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Headgames 

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

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To Van Meir, it sounded great. But she was having trouble seeing how social therapy was applied in practice.

"Sessions would start with the lead therapist saying nothing," she says. "Sometimes you'd sit there for 10 minutes and the therapist wouldn't say anything. And you'd wait for someone to start talking. Finally, someone would start talking just to break the ice, and they'd talk for 45 minutes about nothing. There was no sort of effort to get things moving in a meaningful way. A couple times I tried to do that and they told me, 'Stop rescuing people. You've got to let the group build itself.'

"It was kind of weird because on the one hand they'd talk about how there's no hierarchy in social therapy, but on the other hand you'd see that if there were people who got out of line and started expressing individualistic kinds of notions, there was a hierarchy. There was definitely a therapist in control."

The Atlanta Center for Social Therapy's website expands on that: "The social therapist does not possess the true interpretation or explanation of why a client feels the way he or she feels, or does what he or she does -- an underlying truth which the client must come to understand in order to solve the problem. The social therapist is more like a theater director who helps the client to create, along with other people, new performances of affection, anger, anxiety, depression, desire, excitement, grief, happiness, humiliation, impotence, panic -- new forms of emotional life."

Typical discussions between a supervisor and a therapist-in-training are rather mundane. The trainee discusses her clients with the supervisor, who points out different approaches. They map out strategies together. Imagine an intern discussing an X-ray with an attending physician.

For Van Meir and Dabby, that's how it worked -- for a while. But as Van Meir describes it now, something odd began happening not long after starting at the center. Instead of keeping the conversation on the cases before them, Dabby would allow -- even encourage -- Van Meir to talk about herself.

After a while, she says, "it seemed we were talking a lot more about why I saw the clients as I did and what that said about me." By the end of their discussion, they'd be talking about their childhoods, or their relationships, or their home lives. Weighty questions -- about her role as a therapist, a wife, a mother, a daughter -- would be left hanging at the session's end. At night, Van Meir would follow up with a phone call or an e-mail, and Dabby would respond in kind. Conversations might last hours; e-mails take up page after page.

For Van Meir, it felt like she herself was in therapy. Their sessions made her question herself and the choices she'd made. Everything was in doubt. At the same time, she found herself dependent on those sessions, confessing to Dabby things she'd never told anyone before. "He seemed very safe," she says. "He was calm and reassuring."

But outside his office, the stress was showing. At home, she'd hide controversial literature about Newman from her husband. She'd wake up in the middle of the night, stricken with an anxiety she couldn't explain. Once, she confronted Dabby with some of the negative press she'd dug up on Newman. He brushed it off as attacks from Newman's political enemies. But at the same time, he seemed offended and hurt that she'd even asked.

"He said, 'I know you care about me and wouldn't want to hurt me. I think it is important that you learn how you affect others.'"

Van Meir got the same treatment when she raised questions to other social therapists. "They would say, 'It's not that you ask questions; it's how.' So I would change. I would change my tone of voice or insert things like, 'with all due respect.' I wasn't really being myself."

But at the time, the center -- and especially her sessions with Dabby -- gave her a sense of inclusion she found hard to resist. And Dabby himself kept bringing up Newman, and how she should see him in person in New York. One day, Van Meir announced she was interested in going. Within hours, it seemed, her itinerary had been arranged.

In New York, the topic of Newman's speech was "Giving in the culture of getting." But his talk wandered, and Van Meir couldn't help but think about the $150 or so she'd just spent for the two-hour session. Around her, though, everyone else seemed mesmerized. She found their obeisance unnerving.

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