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Behaviorists Behaving Badly

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Ellis and his wife, Debbie Joffe, at the apartment above the institute.  

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.”


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