By Tori Marlan
On the day in 1945 that U.S. troops liberated the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, an inmate discovered a photo album in a deserted SS barrack. The Auschwitz Album, as it came to be known, documents a Hungarian transport’s arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring or early summer of 1944. It is the only photographic record of Nazi camp operations. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has a set of the photos. Yad Vashem in Israel has a set. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a set. And Alan Jacobs, a Chicago therapist, has a set.
One recent afternoon in the basement office of his north-side home, Jacobs opened a small plastic box and removed some of the photos. They were black-and-white, roughly the size of index cards. Freshly disgorged from cattle cars, the prisoners mill about looking disoriented and weary. “Right to the gas, you understand,” Jacobs said. He pointed out a boy standing in the sea of newcomers. “Look at this little face.” In another photo, he lingered over the image of a beautiful woman. “And her,” he confessed, “I’m in love with her.” He began flipping through the photos at near-animation speed. “I’m purposely doing this, because it’s endless.”
So, it seems, is Jacobs’s capacity to mull over the Holocaust. A second-generation American, he grew up in the United States in the 30s and 40s, his immediate family safe from Nazi reach. Although anti-Semitism drove his grandparents out of Romania and Lithuania and he grew up with what he calls a “Jewish ghetto indoctrination,” it wasn’t until the late 1970s that he felt personally touched by Hitler’s assault–though touched is putting it mildly. “I got hooked,” he says.
He has been pondering the Holocaust and constructing social theories around it for the better part of 20 years now. “You’ll be talking about something seemingly unrelated,” says his 28-year-old son, Jesse, “and he’ll bring the Holocaust into the conversation. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, that’s not related.'”
Jacobs is a robust 65. He keeps his balding hair cropped concentration-camp short and wears rimless glasses that accentuate the intensity in his eyes when he talks about the Holocaust. Leaning precariously far back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, he is capable of delivering an hours-long monologue that segues from survivors’ stories to camp operations to theoretical questions of autocratic power and genocide. In restaurants, chances are good that he won’t get through the meal without diagramming theories on paper napkins or tablecloths or drawing something less visually abstract–say, a detailed map of Auschwitz. “I’m like a dam in the river, brimming with this stuff,” he admits.
Jacobs has undertaken Holocaust-related projects in nearly every genre. He’s written scholarly articles, poetry, an unpublished novel, and Remembrance Day speeches for the U.S. Army. He’s also made a 50-minute video and taken a few thousand photographs of various camps (72 are posted on the Cybrary of the Holocaust Web page, www.remember.org). He is currently at work on a book about the abuse of power.
“I’m all over the place trying to express this thing that I got caught with in ’79,” he says, referring to the year he first visited Auschwitz.
But to make sense of the personal and professional odyssey that trip inspired–and to understand why he “got caught” in the first place–Jacobs must think back a few years more. He must think back to his early encounters with a colleague named Jacqui Lee Schiff, who hopscotched from Virginia to California to India to England peddling an unorthodox brand of therapy and around whom, Jacobs eventually concluded, “there was always violence and blood,” and a number of fawning colleagues willing to make excuses for her or to keep silent about what they knew.
In the early 70s, Jacobs’s professional community looked to Jacqui Lee Schiff as the Jonas Salk of psychotherapy: she was waging what seemed a successful war against a crippling mental illness. Jacobs counted himself among her many admirers. If he and other members of the International Transactional Analysis Association weren’t actively vying for her attention, he says, they certainly were “mindful of winning it.” He can still recall the few times she sidled up to him at conferences and rested her hand on his back or slung an arm around his waist.
Schiff had dark frizzy hair, wore little or no makeup, and often hid her short, squat figure in slacks and pantsuits. She had an irritating high-pitched voice that by her own description was “very lightweight” and sounded like that of a child.
Jacobs didn’t actually enjoy her company. It put him on edge. She never laughed at his jokes or even humored him with a smile. Instead she stared at him impassively. Apart from her unresponsiveness to jokes, she was wildly unpredictable. Jacobs saw her snap at colleagues in public one minute; sweep them into her fold the next. “She was brilliant and intuitive,” he says, “and knew just how to scare the shit out of you or make you feel wonderful.” It was stressful to be in the same room with her, and yet people wanted to be in the same room with her.
The height of Schiff’s popularity coincided with the heyday of transactional analysis, or TA, a theory and methodology of psychotherapy that analyzes transactions between people by dividing the personality into Parent, Adult, and Child ego states. TA was pioneered by the psychiatrist Eric Berne, who organized weekly educational meetings for psychotherapists in the late 50s called the San Francisco Social Psychiatry Seminar. Schiff attended the seminar in the late 50s and early 60s, then moved to Virginia for graduate school and became a psychiatric social worker. TA was popularized in the mid- to late 60s by a couple of best-selling books, first Berne’s Games People Play and then Thomas Harris’s I’m OK–You’re OK.
Most TA therapists used TA to treat people who were seeking personal growth. Schiff used it to treat people with schizophrenia. In 1969 she made an extraordinary claim: that she had cured 14 patients. Berne invited her back to the seminar as a guest lecturer and enthusiastically introduced her by saying, “She takes people into her house that are very confused and unconfuses them, which confuses some people in the profession because it isn’t supposed to work.”
Back then, little was known about what caused schizophrenia. While some researchers contended that the disease had biochemical origins, a common view, and the one to which Schiff subscribed, associated it with faulty parenting. Schiff considered “sick feelings” and psychotic anger “relics of a sick infancy and childhood” and believed that if a patient regressed to infancy or childhood–to a period that predated the pathology–the therapist could eliminate the “negative messages” instilled by the parents and substitute healthy ones as the patient progressed through each developmental stage. Schiff called the process reparenting, and described it to her TA colleagues as “de-cathecting” the patient’s Parent ego state and then re-creating it from scratch.
Reparenting required an enormous commitment from the therapist. Schiff’s patients moved into her six-bedroom house in Fredericksburg, Virginia; severed ties with their biological parents; and began calling her “mom” and her husband, Moe (also a psychiatric social worker), “dad.” Schiff identified each patient’s regressed age as the age at which the patient seemed to function and then treated him as if he were actually that age–which meant she wound up diapering, bottle-feeding, bathing, and disciplining adult patients. Only she didn’t refer to them as adults or patients, even when speaking about them to her colleagues. She always called them her children or her “schizophrenic babies.”
Schiff relished the role of mother. Out of seven pregnancies, she’d been blessed with only three children. Her first baby died in infancy, and she suffered three miscarriages. The reparented child’s new mother “is the most important thing in the entire world,” Schiff wrote in a 1969 article that introduced reparenting to her colleagues. “Nothing must be allowed to threaten his relationship with her.” By then, the 35-year-old Schiff had made herself “the most important thing” to a lot of people. When the New York Times published a feature about her that year, she was mothering 18 “children” whose real ages ranged from 9 to 29. “Between bottles,” the reporter observed, “some of them smoke cigarettes.”
Schiff attracted other publicity as well. She appeared in magazines and on national TV. The media usually portrayed her as a dedicated heroine who opened her home and heart to delusional and dangerous patients and made them well with the kind of nurturing care and attention one usually reserved for members of one’s own family. Schiff’s efforts–and her successes–seemed very exciting and newsworthy.
Schizophrenics typically wasted away in institutions, medicated, restrained, and presumed incapable of ever becoming productive members of society. But at the time Berne died suddenly of a heart attack in 1970, TA–and Schiff–appeared to be making a remarkable contribution to the treatment of a baffling mental illness.
Later that year, Schiff (collaborating with author Beth Day) published a best-selling book about her work called All My Children. She toured the country, a reparenting guru, with “cured” patients in orbit, demonstrating that they were smart, lucid, and undeniably functional. She legally adopted some of her “children,” credited them with helping her develop her ideas, and sometimes deferred to them for comment when speaking to groups.
Neither the press nor Schiff’s colleagues seemed concerned that she’d written of administering corporal punishments, such as spankings and belt whippings. Although regression was controversial in traditional therapy and touching patients taboo–whether hugging or spanking–Schiff’s peers generally lauded her efforts. When questioned about her methods, Schiff said, simply, that they worked. That was good enough. She was treating a difficult population–a population nobody else knew what to do with–and, as one official of the National Institute of Mental Health told the New York Times, “She gets results, and you can’t argue with that,” though he cautioned that it was too early to tell whether the results were permanent.
