This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1987, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 96-98. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Therapist. By Ellen Plasil. St. Martin's/Marek. New York. 1985. 224 pages. $3.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Nathaniel Brandon
Therapist is Ellen Plasil's account of her four and a half years of treatment by a prominent New York 'objectivist” psychiatrist. Her book is of special interest to me because of my past association with Ayn Rand and the objectivist subculture.
The author was raised by objectivist parents. Almost from the day she was born they abused her physically and mentally in an appalling number of ways, including sexually, and at the same time lectured her on 'reason,' 'independence,' and all the other routine cliches used by Ayn Rand’s professed admirers without any true appreciation of their meaning.
In 1972, at twenty-one, Plasil found herself in an unhappy marriage and suffering from depression, and she moved to New York City in search of psychiatric treatment. She put herself in the hands of Dr. Lonni Leonard, who had been recommended to her by Dr. Allen Blumenthal, a leading objectivist psychiatrist.
In the course of her treatment, Leonard informed her that he was the 'healthiest' man he had ever known and that an important indicator of a woman's own 'health' was whether or not she responded to him 'romantically.' From there it was only a short step to insisting that Plasil satisfy him sexually. But she was instructed never to imagine that she was having an affair with him. She was merely to satisfy him and thereby be fulfilled. It would be proof of her femininity. Using the authority of his position, Leonard intimidated, threatened, and abused her. He called her 'scum,' and, for all practical purposes, he raped her. In other words, he created the nightmare of her childhood, while telling her repeatedly that he was her only hope for salvation. (This is quite different from the more familiar story of a psychotherapist who becomes infatuated with his client and has an affair with her.) Plasil's dependency on Leonard made her submissive and compliant
The author by this time had left her husband. Her social contacts in New York were limited almost entirely to fellow-patients of Leonard, and they all apparently worshiped him. She moved in a world where a person's most insignificant actions and preferences were scrutinized to determine whether he or she was a 'good objectivist.' Tastes in art novels, and film were evaluated from the standpoint of Ayn Rand's personal likes and dislikes. In objectivist circles, Leonard enjoyed a God-like status. Plasil did not feel safe in discussing her growing anxiety and doubts. She would have been accused of treason.
Of course, not all enthusiasts of objectivism manifest this foolishness; the majority of them are independent, decent, clear-thinking human beings. But there is an irrational, cultish tendency in many intellectual movements, and objectivism, alas, is no exception. Ayn Rand's personal obsession with loyalty did little to discourage this trend, even though she doubtless would have been horrified by Dr. Leonard's practices. Rand had often protested, 'Protect me from my followers!'
Finally, after many months of struggling with the question of whether Leonard had a legitimate purpose for his bizarre behavior at the therapy sessions (for example, greeting her stark naked, videotaping her in a similar state, spread- eagled on the floor, and so on), Plasil telephoned Dr. Blumenthal. When she attempted to discuss her misgivings with him he said he could not talk to her while she was Leonard's client. Besides, he insisted, he already knew what she wanted to say. When she tried to verify what he claimed to know, he hung up. The nightmare grew worse.
But Plasil's doubt and anger also grew when she discovered that Leonard’s other female clients had had similar experiences. After four and a half years of therapy, with outrage piled upon outrage, she decided to fight back. She terminated her therapy, and, with several other of Leonard’s victims, she initiated legal action against him. Not surprisingly, shortly afterward Leonard announced that he was giving up his practice. Plasil was then accused by his other clients of causing irreparable harm to a great man.
I had a similar experience when I broke with Ayn Rand. I had left the New York circle of objectivism in the late 1960s, years before the events in this book took place. I did not know Dr. Leonard, but I did help to launch Dr. Blumenthal's career. Although I repudiated him many years ago (we repudiated each other, you might say), I confess I read this story with embarrassment and sadness for having played even a small part in it. But perhaps, from one perspective, my part was not really so small. Did I not, together with Rand, help to create the kind of subculture in which irrationality and inhumanity could exist (even if, to repeat, we would have been horrified at this particular manifestation)? Blumenthal may protest that Leonard is not his creature, but I am not quite comfortable in protesting that Blumenthal is not mine. The bad judgments of our past do come bark to haunt us.
Plasil won her case, and Dr. Leonard settled out of court. He is now working as a beekeeper in florida. She has remarried happily and is working toward a law degree.
Therapist is written with great simplicity, clarity, and dignity, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of cultism and how individuals can be led to suspend their moral judgment and their common sense in the name of idealism and loyalty – and out of an overzealous desire to belong somewhere. Plasil has something important to say to al of us.
Nathaniel Brandon is Executive Director of the Biocentric Institute in Beverly Hills, California.
This review first appeared in Free Inquiry (Vol. 7, No. 3), Summer 1987, p. 54, to whom we are grateful for permission to reprint it here.