It was the spring of 1999 and R.A. Friedman was looking for group therapy. He had been in therapy "even before it was chic," so he thought he knew what to expect. Then 39, the Center City resident was referred to the Philadelphia Center for Social Therapy by a friend who mentioned that she knew someone who was studying to be a therapist there.
His initial session with the director of the center, Elizabeth Hechtman, was somewhat disconcerting. "The conversation just wandered all over the place," Friedman says now. "She never talked much about what the therapy was going to involve."
In July 1999 he was so disturbed by his experience with Social Therapy, he emailed a local reporter about it. "I started to become suspicious of what was going on," he wrote, "when, even though [Hechtman] knew I was of limited means, she gave me literature (right in the session) about a Social Therapy retreat in Tarrytown. Also her insistence that what their guru, Fred Newman, was doing was very cutting-edge and PoMo set off my crap detector."
Friedman says the mood of the sessions was adversarial, with Hechtman judging his behavior and trying to convince him to "get with the Fred Newman program."
"I didn't have a girlfriend at the time. [Hechtman] brought it up. She said, 'So you really want to find someone you can have sex with?' Why don't we have sex--right here, right now?'"
Friedman recognizes that Hechtman was not making a pass at him. "She was trying to goad me on to say that this kind of verbal interaction is like sex. It was very uncomfortable." (Hechtman said she couldn't comment on the incident because of patient-therapist confidentiality.)
While he didn't understand their agenda in '99, he wrote, "One tactic is very clear: The group takes persons seeking help who are emotionally vulnerable and recruits them into their 'cause' under the guise of therapy."
Social Therapy is primarily group therapy, though patients start out with an individual session or two. In Philadelphia, an average group has10 people in it; in New York City--its headquarters--it's closer to 25. Aside from the three New York locations, Social Therapy only has six centers nationwide. Two of those centers are in the Philadelphia area.
There is no standard length of treatment. If patients don't find the approach to their liking, practitioners say, they can simply go elsewhere. Founder Fred Newman says he doesn't know how many people are involved.
Philadelphia has always been a key center for Social Therapy, though no one involved says that outright. The Philadelphia Social Therapy Center at 16th and Green streets is in a somewhat run-down apartment building. The Horsham Center for Social Therapy, which is a part-time practice, offers both adolescent and adult therapy groups. Its director, Jennifer Bullock, is a forensic specialist at the Philadelphia Children's Alliance, a community theater project that shares methodology with another Fred Newman venture, the Castillo Theatre in New York.
The foundation of much of Social Therapy is the notion of performance--that as children we "perform" roles until we learn them, but as adults we are told we must know a role before we try it. It is through the developmental practice of performing our lives as adults that a person grows.
"Social Therapy is not so much to focus on people as victimized or hurt or sick," Newman said in a recent interview with PW. "It's not a medical approach. Which is not to deny that people aren't emotionally hurt--of course they are ... But the main focus is to try to help people to develop and to grow further."
Problems are viewed as a result of social ills, or, in the case of something like bipolar disorder, a state of mind. Curing those ills, then, is what patients are encouraged to do by becoming members of a broader "community," and doing political activism and volunteer work for one of Fred Newman's organizations.
Ian Parker is a professor in the Discourse Unit of the Department of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. He's one of the only mental health professionals not connected to Social Therapy who has written seriously on the subject.
He says Social Therapy sees depression as "a function of alienation, not as an abnormal state [and] anxiety as a necessary response to the repression of creativity. Concepts like addiction are [seen as] effective myths."
Some have called Social Therapy a cult of personality. A therapist who joined a Social Therapy practice as an intern--and who doesn't want her name used for fear of retribution--found that questioning Newman's role was a mistake.
"At one meeting I was harshly reprimanded for asking questions about the leader [Newman] in front of a group. The therapist said previously that Fred was as important to mankind as Gandhi or Martin Luther King. She was extremely abusive in her reaction and I felt utterly humiliated. I later heard of clients experiencing group humiliation like that as well."
Yet practitioners like Philadelphia's Elizabeth Hechtman seem to truly believe they're doing good.
