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Behaviorists Behaving Badly


Ellis in the late forties with a patient.  

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.”

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