Schiff collected more and more “babies,” almost compulsively it seemed. Her husband Moe later said that fame had gone to her head, that she’d developed grandiose ideas about her capacity to handle patients. When Schiff, over his protests, returned from a workshop in LA with their 36th schizophrenic baby, Moe left her. A few months later, Schiff and about 25 of her “children” caravanned out to California trailing U-Hauls. They settled in Alamo, a small city 28 miles west of San Francisco. A little more than a year later, a new patient in her care met an untimely death.
At the time, Jacobs was new to TA. He’d started his career relatively late in life, and at 37 was still battling deep-seated insecurities about whether he had the smarts to make anything of himself. Neither of his parents had been educated past elementary school. His father had quit at 12 to help run the family newspaper stand at 92nd and Commercial; his mother went to work full-time in a dress shop after her father up and left for Jerusalem “to become a religious Jew.”
Jacobs’s own education was disrupted time and again, victim to either the vagaries of his father’s gambling habit or his father’s chronic fear that the action was where they were not. “Harry’s got shpilkes again,” relatives would say, meaning that he had “ants in the pants.” On a whim, the family would move. New York. Miami. Back and forth between Chicago and LA. Jacobs attended six elementary schools. When he was eight, his father and a silent partner bet a million dollars that the Yankees would win the 1942 World Series. They didn’t have a million dollars, and the Yankees didn’t win.
Fearing the gamblers more than war, Harry joined the U.S. Navy for protection. He caught up with his family in LA two years later. One day his silent partner emerged from a high-stakes poker game as the brand-new owner of an oil company in Texas. Grateful that Jacobs’s father had never implicated him in the bet, he paid off their debt. The two years in hiding didn’t reform Jacobs’s father. He wore his reputation proudly, acquiring the nickname Bam, an acronym for “bet a million,” and cultivating a group of Jewish gambler and mobster friends that included the notorious Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel. When lounging around, he wore a gray robe with blue piping that said BAM on the back.
As a child, Jacobs admired his father’s friends, especially Barney Ross, the former lightweight and welterweight champion, who flattered him with the moniker “the King” and taught him “how to duke”–lessons he put to use on more than one occasion. “Someone would call me a dirty Jew, I would pop them.”
Bam struck it rich one summer at the Del Mar racetrack and the family moved from a cramped apartment in LA, where Jacobs slept on a couch in the dining room, to a spacious house in Beverly Hills with a badminton court. His father opened a casino in Reno, the Bonanza Club, but within two years he’d lost the fortune betting on boxing, football, baseball, and the ponies.
When Jacobs was halfway through high school, his family moved to Chicago’s north side. Jacobs enrolled at Senn High School and joined a Jewish fraternity, a group of athletic “playboys” whose uniform consisted of rolled-up Levi’s, cashmere sweaters, and black-and-gold jackets (satin in winter, cotton in spring). Jacobs and one of his fraternity brothers, Bob Bernstein, shared a mischievousness that blossomed in each other’s presence. Their favorite pranks included asking police officers if they were public servants and then demanding glasses of water and dumping soda-soaked popcorn over the balcony at the Uptown Theater, making retching noises as it landed on the heads and laps of the unfortunate filmgoers below. “We got thrown out of every place we went into,” says Bernstein, with whom Jacobs is still close.
When Jacobs was suspended from school, jealous Bernstein got himself suspended too. Their friends and teachers thought they wouldn’t amount to much. Jacobs caught more flak for his behavior than Bernstein did, probably because he was the new kid. “He was constantly knocked down because of all the acting out and posturing,” Bernstein says. After cutting more than 100 classes in three weeks, Jacobs was expelled. Although he absorbed others’ opinions about him and believed them to be true, he struggled against them. He began volunteering at the Michael Reese Hospital emergency room and got fixed on the idea of becoming a doctor. He kept a black medical kit in his car, and, according to Bernstein, he’d pull it out at opportune moments to impress people. Jacobs says he graduated late, at age 20, from a small YMCA high school, “thinking I was stupid.”
His grades prevented him from getting into a premed program, but he went to college anyway. At the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, he joined the track team and won numerous medals. He transferred to the University of Chicago on a track scholarship, and the coach there sculpted him into a top sprinter. But Jacobs was unprepared for, and intimidated by, the academic rigor of his new environment. Lacking confidence, he neglected his studies and quietly flunked out while trying to convince everyone, even Bernstein, that he was getting A’s. “He fudged his grade cards,” Bernstein recalls. “I knew his handwriting, but I didn’t say anything.”
Jacobs whiled away his 20s, his days consumed by dead-end jobs, his evenings devoted to painting and sculpting at the Art Institute. He describes himself back then as “a mixed-up, neurotic, confused, frightened young man who pursued–often successfully but not always–a small basketball stadium of women.” One of the women introduced him to a heroin habit. Another–a Playboy bunny and “high-class hooker”– helped him sober up. At 33, he took a job as an art therapist at Forest Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Des Plaines. There, for the first time, he encountered people who recognized he had a talent for something other than athletics or troublemaking.
“They assigned me to the ICU, and I’d go in there an hour and a half a day and work with these really psychotic whacked-out people, and I was able to get them to do stuff for me that nobody was able to get them to do.” He would talk to them like they were regular people, he says, not like they were crazy, which was what everyone else seemed to do.
One day Jacobs observed a group therapy session led by a social worker named Charles Elias. Like Jacobs, Elias dealt with patients in a very direct manner; he didn’t talk down to them or over their heads. But whereas Jacobs worked by instinct, Elias clearly had a method and a philosophy guiding him. “It took me about two or three weeks,” says Jacobs, “and I got up my courage and asked him what he was doing. He said TA.”
Elias took Jacobs under his wing and taught him the basics. It was the late 60s. Group therapy was in vogue. “Everyone was running around doing sensitivity groups and encounter groups and this kind of group and that kind of group,” Jacobs recalls. The hospital administration brought in prominent therapists to introduce the staff to different forms of group therapy. Jacobs sat in on lectures and workshops given by Virginia Satir and Carl Whitaker, pioneers in family therapy, and by Fritz Perls, the founder of gestalt therapy. Like Elias, some of them encouraged Jacobs to become a therapist.
The hospital sent him to J.L. Moreno’s institute in Beacon, New York, to learn psychodrama, a form of group therapy in which participants re-create emotionally charged moments from their lives. Moreno’s wife Zerka pushed Jacobs farther intellectually than he’d ever been pushed. One night she handed him her husband’s book Theater of Spontaneity and told him to read it by morning. Jacobs stayed up all night, captivated.
When he returned to Forest Hospital his supervisor transferred him to the family therapy department and furnished him with his own office. At the time, anyone who’d made a living in the social work field for three of the previous five years could apply for certification from the state of Illinois. Jacobs was eligible, even without an academic degree. The certificate enabled him to collect insurance and go into private practice, but he didn’t feel comfortable branching out on his own without formal training and supervision. In the spring of ’71, he signed up for TA training in Evanston, read the TA canon, and learned about the woman who could cure schizophrenia.
Shortly after moving to California, Jacqui Schiff presided over a massive network of reparenting outlets. She founded the Cathexis School, for children with psychiatric problems; the Cathexis Institute, a research, teaching, and outpatient treatment center; and the Schiff Family, a residential therapeutic community consisting of more than a dozen households in the San Francisco area, populated by people with and without mental illnesses. (At some point, she’d generalized her treatment; anyone who’d been raised by less than perfect parents was a candidate.)
In the fall of 1972, a paranoid schizophrenic named John Hartwell moved into the cottage behind Schiff’s two-story house in Alamo. Schiff ran the house and cottage with the help of a psychiatric consultant, a few staff members, and a designated Person in Charge, who made sure that everything ran smoothly when she wasn’t around. The PIC could be either a staff member or a resident she considered responsible.
