Evening Standard | 3 Dec 1992
HARLEY Street psychoanalyst and phobia expert Michael Whitenburgh, 41, a neat and smallish man with watery eyes and a rubicund face, arrived an hour late. He’d called after we should have started and said in a measured voice: ‘I’m going to be half an hour late, my sister has just died.’ He didn’t want to reschedule.View transcript
HARLEY Street psychoanalyst and phobia expert Michael Whitenburgh, 41, a neat and smallish man with watery eyes and a rubicund face, arrived an hour late. He’d called after we should have started and said in a measured voice: ‘I’m going to be half an hour late, my sister has just died.’ He didn’t want to reschedule.
‘Some people choose the most inconvenient time to die,’ he said, surprisingly flippantly in his Liverpudlian accent, as he arrived. He sat cosily beside me rather than at the desk in his monumental consulting room. It was only 11.30am and he smelled of alcohol. (He said he’d been drinking the night before, but I had my doubts. Later on the phone he said: ‘Well, I had a brandy that morning.’) And as the interview progressed, something in his manner and what he said rang alarm bells. I actually had this creepy feeling that maybe his sister hadn’t died at all. Whitenburgh is promoting this as national Phobia Awareness Week. Today he will be at London’s St Giles Hotel as part of his countrywide campaign to educate the public on phobias and let them know that permanent help is available.
You might chuckle about retrophobia (the fear of returning to work after a holiday), erythrophobia (fear of blushing) or alektorophobia (fear of chickens), but phobias are serious things. He believes that 90 per cent of the population has a phobia, and he claims to have ‘cured 12,000 people’ in 15 years. But there’s nothing on earth that scares him. ‘I can honestly say I am frightened of nothing.’
Whitenburgh, who also runs the private School of Stress Counselling clinic in Liverpool, has recently had spectacular media coverage which has, so far, generated 1,700 phone calls. He is booked solid for the next month with eight new patients a day (at £65 for a 45-minute session). His team of five in Liverpool has monitored all calls and identified 200 different phobias. ‘Astonishingly, the most common fear is monophobia (fear of loneliness), closely followed by claustrophobia. The most ridiculous phobias are a fear of buttons (button phobics have to replace their buttons with Velcro fastenings), bagpipes, toilet ball cocks and dwarfs,’ he recites, alarmingly.
Phobias are a result of an outward expression of inner emotional turmoil, he says. The person can’t justify these feelings, so he externalises the internal stress as a phobia. ‘If someone has a powerful emotional experience and sees a spider at the same time, then the spider will be blamed for the experience.’
The effects of phobias are dire. ‘They bring on palpitations, dizziness, cold sweats, panic and depression. They isolate the person, making him lonely. They affect the auto-immune system and lead to heart disease as the emotions pull on the heart strings. It can be devastating. The lady who is frightened of ball cocks can only go to her own toilet. Her life is totally restricted.’
Whitenburgh says he cures phobias in anything from one to six sessions. He gets his subjects to relax by visualising country scenes. Then he makes the patient regress to the time of the original cause of the phobia, bringing out the emotion. This is known as abreacting.
‘Eventually all hell breaks out,’ is the way he puts it. ‘There are emotions and tears. I have never failed, and there is a technical word for this, to bring the person to catharsis in 12 sessions maximum.’ He claims a 100 per cent success rate. ‘I ask anybody who is not satisfied to come back for free treatment. Nobody ever has.’ Symptoms, he says, will never reappear in another form.
He glosses over his ‘hotchpotch’ training, which took place from Liverpool Polytechnic to Switzerland (‘under Professor Doctor Max Lucher’ of Basle University. ‘I’d prefer you didn’t mention that,’ he says, without elaborating) and the Vienna School of Psychoanalysis.
I called him later to query his qualifications. He admitted that he’d only spent a month in Basle and six weeks in Vienna. His real training was for 18 months with the Psychoanalytical Institute of Bournemouth. Subsequent enquiries found no trace of such an establishment. When I called again, he remembered that he’d actually trained with the International Association of Hypnoanalysts – a correspondence course supplemented with four one-day seminars.
Whitenburgh did undergo psychoanalysis himself. The son of a building manager, he has (‘had, I mean,’) six sisters, a ‘very happy’ childhood, is married to a trainee counsellor and has two children, one of whom has cerebral palsy.
‘When you go through analysis, you become very content within yourself.’ He is controlled as he speaks, giving nothing away with his body. ‘I was in analysis for 10 to 12 weeks, once a week’ – a short time for someone training professionally. The British Psycho-analytical Institute says that its analysts undergo analysis five times a week for at least four years. ‘It doesn’t have to be complicated,’ said Whitenburgh, dismissively. He considers lengthy analysis for trainee therapists outmoded. In fact, in his work as a general psychoanalyst, he tends ‘to keep people for treatment for a maximum of three months’.
Amazingly, anybody can call himself a psychoanalyst: there is nothing illegal in doing so. But Dr Richard Lucas, consultant psychiatrist and external relations officer for the British Psychoanalytical Institute, says: ‘You can’t be a bona fide psychoanalyst (trained in Britain) unless you have received the British Psychoanalytical Society’s intensive training.’
FRINGE therapists might disagree with this and Whitenburgh certainly does. ‘I have permission from the Minister of Health to call my centre a clinic, and I’ve done plenty of training.’
Is he for real? ‘I’ve had 15 years of experience and work to a code of ethics, which includes no sex with the patient and treating him in the shortest possible time. We have professional indemnity, but no one has ever claimed.’
But Dr Lucas says: ‘I wouldn’t recommend this treatment. It might be dangerous. Patients can become very disturbed with unpredictable results, like harming themselves or even contemplating suicide, if they are not treated in a responsible way by someone who has been trained rigorously.’ Whitenburgh demurs. ‘There’s nothing whatsoever dangerous in what I do. My patients are not vulnerable. They’ve tried everything, the pills, the potions. They want my help. I am the catalyst. Once a person abreacts, his life will improve.’
So what then of Whitenburgh’s dead sister? When I called him five days after the interview, he was cagey. He even had trouble remembering her name, only reluctantly disclosing where she’d died and saying he didn’t want her mentioned in the article. Subsequent calls to the registrars and coroners of Liverpool uncovered no record of her death.
Whitenburgh rang later the same day. ‘I’m shaking with aggression. I wasn’t thinking straight on the phone earlier,’ he said. ‘But my sister is not dead. It’s been a practical joke and I only found out this morning. I was on tour when a man who said he was a friend of a friend called to tell me that she’d died. I’ve been away ever since and didn’t want to phone her home. Somebody is really sick. They’ve also sent round the black vans to my home twice to collect my body. We’ve told the police, but they say, ‘What can we do?”
I don’t know what to believe. But one thing I know for sure is that Whitenburgh does have a phobia. ‘Maybe I’m phobic about journalists,’ he said, when we last spoke. ‘I don’t like them.’