A column of Dr. Dineen
"How 'therapy' becomes a disguise for abuse"
April 19, 2001
Discarded therapies, such as lobotomies and primal scream, clutter Psychology's attic. But there is virtually no record there of the harm such therapies have caused. "Rebirthing" will be an exception. That's because ten-year old Candace is a damning witness whose testimony is sure to be remembered.
Convinced that she was afflicted with a faddish ailment, her adoptive mother, Jeanne Newmaker, hired two experts in the field to cure her.
Candace thought the therapy was "stupid:" then she had nightmares that she was going to be murdered and, just before suffocating during a session, she called it "torture."
A year ago, on April 18, in Denver Colorado, she lay in a fetal position as therapists, Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder, wrapped her tightly in a blanket, pulled the ends together over her head, and piled pillows around her. They and two assistants, all together weighing 305 kilograms, laid on the 32-kilogram girl to simulate labour contractions.
Instead of wriggling out as if reborn, Candace screamed that she couldn't breathe and pleaded with them not to let her die. They told her: "Go ahead and die!" And when, after she lay still and silent for 30 minutes, they finally unwrapped her, she was cold and blue.
The news of her death met with puzzlement. People asked why the therapists and even the child's mother, who watched the session, had done nothing to save her.
By the time all five had been charged with "child abuse resulting in death," the public's bewilderment had turned to outrage.
The trial of Watkins and Ponder is now drawing to a close. Last week, when the videotape of the lethal session was shown by the prosecution, sympathy swelled for Candace. Despite defence efforts to shift the mood, the smell of a conviction hangs in the air.
Inside and outside the courtroom, mental health professionals have scurried to distance themselves from rebirthing, dismissing the therapists as unlicensed and claiming that such unconventional therapy would never be tolerated by them.
Rhea Farberman, a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association (APA), commented shortly after the incident, that "there is just no evidence that this kind of treatment works." Later, the APA dismissed it as "dangerous voodoo," lacking any scientific base.
Forgotten, it seems, is the earlier enthusiasm as expressed in a June, 1997 article in their flagship publication, the APA Monitor. Then, while acknowledging that so-called "holding therapies" like rebirthing are "controversial," they reported claims by psychologists that it helps 85 percent of young children like Candace.
The article, stating that "until more data emerges, the field must rely on anecdotal evidence," concluded that "this treatment kicks the kid back into a normal developmental process."
Meanwhile, a bill, called Candace's Law, signed Tuesday by the governor of Colorado, outlaws rebirthing, defined as "the re-enactment of the birthing process through any therapy techniques that include physical restraint creating a situation in which a patient may suffocate."
While Candace's Law may commemorate the child, it may ultimately be of disservice, focusing public attention on only one" bad" therapy and giving the false impression that any therapy not called "rebirthing" is safe and "good."
What we should be asking is how many other forms of therapy serve to disguise abuse and torture?
One recent fad that comes to mind is "recovered memory therapy." For years embraced by APA, it caused thousands of patients to relive horrific, and in many cases false, memories of abuse.
Many people, experiencing these events as if they were true, became permanently disabled, made accusations that destroyed their families and some died tragically. One of them, Jackie Grieb, a young mother in Kitchener, Ontario, killed her two-year old daughter before hanging herself.
These therapists never faced criminal charges and no law makes what they did illegal.
I am left wondering if anyone would be challenging Rebirthing or if anyone would even have cared about Candace if she had survived the session.
If a teacher, a lawyer, a minister - anyone other than "a therapist" - had abused a child the way Candace was abused, they would have been pilloried even if the child were still alive.
For some reason, abuse is considered acceptable when committed under the guise of therapy. And even when it becomes murder, we foolishly consider the possibility that it was "just a mistake."
There is something about this word "therapy" that we need to examine. What is it about our society that requires that a patient die during therapy before a therapist is held accountable? And what will become of us if we continue to believe that any and all therapy is good for us just as long as it doesn't kill us?
by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist, The Vancouver Sun