On October 23, Schiff selected her first reparented and adopted son, Aaron, as the Person in Charge of the 20 or so people in the house that day. Aaron was perhaps Schiff’s greatest success story. He had come to her for treatment seven years earlier in Virginia, a 19-year-old fright of a man with long, matted, dandruff-caked hair and a ratty beard. He smelled bad and drooled, according to Schiff’s book; his clothes “were literally rotting off him.” He was delusional, paranoid, and, she figured, homicidal. He curled up in her lap one day and spontaneously regressed, attempting to nurse. Schiff moved him into her house. He remained in an infantile state for months, and while “growing up” he sometimes struck Schiff about the face. He was often able to articulate what he was experiencing, however, and it was while working with him that Schiff developed her theories on reparenting. She legally adopted him, and he took Schiff as his last name. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in psychology and then moved with Schiff to California, where he briefly worked as a therapist. Now 26, he was an advanced member of the ITAA and a consultant at the Cathexis Institute. He was also married and had a child.
That morning Aaron decided to give John Hartwell a bath. He helped the boy undress, bound his hands and feet with rope, and let him soak in a tub for about five minutes. The water was too hot. Hartwell emerged from the bath severely scalded. He died in a hospital three weeks later, just after his 18th birthday. Third-degree burns covered more than 65 percent of his body. Jacqui Schiff called the death an unfortunate accident and defended Aaron against criticism: Aaron had bound Hartwell’s limbs because the boy was impulsively violent; Aaron had tested the water temperature with his hand; Hartwell had made no outcry.
Schiff blamed Hartwell’s death on a new water heater and unsuccessfully sued the companies that had manufactured, sold, and installed it.
In the days following the scalding incident, the state Department of Mental Hygiene denied Schiff’s pending application for an operating license for the Alamo home and ordered her to cease operations there. A few weeks later, a fire destroyed the house. Schiff quickly rebounded. She reparented patients in other houses and continued training therapists. She developed theories on “passivity” and “discounting” to explain how people fail at solving problems (by ignoring them or denying their significance) and to provide therapists with tools for analyzing and treating such counterproductive thought processes and behavior. She published The Cathexis Reader: Transactional Analysis Treatment of Psychosis, which she’d written with colleagues, Aaron, and two other “children.” In 1974, Jacqui and Aaron Schiff won the ITAA’s most prestigious honor, the Eric Berne Memorial Award, for their work on passivity. An early disciple of Berne named Pat Crossman later wrote that at the ceremony Schiff was presented as “a kind of saintly pioneer who had been persecuted by the Establishment for her revolutionary ideas.”
To Jacobs, a Berne award represented the pinnacle of success. A thriving private practice wasn’t necessarily a measure of talent or worth. The general public associated TA with a reductive “bumper sticker” slogan. “Everybody and his grandmother was calling me up: ‘Do you do the therapy that’s I’m OK, you’re OK?’ I had ten groups running a week, and I was doing marathons”–groups that lasted 24 to 36 hours–“on the weekends. I was busier than anything.” He gladly reaped the financial rewards and truly wanted to help people, but he also longed for the respect and admiration of his colleagues, with their medical degrees, social work degrees, and PhDs. Somewhat self-conscious about not having an undergraduate degree–let alone a graduate degree–he aspired to the highest membership rank of the ITAA, which would enable him to train and supervise other therapists, and assiduously studied as much as he could on his own, not only in the field of TA but in gestalt and psychodrama and other kinds of therapy as well.
Jacobs noticed that Schiff had her own argot and that everyone who worked with her sounded like her. He also noticed that it was easy to slip up and say the wrong thing in front of her “children,” and that those who did often got scolded for it, even in public. “I was always afraid to talk to her too much,” he says. He strove to become fluent in Schiffspeak. He learned to say jargony things. You’re discounting. You have a schizophrenic structure. You’re escalating. I’m very uncomfortable with that. He used the words “cathect” and “decathect” to mean energize and enervate. When Jacobs was pronounced “healthy for the kids” and invited to a Schiff party, he rejoiced. He felt that he had arrived.
“At that point,” says Jacobs, reparenting “was pretty much part of transactional theory. Schiff had become famous.” If you wanted to climb the ranks of the ITAA, “you pretty much had to get some training with her.”
Jacobs went to Alamo, California, in June of 1975 to learn reparenting from Schiff. By then he was a provisional teaching member of the ITAA, training therapists under supervision. He was only a three-part oral exam away from obtaining the highest membership level. Six of his trainees accompanied him to California. They stayed at a Christian retreat center Schiff had rented near her house to accommodate the 40 or so therapists from all over the country who’d come for the weeklong workshop.
In the mornings the group would sit in a big oval and listen to Schiff or someone on her staff lecture. The anecdotes they shared from the annals of reparenting usually seemed apocryphal to Jacobs. But when the group broke in two for therapy, Jacobs saw Schiff at her dazzling best, intuitive and effective.
Jacobs remembers that during free time, he and Aaron Schiff would sometimes take long walks together, and that on one of these walks he asked about Hartwell’s death. They had discussed it at a conference two years earlier, but nagging questions remained. Jacobs says that Aaron reiterated the points he’d made before: that he had tested the water and it was fine, that he couldn’t fathom how the boy had gotten burned, and that Hartwell must have somehow “cathected” the fatal burns in the days that followed. The death still mystified Jacobs, but he believed it a freak accident.
One morning toward the end of the week, Schiff sent Jacobs’s group outside for a marathon therapy session, instructing everyone to “get little.” Jacobs found the order to regress a bit odd–there wasn’t a schizophrenic among them–but he went along with it. He even attempted to settle a grievance by throwing a rubber ball at someone, and then stood there shamefaced as he got hollered at for it. After a kid’s lunch–cheeseburgers, french fries, Kool-Aid, and ice cream–Jacobs was wearing down. “At about three o’clock,” he recalls, “I was like fucking bored.” Schiff had disappeared inside with a few women from the group, so Jacobs told one of her minions that he’d had it with the kid stuff. He was informed that he needed Schiff’s permission to be an adult again. He went to find her and came across a bizarre scene: the three women she’d taken inside lay on the floor in diapers.
Schiff motioned for Jacobs to sit down, and he watched in astonishment as she berated one of the women for failing to defecate, calling her “stubborn and resistant.” Then, as if the scene wasn’t weird enough, two of Schiff’s sons–one reparented, one biological–burst into the room scuffling with a young female patient they were dragging toward a corner. Schiff often made patients stand in corners. She considered “corner contracts” a form of “passivity confrontation,” as they afforded patients the opportunity to contemplate their behavior or issues of importance to them. The young woman getting hauled off to the corner, however, resisted adamantly and at one point tried to knee the reparented son, Shea. When Jacobs intervened, Schiff told him to mind his own business, that they knew what they were doing. Jacobs says that Shea slammed the woman into the corner, and that when Jacobs again protested, Schiff said that if he didn’t back off she would kick him out of the workshop and send a letter to his ITAA file that might ruin his chance of ever becoming a teaching member.
Jacobs was then 40. He had a wife and child to support and shaky confidence. Deep down, he still felt somewhat like the boy who would never amount to anything. He kept his mouth shut.
The next morning, Jacobs’s cigarette burned into a windowsill while he was shaving. Schiff found out about it and upbraided him at the group meeting, encouraging others to follow suit. Everyone in the group–including his six trainees–laid into him. They were disappointed in him. They had looked up to him, and he had let them down. They were afraid of him.
It was humiliating, and it only got worse. Schiff pronounced Jacobs too dangerous to be left alone and put him on arm’s-length supervision. For the next 24 hours, Schiff or one of her staff members would accompany Jacobs everywhere he went–even to the toilet. He found the punishment wholly absurd but felt coerced into submitting. Otherwise, Schiff had made clear, she would sabotage his career.
The punishment occurred on the last day of the workshop. While the rest of the group went into San Francisco to sightsee, Jacobs stayed by Schiff’s side like a puppy learning to heel. They ran errands in her pink Mustang (pink, she told him, so her sons would be less likely to ask for the keys). That night Schiff brought Jacobs back to her house, where she lived with about ten “schizophrenic children.” He slept on a mat at the foot of her bed. In the morning, the “kids” served Schiff coffee and toast as she lay in bed talking on the phone. When Jacobs asked if he could get up and get something to eat, she said no, he’d have to wait until she finished her conversation.
