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.
Which is why it might surprise some to learn that Ellis is an undisputed giant of twentieth-century psychology. On a legendary (within psych circles) survey conducted in the eighties, the American Psychological Association asked its members to rank the most influential psychotherapists of the previous hundred years. Ellis came in second. Sigmund Freud was third. If that sounds implausible, remember that in the early fifties, when Ellis first developed his approach, the notion of self-help had not yet entered the American psyche. Practical, results-oriented REBT largely paved the way for it. Ellis’s best-selling books, like Sex Without Guilt and How to Control Your Anxiety Before It Controls You, became the avatars for pop psychology. But they’re also grounded in a sophisticated cognitive therapeutic technique. If you compare how many people purchase self-help books in 2005 with the number who undergo Freudian psychoanalysis three times a week, the idea that Ellis’s reach exceeds that of his Austrian colleague doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“Albert Ellis stands as one of the pioneers,” says Dr. Ron Levant, the president of the American Psychological Association. “He’s regarded as a true luminary,” agrees Kaja Perina, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. “And there is still a very healthy respect and even awe for him.” Another major figure in cognitive therapy, Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology at Rutgers and the executive director of his own Lazarus Institute in New Jersey, says, “The field owes him a tremendous debt.” Lazarus has been a friend of Ellis’s since the mid-sixties, though he acknowledges that others’ esteem for the doctor is surpassed, perhaps, only by Ellis’s esteem for himself. “My joke about Ellis is that I once said to someone, ‘Do you know who invented the airplane?’ ‘The Wright Brothers?’ they said. ‘No, Albert Ellis! The paper clip, Saran Wrap … ’ He says he invented everything! But it’s not malicious. It’s very funny.”
Ellis’s ideas about mental health were born of his own physical frailty. For much of his childhood, his body kept failing him. Born in Pittsburgh and reared in the Bronx, he was a sickly child who was repeatedly hospitalized for a series of ailments, most notably nephritis—chronic inflammation of the kidneys—which once sent him to New York Presbyterian for a ten-month stretch. As a bedridden 9-year-old, Ellis must have picked up a number of coping techniques, most usefully that of acceptance: He was confined to a hospital bed—deal with it.
Acceptance is a big thing in REBT, the three cornerstones of which are “unconditional self-acceptance,” “unconditional other acceptance,” and “unconditional life acceptance.” Your mother never told you she loved you? That’s her right as a “fallible fucked-up human,” as Ellis would say, and often does. There are worse things in life than not being told you’re loved by your mother, he argues. Don’t “awfulize” such neglect; use rational thinking to understand that another person’s poor behavior has nothing to do with your sense of identity or potential for happiness. Ellis, an avid reader of philosophy in his teens, credits Epictetus with steering him toward the guiding principle that our emotional responses to upsetting actions—not the actions themselves—are what create anxiety and depression. And if we construct our unhappiness, then, REBT’s reasoning goes, we can also break it apart.
In the fifties, this mode of thought was a radical departure from Freudian psychoanalysis, the dominant therapeutic technique, which Ellis himself practiced for six years until he decided it was “horseshit.” But if Ellis distinguished himself as therapist non grata among much of the Freudian set, his gift for public speaking and his freakish energy quickly helped him garner a powerful reputation, a book deal, and ever-increasing numbers of clients (Artie Shaw and Saul Bellow among them). He traveled extensively, spreading the gospel of REBT. At around the same time, another doctor, Aaron Beck, was exploring similar psychoanalytical approaches, and the two men are generally considered the fathers of cognitive therapy, in which patient and therapist work together to target specific problems, eschewing the more free-form conversational style of Freudian therapy. The technique caught on, and Ellis started his institute.
REBT would become Ellis’s claim to psychological fame, but at the time he was developing it, he was much better known for his work in the field of sex. Indeed, as a contemporary of Alfred Kinsey, Ellis was almost as notorious as his more clinically inclined counterpart, thanks to his then-radical book Sex Without Guilt. An early supporter of gay rights, Ellis has argued that “gay people should be able to choose whatever kind of sex-love relations they preferred—barring, of course, children and mentally deficient adults.” The chief difference between Ellis and Kinsey was that Ellis also studied love.
