Consider the following incident: in December 2005, a healthy, happy, normal 34-year-old woman (Rebekah Lawrence) attends a self-help course (Turning Point) run by a Cremorne-based company (People Knowhow). Four days later, after undergoing an extreme change in behaviour, Rebekah falls to her death, naked, from an inner-city office building. The Turning Point course is referred to, both worryingly and ambiguously, as being “high intensity”, and speaking on its behalf, the founder of People Knowhow, Richard Arthur, claims that the course is not suitable for “highly vulnerable people”.
Is it just me, or does this statement sends shivers down the spine?
A quick Google reveals several interesting things about Turning Point, not least that it “offers you the opportunity to come home to yourself”, a proposition which is sufficiently cult-spooky to set off warning bells. It is also worth noting that Richard Arthur is not a trained psychologist. He is, in point of fact, a computer scientist. Huh?
Clicking through to the People Knowhow site, things soon become even stranger. There is a course called Mastery and Service, linked to the founding principles of Turning Point, which is intended to help participants “grow in consciousness”. For those over 50, there is the Way of the Elder, which features a grainy sunset graphic and a promise to “guide you through a series of reflective exercises towards reconnection with your life’s story.” Of greatest interest, however, is the link to the webpage for the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, which, in keeping with the non-psychology background of Mr Arthur, states cheerfuly that anyone wishing to teach their courses need not be deterred by a “lack of teriary training”. Rather, their training programme “welcomes applications from people who feel attuned to this way of understanding human experience and growth”.
Type “somatic psychotherapy” into Google, and you’ll find that the first webpage to come up is – surprise, surprise – that of the Australian College. Wikipedia has an entry on somatic psychology and another on body psychotherapy, but not a specific entry for somatic psychotherapy; a website called Goodtherapy, however, defines it as the brainchild of Wilhelm Reich, a German psychologist who believed, among other things, in a cosmic, primordial energy called orgone and who was known to try and increase the ‘orgiastic potency’ of patients by treating them in their underwear. Leaving aside the question of Reich’s more extreme theories and practices, there is a more pertinent question to answer, viz: how do members of the College – and, by extension, People Knowhow – use somatic psychtherapy?
The definition given on their page is lengthy and obtuse, hinting vaguely at deeper methodologies without actually explaining them; you can read the whole thing here. Among other things, the College mentions the idea of “toxic cultural practices” being passed on through contemporary psychology and the importance of people’s “sensing/feeling patterns” being developed “throughout the life cycle”. The introduction concludes on a rather ominous note, with the acknowledgement that “all psychotherapy theories (including somatic based theories) invoke particular ethical practices, either explicitly or implicitly, and we need to ask ourselves, as Foucault suggests, whose interests are best served by these practices; who gains power.” (My emphasis.)
What, pray tell, are “particular ethical practices” in the context? Perhaps they have something to with the fact that, like Richard Arthur, the Director of the Australian College of Contemporary Somatic Psychotherapy, one Jeff Barlow, has no formal training in psychology, either. Reading between the lines, one might conclude that the College’s view of the “toxic culture” inherent in non-holistic psychology has lead most of its members to eschew it entirely, although given the number of somatic psychologists who don’t appear to have studied it at all, one wonders where and how they have developed this perspective. Curiouser and curiouser.
It is not difficult to concede the existence of a genuine link between our physical and mental health, but by all accounts, the teachings of People Knowhow and their affiliates seems to resemble cultish mysticism more than genuine science. Combine the cryptic poetry and riddle-style aphorisms espoused by Richard Arthur, his lack of any relevant formal training and the fact that People Knowhow conducts corporate workshops, and you have a recipe for hokum, pseudo-science and general malaise. Perhaps I’ve been forced to attend too many day-long management courses, but I am deeply cynical of any form of emotional work-based consultancy, particularly in forms which claim to incorporate genuine elements of psychology – or, for that matter, any other discipline in which the facilitator lacks training. I once, for instance, had to listen to a grown woman tell me that the concept of human synergistics was pioneered by Aristotle. So when someone like Richard Arthur suggests, against all logic, that “the amount a person suffers in their life is related to how much they are resisting”, my bullshit detector goes into overdrive. When, on the same page, Mr Arthur references Turning Point and says that the course teaches “a cluster of techniques for permanently raising your stress threshold” so that “when the world doesn’t cooperate with you, your distress will be less extreme”, I wonder how many of those “techniques” were taught to Rebekah Lawrence.
How much longer can this culture of faux-uplifting, change-your-life consultancy by uninformed, pseudo-intellecual, would-be dilettantes continue? When will we wake up to ourselves? The real toxic culture is being peddled by modern witchdoctors, not trained psychologists.