Later that morning, at the retreat center, Schiff asked Jacobs to address the group. He previously had arranged for Schiff and Shea to return with him to Chicago for workshops, and he worried that if he didn’t say something that appeased them they would cancel. Jacobs conjured up a contrite speech about how he’d carelessly endangered everyone’s life. He peppered it with Schiffian jargon, and all was well.
In Chicago, Jacobs took Schiff and Shea straight from the airport to the Francis W. Parker School auditorium, where the TA community waited. Although Jacobs was beginning to have misgivings about Schiff, he still believed that reparenting had merit for schizophrenics. He glowingly introduced her and extolled the benefits of the therapy. After the lecture he brought Schiff and Shea back to his house, where they had planned to stay, and introduced them to his wife, Jane, and his three-and-a-half-year-old son, Jesse. According to Jacobs, Schiff couldn’t have been there for more than a half hour before she started complaining. She didn’t feel welcome, she said. Jane had committed a grave act of inhospitality: failing to lay out washcloths for her guests. “She got very officious and critical and condescending,” recalls Jane, from whom Jacobs was divorced in ’78. “It was as if she was about to say, ‘Off with her head!'” Jacobs checked his guests into the Belden Stratford.
Toward the end of Schiff’s stay in Chicago, Jacobs caught her trying to parent Jesse. Something clicked, Jacobs says, and “right away, I thought, she’s full of crap. I came to my senses.”
Despite the peculiar scalding death in 1972, the ITAA didn’t closely scrutinize Schiff’s methods until almost five years later, after a patient filed a complaint with the association’s ethics committee. The job of investigating the complaint went to a none-too-pleased psychiatrist named Martin Haykin. He approached the job grudgingly. Schiff had sponsored him for his TA exams, and he sometimes referred patients to her. Not only did he admire Schiff, he found the patient’s complaints rambling and disjointed. He assumed they were delusional. Still, he followed the ITAA’s proper procedures, notifying Schiff of the complaint and asking for a response. “I did not know I was embarking on one of the strangest adventures of my career,” he would later write in the Transactional Analysis Journal.
After obtaining newspaper clippings and court records about Schiff’s exploits in Virginia and California, Haykin wrote, “I was shocked….[The patient’s] complaints were more than corroborated by what I received. Eight of us sat up all night in the top-floor library of the ITAA headquarters on Vallejo Street and read the information….Incident piled on incident.”
According to Haykin, Schiff fought back by accusing him of having Mafia connections. An ethics complaint suddenly accused him of stealing a patient from the Schiff Family. The committee recommended Schiff’s expulsion from the ITAA but was required by the association’s rules to keep the details of the case confidential.
Schiff appealed the decision to the association’s board of trustees. Jacobs, then a teaching member, was on the board, which sequestered itself at the ITAA conference in Montreal in August of 1978 to consider Schiff’s appeal. For the first time, Jacobs heard and saw the evidence against her. It was damning. And plentiful.
Schiff, it turned out, had left Virginia in disrepute. A patient at the Schiff Rehabilitation Project in Fredericksburg had charged her with assault and battery, saying he’d been forcibly gagged, diapered, tied to a bed, and beaten, on more than one occasion to the point of blacking out.
Another patient echoed his claims of abuse. She gave a deposition in the case describing an atmosphere of terror in which the cardinal sin was failing to call Schiff “mom.” For that, patients could expect a severe beating. She said that one patient was forced to drink dish-washing detergent every time he mentioned his natural parents. She said that she once witnessed Schiff suckling a patient and that she had been offered Schiff’s breast as well, with the caveat not to be too disappointed if mom failed to produce milk. The patient also said that Schiff had promised not to kill her unless it was “absolutely necessary” and that Schiff once had beaten her bloody with a riding crop. A municipal court judge convicted Schiff and a reparented son named Eric of assault and battery, but the conviction was overturned six days later after someone pointed out that Fredericksburg didn’t actually have laws against assault and battery. They had been omitted from the books a few years earlier, when the city code was rewritten. Schiff and Eric escaped reprosecution in state court (they had moved to California earlier in the year), but the judge issued an injunction prohibiting Schiff from operating the Schiff Rehabilitation Project or “any similar or related establishment” in the state of Virginia. She hadn’t simply left Virginia, Jacobs reasoned. She’d been banished.
Jacobs also discovered that in California a grand jury had looked into Hartwell’s death, and when Jacobs read some of the testimony the grand jury heard he was troubled. According to the testimony, a confrontation between Aaron and Hartwell had erupted before the scalding. Hartwell had spent the night like every other night, handcuffed to his bed, and that morning he struck the person who freed him. Upon hearing that Hartwell had acted out, Aaron grabbed the boy by the shoulders and shook him–hard enough to knock his head against a wall–while explaining that it was not OK to hit people. According to Aaron’s own testimony, Hartwell feared that Aaron would drown him in the bath. Aaron asked another person to lift Hartwell out of the water and dry him off. That person testified that Hartwell’s hands were bloody and that when he pulled the boy out of the tub, the skin on his hands and feet peeled off and fell to the floor.
A resident named Leslie told the grand jury that she had been afraid for her own safety the morning of the scalding because there were no eggs in the house and she was supposed to make an egg for Schiff. She remembered hearing a thud, presumably when Hartwell collapsed after his bath. “I was definitely scared of the loud thud,” she testified, “and, you know, that Jacqui didn’t have an egg to have for breakfast.”
She had plenty of reason to fear Jacqui Schiff, she said. Schiff once had handcuffed her to a chair for five nights and six days, releasing her only twice to use the bathroom. Her legs swelled; her muscles atrophied. “Jacqui said she’d gladly leave me there for several months.”
Jacobs learned that the coroner had ruled Hartwell’s death a homicide. Aaron had pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and received a sentence of probation. The conviction was later reduced to misdemeanor child endangerment.
Jacobs found Jacqui Schiff’s defense against her critics unacceptable. “What she did was resort to ad hominem attacks,” he says. “Anybody who was against her was an enemy and had their own psychological problems or was jealous.” She said that “she was way beyond her colleagues,” that they didn’t understand her techniques, that violence was sometimes necessary to cure people.
The ITAA board of trustees reconvened in San Francisco in November of 1978 to vote on the Schiff case. The Jonestown massacre had just occurred, and one day while the board was in session, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official of a large American city, was gunned down in a nearby building. The newspapers were always chock-full of brutality, but now Jacobs had a heightened sensitivity to it. “It felt like the world was going mad,” Jacobs says.
Despite the reams of evidence detailing abuse in Virginia and California, some members of the 27-person board voted to allow Schiff to remain with the association. “Eight or nine people voted for her, convinced that she was doing great things and that this was some sort of railroading, a political thing, to get Jacqui out because she was too successful,” Jacobs says.
Her detractors outnumbered her supporters. But rather than expel her outright–she had threatened to sue–the board required her to submit a manual of her reparenting techniques for peer evaluation. She refused, effectively tendering her resignation. The outcome troubled Jacobs. “I would have liked to have seen her expelled,” he says. “I would have liked to have seen it spelled out.”
As things stood, few ITAA members were privy to the information that had surfaced about Schiff. A delusional paranoid patient, it seemed, had toppled a brilliant colleague. Many association members had trained with Schiff, been reparented by her, referred patients to her, and built their careers around her teachings. They felt an allegiance to her undented by nebulous allegations and secret evidence. Some quit the association in protest. Schiff left the country and set up shop overseas.
Jacobs’s interest in the Holocaust developed during the Schiff controversy. He embarked on a long journey, one both inward and outward, one that yielded mountains of art, a few social theories, and a willingness to alienate himself from colleagues whose acceptance he’d once craved.
Between the Schiff hearings, Jacobs traveled to Germany to conduct workshops at a psychotherapy institute in Berlin. He took a day trip to Dachau and walked around the camp for five hours taking photos. He didn’t know why he was there or what he’d expected, but he felt unsatisfied. Little was left of the camp. The barracks were replicas. The place seemed antiseptic and inauthentic, tidied up. It failed to evoke in him a visceral response. Nothing forced him to connect to the suffering of its prisoners.
A few months later, at an ITAA conference in San Diego, a colleague gave a speech about “masters and followers” in which she compared the personalities of Hitler and Jim Jones, the cult leader who’d orchestrated the mass suicide in Guyana. It got Jacobs thinking. He believed that Schiff, like Hitler and Jones, had created an authoritarian system that exerted extreme control over people’s lives. The speech struck others as an obvious metaphor as well. According to Jacobs, one person stood up and asked point-blank whether the speech was about Schiff. You can draw your own conclusion, the speaker demurely responded.
