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Behaviorists Behaving Badly

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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.


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