David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Freud and Nude Psychotherapy for Criminal Psychopaths

One more addendum to the question of Freud and science. The gravest deployment of psychoanalytic theory was in psychopathology, and it’s here that I have the greatest trouble with Freud’s influence. Now, the history of the treatment of the severely mentally ill, in asylums and otherwise, has been generally dismal, and so it is hard to credit Freud with making things any worse on that front. Perhaps he even made them better, and to be sure Freud avoided the area himself, probably figuring it (correctly) to be a minefield. But as psychoanalysis grew, some of his followers were not so hesitant, and the application of psychoanalysis in psychopathology yielded some disturbing results.

There are no shortage of examples, but Oak Ridge recently came to my attention. As Jon Ronson tells it in The Psychopath Test:

Dr. Elliott Barker successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD from a government-sanctioned lab, Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto. He handpicked a group of psychopaths (“They have been selected on the basis of verbal ability and most are relatively young and intelligent offenders between seventeen and twenty-five,” he explained in the October 1968 issue of the Canadian Journal of Corrections ); led them into what he named the Total Encounter Capsule, a small room painted bright green; and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first-ever marathon nude psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Elliott’s raw, naked, LSD-fueled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches. The psychopaths spent every waking moment journeying to their darkest corners in an attempt to get better. There were no distractions—no television, no clothes, no clocks, no calendars, only a perpetual discussion (at least one hundred hours every week) of their feelings. When they got hungry, they sucked food through straws that protruded through the walls. The patients were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for one another even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time, “in a state of arousal while doing so.”

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

Ronson’s book is unfortunately scattershot and unfocused, mostly good for anecdotal pointers. Richard Weisman wrote a far more detailed reflection on the Oak Ridge experiments. In either version, Barker  and Gary Maier and other empathetic psychiatrists display jawdropping irresponsibility..

Granted, this does not seem any worse than what one can read about in Foucault or, more vividly, in the horrific chronicles given by Erving Goffman in his amazing book Asylums and shown by Frederick Wiseman in Titticut Follies. (“Titicut Follies portrays the existence of occupants of Bridgewater, some of them catatonic, holed up in unlit cells, only periodically washed down with a hose and taken out in order to receive force feeding. It also portrays the indifference and bullying on the part of the institution’s staff.”) Humane treatment is a very recent invention and still practiced inconsistently.

If anything, Freud may have helped push forward increasingly humane treatment of the severely mentally ill, as manifested in Barker’s good intentions. But this does not excuse the rampant irresponsibility that was at hand at Oak Ridge, and Barker’s genial enthusiasm (he quotes Buber in “The Hundred-Day Hate-in”!) is in some ways even more frightening than the disdain, malice, and indifference that was historically the rule. The casual certainty that their mental model, derived primarily from psychoanalytic theory, would produce productive results is borne out of the same pool of certainty from which Freud drew capaciously.

Ronson gets one of his most disturbing quotes from one of the Capsule members named Steve Smith:

“I remember Elliott Barker coming into my cell,” Steve told me. “He was charming, soothing. He put his arm around my shoulder. He called me Steve. It was the first time anyone had used my first name in there. He asked me if I thought I was mentally ill. I said I thought I wasn’t. ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘I think you are a very slick psychopath. I want you to know that there are people just like you in here who have been locked up more than twenty years. But we have a program here that can help you get over your illness.’ So there I was, only eighteen at the time, I’d stolen a car so I wasn’t exactly the criminal of the century, locked in a padded room for eleven days with a bunch of psychopaths, the lot of us high on scopolamine [a type of hallucinogenic] and they were all staring at me.”

I obviously cannot lay the full responsibility for Barker’s behavior or psychoanalysis’s influence on psychopathological treatment at Freud’s feet. Yet I cannot fully excuse it either. Freud’s model of the psyche became instrumentalized as an well-meaning institutional cudgel, and it could only have done so had it claimed such a scientific authority for itself.

Regarding that authority, George Makari (an avowed psychoanalyst himself) writes of the fight between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud’s psychoanalytic factions in England in 1942:

A talented member of Melanie Klein’s group named Donald Winnicott protested that Freud would never have wanted to “limit our search for truth.” He too asked the society to adopt language that put the aim of the group as the furthering of “the psychoanalytical branch of science founded by Freud.”