When his book The Art and Science of Love was published in 1960, Ellis had already been divorced twice. Then, in 1964, he embarked on a romantic relationship with Janet Wolfe, with whom he lived, unmarried, and who served as the executive director of the institute until she left him and it in 2002. Like Kinsey, Ellis is not the monogamous type. He has admitted to having sex with patients, though only after treatment had ended. Living “in sin,” as he puts it, with the director of his own organization surely made for a knotty personal-professional situation. But that didn’t deter the doctor from starting a romantic relationship with another colleague soon after.
We’re casual here,” says Debbie Joffe, Ellis’s fortyish Australian assistant and closest confidante. I’ve come to Ellis’s apartment on the top floor of the institute, and the first things I notice as I get off the elevator are Debbie’s bare feet and deep-red toenails. She notices me noticing and smiles.
The apartment is sparsely furnished and consists of three large rooms, one virtually empty save for a rolled-up futon and a table; a central area near a small kitchen with a sofa and not much else; and the bedroom, where the doctor spends most of his time. The room is dominated by a king-size bed, and Ellis is in it, sitting up and smiling, his headphones on and amplification apparatus at his side. He occupies a sliver of the mattress. The rest is covered in a mass of books and papers. I take my place in a chair near the doctor, while Joffe sits at the foot of the bed to make sure Ellis can understand my questions.
This was early this past summer, and though I didn’t know it at the time—no one did—Ellis and Joffe had been married the previous November. I first saw Joffe at a Friday-night workshop earlier this year, where she was an ebullient presence who made sure the proceedings didn’t get bogged down by Ellis’s hearing. Joffe serves as a kind of interpreter, dashing all over the room from questioner to questioner and translating their queries. She’s also a sidewoman, Ed McMahon to Ellis’s Carson, steering the doctor to some of his signature punch lines. “Remember, Al, when you were in the hospital and I told you they were going to remove your intestine? What did you say?” “At least they’re not going to take my balls,” Ellis zings.
Joffe’s devotion to Ellis borders on the worshipful. “It has been awe-inspiring to watch this man,” she says, drawing out “awe-inspiring” for what feels like 30 seconds. “He is so kind and caring and compassionate and amazing. He really is one of the most extraordinary humans—I believe—to walk this planet.”
Dr. Broder, the director of the institute, is “a power freak,” says Ellis. “And it would be better if he were dead, dead, dead.”
Born and raised in Melbourne, Joffe’s also a therapist who studied psychology and eventually started a private practice in Australia. On vacations, she’d travel to the States for workshops with Dr. Ellis, becoming a devotee of REBT. In 2002, she moved here for good and started working at the institute. Her aunt was a psychologist, and it was on her bookshelf that Joffe first “discovered” Albert Ellis as a 12-year-old, around the time Joffe’s father died. But if you point out the symmetry of her coming upon the much older Ellis in this way at the same time that she lost her father, Joffe dismisses it all as fantastical Freudianism. Ellis is not a father figure, she declares. He’s her husband.
“She saved my life,” Ellis says of his amanuensis-cum-spouse. Over a period of a few months, starting in late 2002, the then-90-year-old endured, in rapid succession, a bad fall on the sidewalk in front of his building, a near rupture of the colon that required the removal of his large intestine, a diabetic coma, and an IV-painkiller overdose. When Ellis was in the hospital, Joffe was with him around the clock. It was she who frantically summoned nurses when it became clear that there was something very wrong with the contents of Ellis’s drip. The way Ellis tells it, if she hadn’t been there, he’d be dead.
She is, in many ways, a natural caretaker. A few years back, after giving a talk on the relationship between counseling and healing at a conference of the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines in Calcutta, she was awarded an honorary doctorate. The other honoree was Mother Teresa. And she and Ellis share an interest in various Eastern philosophies; Buddhism’s “life is suffering” is a premise that’s informed REBT. In his bedroom, I ask Ellis what are the sources for most people’s problems and frustrations and anxieties and everything else if not, as Freud would say, events from early childhood, and he blurts out, “People are born crazy—all of them!” Then, fighting through a series of coughs, he adds, “As the Buddha said 2,500 years ago, they’re out of their fucking minds!”
Afterward, when Joffe walks me back to the elevator, I can’t help remarking on their intense connection. “It seems like this is a real romance,” I suggest. “I think romance is too weak a word,” she replies in her Australian twang. “I’d call it soul mates.” And I believe her. But in this case, Ellis’s soul mate may have inadvertently complicated his career.
On July 27, Ellis received a memo from Michael Broder indicating a “suspension of professional activities” from the nonprofit institute, effective immediately. The notice came after months of negotiations between Ellis’s lawyers, Bob Juceam and Michael de Leeuw, and the institute’s lawyer, Dan Kurtz, who failed to come to terms regarding the founder’s future compensation, his health benefits, the direction of the institute after Ellis’s death, and other issues. Then, at a September 18 board meeting, the suspension turned into a formal removal, and Ellis was relieved of his duties. Within a few weeks, he’d filed suit against Broder (who is both a board member and the institute’s director) and three other trustees, seeking to have his dismissal declared void. The remaining two board members—whom Ellis is not suing—have expressed support for him.
Exactly what went wrong is complicated (and the failure to resolve it without resorting to lawyers is obviously ironic, given that we’re talking about a bunch of therapists), but the beginnings of a shift in relations between Ellis and the board seem to have come on the heels of his 2003 health crisis. It occurred then to institute brass that perhaps the time had arrived to reassess Ellis’s professional responsibilities and to contemplate the notion of an Ellis-less Ellis Institute.
That wasn’t what Ellis had in mind. An indefatigable worker who’s written more than 75 books and to whom “wasting time is the essence of human stupidity,” Ellis was determined to continue writing, teaching the tenets of REBT, conducting therapy sessions, and leading his Friday workshops, albeit with a colostomy bag and almost 24-hour nursing care. Board treasurer James McMahon suggested looking into a way to help pay for Ellis’s hefty health expenses, and life at the institute carried on, to a certain degree, as normal.
Until the October 2004 firing of Debbie Joffe. “We let her go, and that was like the assassination of the archduke in 1914,” says Broder. According to him, Joffe was canned for inviting an outsider into a group therapy session. Andy Hopson, a public-relations specialist recommended by Joffe, had been brought onboard to observe the institute and assess how it might be better marketed. But bringing an unlicensed layperson into a therapy session is considered a rather serious breach. Ellis, however, maintains that Broder told him to let Hopson sit in. Furthermore, it seems odd that Joffe alone was reprimanded, considering it was Ellis himself who’d led the session.
Stripped of her duties, Joffe nonetheless remained Ellis’s assistant and health-care attendant. She also became his wife. But because of the turbulence at the institute, they say they decided to keep their marriage under wraps. Joffe still has her own place on the Upper West Side, though she spends several nights a week at the institute with Ellis. And every day she must walk through the halls of the organization that axed her in order to see her husband. She says employees have been instructed not to speak to her, except for the receptionist. Staffers have been known to flee the elevator when she gets in.
Broder and Ellis didn’t always have such a testy relationship. In fact, it was Ellis who invited Broder to join the board, back in 2002, and two years later he asked him to oversee the institute on a temporary basis while it looked for a new director. Ellis has also edited work by Broder, who studied at the institute in the mid-seventies. Now, though, he views his onetime student as a power-hungry liar who wants to seize control of his organization. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” says Ellis. For his part, Broder insists he can’t wait to wrap up the legal quagmire and return to Philadelphia, where he’s based. “I’m not going to be here long,” he says. “I’m not trying to take over the institute.” In fact, the institute has contacted headhunters to find a new interim director.
If Broder is cast as the “power freak” by Ellis, then in the board’s telling of the fight, Joffe’s the mercenary one, the implication being that she may not have married her husband for the noblest reasons. While insisting that it’s not appropriate to speculate on the nature of the marriage, Dan Kurtz says, “She had a visa that the institute basically secured for her. When she was let go, we obviously had to notify immigration that she was no longer employed here. She’s still here. I cannot imagine how, but I assume it has something to do with the fact that she’s now married to Dr. Ellis. Because she’s not otherwise employed.”
