A column of Dr. Dineen in

Peggy Claude-Pierre:
Angel for anorexics or misguided amateur?


Controversy's rising again over Victoria's Montreux Counselling Clinic. Next Monday, Richard Stanwick, the Capital Region's Health Officer, will seek a court injunction to stop it's Director, Peggy Claude-Pierre, from providing residential treatment for eating disorders.

The issue is strongly polarised. On the one side are Claude-Pierre's fans. They include supporters from across Canada and around the world who've heard about her work as well as many former clients who idolize her, calling her their saviour, an angel and "the most maternal person" they've ever met.

To these people, she's a sincere, dedicated woman who is offering the last hope to desperate anorexics whom the medical community has failed.

But to her critics, most of them professionals with M.D.'s, she's a misguided amateur. They scoff at her claims of almost 100-per-cent success and point out that her alleged revolutionary approach contains nothing they haven't known about for years.

Pointing to claims of a disgruntled former client, reports of too much touching between staff and clients, possible force-feeding, and the lack of the psychiatric assessment and medical supervision they deem necessary for patient care, they're raising concerns that her method of treatment puts patients at serious risk.

Some go so far as to call her clinic "cult-like" and to imply that she's a charlatan taking advantage of the vulnerable.

While the immediate dispute before the B.C. Supreme Court centres around the technicality that she doesn't have a license to provide the residential care she's been offering, the real controversy in the court of public opinion centres on: Who knows the real Claude-Pierre?

Quite possibly, both sides do; I think it's a mistake to take sides with either her friends or her foes.
Self-destructive eating habits can be traced as far back as Medieval times, when they held religious significance as "miracle fasters" who stopped eating claimed divine inspiration.

Such behaviours came to be considered a curious disorder peculiar to young women and by the late 1800's they began to be given the misnomer of a disease. In 1980, anorexia was officially adopted into psychiatry's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, as a bona fide psychiatric disorder.

So, what was once considered an inexplicable human issue is now in the domain of medicine even though there's no clear agreement about what it is or how to treat it.

It seems that Claude-Pierre could still be doing her counselling if she had restricted her work to "outpatients." Apparently even Stanwick, whom some accuse of being "out to get her," would still accept this arrangement but compromise seems unlikely.

As Claude-Pierre tells her story, she got into this work somewhat by accident. In their teens, her two daughters successively became anorexic and she stopped working as a waitress to focus on helping first one, then the other and their friends with eating problems.

Other parents heard of her success and wanted her to help their daughters too. From all accounts it seems that Claude-Pierre did a good job of persuading these young women to eat.

But, as she explains, the number quickly grew to 300, and she converted a Victorian house into a residence for her clients, somehow assuming that the provincial government would pay the bills.
That never happened and, out of necessity, she began charging the sort of fees which her critics suggest are exorbitant although they are in line with similar clinics in the U.S.

Busy, overextended, distracted by the attention of media icons like Ophra Winfrey and basking in international popularity, it would seem that she did what countless others heralded as "healers" have done. She created a new persona, one of an "innovative therapist" who has found "the cure," written a bestseller The Secret Language of Eating Disorders about it, packaged the method, and now teaches it in workshops and training seminars.

This "angel" had become a psychological entrepreneur.

Whatever it was that made her successful, I'm pretty sure it wasn't this psychologized formula. I suspect that Peggy just had the "knack" - some personal quality that made her good at her work, something that put her in the same category as my favourite aunt who could bake the best apple pies I've ever tasted or the man who has a way with fixing old cars or the woman down the street whose roses grow better than mine

A knack according Webster's Dictionary is "a special ready capacity that is hard to analyze or teach." It's not something you can bottle into a theory or a skill you can teach to others. When you try, it loses its power, dissolving into that mixture of sugar and water that's called Snake Oil.

For all her possible errors in judgment, the one that might ultimately bring her down isn't what the court decides about the fate of the Montreaux Clinic, but rather Claude-Pierre's own belief that what she was doing could be distilled into theory and sold as a method. Sadly, by turning it into just another therapy, Claude-Pierre may have lost the knack.

@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun