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Behaviorists Behaving Badly

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Dr. Michael Broder at the Albert Ellis Institute.  

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!”


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