Hechtman "met" Social Therapy, as she puts it, 15 years ago. She has a master's of science in group process and group psychotherapy from Hahnemann. "When I went through school and got my degrees I had this nagging feeling that there could be more. Social Therapy profoundly changed my life and my practice. ... It's a joy that I have something so powerful to give."
When asked about the charges that Fred Newman acts as a doctrinaire guru, Hechtman also compares him to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. "He's challenging assumptions and he's successful [in doing so], which makes him controversial."
Fred Newman is not a psychologist. He received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University in 1962. Feeling confined by academia, Newman established the Center for Change, which included a therapy clinic. Newman's patients were quickly transitioned into doing political work for him, leading to charges that the Center for Change's therapy practice was a recruiting tool for Newman's political cult.
In 1974 Newman struck up a surprising relationship with Lyndon LaRouche, joining his National Caucus of Labor committees. The association was brief, and Newman and 38 of his followers left LaRouche and formed the International Workers Party (IWP). An IWP newspaper said "black nationalism, Puerto Rican nationalism, women's liberationism, gay pride, block associationism and community controlism" were all "social fascistic."
Journalist Dennis King called the group "a therapy cult" in 1977 and spoke with New York psychotherapist and cult expert Frank Touchet, whose comments were especially damning. "[Patients] have been criminally tampered with in the deepest fibers of their being," he told King. "[They] have descended into a childlike world of dependency ... [on] Fred Newman, who regulates their lives on the most intimate level."
In 1979 the self-proclaimed white Jewish boy from the Bronx joined forces with a black lesbian from Chester, Pa. Together, Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani formed the New Alliance Party (NAP), which relied heavily on patients to do their political activism. Their success together far exceeded their individual achievements.
In 1984 NAP ran Dennis Serrette, a black Socialist, for president, and got on the ballot in 33 states. (Serrette left the party a year later, saying its "all-white leadership" had manipulated him.) A year later Fulani headed a NAP delegation to Tripoli to pay their respects to Muammar Qaddafi and lament the U.S. bombing of Libya. A partially blacked-out FBI file from 1998 calls the party "armed and dangerous.
When Fulani ran for president in 1988, she surprised everyone by becoming the first woman in history to get on the ballot in all 50 states. She ran again in 1992, and with the two campaigns combined, she won matching funds totaling more than a million and a half dollars.
Patients worked long hours on Fulani's campaign. At one event she told supporters, "The more you give, the more you grow."
Loren Redwood, who was living in Indiana when she started to work for Fulani's 1988 campaign, joined initially because "I was so excited and so moved that a black woman was running for president." She gave up her home and her job to travel with the campaign, working seven days a week, 16-to-20 hours a day.
In a letter she wrote to a now-defunct gay and lesbian paper in San Francisco, Redwood said, "While fundraising in Washington, it was expected I enter Social Therapy. [It] was another vehicle where NAP organizers propagandized its workers to the politics and lifestyle of NAP." Ultimately, Redwood left the group. She wrote the letter four months after leaving. "I am putting my life back together piece by piece."
Redwood wasn't the only one to speak out. In 1987 cult expert Chip Berlet spoke to an unnamed activist from the East Coast who originally went to the group for therapy.
"Before and after the session," she told Berlet, "they would say, 'Why not sell our newspaper' or 'Maybe you could do us a favor and hand out these leaflets.' ... They want people to get involved in their political party but they don't really give any treatment." She asked for individual therapy but was rebuffed.
"Some people are fooled," she told Berlet, "especially the uneducated or emotionally ill. They use them. It is disgusting. They don't care about people--they want numbers: more money, more people, more power."
Maria Ortiz, who was also urged to join NAP as part of her therapy, had a similar story. "They take their time to draw you in, and the bottom line is that they want you to join so you can be a slave laborer for Fred Newman," she told a reporter for the New York City Sun in1993.
In the next few years Newman and Fulani associated themselves with Louis Farrakhan (Newman proclaimed himself "convener" of "Jews for Farrakhan") and Al Sharpton, whom they put on their payroll. Then they changed their politics once again--this time tilting to the right--to work with Ross Perot and the Patriot Party. Their politics, some have suggested, have been determined primarily by expediency. They have aligned themselves with whoever would help them raise their profile rather than to any consistent ideology. Perhaps their most successful gamble was an alliance with presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in 1999. After years of hitching their wagon to parties that didn't have much use for them--including Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition--Newman and Fulani finally found a platform that was too sensational to ignore.
