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

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These days, aside from Newman, Fulani is the most public face of social therapy and Newman's myriad nonprofits in New York City. Those interests include the All-Stars project, which promotes the arts to inner-city youths, and the Castillo Theater, where Newman's own plays are staged. And of course, there is the East Side Center for Social Therapy, the therapeutic arm of Newman's empire. At the same address is the East Side Institute for Short Term Psychotherapy, which bills itself as an "international training and research center for new approaches to human development and community building." Outside New York, there are a handful of social therapy centers -- including Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Politically, much of social therapy's activity is now devoted to the Committee for a United Independent Party, whose website says that it "develops strategies and provides leadership training for America's growing independent movement. Our mission is to transform the political culture, making it democratic, citizen activistic and developmental."

In Atlanta, the local organizer is Murray Dabby, director of the Atlanta Center for Social Therapy.

Erika Van Meir started out wanting to be a sociologist. She even won a full ride to Northwestern's Ph.D. program in sociology. But the work was too academic, too detached from reality. Volunteer work at a battered woman's shelter outside Chicago convinced her to abandon sociology and instead study to become a therapist. She met Erwin when she was getting her master's degree in San Diego.

Now, in Atlanta, she was thrilled that Dabby had agreed to act as her supervisor, putting her that much closer to being fully licensed. The agreement the two struck was typical for the profession: She would have a place to see clients and would discuss her cases with Dabby. In return, she'd hand over to the center 60 percent of the fees she earned.

Quickly, Van Meir's life became wrapped up in the center. There were her own clients, of course, and the frequent meetings with Dabby. But as a student of post-modern approaches to psychology, she also felt obliged to learn about social therapy. In the evenings, after putting her children to bed, she'd read Newman's books and essays, as well as the writings of Vygotsky. If the concepts frustrated her, she'd look around at the other social therapists, who seemed so confident, so well-adjusted, so happy. They gathered at each other's houses to talk politics and psychology. They e-mailed and called each other practically every day. Their life was the center. It was as if it were a club, and the price of admission was time and study.

But as exclusive as the club seemed, it was also constantly attracting new members. Van Meir recalls joining other social therapists on pleasant weekend mornings in Little Five Points. There, they solicited donations to something called the Atlanta Independent Theatre. Although their pitch was scripted, Van Meir was surprised to find she was good at approaching strangers. "Hi," she'd start out, "are you interested in theater?" She'd then explain she was part of a group starting up an independent theater -- a place that wouldn't be beholden to corporate interests or government money. "It just clicked," she says. "I was talking to these interesting people and having these conversations and I really believed what I was saying."

If she couldn't squeeze $5 or $10 out of someone, she'd settle for a name and address. In that way, social therapy could expand its network even further.

The Atlanta Independent Theatre, Van Meir realized, wasn't a place. It owned no stage anywhere. Instead, the center rented out space at, say, a local church and advertised the event haphazardly (including a listing in Creative Loafing). Clients, clients' spouses, therapists -- all would be cast. They'd sit up on the stage and read their parts. All the plays were written by Fred Newman. Once, in a study group at the center, Van Meir wondered aloud how a theater devoted to the writings of just one man could be "independent." The group leader, she recalls, was so furious that tears welled in her eyes. She turned on Van Meir, telling her it made her sick to hear someone criticize such a "wonderful, benevolent" man.

Over time, Van Meir began to feel she understood what social therapy is. "Basically, social therapy says it's never too late to initiate growth, that people can develop and do new things at any age. That you're not just stuck with your personality. That people can grow and try new things by participating in a supportive group. These people complete you in ways where you're deficient."



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