The Kleinians had taken the high ground of science, despite the fact that their leader had been accused of dramatically departing from basic scientific principles. Like the old Freudians, the Kleinians had become defenders of an empirically unknowable belief regarding unconscious mental life. Nonetheless, the Kleinians draped themselves in the principles of free inquiry. Like others before them, they seemed to want the freedom of scientific pursuit without accepting the responsibilities that came with it.

George Makari, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis

It is a hubris seen very frequently.


  1. Maurice duQuesnay

    6 October 2011 at 23:09

    I was always of the impression that Freud’s theories and his therapy were derived from his study of neurotic patients, and not of individuals suffering from psychosis? I do not see how Freud is responsible for the irresponsible and unthinking misuse of psychoanalytic therapy. He was never happy with the immediate and unhindered ascendency of psychoanalysis in North America, which he feared was too pragmatic and inventive.

  2. According to Weisman’s paper, Oak Ridge’s earlier and more conservative therapies included being choked into unconsciousness, kept naked in a solitary unheated padded cell, and administered electro-shock and lobotomy. I’m not certain their beneficiaries would agree with you that Barker was more frightening. (Weisman’s paper cites some grateful tributes by Barker’s patients.)

    At any rate, Freud’s pessimism cannot be stretched to justify such liberationist fantasies, which is why Jung, Laing, Leary, and so on weren’t Freudians and why Freud is not mentioned by Weisman. The hubris you rightly point to is not the property of one particular school or thinker, but common to the field — even definitional.

  3. Oh, Lord.

    Look. I could take Jerry Fodor’s model of mind as a basis for a series of experiements where I get people to torture each other in order to discover whether there is a “torture module” in the mind. Does this say anything about Fodor’s theory? Would it matter if he thought torture was a bad way to study the mind in operation? Would it matter that he thought his theory was “scientific”?

    I’m sorry, man, this is just really bad stuff. You can’t possibly make these kinds of guilt-by-association arguments and expect to be taken seriously in criticizing anyone. Analogous arguments could be used to “discredit” any thinker, but more importantly, Freud would never have thought that corralling nude psychopaths in a locked room would possibly help them at all. He made his “conversational” model an explicit part of his theory: you sit down with someone, alone, and try to help them through conversation. This model, of course, is so dominant in psychotherapy and counselling that we forget that Freud basically invented it. To ignore its centrality to his theory is simply to display your own motivated irrationality: you want to discredit Freud, and you will make any associations you can in order to do so.

  4. David Auerbach

    8 October 2011 at 02:49

    Well, to reiterate, “I obviously cannot lay the full responsibility for Barker’s behavior or psychoanalysis’s influence on psychopathological treatment at Freud’s feet.” I thought I made it pretty clear in the first paragraph that I’m talking about Freud’s *influence* and the applications of psychoanalytic theory rather than blaming Freud the man, but evidently some people are rather protective of Freud–needlessly so. He’s not going anywhere. Why would I waste time throwing pebbles at a colossus?

    Maurice: Freud endorsed Ernst Simmel’s Tegel sanitorium for the psychoanalytic treatment of criminals with “character flaws” as well as neurotics, which was modeled on Karl Menninger’s US clinic. Freud did not engage in direct treatment of “character flaws” but he certainly sanctioned others doing so. Both clinics were *vastly* more humane than almost any other treatment for the mentally ill at the time.

    That said, Freud’s (1) ambition and (2) cavalier attitude toward the facts both played a part (just a part) in driving the growth and the irresponsible use of his theory. Is this such a contentious point? To credit Freud’s genius and his immense influence is also to admit that part of that influence has been harmful. Freud was irresponsible with his own patients. It happens.

    Does the Oak Ridge stuff sound worse than I think it is? Therapeutic use of hallucinogens was not exactly unheard of at the time. Barker’s successor Maier was vastly more irresponsible but drew more from a hippie-dippie mindset than from a psychodynamic one. The genealogical links between Barker and Menninger/Simmel seem rather clear.