Though Fulani admitted she and Buchanan had little in common on the surface, she said she thought Buchanan could unite blacks and blue-collar white America. In an address to the National Press Club, Fulani said, "Pat Buchanan is not a racist or a fascist or a bigot. He is not a hater."
The odd pairing got a lot of press, as Fulani surely knew it would. The New York Times did a feature on the duo, titled "Strange Can't Begin to Describe It." Unfortunately for Fulani, much of the press reasserted the same allegations: anti-Semitism, cult-like tactics and, as Amy Waldman wrote for the Times, "enriching personal enterprises through public monies in the form of federal election funds." (Buchanan and Fulani parted ways before the 2000 election when what had been the Reform Party broke in two, with Fulani becoming the vice presidential candidate for the even more marginal Natural Law Party.)
Now Fulani works as chair of the Committee for a Unified Independent Party (CUIP), which is asking Jesse Ventura, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot to come together for a Million Independents March. CUIP also has Generation I, a program to "train young people as leaders of the independent movement." Jacqueline Salit, a longtime Social Therapy affiliate and close friend and colleague of Fred Newman's, is CUIP's political director.
Fred Newman has always said that people need to interact in groups in order to develop. That's why the Social Therapy "community" encourages cross-participation from project to project. One part of this "community" is the All Stars Talent Show Network, an anti-violence arts program for inner-city kids.
The Newark, N.J., branch was the subject of a May 2002 statement from the American Jewish Committee, which accused the New Jersey All Stars of "being backed by anti-Semites" and asked funders to watch their money and even to consider not donating at all. In the past Newman has said rather sensational things about Jews. He was once quoted as saying, "The Jew, the dirty Jew, once the ultimate victim of capitalism's soul, fascism, would become a victimizer on behalf of capitalism."
The New York Post also questioned the New Jersey All Stars' financial practices this year--especially their use of grants to fund Newman's East Side Institute for Short-Term Psychotherapy and provide him with a salary of $59,000 a year as the All Stars' artistic director. AT&T, one of the All Stars' corporate funders, told the New Jersey Jewish News that they had concerns about anti-Semitism and were going to "ensure that the resources are being used for their stated purpose."
But most of the All Stars' activities get good press. In the past year, the group has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Investment Dealer's Digest, which featured an article about the All Stars raising $1 million. Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, is deeply involved with the All Stars in New York. In April he helped out at the All Stars gala at Lincoln Center, where they raised roughly $2 million.
The program was also honored with a Daily Points of Light Award for Nichelle "Browneyes" Brown, a long-time youth leader who recently appeared at a CUIP benefit as "MC Browneyes." Former president George Bush presented Brown with her award at a Points of Light Foundation luncheon in March.
The new Philadelphia chapter of the All Stars had its launch June 1 at South Philadelphia High School. Roger Grunwald, national director of All Stars PR, calls the approach to the talent shows "performative." "It's about youth creating environments where young people can develop. They're expressing new life performances being in the world." In Philadelphia, between 10 and 20 volunteers were trained, tables were set up and young people who had come through the ranks of the All Stars also came to town to help organize outreach efforts.
Roughly 90 kids showed up to the South Philly High auditions. They were all accepted into the program. Grunwald says the director of the Philadelphia chapter, Molly Finn, went to her Philadelphia business contacts and raised almost $100,000 in seed money.
When asked what he says when people talk about Fred Newman, in particular, in relation to the All Stars, Grunwald says, "Well, he is an iconoclast. He's also the principal architect of the methodology that gave rise to the program."
Barry Morrison, director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, says of the All Stars: "We will try to keep our eye on it and respond as appropriate."
One thing that's disturbing about the All Stars--which admittedly also does a great deal of good--is the allegation that its funds get diverted to other Fred Newman projects, like Manhattan's Castillo Cultural Center and Theatre, which features plays and musicals by--you guessed it--Fred Newman. While his plays aren't exactly front-page features in Time Out, Newman did share his stage on April 14 with Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago. Their dialogue came out of a common preoccupation with Christ, and was held after a rehearsal of Newman's Sessions With Jesus (The Story of Greatness, Ever Told).