There’s even been speculation that Joffe has her own designs on the institute, though she dismisses that as nonsense. “My priority is Albert Ellis,” she says. “If I have more time in my life, I will enjoy going back to seeing some of my own clients and teaching. Running things never has been and never will be my thing. But they got it in their heads that I was a strong influence on him. Al listens to me respectfully, but no one influences Al. He’s not shy about saying what he wants.”
Andy Hopson was also asked not to return. He declined to comment, though in response to an e-mail request for an interview, he wrote back, “I appreciate your interest in Dr. Ellis and the awful treatment he is receiving from Dr. Broder and the Board. Considering that Dr. Ellis has given the Institute virtually everything he has earned over his long career it is unbelievable to me that human beings could do what these folks are trying to pull off. In my view it’s all about money.”
“Ellis’s fatal flaw is this idea of accepting others unconditionally. I think maybe he read too much Marx and not enough Machiavelli.”
The institute’s attorney has had the building on East 65th Street appraised, and its value is estimated to be near $20 million. Ellis’s lawyer says the institute has about $8 to $9 million in the bank, but that’s money Ellis has no access to. By all accounts, he has scarcely earned a dime in the past 50 years that he hasn’t funneled into his organization. The institute is sitting on a tremendously valuable real-estate asset while its founder is essentially broke.
“This is almost a Shakespearean tragedy,” says Nando Pelusi, a psychologist in private practice who’s been affiliated with the institute for fifteen years and who’s married to Kaja Perina. “And Ellis’s fatal flaw, ironically, is this idea of accepting others unconditionally. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. Ellis read a lot of Marx and had this idea of everything for the good of the group. But I think maybe he read too much Marx and not enough Machiavelli.”
Pelusi has subbed for Ellis at the Friday workshops on occasion, and he continues to conduct a weekly group therapy session at the institute. He refers to the institute under Broder as “the new paradigm,” and suggests that Ellis’s seemingly wild claims that Broder is out to seize the place for himself are perhaps not so outlandish. “On some level, maybe they think they’re doing the right thing,” Pelusi says, referring to Broder and McMahon. “I think they were just so tempted by this power. People have done a lot worse for a lot less.” McMahon responds, “I take no money for this job. If somebody said to me, ‘Jim, you’re in this to take over,’ I’d say, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy.’ ”
In his petition, Ellis seeks reinstatement on the grounds that his dismissal came at a regularly scheduled trustee meeting, not at a special meeting as is required in the bylaws to oust a board member. He also wants a lump-sum payment, reassurance that the institute will continue its work, and some provisions for Joffe. The board is considering filing a counterclaim for repayment of the health costs it covered for Ellis. In 2004, his medical bills were in the area of $300,000. The board was spooked by the possibility that these funds could be considered “excess benefits” and spark an IRS audit that could jeopardize the institute’s nonprofit status—and says it removed Ellis from the board primarily to prevent that from happening.
Ellis points out that Broder, in his part-time freelance gig, earned more than $200,000 from the institute in 2004. And Joffe believes that to pay Ellis’s medical bills is the least the board can do. “The bottom line is, this man in his younger years—his sixties and seventies and eighties—traveled around the country living on cheese sandwiches, pouring everything into this institute. Now he really requires good nursing care. Is he asking for money so he can go to the French restaurant with Michael Broder on a Thursday night? No.”
For its part, the board has offered to help finance the creation of another organization in which Ellis could essentially do whatever he wants. According to Ellis’s lawyers at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, though, the board would likely pay for such an endeavor by selling the mansion—a horrible prospect to Ellis. The institute’s lawyers say one is not contingent on the other. The board members also insist that to continue to pay Ellis’s nursing bills would be to court disaster with the IRS.
It’s already a pretty nasty legal standoff, but even some of the people Ellis is suing sound less rancorous than depressed by the whole thing. “I wish you were here only to talk about the great things that his teachings have done for the world,” says board president Rory Stuart, who, at 49, is the youngest trustee, though he’s been on the board for eighteen years. “When I first got on the board, Al and I were alone once and I said, ‘Listen, what do you want me to do in the long run?’ And he said what he wanted was for the institute to live on after he died and continue to spread the teachings of REBT. I took that seriously.”