    Ray: indeed, my last line was to point to the seeming inevitability of that hubris in the success of any field, the point I mentioned when I first talked about Gellner’s treatment of Freud. Barker and his whole lot were not orthodox “Freudians” but they are Freudians substantively because Freud had set up his ideas to be plastic enough to survive in such a way. (And Freud’s own work is far too inconsistent to shut down such a liberationist fantasy by itself.) I don’t see why his ideas couldn’t be stretched in such a way.

    If so much psychology and psychiatry today gives credit to Freud the man, which I think is fair, then he should also share a bit of the blame too. Laing, Szasz, Reich, and others were Freudians in much the sense that Marx was a Hegelian, or that Lenin was a Marxist. We’re all fond of the fundamental attribution error.

    (PS: When I say more frightening, I mean from an emotional vantage, not from a practical one; misdirected empathy rather than simple indifference and malice.)

    Nick: in case it wasn’t clear, Barker’s goal was to deprivilege the therapeutic role by releasing repression in the absence of an authority figure, thus having the talk therapy occur amongst equals. Seems reasonable in theory.

  5. David Auerbach

    8 October 2011 at 03:16

    PS to Nick: “If you find an error or a gap in a blogger’s knowledge, you have every right to inform them of what you see. However, it is entirely inappropriate to do so in a scornful or angry fashion. Anyone with even minimal experience in the field knows that in classrooms and seminars this attitude is pure poison. Of all the ways one can destroy a philosophical conversation, attempting to induce feelings of shame, guilt or anger in one’s interlocutor must surely be the most effective.”


  6. It’s unfortunate that this turned into a dogpile, since there is a fairly meaty point under it all. (Attracting us dogs, I suppose.) The noise-producing question is “Why single out Freud?” One might equally accuse Kant of Kleist’s murder, Augustine of child molestation, and Nietzsche of Auschwitz. And in fact I’ve heard such accusations made, and occasionally feel such impulses myself.

    The silence-producing question is “What choice did Freud (and so on) have?” I don’t feel at all protective of Freud, and would gladly live the rest of my life without seeing another cod reference to his big pop hits. Still, his predecessors and peers certainly didn’t wait for more evidence before making authoritative pronouncements, and the behavioralists and surgical-pharmaceutical interventionists who succeeded him did not need his example or support to maintain their own arrogance. If you “know” you can reshape what matters most to you, and make it wiser, better, more effective, would you choose withdrawal rather than risk the awful consequences of influence?

    (I think I would, but I’m crazy.)

  7. Freud set up and aggressively promulgated a social practice, something Kant and Nietzsche never did. If Nietzsche had started Ubermensch training sessions and Zarathustra Business Seminars, it’s possible we’d think of him today as being closer to L. Ron Hubbard, Ayn Rand, and Leo Strauss. (And Augustine, well, I think he *does* get a lot of blame, not for child molestation, but for indulgence-sales and all sorts of other practices that come from the institutionalization of the city of god in the city of man.) And to my knowledge Nietzsche didn’t have an Emma Eckstein, unless you want to count Paul Ree.

    Why Freud rather than Krafft-Ebbing or Spitzer or Fliess or BF Skinner? Partly because he was on my mind, and partly because their ideas and especially their names are simply not as present as Freud’s. If I’d written about Wilhelm Reich and Nude Psychotherapy for Criminal Psychopaths, I doubt I would have received even one angry comment. Freud is an object lesson and I have no problem using him exactly because of his ubiquity.

    What choice did he have? The same choice that anyone seeking and amassing power does, and I admit I am very hard on people in power: it carries responsibilities that are hardly ever met. Pope Gregory knew this and whined about it quite a bit (and while I’m no expert, my impression is that for a pope, Gregory was Not That Bad). And if you yourself would withdraw (as I think I would), aren’t you agreeing with me? If Freud had seen his patients and written his books but not founded his societies, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation today. There was a huge amount of moral luck involved, as there always is, but Freud certainly made the most of it.

    Part of me thinks that Moses and Monotheism was an unconscious attempt on his part to undermine the authority with which he had become uncomfortable, yet which he had eagerly sought. (I mean, let’s face it, M+M is so nuts that it invites such speculation.)