Saramago was complimentary. Other play titles include No Room for Zion, Dead as a Jew and The Last Temptation of William Jefferson.
Clients for another Social Therapy-related venture--a training and consulting firm called Performance of a Lifetime--include heavy hitters like PriceWaterhouseCoopers, SalomonSmithBarney, Condé Nast and Prudential. A package of four sessions of "improvisation for leaders" runs $450.
On West 43rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, people hold newspapers over their heads, bump umbrellas and squint from the wet glare of taxi headlights. It's getting dark now, at 6:45, but there's a ray of light from Town Hall's lobby.
This is the place Marian Anderson made her operatic debut in 1935 after being turned down by so many other places because she was black. This is where Margaret Sanger, speaking about birth control in 1921, was carried off the stage so she'd stop talking. This is the place where, on March 27, 2002, Fred Newman said we should forget about being normal.
Fifteen minutes before the event is slated to begin the first level is completely full, as is most of the balcony. The crowd--which seems almost evenly mixed between blacks and whites--applauds when a somewhat imposing, balding man the New York Times likened to a bohemian Santa Claus appears on a video screen.
"After Sept. 11, everything was destabilized," he says. "A lot of people needed help. I'm a therapist. Mr. Bush and Mr. Giuliani did a wonderful job [scattered applause], but they were impinging on the work of the psychologist. They were saying 'Go back to normal.' And I was saying, 'Don't do it; it's not healthy."
After the video ends, a tastefully dressed African-American woman with closely cropped hair comes onstage. She doesn't introduce herself; she doesn't need to. There's an Oriental rug and two plush chairs onstage. The man from the video sits next to her. The woman, Lenora Fulani, asks him a quick introductory question--and he's off.
"We want to develop environments where we can be out of control," he says. "We believe in change, even as adults. What does 'normal' mean if we're making these changes in a social therapeutic environment?" As he talks, he doesn't get up or even gesture much. He doesn't use any notes. He's as relaxed as if he were sitting in his own living room. When he talks about his own experience with dialysis, it feels intimate, as if he's confessing. The crowd sighs in sympathy.
Change is a big theme tonight. Transforming. Becoming. Growing. Newman slides from word to word without pause. He says these words as though he's just chatting, just thinking out loud.
After a heavy dose of philosophy, Newman turns droll. "I don't know how things will turn out, but I feel close to the people in Washington--because they don't know either! Pundits don't know what they're talking about--no one knows what they're talking about. The myth is that we do know what we're talking about. Arizona won the World Series! Things go wrong!" That's it. The crowd goes nuts. Newman gets a standing ovation.
Social Therapy and its associated projects and community is a confusing blend of some right and mostly wrong. The therapist who didn't want her name used found that particularly difficult. "I met wonderful, smart, kind-hearted people who truly want to change the world. When you figure out what it's all about, and you leave, it's very painful to let go of the many people you came to know and work with. I believe they have been so indoctrinated into this ideology, however, that they no longer can see the harm of their practices."
She also believes some of the services offered by Social Therapy are good. "Challenging traditional ways of thinking and the whole notion of psychological conditions can be very powerful," she says. "People are asked to do a lot of activities they might not think they [are capable of]." But she also said she has reason to believe that some "therapists" are operating practices without training and licenses.
When asked if she thinks Social Therapy is a cult, she says, "In my opinion they have the criteria of groups which are considered cults: an authoritarian, charismatic leader, black-and-white thinking, repression of individuality, constant drive for fundraising, control of information, lack of tolerance for opposition within the group, etc."
Her own experience reinforced this perception. "When I left, I had many symptoms of someone who had left a cult. It took me a month before I could go an hour without crying. You think these people are your best friends and then you realize that their interest in you was purely instrumental. You feel emotionally raped in every way."
Should we be very concerned about Social Therapy and its associated projects? Perhaps it's best said by the therapist who didn't want to give us her name. When asked in an email if she believed we should worry that people seeking help would be taken advantage of, she wrote, "Yes, I believe this without a doubt." From the look of things, it seems she's right.