Later that year, with Jonestown and the Schiff Family still fresh in his mind–and similarities between them unfolding–Jacobs felt Auschwitz beckoning. He wanted to see “the final result of the belief in absolute power.” Before he left the States, he lined up an interpreter and interviews with survivors.
Auschwitz and its biggest satellite camp, Birkenau, were no Dachau. Capable at one point of snuffing out 20,000 lives a day, the gas chambers and crematoria there enabled the Nazis to do their most efficient killing. About one and a half million bodies were consumed, swallowed up by the swampy ground or fed to the ovens and burning pits and turned into a foul-smelling smoke.
The personal effects of prisoners reeled Jacobs in: the shoes, the glasses, the suitcases, the prosthetic limbs, the prayer shawls, the two tons of shorn hair. One could feel an intimate, almost tangible connection to the dead. It followed Jacobs home. For the next two years he thought about the Holocaust with unflagging intensity. He was plagued by nightmares. He read everything he could get his hands on. He collected five shelves of Holocaust literature, and on a wartime map of Poland mounted on a Styrofoam board he stuck about 2,000 colored pins to represent the variety and the ubiquity of Nazi camps there. From the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum he obtained copies of rare historical photos, including the set known as the Auschwitz Album.
He wrote a novel inspired by visits to the camps and his discussions with survivors. He created an audiovisual presentation, narrating projected images of the camps with survivors’ writings. He showed the presentation to friends and colleagues, schoolchildren, and university students. He eventually transferred it to video. “Some people thought I was off my rocker,” he says. “I wasn’t off my rocker. I was in a creative explosion.”
Jacobs visited Auschwitz-Birkenau again and again–five times in two years–interviewing illustrious survivors (professors, lawyers, artists, and writers) and shooting more photos. He would later say that his experience with Schiff in California–“the gut-level experience of being that terrorized”–helped him while walking around the camps to imagine what had gone on in them.
During the first trip to Auschwitz, Jacobs had noticed that he felt anxious whenever he approached an opening in the double-perimeter barbed wire fence near the entrance gate bearing the inscription Arbeit macht frei. He photographed the spot every time he walked past it. He shot it from every angle.
At home, sifting through the slides, he realized that each box contained at least three or four shots of that opening in the fence. Seeing the spot again sparked the same panicky response he’d had at the camp. Whatever was going on was old, he figured; it was what they called in TA a “rubber band”–something that stretched from past to present and was getting snapped.
One day while looking at the slides, a childhood memory rushed back to him. It was the spring of 1945. He was ten. His mother was treating him to a double feature at the Ritz theater in LA. Between films they watched newsreel footage of the liberation of Auschwitz in which a girl about his age walked up to the camera at that very spot where the fence opened and held up her forearm, displaying her ID number. That image, Jacobs now realized, had spawned a separation anxiety so severe that for three years, whenever his parents were out of his sight, he panicked. He would call them at their favorite clubs and restaurants–Slapsy Maxie’s, the Trocadero, Chasen’s–and beg them to come home. Sometimes, after his babysitter had put him to bed, he’d dress in his brown herringbone suit and sneak out of the house looking for them. Identifying the source of his childhood anxiety felt like “someone with ten-league boots getting off my chest,” he says. He cried on and off all afternoon. He believed he had been unconsciously pulled toward the camps. He wasn’t ready to be pulled away.
Each time he returned to Auschwitz he hired the same interpreter, a young professor of English philology named Krysia Hnatowicz. In 1980, they married in Krakow and she returned with him to Chicago, sight unseen.
“Auschwitz changes you,” Jacobs says. “There’s a special knowledge there of the dark side. Auschwitz does talk to you.” It talked to him of both the dark side of human nature and the dark side of himself. As he walked around the camp, he grew aware of a surprising and disturbing truth: that underneath all his sadness and horror, he harbored a slight feeling of exhilaration. “I pushed it away. I didn’t want to deal with it. I thought something was really wrong with me.”
At some point, Jacobs realized he’d developed the uncanny ability to spot Holocaust survivors. He once tested himself in an elevator in San Antonio, turning to the elderly gentleman next to him and casually asking which camp he’d been in. The man seemed momentarily discombobulated, then rewarded Jacobs with an answer: Buchenwald.
Although Jacobs now attributes his spotting skills to “creative intuition,” he’s had so much intimate access to the world of survivors that if people emit subtle clues to the horrors they endured in the camps, Jacobs picks up on them. He’s not only interviewed and photographed survivors, he’s befriended them, traveled with them, stood with them at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and pored over their memoirs in search of the “special knowledge” he believes many of them have about the extremes of human nature–a knowledge he is in awe of and has doggedly pursued for himself.
One evening in Krakow, he and Krysia dined at the home of Adolf Gawalewicz, a former political prisoner who told them he’d kept it together in Birkenau by reciting Shakespeare. After the meal, while they were drinking brandy, Gawalewicz started telling crematorium jokes–jokes, he informed Jacobs, that survivors usually told only among themselves. Jacobs dared to laugh, and laugh hard. Only then, he says, did the survivors start passing him around. Only then, he says, did they really share their stories–stories that provided a glimpse of what humanity looks like beneath the veneer of civilization, when people act primarily on primitive instincts. A survivor in Skokie told him about accidentally dropping a crust of bread in a latrine, fishing it out, wiping it off, devouring it anyway. Two sonderkommando told him about working in the crematoria, how they shoveled their fellow prisoners’ lifeless bodies into the ovens.
Jacobs wondered what he would have been like, with a shaven head and a number on his arm. Would he have survived? What would he have had to do to survive? Survivors had been put to the ultimate test and passed. In a way, he envied them.
Although many Holocaust survivors, especially those in America, claimed that only those who lived through it could understand, Jacobs wanted to try. He had a vivid imagination, and as a therapist he often imagined himself in other people’s shoes.
In a five-page poetic meditation on Auschwitz, he envisioned himself for a paragraph or so as many of the players in the Holocaust: as a survivor “with unique insight, knowledge, an intimacy with the land of the damned”; as an SS officer coolly “meting out life and death”; as an Allied soldier “cutting the wire”; as a Nazi hunter surprising SS men with “a cold pistol muzzle to their temples.”
Toward the end of the piece he wrote, “I’m tired of you, tired of all the books, dramas, documentaries; yes, tired but not satisfied. I ask myself: ‘Why bring all this up again? What for? What good will it do? To remember? To learn? To understand? Have we? Can we?’ Are these even the right questions? The answers lie in paradox, in my own darkness. For, however horrified I am, however remote or removed, it is myself I deny, if I turn away.”
Jacobs had pictured himself in all the roles and recognized that each was human. After a few years, his focus shifted. He became less interested in what had happened during the Holocaust than in why it had happened. All the documentation–all the remembering–clearly hadn’t done the world much good; it hadn’t prevented other genocides, such as the ones in Cambodia and East Timor.
Using TA as a theoretical framework, Jacobs explored his questions in a series of papers, which were published in the Transactional Analysis Journal between 1987 and ’91. The papers won him the first ever Eric Berne award for a body of work. He wrote about autocratic power and its reliance on a system of masters, slaves, and bystanders. He wrote about nationalism. He wrote about totalitarianism. And he finally explored the biggest question of all: Why did the Germans do it? Many survivors he talked to, many memoirs he read, demonized the Nazis. Jacobs dismissed the notion that they were evil or crazy.
That ordinary humans were capable of committing atrocities was already well established. Hannah Arendt had famously ruffled feathers with her treatise on the banality of evil, which portrayed Eichmann as an average man, though somewhat pathetic. The Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram had demonstrated that volunteers would obediently administer electroshocks over the screams of people they believed to be their victims, as long as an authority figure absolved them of personal responsibility. Philip Zimbardo had cut short his mock prison experiment at Stanford University after the volunteer guards engaged in a frightening display of cruel and sadistic behavior toward the volunteer inmates.
“The question is not what makes them different,” Jacobs wrote in “Aspects of Survival: Triumph Over Death and Onliness,” “but what made them exaggerate and put into practice what we all possess.”
