"A warm, deadly blanket"
June 2, 2000
When we hear of parents who kill their children, the reasons are often disturbing and puzzling. Susan Smith drowned her two little boy because she feared losing her lover. Some called her pathetic; others diabolical. Robert Latimer was convicted of murdering his disabled daughter to end her suffering. People still argue over the verdict.

Last week Jeane Newmaker let her child die because she wanted a cure for a "rocky" mother-daughter relationship. She had sought professional help for Candace who came to be seen as suffering, not only from depression and attention deficit disorder, but also from a newly fashionable ailment called "attachment disorder." A two-week intensive therapy program was supposed to cure it - to repair the damaged bonds.

Candace's $7,000US treatment included a "Rebirthing" session. The 10-year old was encased in a blanket and pillow cases. Pressure was then applied in a ritualistic manner that supposedly simulates labour contractions. She was supposed to wriggle her way out of the twisted cloth as if she were emerging from the vagina. Rather than work her way free, she screamed that she was suffocating, to which the therapists reportedly responded: "You want to die? OK, then die. Go ahead and die right now." For almost 25 minutes the mother watched on video, as she listened to her daughter's screams. Then she and the therapists waited another 20 minutes in silence before unwrapping the girl's unconscious body. Candace died the next day in hospital.

Why did no-one stop the torture? The mother, it seems, was desperate to feel close to the child she had adopted four years earlier. Frustrated, she had turned to "experts," people who claimed skill and knowledge in treating the problems of adopted children. Their claims, as well as her desire to have a loving daughter, over rode any sensible reaction. As for the therapists, they seemed immobilized by naive arrogance and good intentions.

The owner of the treatment centre, Connel Watkins, is considered to be an expert in this treatment. She is widely respected despite the fact that, according to a sheriff's affidavit, her formal training consists of a two-week seminar.

She and her staff are not alone in accepting the myths of birth trauma and promoting the belief that birth experiences cause problems that can be remedied by rebirthing. William R. Emerson, a psychologist and self-described "teacher, writer, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of pre and perinatal psychology" says "ninety-five percent of babies have mild, moderate, or severe birth traumas, and over one half have at least one severe prenatal trauma." Resolving these, he writes, "has unexpected and surprising benefits. This is because, in the process of resolution, the depths of the psyche are accessed, along with instinctual forces which would otherwise remain obscure. Dynamic forces of innate intelligence, human potential, and spirituality are released. In addition, the treatment process uses and shapes important qualities such as empathy, perceptiveness, trust, self-awareness, and self-esteem.

All of this sounds wonderful, especially when Emerson adds that: "If I had a choice of adopting a traumatized or an untraumatized baby, I would definitely adopt a traumatized infant. This is because the process of trauma resolution not only resolves traumas, but it offers opportunities for character development, bonding and attachment that would otherwise not be available." People like Candace's mother seem oblivious that these expectations are based only on the therapists' blind faith in a New Age version of ideas of Arthur Janov incorporated in his Primal Therapy. He theorized that emotional problems were not the result of unmet needs of early childhood, as Freud had argued, but of intrauterine and birth trauma.

In the 1970s, Primal Therapy became a fad and many of my colleagues used it to treat their patients. I watched as people, wrapped in blankets, struggled and screamed. I also read the books claiming great success but offering no proof.

After one of these sessions, I asked the therapist - a prominent Toronto psychiatrist - why he encouraged them to suffer more. He proffered a confident, benevolent pose. He believed and his patients believed. No warnings were ever voiced about the lack of proof or the possible dangers.

So what was this desperate mother to do? Licensing boards still refuse to identify potentially dangerous therapies. Amateurs and professionals alike persist in peddling such notions. And our society is consumed by its overwhelming faith in therapy.

This mother, like those people who, in an earlier era, underwent Primal Therapy, was too gullible, too trusting, too naive. Unfortunately everyone's good intentions were not enough. The child is dead. And as for therapists, I am left wondering in folk singer Pete Seeger's words: "when will they ever learn?"

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,