doing, but rather to explore some important issues regarding our ability to feel. Those issues are touched on in the review.

      More importantly, however, I wanted to convey, if only briefly, that the process I went through in writing the review, with the help of others, brought me closer to my own real feelings.

  3. October 17, 2010 2:25 pm

    Thanks again, Dennis for putting into words the incredible journey of learning that is possible when we open ourselves up to the lessons put before us. I reflected on this article and it really struck me that due to your openness and willingness to take the advice from your teacher and learn from it, that you gained so much more than you most likely ever expected. That’s the beauty of it, really. Thanks so much turning the light on even brighter.

  4. Paul Keeley permalink
    February 13, 2011 5:32 am


    I read PT shortly after it came out when I was a lazy dope smoking hippy. I had lots of time for introspection as I didn’t work much back then. Even so, it hit me like a sledgehammer and changed me permanently it seems. The only damage it did me that I can see is that to this day I get bored to my depths with the normal conversation of most people at most social functions, seems like the twittering to birds to me, without the beauty of birdsong. Anybody that advocates going out of control as a way of opening up in this world is going to come into lot of trouble from our control freak establishment that is intent on sucking us dry spiritually, physically, financially, and emotionally in this dead from the neck down society. As David Clayton Thomas said in his old song, “We’ve been brainwashed”. Primal Therapy is not for the faint of heart, you have to have some real balls to let yourself go that much. I couldn’t afford it back then, but to this day I’m an emotional nutcase Irish Canadian and damned proud of it. Seems I just won’t back down over anything I really care about and am so sentimental that I sometimes cry over pretty much nothing. I’m happy with myself being that way. I don’t want to be any one way. I’m happy to react differently to love than to hate. It’s only natural. I make a bad enemy and a loyal friend, the real world is just fine with me, I have no desire to retreat to any namby pamby existence where anybody is stupid enough to think that we’ll all get along like brothers. Hell, I don’t get along with my own brother THAT well although we are close and do love one another. The trick is to be tough enough to survive and soft enough to appreciate survival. I think I’m paraphrasing Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe there, but it’s true, works for me anyway.

  5. December 6, 2014 6:39 pm

    Dennis, once I wrote this to Lord Pentland in a letter: “You seem very far away.” He wrote back and said: “I am not as far away as you think.” This is probably still true!

  6. December 8, 2014 3:39 pm

    After all, in light of the works of Einstein, Ouspensky, and David Bohm, only a lazy minded person would insist that space and time exist.

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