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Headgames

Two years ago, Erika Van Meir thought social therapy could change the world. Today, she calls it a cult.

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For almost 15 years, the Atlanta Center for Social Therapy has quietly cultivated a thriving practice from its offices on Clairmont Road, just off I-85. Its two-column ad in the Yellow Pages under "Counselors-Human Relations" boasts that "We can help you create new relationships ... and a new life." Its director, Murray Dabby, says the center has helped hundreds over the years -- people from all walks of life, people who suffer from depression, marital woes, low self-esteem, substance abuse problems, sexual dysfunctions. In brochures and flyers, the center touts its "cutting edge" and "non-diagnostic" approaches.

On the day three years ago that she saw one of those flyers, Erika Van Meir was looking for a change. For the past five years, she and husband, Erwin, had been on the move. They'd lived for a time in Switzerland, where Erwin had worked as a cancer researcher. Now, finally, they had settled down: He was a professor of neurosurgery at Emory, their two daughters were approaching school age, and they'd bought a roomy house in Tucker. Erika Van Meir was finally free to resume her quest to become a licensed therapist. She'd finished the academic component years before; all that remained were the hours of professional supervision required by Georgia law.

She rang the Atlanta Center for Social Therapy and left a message. Within minutes, Dabby returned the call.

Almost immediately she felt a rapport with him. He was warm and friendly. They agreed that traditional therapies' habits of labeling clients -- depressive, anti-social, dependent, dysthymic, whatever -- could be stigmatizing. Social therapy, Dabby explained to her that day, didn't rely on that vocabulary. Instead, social therapy saw the client as a "performer" of his life, as someone who can take on a different "role" -- much as an actor learns a part -- and change destructive behaviors. Clients were even encouraged to take part in play readings in public, as part of a small independent theater run by social therapists. To Van Meir, who'd enjoyed acting as a child, the approach sounded compelling. Best of all, Dabby was willing to be her supervisor. Of course, she still had many questions, but they agreed it would be best if she attended a series of workshops at the center, just to get a feel for social therapy.

At the center, the therapists welcomed her warmly, treating her like they would an old friend. They smiled at her, thanked her for coming. She savored the attention. This, she thought, was Southern hospitality.

But the classes themselves puzzled her. There were therapists and clients together in the room, but it wasn't group therapy. Instead, it seemed to be some sort of philosophical discussion, about what she couldn't understand.

After the first few classes, a therapist called to tell her how much she enjoyed Van Meir's participation. Would she sign up for another one, the therapist asked. The next morning, another therapist called, thanking her for her participation and repeating the invitation in almost the same words -- "like it was from a script," Van Meir says now. This struck Van Meir as odd, especially considering that she'd hardly said a word in any of the classes.

"I felt left out because they were talking about a lot of concepts that I didn't understand," she recalls. "And they kept referring to this guy named Fred Newman, and I didn't know who he was."

By one measure, Fred Newman is a Renaissance man. He is a playwright, a director, an author, an entrepreneur, a political activist, a dynamic public speaker, and the founder of his own school of therapy. He lives in a townhouse in lower Manhattan and is ferried around in a luxury sedan. His followers adore him; his enemies loathe him. As it turns out, many of the latter once were the former.

Newman was born in 1934 and grew up in the tenements not far from Yankee Stadium. He served in the Army, then returned to New York where he attended City College, finally earning his doctorate in philosophy from Stanford. Returning to City College as a professor in the 1960s, he implemented an unusual grading system.

"I didn't want to participate in having young people sent over to Vietnam to be cannon fodder for a bunch of people who fight all kinds of wars for mythical reasons," he writes in The Myth of Psychology, a book published by Newman's vanity press, Castillo International. "So these young people would come into my class and I'd say something like, 'OK, let's get it straight here. Everyone's got an A. You've got an A whether you come or you go or you stay or you write or you don't write. Frankly, I don't care, I'm giving everybody an A here. Now if you want to talk about some philosophical issues, we can do that, and if you don't, that's fine, too.'"

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