    Robert Spitzer, the guiding force behind DSM-III, seems to express some regret and remorse that diagnoses have become so operationalized and instrumentalized. Should he not feel any guilt? Did he not have a choice?

  8. I’m late to the party, so please forgive me keeping it going.

    On the sloppiness of Freud. I don’t want to downplay the number of self-righteous assholes in psychology, but it’s worthwhile picking at the assertion that they are baked into the discipline’s cake. Psychology is a centaur. Part hard science, part social science, part humanities seminar. (That’s three. Chimera?) To say Freud walked a line between science and art is correct, but to a greater or lesser extent, the entire field does the same. To keep entirely to one side of the line would be to shut down major forms of inquiry. The mind is almost inconceivably complex or inconceivably hidden or both, and to have advanced any distance down Freud’s particular road meant many assertions of the unprovable. To this day, it’s clear the practice of therapeutic psychology is at least as much art as science. All of which is to say that Freud and other doctors in his field behaved arrogantly, but the field probably necessitates arrogance in a way that mathematics does not. I don’t know if this excuses arrogance, but in truth most people who accomplish a lot are arrogant. Arrogance overlaps heavily with inventions and artistic contribution and revolutionary social change.

    About Augustine. In the first place, Chaucer is complaining about indulgence-sales in the 14th century. If people are blaming you for something a millenium after your death, you have not done things wrong. You have done EVERYTHING RIGHT. But more to the point, I think Augustine is a great demonstration of the absurdity of criticizing someone for not withdrawing or not operating in the Deleuzian “minor” way. Augustine is certain he has a life-and-death truth to impart. It feels ungenerous (or at least setting oneself up for infinite disappointment) to expect him to have been more cautious in his establishment of the early Church. We’re asking him to ask of himself a series of questions that would have been impossible for him to formulate. Was Augustine wrong? Should Augustine have done things differently? These feel like the wrong questions given how vast and altered the Church became after his passing compared to what it was while he lived.

    On Robert Spitzer. Should he not feel any guilt? I would say no. No, he should not. DSM-III is imperfect, but it has helped more than it hurt. Could it have been written in a way that avoided its flaws or better avoided them? Maybe it could have better avoided them, since there have been subsequent editions, but I cannot see how the very idea of a DSM, regardless how well-crafted, could avoid leading to abuses. Do you think we would be better off without such a text? (If a world without the DSM is even possible. The DSM seems inevitable in a Foucaultian way.) Of course Spitzer had a choice. But to say it that way suggests he ought better to have not presided over the thing.

  9. I am the Steve Smith mentioned in Jon Ronsons book
    I would very much like to contribute to this discussion.
    I cannot speak of Nietzsche or Freud as my formal education ended with Oak Ridge in 1969.
    However I think I have something worth contributing to this discussion
    I am willing to answer any questions any of you may have.
    I was not one of the Psychopaths used in Dr. Barkers experiments.
    I think I was one of a few control subjects.
    I have studied psychopathy for more than thirty years.
    Barker told me I was a psychopath. I needed to find out what that meant.
    I knew he was wrong and I assure you … he now knows that too.

    • I myself was a victim of barker and am involved in the class action against barker and mairI was subjected to that torture chamber capsule. being fed through staws.Shot up with scapolomine,LSD 25 and numerous other of his diabolical concoctions.Like You I was sent there for car theftAs the judge in my hometown thought well if Your here for a third time for car theft. I’m sending You for an assesment.Allmost like a recording he said pretty much the same to me. He pointed to people like peter woodcook and others and told me if I refused the treatment He could keep me there for 20 30 or more years.I am just appalled that this no good rotten sinister piece of shit now works as a founder of a child protective sevices. I also was 17 or 18 at the time.He also thought I was a “slick psycopath”Hitler used scapolamine as a truth serum and way of torture. If anyone is a slick psycopath it would be him. I still at 53 get flashbacks of his horror.I hope the class action is sucsessfull and that that scumbag rots in hell for eternity.

