Psychedelic Therapy Abuse: My Experience with Aharon Grossbard, Francoise Bourzat… and Their Lawyers
(This personal account complements the essay recently published on Mad In America.)
Abuse in psychedelic therapy — including therapists and doctors having sex with clients — has a long and almost forgotten history, a history that was, for example, left out of Michael Pollan’s hugely influential bestseller about psychedelic medicine, How To Change Your Mind. I’ve decided to talk about my own abuse experience as a client in psychedelic therapy in the 1990s, which, to my surprise, made a disguised appearance in Pollan’s book. My underground psychedelic therapist Aharon Grossbard and his wife Francoise Bourzat broke professional boundaries and violated me, and if I had been informed of the history of abuse I could have better protected myself.
(I discuss the broader issues of psychedelic therapy abuse in the recently published story on Mad In America here; this essay, which has some overlap, focuses in more detail on my personal experience as a client and my efforts to be heard by Grossbard and Bourzat and their colleagues.)
I contacted Grossbard and Bourzat recently, hoping to bring resolution through dialogue and give them a chance to acknowledge mistakes as a way to establish better client safety. I had moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area after feeling unsafe here for many years, and though what happened was decades ago, I wanted to find closure about this chapter of my life and put this painful part of my past behind me. Maybe they had made changes and would welcome hearing from me?
But Grossbard and Bourzat continued to deny they had done anything wrong. Then I learned more about their history, met with many other clients and colleagues associated with them, and researched court documents. I found out that apparently I wasn’t the only one who has been harmed.
Before sharing all this publicly, I sent Grossbard and Bourzat drafts of this essay to give them another chance to respond. I received a threatening letter from the San Francisco legal firm they hired, telling me I would be sued if I continued to try to get published. I also sent the draft to a training school associated with them, the Hakomi Institute, which responded similarly.
While some people have no doubt found their work helpful, Grossbard and Bourzat are today leading teachers of psychedelics internationally, training therapists who then go on to train others. (Grossbard and his wife Bourzat now publicly promote their work and created the Center for Consciousness Medicine, named after Bourzat’s book, as a training center to compete with the Hakomi Institute as the above-ground component of underground trainings.) That two leading teachers in the field would continue to deny their misconduct and try to shut down people coming forward raises serious concerns about the safety of psychedelic therapy as a whole.
I’ve been speaking up against the misuse of power by therapists and doctors in mental health for more than 15 years, won 3 community disability rights awards for my work, and gained attention in the media. I’ve also faced legal threats before, including from the pharma giant Eli-Lily, and I started to feel I was once again up against a powerful industry trying to silence challengers. I’m not easily silenced.
I found my own legal help and decided to stare down the lawyers Grossbard and Bourzat hired and publicly challenge the therapists I once trusted so intimately. Our brave new world of legal psychedelics will be safer when we face drug risks honestly and speak up openly about therapists who mistreat their clients.
In trying to get my story heard for more than a year now, I faced a the hurdle of a disturbing unbalanced US legal system. There usually isn’t a level playing field between therapists and clients who challenge them, and because Grossbard and Bourzat decided to issue legal threats and use the system against me, they tipped that imbalance dramatically. Since everything I say is factual, and I have corroborating documentation and witnesses willing to sign affidavits, I would certainly win in court against a threatened defamation suit: libel and defamation depend on statements being untrue, not just harmful to someone’s reputation. But people with money — and Grossbard and Bourzat have a lot of money — can still hire a lawyer to send you scary letters and decide to sue you even if they lose and the end. A lawsuit, even one I win, might devastate me financially with legal costs that I couldn’t legally recover. That’s how the US legal system works to protect the powerful from people speaking out.
(On the advice of a lawyer I’m publishing an archive of documents corroborating my account. Legally, this is the best I can do, but I cannot guarantee Grossbard and Bourzat’s lawyers won’t follow through on their threat of litigation, or, judging from their letters to me, be dishonest in court.)
Why take such a risk at all? I want to put this behind me and reclaim the San Francisco Bay Area, where I lived when all this happened and then moved away from, as my home. But it’s also because Grossbard and Bourzat aren’t just any two psychedelic therapists — of which there are many in California. The stakes here are much higher than just my individual story.
Grossbard and Bourzat are both leading trainers in psychedelic therapy worldwide, teaching at the influential California Institute of Integral Studies, training guides and setting up programs, and even informing New York Times writer Michael Pollan’s bestelling book on psychedelics. Bourzat is an author and appears in the media and at psychedelic events; she teaches psychedelics to therapy students, and both have played a role in Israel and internationally in the emerging legal availability of psychedelic therapy. They set a standard of behavior for psychedelic therapy as a whole. At issue is whether we ensure greater safety for psychedelic therapy, or whether we tolerate continued misconduct and a code of silence that appears to stretch back to the very origins of psychedelic research. The future I want to be part of means speaking out.
Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind
None of this was a story I ever imagined to tell publicly, but then Michael Pollans’ new cheerleading book on psychedelics, How To Change Your Mind, happened. Pollan’s book is widely successful and essentially says, consistent with this era of psychedelic hype, that psychedelics are great. I started reading, and when I came to page 231 I stopped mid-sentence and almost dropped the book. Pollan interviews an underground guide he considered taking psychedelics with, but didn’t: a therapist he pseudonymously calls “Andrei”. He writes that Andrei “didn’t fill me with confidence.” Andrei, it turns out, is my former psychedelic therapist Aharon Grossbard.
Andrei is a partial anagram for “Aharon”, and I spotted other clues, but I didn’t need to guess because Grossbard’s lawyer confirmed that Pollan interviewed Grossbard. But when I sent him a draft of this essay his lawyer replied that “Mr. Grossbard’s understanding is that ‘Andrei’ is not intended to represent a single, real person, but is instead a fictional figure.” Pollan, however, is an award-winning non-fiction journalist; he introduces Andrei in How To Change Your Mind by writing that “all the people you are about to meet are real individuals, not composites or fictions.” Instead, reading the description in How To Change Your Mind made me consider another reason maybe Grossbard is eager to dismiss it as fiction: Pollan’s description is not just unflattering, it’s disturbing. Pollan’s account of Grossbard echoes all of researcher Sidney Cohen’s earlier warnings about psychedelic therapists.
In Pollan’s interview, Grossbard comes across as charismatic but reckless; he meets Grossbard thinking he might take psychedelics with him, but quickly decides not to:
“The first couple of guides I interviewed didn’t fill me with confidence… I kept hearing things in their spiels that set off alarm bells and made me want to run in the opposite direction… It’s hard to say what put me off working with Andrei, but oddly enough it was less the New Agey spiritualism than his nonchalance about a process I still found exotic and scary. ‘I don’t play the psychotherapy game,’’ he told me, as blasé as a guy behind a deli counter wrapping and slicing a sandwich…. ‘I hug. I touch them… those are all big no-nos.’ He shrugged as if to say, so what?”
“I hug. I touch them. Those are all big no-nos.” No wonder alarm bells went off for Pollan. I marveled at the sheer entitlement of what Grossbard revealed.
Disconcerted, Pollan continues his interview, and asks Grossbard what would happen if a client thinks they are having a heart attack, and it’s not just their imagination under the influence of the drugs, but a real heart attack? Grossbard just shrugs again, and says, “You bury him with all the other dead people.”
I’ve encountered that same “so what?” many times, as Grossbard smiled with a wave of his hands and dismissed my efforts to get him to listen to me, to listen to how negligent I felt he was treating me as his client. And now here was the very same disregard, on open display to a New York Times journalist.
I kept reading. The comment about burying the dead people was what decided for Pollan that he wouldn’t take psychedelics with Grossbard/Andrei as his guide. “I told Andrei I would be in touch. The psychedelic underground was populated with a great many such vivid characters, I soon discovered, but not necessarily the kinds to whom I felt I could entrust my mind — or any other part of me.”
Pollan’s account was consistent with my experience with Grossbard: clients have to surrender and let go, to him. Any criticisms or hesitations should just be set aside, because problems aren’t with drugs or the therapist, they are with the client. This is a clear roadmap for therapy abuse: any behavior of the therapist is excused by blaming the failing and pathology of the client.
Grossbard puts this danger on clear display when he tells Pollan about working with a client who sued him. Pollan writes, “He mentioned he’d once been sued by a troubled client who blamed him for a subsequent breakdown. ‘So I decided, I don’t work with crazies anymore…’” Grossbard doesn’t say he himself made any mistake, or there was any valid reason for the client’s complaint or suit. He doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. He blames the client instead, and just says the lesson he learned was to stay away from people who question you — the “crazies”.
Reading this quote from Grossbard in Pollan’s book it dawned on me — was I one of the “crazies” he was referring to in such a self-serving way? Was this my own story appearing in Pollan’s bestselling book? Because it sure sounded a lot like it.
Years after I stopped working with Grossbard and Bourzat, when I had left “the circle” of their clients, gathered my strength, and regained clarity, I challenged Grossbard with a letter asking him to acknowledge how he harmed me. Eventually he gave me a cash payment. Was this what he was now referring to as a lawsuit? Or was he referring to one of the other lawsuits I learned clients had filed against Grossbard, including one against him and his wife Bourzat?
