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Behaviorists Behaving Badly

Does Albert Ellis—elderly sexologist and godfather of cognitive psychotherapy—really deserve to be banished from the Upper East Side institute that bears his name?


Dr. Albert Ellis in his office at the institute.  

Albert Ellis is singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” red-faced and grinning. Apart from “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” though, it’s not the version that’s taught in classrooms or sung in schoolyards. Ellis, the 92-year-old godfather of cognitive psychotherapy, has written his own lyrics for the tune, which he now leads in his “god-awful baritone” for a group of elderly supporters of the Israel America Foundation who have assembled in the lecture hall of the institute Ellis founded 46 years ago.

Ellis is profoundly deaf, so he’s perhaps more of a song stylist than a singer. “Glory, glory, hallelujah! / People cheer you, then pooh-pooh ya!” he croaks as the seniors, clutching lyric sheets, follow along in a multitude of keys and tempos. “If you’d soften, how they’d screw ya! Don’t expect they won’t!”

The lyrics have special pungency on this Sunday afternoon two weeks ago: This could very well be the last public appearance Ellis makes at the Albert Ellis Institute. Today’s seminar (subject: “Accepting Life’s Kicks, and Moving Ahead!”) is a kind of stealth performance for Dr. Ellis. Although he founded his institute in 1959 and bought this Beaux-Arts mansion on East 65th Street shortly thereafter with the royalties from his book The Art and Science of Love, he currently enjoys zero authority on the premises. He lives in the building and still has his own office there. But Ellis is embroiled in a serious legal dispute with his board of trustees, who last month voted to remove him from power, are seeking repayment of “excess benefits” that had been used to cover his considerable health-care expenses, and shut down his weekly Friday-night therapy workshops, in which the doctor demonstrates his technique on volunteers from the audience and which Ellis had conducted virtually uninterrupted for the past 40 years. It’s unclear if the institute’s directors, who govern the use of the space for public events (and who don’t work on Sundays), are even aware that Ellis has essentially unlocked the front door and let in this crowd.

In fact, the imbroglio with the board—in particular the institute’s executive director, Dr. Michael Broder—is becoming something of an unexpected leitmotif of today’s event. Ellis is taking questions from the audience about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the anti-Freudian form of psychotherapy with which the doctor made his reputation a half-century ago. Ellis’s institute serves as a school for REBT, where therapists of various stripes come to learn the theory’s dictates, and the building is also a kind of therapeutic hub offering individual and group therapy sessions. A man at the Sunday seminar asks about forgiveness, how to pardon friends, family, or colleagues. Ellis, as his theory dictates, urges separating the person from the action. “For example, I hate what the people here at the institute are doing immorally and unethically,” he says in his rumbling, gravelly honk. “I think they’re fallible, stupid people who are doing the wrong thing—but they may be nice to their mothers . . . You damn the things people do, you don’t damn them.” Or at least you try to behave that way. A woman wants to know, “How do you deal with someone who is a total controlling power freak?” Ellis can’t hold back. “You should be able to kill them, but there are laws against that,” he begins in his customary jokey-provocateur way. “That’s what Michael Broder is—the director of this institute. He’s a power freak! And it would be better if he were dead, dead, dead!”

Albert Ellis has never billed himself as a subtle therapist. “I was the first psychologist ever to say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ at the American Psychological Association conference,” he proudly announced the first time we met. The attendees of his Friday workshops who get picked to undergo one-on-one REBT demonstrations in front of the crowd occasionally feel more like victims than patients during his expletive-laden sessions. When crossed in a board meeting (back when he was still on the board), he was known to erupt in obscenities. One of REBT’s principles is to avoid “musts,” the destructive idea that our needs and expectations must be met. This Ellis calls “musturbation.” But REBT sees nothing wrong with letting your anger out—often. It’s keeping it inside that makes you feel worse about yourself and the people who’ve enraged you.

Initial exposure to Ellis’s method provokes a mixture of mild shock and disbelief—and maybe a giggle or two. He wears stereophonic headgear so that he can hear what patients are asking him, and he speaks in a hoarse shout, occasionally breaking down into coughing fits. Still, workshop regulars (who pay $10 a session) treat him with intense, cultlike devotion. To the uninitiated, he can seem like the kind of shrink who confirms nonbelievers’ worst suspicions about therapy: Wait a minute, that guy’s crazier than I am.

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