      • Nice to hear from you Brian
        I hope you are doing well.
        I’m sorry to say nothing much will happen to Barker and the rest of them.
        Lawyers and insurance will take care of them.
        The one thing we can be happy about is his profesional reputation is trashed.

  10. Yes most likly as the class action suit has been going on for years.The worst part is knowing that that SOB works at and is a cofounder of a child protection orginization.They need to be protected from the likes of him.

    • The class action no longer exists.
      Everyone involved should take a closer look at what has happened in the past sixteen years since I first took this case to Rochon.
      As for Barker and CSPCC … you are right but what can be done?

  11. Dr. Barker still around? I met him when i was 19, He did nothing for me. In the end it was shown his program sucked due to people re-offending. Can’t believe he works with kids now. He screwed up so many people. Dr. Elliott Barker did way more harm than good. Whats he in his 80.s now? he was old when i first met him lol

  12. Remember the Barker Bunks? my backs still screwed up to this day. Dr. Barker likely thought we would just set back and say nothing, so glad people are speaking up against him, thank you :)

  13. by the way i made it back to society and its well over three and 1/2 years , Barker had nothing to do with me making it, i seen through his fake promises. My goal was to make it and to learn from my teenage stupidity. Barker made the same offers to me to get out early release, i said no thx, i seen through that fake scam he was running, its not about getting out, it’s about learning from our mistakes, learning and not doing it ever again :) My goal was never to hurt anyone ever again, to this day that will always be the truth :)

  14. I witness Oak Ridge staff with a towls giving the so called :’getting the shower treatment’, when OAK ridge staff poured shampoo in a patients eyes then them punching the crap out patients, they are a bunch of red neck bullies, i was choaked out twice because i spoke up, System in Penetang, suppose to help better us? like really?? You guys in Penetang thought i’d set quiet ? NOT is the answear., I am better than u guys, i never held the hate, i focused on making myself a better person.. Sadly you OAk ridge staff hurt so many people. hows beating someone helpless helping someone? I see why u had so many lawsuits from the few who did speak up, all u did for me was cause fear to say anything until now, u can’t beat me up anymore :)

  15. Institutions like the notorious “Oak Ridge Division” in Penentanguishene, Ontario; now called WayPoint was a place where these so-called doctors got to carry out the most horrible experiments in Canada on not just Psychopaths, but every patient in there.
    There was no DNA testing to prove people’s guilt/innocents. Prime candidates for entry into Oak Ridge were usually young people, providing they committed some sort of crime. No body on the Crown’s side would ever question a Psychiatrist. They were considered the “God” of the institution. Who ever they wanted, they got. What ever they wanted to do, their minion guards followed. Who preferred to be called Attendants. We called them “Blue Shirts” as they wore Grey Pants and Blue Shirts.
    I feel sorry for those who came into this place before the laws changed in 1986. Before that, no patient in there had any rights. And I don’t mean some BS right to vote or privacy, but rights to not participate in the following below as it was all considered “Therapy and Treatment.”

    Primary Doctors on hand for issuing the life threatening and psychosis inducing torture were Dr. Russell Flemming and Dr.Elliot Barker.

  16. Upon admission to Oak Ridge, you were brought into the main door via 4 to 8 guards, through 2 heavy steel bar sliding gates. Walked to one of the 8 wards (up to 1984, Oak Ridge had 8 wards that would hold 38 patients each). The admission wards were usually on the upper level. The Cells (Patients were punished for not calling them rooms) were a single bed setup of about 7 ft by 8 ft with an angled wall on the entry way to mount a toilet and a sink. However, not all cells were built the same. The Lower wards were a somewhat normal cell of a bed with steel plate bottom, no springs here with a 3” mattress that felt like a bag of shoes you were lying on, a small sink with buttons to turn the water on that would stick at times, an all stainless steel toilet that was cold as hell, and a small steel table about 18” square with a steel seat on the wall just below the window. These were the high privilege rooms. There were other rooms, depending on your participation in the so-called programs, not your security level that had less comforts. The upper wards were considered heavy treatment so the cells had these cement beds on the outer wall were if you were lucky enough, you may have some safe blankets for it which were like cardboard blankets. They were ¼” thick of heavy cotton cut at 3ft by 5ft, with about 20 miles of thread in them. They were rip proof. Like trying to cover yourself with a large seatbelt, but it’s just big enough. Your arm was your pillow. And for a pair of PJ’s there was this safe gown of the same material that was shaped like a dress. Only one way to slip it on. The cells on the upper wards started with cement surrounded steel toilet but you couldn’t flush it, to one you could, to a regular steel toilet, to then a sink, to a steel table, and so on. The lower wards had similar rooms but reserved for those refusing therapy, these were called safe rooms. The Cell designs were actually created by Dr. Elliot Barker. The cement Beds were nicknamed “Barker Bunk.”
    After entry to this so-called institution, you were taken outside a cell and ordered to strip down. Depending on your race would depend on whether you would take your own clothes off and remain standing when you were down. The institutional staff in general were very racists at the time. You were then pushed or rolled into your new life, unlimited time of psychological torture. And it usually had nothing to do with your crime….