Grossbard’s version, if it does refer to me, isn’t the truth. Reading this version — in perhaps the single most influential book promoting psychedelics to ever be published — was shocking. It sent off alarms that Grossbard, a prominent psychedelics therapist setting the standard for teaching psychedelics internationally, could be so recklessly self-assured that, even years later, he would describe things as simply his own innocent victimization by crazy people.
I remembered the many times that Grossbard had called me crazy, sometimes in front of other clients and students. When criticized, one of his go-to phrases was “that’s just your crazy ego” to shut down discussion, disarm rational argument and impose instead surrender to his loving authority, Therapists calling people who challenge them “crazy” is today at the heart of what I have spent the past 15 years of my life working against. (One of Grossbard and Bourzat’s former clients told me they often witnessed the same behavior).
I hadn’t planned to tell my own story publicly, but now apparently here it was, brought into public light by Pollan’s book — but in Grossbard’s version. I felt all my instincts as a rights advocate engage as I read the interview. I realized that Grossbard, after all these years, didn’t seem to have learned or changed. Now the question became, Am I going to go along with this, and just let my former therapist sweep his own behavior under a diagnostic dismissal of clients as “crazies?” Am I going to be part of the silence that has surrounded so much abuse in psychedelic therapy? As I started discovering more about the history of the psychedelics leadership, I knew I had to get my story out.
I believe in mutuality, compassion, and human regard even when we publicly speak truth to power and name abusers. No one deserves vilification or scapegoating, or punishment disproportionate to what they are responsible for. But it is toxic for survivors to remain silent out of wanting to protect their abusers from public scrutiny. Therapy abuse victims feel caught in the same way children trying to challenge parents are caught, torn by conflicted loyalty and their vulnerable emotional dependence. It’s almost impossible to climb out of that trap.
For me the deciding factor to go public was not that Grossbard and Bourzat harmed me in the past. The deciding factor wasn’t even that others were harmed beyond me. The deciding factor was how they were responding to me and others now, today: continuing to deny they have done anything wrong and blaming clients instead.
After ending my relationship with Grossbard and Bourzat I sought private dialogue: I met with Grossbard with two witnesses, and we sent messages back and forth over many months. Both Grossbard and Bourzat had a chance simply to be honest, seek repair, and commit to changes in how they work. They could have helped ease my own residual suffering and supported me to move on, and reassured me they are to be trusted as leaders in the world of psychedelic therapy. Instead they doubled down on them being right and me being wrong, repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, portrayed themselves as victims in their community, and ultimately hired a lawyer to make legal threats against me and shut me down.
So here’s my story.
My Experience With Grossbard and Bourzat
I began psychedelic therapy in the 1990s with Grossbard, a licensed psychotherapist working in the San Francisco underground. I wasn’t seeking psychedelic therapy, and Grossbard told me the drugs were safe: no mention of the risks of suggestibility or therapy abuse, no caution that these are drugs and all drugs have downsides. Just a reverence for the “shamanic” powers of the “medicine.”
I survived emotional neglect and abuse in my family. I’ve since reconciled with them, but in the late 1990s I was cut off from my family, and sought help from Grossbard. I was young and very vulnerable, living alone in poverty, just beginning to face my history of trauma, struggling with memories of age 12 when I was groomed for sex by an older man, and confused around my sexual identity as bisexual. I wasn’t seeking psychedelics; a friend recommended Grossbard for therapy. I was in fact wary of the vulnerability I knew psychedelics could create. I did weekly talk therapy sessions with Grossbard at his SF office for about a year. It was only after I was in a crisis and asked “What can help me?” that Grossbard suggested I take psychedelics, starting with MDMA.
I did several sessions with psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine — experiences at times terrifying, but which also ignited expanded states that were revelations of relief and healing. I’m grateful for these guideposts, but it took me a long time to understand that these spaces were within me because I was ready to experience them — not given to me from the outside by Grossbard and Bourzat.
Then the psychedelic spiritual epiphanies turned darker. Under Grossbard’s direction, my critical thinking was set aside in favor of “surrender” and “letting go.” Grossbard told me to ignore all fear so I could “break through” my ego — including letting go of any criticism of him. My past interest in philosophy and political activism were denigrated and set aside, leftovers of my less enlightened self. I became a student of Grossbard and his wife Bourzat, went to their workshops and assisted their teaching. I believed he took a liking to me: I felt special, chosen to have an elevated place alongside his work. I had never experienced such intimacy from a parental figure — or anyone — before. In my vulnerable and wounded state, opened up by powerful doses of psychedelic drugs, I clung on to them like a salvation, cast along other dependent clients who similarly looked up to them. Terrifying drug trips just reinforced my need for safe refuge, and I now basically had a guru without signing up for it, enrolled under the powerful influence of drugs. Grossbard and Bourzat both revelled in their roles as spiritual leaders with an underground circle of adoring clients.