In researching the article, Jacobs read The Conscience of Words, in which Elias Canetti wrote, “The terror at the dead man lying before one gives way to satisfaction: one is not dead oneself.” When Jacobs read that passage, he heaved a sigh of relief. The slight exhilaration he’d felt at Auschwitz no longer seemed inappropriate or macabre. It seemed a natural appreciation of his own life. He’d also felt it when he worked in the emergency room in high school and when he briefly worked at the Cook County Jail in college and visited the area where executions took place. It was the same feeling he derived from speeding down winding roads or attending funerals. The closer his proximity to death, the more he felt alive. Attraction to the dead, he believed, was a basic human instinct, but if the attraction were intense enough it could lead to antisocial behavior. Jacobs identified four degrees of abnormal attraction to the dead, what he calls necrophilial types.
“There are probably more,” he says, “but the four primary ones I came up with were ‘incipient necrophilia’–someone who’s maybe a little too interested in Auschwitz or learning about this stuff, people who are maybe Civil War buffs or World War II buffs. The second level is when you’re around death through your work. You’re a surgeon or a paramedic or a fireman or a cop or a morgue attendant. It doesn’t mean that everyone in those fields has this, but some of them do–they have to be around death more than just as a hobby or in their spare time. And that’s called ‘primary,’ and most of those people never go any further. When I was writing this article I realized I’m now in the second phase–or I’m getting in touch with it and getting over it. The third phase is called ‘flagrant,’ which involves killing humans for the strength and power it gives. Mafia hit men, people like that. The fourth degree is ‘atrocious.'” Atrocious necrophilia, he wrote in the article, “is characterized by the need to destroy more than a few humans as well as the products of human energy such as buildings and cities….In most historical cases, a single atrocious Ideological/Enslaving Master…will emerge and lead the rest of the atrocious necrophiliacs to these ends.”
While thinking about necrophilia, he says, “I realized Jacqui was a little Hitler.” And he thought about what that made him. He had seen the young woman in Alamo getting slammed into the corner, and he had done nothing. Although he had initially confronted Schiff, he had quickly backed off when he realized his own self-interest was at stake. A mere threat to his career had quelled his conscience. “I saw how I had been a good German with Jacqui,” he says.
In hindsight, it was surprising to Jacobs that Schiff hadn’t been stopped earlier, that she had managed to make her methods palatable to an organization of psychotherapists–presumably an intelligent, insightful population. That she embraced violence as a method to achieve therapeutic goals had never been a secret, only the extent to which she employed it. She had detailed spankings and belt whippings in her best-selling book, along with a creepy account of her attempt to rid Aaron of castration fears when he was in college. Her solution? Strapping him naked to a chair and resting the edge of a large hunting knife against his genitals.
Aaron’s face drained of color.
“What am I going to do?” I asked him. “Shall I start cutting so you can never be a man?”
“No, no please!” he whispered. “I want to be a man. Mom, I do want to be a man!”
“I don’t believe you,” I said. I pressed slightly with the knife, and his controls broke. He began to struggle and scream.
Aaron now claims the account was “entirely made up.” But its veracity is beside the point. The passage might have set off alarms, or at least given ITAA members pause, if the association hadn’t been in raptures over the idea that TA could be used for something as groundbreaking as curing schizophrenia. Instead they overlooked the warning signs, says Jacobs. Some dismissed frightening behavior with the wave of a hand or a smirk. Jacobs says that back in ’75, when he told some of his colleagues about his experience with Schiff in California, “they laughed, and some of them said, ‘Of course. That’s Jacqui.'”
According to Aaron Schiff himself, soon after John Hartwell’s death an ITAA leader stood up at the Eric Berne seminar and pronounced, “Curing schizophrenia is like curing pancreatic cancer. It’s bloody, and patients don’t always live.”
Jacobs believed that by allowing Jacqui Schiff to quietly walk away from the association, the board of trustees had failed to repudiate her and discredit her methods. The ITAA had officially distanced itself from her, but a contingent of members continued to embrace her teachings. Widespread ignorance about Schiff persisted. At conferences Jacobs found the din of confusion unbearable. Members sometimes approached him directly, asking why Schiff had resigned. Bound by confidentiality, he reluctantly withheld the answer.
Jacobs says that at a conference in 1985 a British colleague informed him that Schiff was now associated with a reparenting community in England and “bad things were happening there.” Jacobs called for a closed meeting of the board of trustees and passed on the news, saying they should do something. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” he remembers being told, and “Bad karma brings bad karma.”
“I kept bringing it up at the board meetings and they always kept shutting me up,” Jacobs says.
Though some members agreed with Jacobs, according to Bruce Loria, who was on the board with Jacobs at the time, the vast majority viewed him as “an irritant to smooth functioning.”
But burying the truth about Schiffian reparenting was an irritant to Jacobs’s sense of right and wrong. What if the Nuremberg trials had been held in secret, he wondered, if the men in the dock had been hanged without the world knowing why?
And so he responded sardonically to his colleagues’ indifference, throwing out hard words and heaping doses of sarcasm.
Three years later, at an ITAA conference in Chicago, the same British colleague mentioned that Schiff was still “up to her old tricks” in England, using handcuffs and the like. Jacobs had just written his TAJ article on autocratic power and figured that it “wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on” unless he did something about Schiff. “At some point, I had to put up or shut up,” he says. He began to conceive of another TAJ article, one that would expose Schiff. He knew that some of the material uncovered by the ethics committee was a matter of public record, and he asked himself what proved to be easy questions: “Was I going to go get it and do the research and write this article? Or was I going to remain a bystander?” He did the research.
By then, the ripples of reparenting had spread far and wide. Schiff had established outposts all over the world. In the early 80s, after leaving the States, she started a therapeutic community in Bangalore, India, called Atma Shakti Vidyalaya in Sanskrit, or the School for Spiritual Strength. Therapists flocked to the community from all over Europe and the U.S. to train with her.
Though she’d left the ITAA under fire, Schiff was invited to the Eric Berne seminar in 1982 to talk about her work in India. According to one therapist who attended the lecture, Schiff spoke of adopting an Indian baby she’d diagnosed, at three months old, as a homicidal schizophrenic; of hoping to win the Nobel Prize for isolating the blood serum associated with catatonia; and of the prevalence of masturbation among men of the lower Indian castes, which she said suggested a population with a high incidence of schizophrenia.
Schiff moved to England in 1985, diminished by multiple sclerosis. Yet she continued to take patients into her home. She also founded Cathexis-Europe and acted as a reparenting consultant to practitioners in England, Germany, and the Netherlands. At the end of 1987 she opened a residential treatment home in Shropshire with a psychologist she’d trained in India named Jenny Robinson.
The home came under scrutiny in 1991, after a local council official complained that a friend who resided there had become totally dependent on therapists and unable or unwilling to assert her own will. The official, Mark Stein, accused the staff of exercising cultlike practices and of falsely diagnosing people as schizophrenic. Although Schiff at that point was no longer involved in the home (she and Robinson had parted ways over such philosophical differences as whether it was appropriate to use discomfort to motivate thinking), Robinson still employed Schiffian techniques, techniques that struck Stein, during visits to his friend, as weirdly terrifying. He told an English newspaper that he’d observed a woman tied to Robinson by a rope that represented an umbilical cord; on a subsequent visit he saw the same woman wearing diapers, sucking her thumb, and making babylike noises. He also once observed a patient standing in a corner for an extended period of time, and later learned that the patient had remained there for 24 hours, allowed to sit during the night but not sleep. Stein alerted the Shropshire Social Services Department as well as the media, pointing out that Amnesty International classified sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
Authorities ended up banning some of the practices at the home–including corner contracts–on the grounds that they were dangerous or potentially abusive, but found no compelling reason to shut it down.