  17. Your future there now depends on how well you can play a game, willing to let people control you and believe in a higher power for faith. Otherwise, you would go psychotic, and probably end up in the now relocated grave where Yard 4 stands.

    This institution did not have any so-called rubber rooms for people to bounce their heads off the wall. The walls here were cement as well as the floor being a solid smooth surface. However, when Dr. Barker ordered the Capsule’s, he had patients lay out mattresses on the floor and against the wall so injury was limited and not apparent. These cells would then have a select group patients put into them. These would include usually the young male inmates (age 13 to 19) who were all disrobed and would watch one another. Each capsule was to test and observe the psychological breakdown of various neuron toxins. This would be directly injected into your blood stream. There were 3 types of capsules. LSD-25 (Lysergic acid diethylamide) done on ward C; PCP (Phencyclidine) done on ward A and Alcohol done on ward E. There were higher fatality rates on the PCP and Alcohol experiments over the LCD tests. Patients were also injected with sodium amytal (truth serum) and their conversations recorded on both video and audio recording devices.
    Patients were promised higher privileges and the ability to go outside for 25 minutes of fresh air once a week if they participated. For someone on 24 hour lock-up, this was a nice offer to them. Since there was no Mental Health Act back then, Patients in this system were no longer considered a member of society and tossed in here. This was very similar to Auschwitz, except we weren’t gassed; we were kept alive for testing….

  18. The attendants or guards had an easy job. Requirements at the time to work there was a Grade 8 education, single, ability to relocate objects equal or greater than your body weight and willing to work in a group. Guards would carry Lead Filled Blackjacks. It would make for quick subdue, then another guard would come behind you and put his arm around your neck and strangle you to unconsciousness (known as getting choked out). Then once you’re down, you were rolled up in a safe blanket and then guards would start kicking you (called boot therapy). The blanket would limit bruising but not the pain. Another form of punishment was having shampoo sprayed into your eyes by the guards, then hit with blackjacks and pushed until you cannot move anymore from fear. This was called shampoo treatment.
    The guards were just used for controlling the patient and reinforcing fear. Otherwise, some wards had patients treating other patients by having patient run Security, sanctions, clarification, treatment, SPL (Staff Patient Liaison), etc. This was a world of hell as usually all the psychopaths were the leaders or co-coordinators of these groups while the more passive schizophrenic patients became the victims to these cruel leaders…..

  19. As time went on, some people started to make it back out, however spending above and beyond the time they should have spent there in the first place. With this, the public and legal system started to change for the better. Unfortunately, like any system, some people still slip through the cracks and they make everyone who has gotten better look bad. I take my hat off though to those who made it through this institution in the early years as that’s when it was a real hell hole.

    Sorry for all the post. The site has a letter limit.

  20. thank you for yours posts eric. we were teenagers when we met in Oak ridge :)

  21. sodium amytal (truth serum) by Dr. Barker, i had that, sadly, it did nothing to help me :(

  22. A long time since I posted here. I published a book a year ago http://www.thepsychopathmachine.com/ coming soon a movie will be produced based on The Psychopath Machine. stay tuned and feel free to comment on my website.

Leave a Reply

© 2024 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