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

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Of the notion of informed consent, Dabby says he is up front with clients at the first session about his approach. "I believe in informed consent. I believe in making it clear about what you're doing and how you're doing it and what the process is. There are some -- an unnamed person -- who insisted that what I needed to do is give them every single attack article, and that would be informed consent. That's not informed consent to me."

Dabby says ethical guidelines regarding dual relationships are there to prevent the exploitation of a client by the therapist. But many in the profession, he says, carry that notion of professional detachment too far. "People want someone who really cares," he says -- not someone who turns off the sympathy after 50 minutes. "That notion of connection, that kind of intimacy, is important in my work as a therapist."

When I tell Dabby that a complaint against him has prompted a state investigation, he says it is the first he has heard. But he is confident the complaint will lead nowhere.

"I know how I practice," he says. "People complain."

Social therapy certainly has its success stories. One of them is Nanette Harris, who for 30 years has suffered from depersonalization disorder, a psychological condition that makes her sometimes feel as if she's in a waking dream, outside herself. Her hearing is muffled; her vision is altered. "It's like you're looking through a fishbowl," she says. For years, she was afraid to drive and too incapacitated to hold down steady work. By 1991, after trying out different therapies and therapists, she was seriously considering suicide.

Today, Harris has a part-time job at a dentist's office. Although she says she still suffers from shyness, and still weathers dark periods, she is forthright and funny. She is quite serious, however, about one thing -- she believes social therapy saved her life.

"It changes you in ways that are deep changes. It changes you profoundly," she says. "I used to always want to kill myself. I didn't want to live. But in social therapy, it takes you out of yourself in a way. I got the message that I wasn't just a mentally ill person within the psychiatric community."

Once a week for years, Harris sat in on group therapy sessions at the Atlanta center. At first, she was turned off by the approach. She wasn't used to accusatory questions from the people ostensibly trying to help her -- questions like, 'Why can't you drive? Why can't you hold down a job?'

"I was pissed off. I wanted them to coddle me."

Over time, Harris came to understand the message of social therapy: If you can't do something, act as if you can. Soon enough, you will become the person you are portraying.

"It works," Harris says. A social therapist "relates to people like they can do more than they think they can. And they rise to the occasion. It gives you confidence."

A cool wind has kicked up in Manhattan as Van Meir and I make our way through Greenwich Village. She wants to show me Newman's house. With us is Marina Ortiz, who has been a thorn in Newman's side since 1990, when she left social therapy and began speaking out against it across New York.

For years, Ortiz has maintained a website that includes dozens of photos of Newmanites from around the country, tax filings from Newman's nonprofit centers, and testimonials and speeches from former social therapy clients.

After Van Meir left social therapy, it didn't take her long to come across Ortiz's name. And although the two have talked often by phone over the past months, and e-mailed even more regularly, this is the first time they've met.

We head south, then west, past the playgrounds and antique shops, through the steam underfoot, navigating the odd angles and narrow streets of the west Village.

At the southern tip of 8th Avenue, Ortiz pauses and looks around. "Where is it?" she says to no one in particular. She spies an old woman walking by.

"Excuse me," she says, "where's Bank Street?"

"Right over there," the woman says, pointing south. "See the sign?"

Five minutes later, we're standing in the doorway of Newman's four-story townhouse. They ask me to take their picture. Van Meir steals a nervous glance up at the windows, but they're covered with yellow blinds.

Across the street, Ortiz explains how social therapy changed her.

"When I went in, it was for depression and anxiety," Ortiz says. "When I came out, I was obsessive."



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