Back in the States, reparenting hadn’t suffered much of a setback in Schiff’s absence. Some therapists began calling the treatment by a new name, “corrective parenting,” to distance themselves from Schiff. But others still openly aligned themselves with her, and some even hired her to give training workshops and lectures. In 1987, ten years after the first stirrings of the Schiff controversy, a California psychologist conducted a survey of reparenters and found that many still used classic Schiffian techniques. Of the 134 respondents, 22 percent admitted to spanking some of their clients; 82 percent to making clients stand in a corner; 46 percent to bathing clients; 48 percent to doing “toileting work”; and 7 percent to breast-feeding. That same year the book TA Today described reparenting as one of the three main schools of TA, claimed that the Schiffian method had “proven effective” as a treatment for both psychotic and nonpsychotic populations, and noted that some of Schiff’s “children” were among “the most respected theorists, therapists and teachers in present-day TA.”
Reparenting had also piqued the interest of therapists outside the TA community. In a highly publicized case, a medical student committed suicide in 1991 after undergoing a form of reparenting with a Harvard psychiatrist who had no connection to the ITAA.
The Cathexis Institute in Oakland, California, offered both outpatient and residential treatment for about eight years after Schiff left the country. Upon hearing strange stories, the therapist Pat Crossman visited the institute. Alarmed by what she saw, she, like Stein, came to believe that reparenters misdiagnosed vulnerable people in crisis as schizophrenic and subjected them to mistreatment. She started counseling and providing refuge to Cathexis runaways and became an outspoken critic of reparenting, which she considered a “psychotherapy cult.” When a series of lawsuits cropped up against a reparenting center in Kansas City between 1988 and 1994, she testified as an expert witness for the prosecution. A number of former clients were accusing their therapists of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. Schiff had trained the staff.
Jacobs spoke to Stein, Crossman, and a few disillusioned Cathexis patients. He also obtained public records about Schiff’s run-ins with the law. During the two and a half years it took to cobble together the information, his motivation for writing the TAJ article changed. It was no longer just about Schiff. He saw that many people in many places abused clients in the name of reparenting. Jacobs had experimented with bottle-feeding and corner contracts back in the 70s but had quickly abandoned the techniques when he saw that they encouraged an unhealthy symbiosis between the therapist and the patient. The theory of reparenting, he now realized, hinged on manipulating and controlling people’s surroundings, actions, and minds. Reparenting, he believed, was a form of brainwashing. Schiff had basically described it as such in All My Children, writing that reparenting involved an attempt at the “total rebuilding” of a patient’s personality and that patients incorporated the new parents’ messages “word for word.” It hardly mattered, Jacobs thought, if the surrogate parents were sadistic megalomaniacs or gentle well-intentioned professionals.
“The potential for misuse or abuse of power lies not only in the personality of the person in power, but, more importantly, in the theory itself,” he wrote. He then demonstrated how the theory of reparenting had become transformed into an ideology that encompassed the eight criteria for thought reform laid out in psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.
When Jacobs turned in the article, the association’s executive director “was absolutely crazed about the possibility of our getting sued.” In the past, Schiff had threatened to sue both the ITAA and Jacobs, on separate occasions. A lawyer carefully combed through his article and rooted out potentially libelous statements, but it still delivered a powerful indictment of both reparenting theory and the members of the association, Jacobs included.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the controversy surrounding Schiffian reparenting theory and methodology is that those of us in transactional analysis read the theoretical material, participated in the workshops and training programs, and rewarded its major proponents. We ignored the significance of or even denied references to violence and power in the reparenting literature; when abuses were alleged, we did nothing for several years. I am certainly among those who share responsibility for doing nothing, and I ask myself now: Where were my powers of observation? What was I thinking? Why did I deny and rationalize so much?…Perhaps it is this painful and belated questioning that offers the best hope of combating totalistic tendencies in ourselves, our theories, and our methods. Maybe such questioning is the best antidote to the denial that allows and fosters totalistic ideology and systems.
The article caused an uproar. “Alan blew the whistle,” says ITAA member Jim Allen. “He saw it as healing. Others saw it as bringing out the dirty laundry. There was a group in TA who attacked him personally.”
The article also caused friction between Jacobs and Ted Novey, the editor, who wrote a response to it questioning (Jacobs would say attempting to undermine) the central premise. “In my opinion,” Novey wrote, “an equally strong case can be made that even in an environment of extreme control, if the therapist provides adequate protection for the client and avoids the use of punishment, physical or verbal, then client abuse need never occur.”
After publishing Jacobs’s article, Novey decided to devote an entire issue of the TAJ to regression, to give ITAA members a chance to discuss how they approached reparenting in a “very constructive, positive, and protected” way. “When someone says, ‘Do you actually give a bottle to a grown-up, a client?’ it sounds ridiculous,” Novey said recently. “But in an actual living situation of therapy, it can be very therapeutic and very helpful under certain circumstances.”
Published in 1998, four years after Jacobs’s reparenting article, the issue contained a hopeful letter from the president of the ITAA, Gloria Noriega Gayol, who claimed that the misuse of reparenting was a thing of the past, at least in TA circles. “Times have changed, and along the way the thinking of many reparenting practitioners has also changed,” she wrote. “Today practitioners who use regressive therapies are concerned about providing protection for both the client and the therapist.” She added that the association hadn’t received any ethics complaints about the therapy in many years–a claim Jacobs calls “part of the ITAA whitewash.”
Though contributors to the issue warned of the danger of a “sadomasochistic merger” between patients and therapists, offered guidelines for ethical corrective parenting, and described variants of reparenting, such as “self-reparenting,” that even Jacobs agreed sounded safe (and entirely different from Schiffian reparenting), he sensed a continuing denial, rationalization, and justification regarding reparenting. Apart from the fact that he saw the issue as a full-fledged “discounting” of his thesis that the theory of reparenting itself was a problem, what bothered him no end were indicators that some colleagues had yet to remove their blinders about Schiff. After everything he’d pulled together, some people still held her in high esteem, spoke of her with reverence, betrayed a deep loyalty to her. One therapist who’d been reparented by Schiff wrote that although it was “possible” that some of Schiff’s practices were inappropriate or dangerous–and that Schiff herself had recently admitted to making many mistakes–Schiff would always remain to her a mentor and “second mom” who “taught many of us a better way of thinking and living.” Jenny Robinson, who had parted ways with Schiff in England, similarly commented on the “enormity of our debt” to Schiff for providing therapists with “brilliant theory and some excellent methods.”
“Part of the myth of Jacqui Schiff is that she was a genius,” Jacobs now says. “She played the genius.” He points out that she wrote with great authority but without references. People lionized her, Jacobs says, because “the people who were around her, Aaron and Shea and Eric and other people who allegedly had been schizophrenic, looked like they had been cured. What we later discovered is that she taught them to look like they were sane, to memorize being sane. And they did a great job of it. And they stopped being schizophrenic. Now the question arises, were they really truly schizophrenic?”
Jacobs points out that almost all of Schiff’s research was anecdotal and that no independent empirical studies on reparenting schizophrenics have ever been conducted. Recent scientific advances in genetics, neuroscience, brain imaging, and molecular biology have offered evidence that schizophrenia is a brain disorder. While the etiology remains unknown, the illness is now thought to stem from a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms can be treated effectively with antipsychotic drugs, but according to the American Psychiatric Association no valid research exists to support the idea that schizophrenics can be nurtured out of psychosis.
Schiff’s true genius, Jacobs believes, lay in manipulating people. “She was very perceptive. She could tell what you were thinking. She understood people and used that to manipulate.”
Some ITAA members believe that Jacobs’s position on Schiff is myopic. They say she worked wonders on some seriously disturbed patients, whether or not they were schizophrenic. Her mistakes, they argue, should not eclipse the important contributions she made to TA–chiefly, that she provided therapists with theories and methods for identifying and confronting behavior and thought processes that interfere with solving problems. Jacobs acknowledges that Schiff did some good work, but he says a hunger for power and control and a propensity toward violence are laced into her theories, which he believes give the therapist permission to engage in destructive and dangerous therapy.
“Alan Jacobs sounds like a broken record,” says Carlos Welch, who worked with Schiff in India. Like many other ITAA members, Welch is full of compassion for Schiff. When a withered and wheelchairbound Schiff showed up uninvited at an ITAA conference in San Francisco a year after Jacobs’s reparenting article came out, Welch and his wife, who was on the board with Jacobs, stood in a line 100 strong to greet her. Welch says he admired Schiff for her intensity, brilliance, and insight, as well as for the tremendous empathy she showed people with mental disorders. That Schiff believed physical force was sometimes necessary to help clients never alarmed Welch, who distinguishes between pain that is inflicted and pain that is experienced. Pain at the reparenting center in India, he says, “was always well planned and meticulously worked out” in advance, with the clients’ permission. For this reason, and because “there was never tissue damage,” he and others didn’t consider the pain a form of violence. His most critical opinion of Schiff seems to be that sometimes she “did not provide security for some people that would have been appropriate.”