As for Ellis’s two board supporters, Deborah Steinberg and Emmett Velten, they’ve declined to talk at the moment. But in a previous statement, they wrote, “Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin once said, ‘It is not with the right of power that we returned to the land of our ancestors, but with the power of right.’ We are saddened that the ‘right of power’ has thus far determined recent events at the institute. We hope that the ‘power of right’ will yet prevail.”
The institute’s staff of ten therapists and ten administrators is scared by the drama around them, according to Pelusi. But for now, the life of the institute continues. In addition to classes, workshops, fellowship programs, and practicums for psychologists interested in mastering REBT, the institute is currently working on an interactive computer program that deals with anxiety—and a major study on anger. Ellis continues to conduct therapy sessions with individual clients in his office, six to ten people a week, a far cry from a few years ago, when he’d see dozens.
To some, this tapering-off is how it should be. “I call this the Muhammad Ali syndrome,” says Arnold Lazarus. “Had Ali quit three years sooner and not taken such a pounding, he might not have severe Parkinson’s. Ellis is a heavyweight, but he didn’t know when to quit. He wanted to continue his lectures, his writings, his workshops, instead of graciously stopping some of that. Keeping his finger on the pulse of the institute, of course. But slowing down some of his activities.”
What Ellis has missed most since his ouster are his Friday-night workshops, the cancellation of which he viewed as a spiteful, punitive measure. According to Broder, it was a necessary decision on the heels of complaints that Ellis, his cane flying willy-nilly as he walked down the aisle through the crowd, and his conduct increasingly unreliable, was a danger to his audience. “Those allegations are preposterous,” says Joyce Bavlinka, an education administrator who’s attended about 70 workshops since 2003—before poking me on the arm. “There—did I just assault you?”
Whether Ellis is, in the end, the right person to decide what should happen to his beloved institute after he’s gone—a decision that clearly still needs to be made, regardless of the legal outcome—it’s hard not to feel like, in the meantime, the place owes him a few more Friday nights. It remains to be seen whether he’ll get them. But in a typically pluckish move, Ellis planned to resume his workshops last Friday at the American Federation of Arts, right next door to the mansion. To his fans, this is great news, for they believe that Ellis’s therapeutic gift—despite his deafness, his intestinal woes, his age—is still very much intact.
At the Israel America Foundation seminar the other Sunday, Ellis is demonstrating REBT in action via abbreviated one-on-one sessions with attendees. One woman has anger issues. A man has writer’s block. A third volunteer, however, is in the throes of a significant personal crisis.
A round-faced woman in her early forties with short frosted hair and what sounds like either a Russian or an Israeli accent joins Dr. Ellis on the dais and explains her problem. Four months ago, her husband died at age 41. The crowd sighs. The woman continues, describing how difficult it is for her to grieve at the same time she has to raise her four young children. For a moment, she breaks down, stifling tears, as Ellis waits placidly.
“How can I stop feeling like his death was a waste?” she implores. “It was a waste,” Ellis replies. “Life has wastes.” Occasionally, Ellis doesn’t have complete command of the room, slurring his words, or referring to an earlier question when the group had moved on to something else. But right now, he seems focused, and he kindly pushes his new client, REBT style, to look at her situation for what it is—an inarguably sad circumstance—but not to “awfulize” it, that is, not to empower her problem but to accept it and know that it won’t destroy her.
“This is very, very bad, but you and your children will also experience very, very good things throughout your lives.” Then he deploys his signature visualization exercise, Rational Emotive Imagery, clearly thinking she can take it. “Close your eyes,” he commands. “Now imagine one of your children dying.” There are gasps from the audience. Surely Ellis has gone too far.
“I have,” she replies. “Now feel it,” he says. “And realize that you have a choice to feel healthy feelings of sorrow, regret, sadness—not depressed.” For the first time, the chattering audience is silent, staring at the teary young woman and the white-haired gentleman in headphones. “Imagine the worst and make yourself healthfully sorry. You can do it.” She opens her eyes and wipes away tears. She says she feels much better.