Welch implies that Jacobs might not share his views because he’s Jewish. “Alan comes out of a history in which there’s been such incredible violence. I understand his position, but I think it’s extreme.”
Jacobs shrugs off personal attacks. Proponents of reparenting, he says, “have to find some way of explaining my article that allows them to believe what they believe.” Believing otherwise, he says, would require them to let go of a hallowed ideology–an ideology on which they’ve built their careers–and perhaps to engage in some discomforting self-analysis. “I think they were attracted to the theory to begin with, because they have a need for a lot of control,” Jacobs says. “Power and control. That’s what it’s about.”
Membership in the ITAA has declined to about 1,600 from its peak of about 10,000 in the 70s. But in 1995 the European members formed their own association, which now boasts around 6,000 members. And in the late 90s, a Brazilian national opened the Instituto Jacqui Schiff in Salvador and advertises it as a center for “restructuring the personality and health.”
Aaron Schiff, now 54, works in commercial real estate (he asked that his hometown not be disclosed). He still refers to Schiff as his mother. He says she was “extremely influential” to his “growth and development” but that he doesn’t know whether she actually cured him of schizophrenia, since he doesn’t remember ever having received a psychiatrist’s diagnosis. At the time he gave Hartwell the fatal bath, he says, “I was not exercising independent judgment.” When asked whether that implied that he was brainwashed, he says, “Yeah, you could say that. And my brain needed washing.” But, he continues, “I’m not a big fan of people saying I was brainwashed. I see that as an avoidance of responsibility.” He says he chose not to exercise his own judgment, just as he chose, in the years after Hartwell’s death, to wrest himself free from his mother’s clutches. “I was not going to let her run my life anymore,” he says, adding, “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my mother’s decision making.” He says he had been losing that confidence and trying to gain independence even before Hartwell’s death, because he had “very serious questions about her handle on reality” and did not always like how he saw her relating to people. He describes Jacqui Schiff as someone “sure that she knew how the whole world should operate” and “insistent on having her own way,” whatever that way happened to be. “The theory changed with every person,” Aaron says. “Everything changed all the time. She tried to write it down as though it was concrete and solid, but it depended on who she was dealing with.”
Aaron says his mother tried to “control her world and everybody in it as much as she could. As a consequence of doing that, she did a lot of good things. And as a consequence of doing that, she did a lot of negative things. It’s characteristic of a person with a lot of energy. When they do good things, they do very good things. When they do bad, they do very bad.”
Jacqui Schiff is now bedridden in a California nursing home, her brain and body ravaged by multiple sclerosis. According to Aaron, she grunts and groans but cannot speak, feed herself, or get up to use the toilet. She is fully dependent on others. Like an infant.
Jacobs sat at his kitchen table one recent afternoon, eating fried chicken and nodding his head in disgust as he perused a newspaper account of a ten-year-old girl who died in Denver after undergoing a regression treatment called rebirthing. During the 70-minute session, therapists wrapped the girl from head to toe in a flannel blanket and pushed pillows down on top of her. The treatment was supposed to simulate the experience of birth in order to forge an emotional bond between the girl and her adoptive mother. Instead the girl suffocated. Jacobs read aloud from the last paragraph: “‘The problem is that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors.'”
Not far from Jacobs, in the hallway leading to the kitchen, two large and eerily beautiful framed photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau hung on the wall, one above the other: a tight shot of a mangled, rusted heap of prisoners’ silverware and an upward shot of a street lamp and barbed wire. Jacobs took the photos between 1979 and ’81. They do not seem to him an odd choice of home decor. They represent an “aspiration for freedom and peace.”
He doesn’t know when or if he will return to the camps. But whenever he feels finished with them, something pulls him back. In 1996 he took a whirlwind tour of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Lithuania, photographing about ten camps and killing centers. He returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau three times that year and once in 1997.
Museum administrators treat Jacobs as though he’s on staff. They allow him to crawl around inside the glass display cases to photograph the prisoners’ personal effects, and on one occasion they opened Block II, the “death block,” a few hours early so he could take photos before the tourists arrived.
Jacobs brought Jesse on one trip, hoping the camp would reveal its secrets to his son. But when Jacobs got there, he turned into his most obsessive self and put Jesse, then 24, to work assisting him on a grueling schedule. Jacobs spent at least eight intense hours a day in the camps for two weeks straight, taking photos and interviewing museum administrators and a survivor from the first transport; Jesse, who videotaped, had to take a few days off. It was too much, Jacobs now realizes. He regrets not having eased his son into the experience. One particularly bad day, the fetid air from inside the glass case with the prisoners’ shoes bottled up in Jesse’s throat and stayed there all day, making it hard for him to swallow. At dinner in Krakow that evening, he couldn’t eat. He ran out of the restaurant and through the Rynek Glowny, the largest square of medieval Europe, coughing and crying and shouting, “No!”
Although Jesse says there’s fallout to the “relentless pursuit of ideas”–“you can be difficult to be around”–he has a deep respect for, and a deep interest in, his father’s work. (“The stuff that he’s done is totally fascinating,” he says.) He usually finds himself a willing and attentive audience when his father starts drawing on napkins.
Jacobs’s TA practice dwindled to a handful of clients a long time ago to make way for his work on power. He now edits the on-line version of the TAJ and the on-line publication Idea Journal. Although he has a few more Holocaust-related projects in the works, he primarily concentrates on writing his book on the abuse of power, The Continuum of Power, which he says will build on his previous work on necrophilia and thought reform to show how genocide evolves out of natural human potential. He’s now writing a section in which he applies Lifton’s criteria for thought reform to aspects of everyday life–from religious organizations to the work environment to the courts and the family–to identify when such things as “milieu control” and jargon are appropriate (as is often the case in nuclear plants, factories, hospitals, etc) and when they turn oppressive.
Twice a day Jacobs battles rush hour to take Krysia to and from her job as the director of information systems at the Chicago Stock Exchange. One recent afternoon, on the way to pick her up, he talked about why he wrote the reparenting article. “I understood that the resistance had to occur on lesser levels. See, the problem with Jacqui was the same thing with Hitler on a much more severe level. Once these people take power it’s well-nigh impossible to get them out. It took an enormous effort to get Jacqui out. She had so much power for so many years, for a long time it was impossible, certainly for any individual, to do anything about it. I mean ultimately an individual set the wheels in motion, but it took a whole organization, an ethics committee, a board of trustees, lawyers, to finally turn this all over and see what was going on. And even then people wouldn’t believe it. They refused to believe it. To this day, they refuse to believe it.”
He drove up to the stock exchange and picked up Krysia, who was waiting on the curb. Shortly after pulling away, he asked her why she thought he had written the reparenting article. “Well, your major issue in life is dealing with injustice,” she said. “This is something that irks you dramatically, if something is not just. So you have to intervene and fight for the right thing.”
Jacobs turned onto Lake Shore Drive and headed north under a menacing sky, yanked back into a memory of a childhood injustice. Two neighborhood boys stole his toy gun, he said, and the adults in his life–his mother, his father, the maid–refused to confront the boys or their families. His father, always a man of excess, replaced the stolen gun with three new ones. As Jacobs told the story, it was clear that the adults’ indifference had bothered him all these years, remained a minor but persistent annoyance, like an itchy tag on the back of a sweater. Even as a kid, Jacobs strongly believed injustice should be confronted.
As he talked, rain began pelting the windshield. Soon it was dropping in torrents, drowning out the low rhythm of the wipers. “Isn’t this wonderful!” Jacobs shouted over the patter. “I love this.” He paused. “You know what I love about it? Being in it and being safe from it. Simultaneously, you know.”
A few seconds later, Jacobs interrupted Krysia in midsentence. “Hey, you know what?” he said, his voiced tinged with excitement. “I think I just said something about Auschwitz.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane/Art Frisch-San Francisco Chronicle/copyright Alan Jacobs 1996.