The relationship devolved into worse and worse professional boundary violations: doing childcare and landscaping work for them, going out to dinner and to a concert, hearing Grossbard’s offensive sexual jokes, him greeting me naked in his kitchen one night to tell me to keep the noise down. I was naked with him and other clients at a ritual in his workshop. He held my hand in sessions, and we hugged and cuddled on the office floor. He and Bourzat told me they loved me and would never leave me and I’d never be alone again. I had come home — to them.
Grossbard disclosed to me about his sexuality, and flirted with our waiter in front of me when we were at a restaurant. I bought Grossbard flowers as a surprise. We had a relationship that he later described was “very intimate.” (Two witnesses to our June 19, 2019 meeting both agreed to attest in a court affidavit to witnessing this conversation.) I idealized him. And he even said, in the underground training for psychedelic guides he invited me to join, that such idealization of the therapist as spiritual teacher should be allowed to be there when it emerges with clients — instead of, as in other therapies, seen for what it is and viewed critically.
Grossbard did all this presumably because he was convinced his spiritual healing powers entitled him to not play by the rules as a therapist — exactly as he boasted in his interview with Pollan.
During one talk therapy session in his office, which was not using psychedelics, Grossbard continued to touch me in ways that felt sexual even after I complained: I said that I wanted to be hugged but I didn’t know in what position, and he suddenly pulled me on top of him and we embraced face to face, with my legs wrapped around his waist, sitting genitals-to-genitals in his lap. The touching didn’t feel right (it certainly didn’t feel “nurturing”). So I told him “this feels sexual.” He dismissed me by stating firmly “No, it’s not,” and continued. Looking back I wonder if he was grooming me for more intimate contact.
California law describes sexual touching between therapist and clients to include clothed contact of buttocks with groin. I had never, then or previously, consented to any kind of front-to-front intimate lap embrace with Grossbard.
After taking psychedelics two more times after this happened, it became clear my emotional problems weren’t going to be solved by a course of therapy that just included getting high, feeling you’ve discovered secret knowledge, and visits to your therapist who snuggles with you and says he loves you. Grossbard had nothing else to offer it seemed. I deteriorated, finally reaching a crisis point that the psychedelic-induced spiritual states could not cover over. My distress persisted, and I became bothersome to Grossbard. I fell out of favor: less attention, fewer invitations, and no more feeling special. I was set aside. My attempts to get help were met with blame: he would roll his eyes and say I had a “crazy ego.” With that same shrug that Pollan had found so unsettling, Grossbard told me that my downward spiral was some personal failure of my own. To get over my crisis I needed only surrender, letting go, and an unquestioning faith in psychedelics — and him. He referred me to another practitioner — his devotee and student who wanted me to take even more powerful drugs.
Grossbard’s betrayal was devastating. Without the intimate support I had depended on so deeply I collapsed, left my school and training programs, and self-destructed my life. I plunged into an extreme emotional crisis, and admitted myself into a mental health residence where I was debilitated for months. I was not contacted by either Grossbard nor Bourzat with any effort to help. A friend in Oregon later said he had talked to Grossbard at the time, and Grossbard told him he knew I had been admitted to a mental health residence in a crisis but did not try to reach me. (To her credit, another client, who knew me through workshops with Grossbard and Bourzat, did email with concern she said was shared by many others in the community. She said they all knew what happened when I suddenly disappeared from the area, and considered me one of the “failures” of the “medicine work.”)
It took many more years before I finally gathered the inner strength to study at a new school, get my degree, and start to move on with my life. I untangled the highs induced by drugs from the genuine spiritual experiences I have experienced since I was young. I regained the critical view towards power and its misuse that I had suspended while under Grossbard’s influence. I shed the simplistic religious piety of “surrender” and “faith” Grossbard trafficked in, and I separated the wisdom within myself from idolization of a teacher’s authority. I began trusting my own heritage as Choctaw Indian on my mother’s side instead of the exotic and romanticized New Age “shamanism” that Grossbard and Bourzat credulously espoused. I learned that therapy abuse is real and can be as devastating as incest. And I learned, just as a child abuse survivor learns, that you can feel loved and treated generously at times and still be mistreated. I stopped blaming something wrong in myself and I stopped searching for an explanation in my own failure. I finally came to see that Yes, Grossbard and Bourzat harmed me.
I decided to write a letter to Grossbard to find some resolution. I agonized over the loyalty I had internalized towards the first man I had ever trusted so deeply. I was taking a huge risk in contacting him: I was angry, but in my heart I also desperately wanted to reestablish our relationship, and give him another chance. I struggled with the betrayal trauma of feeling grateful for genuine care but also knowing I had been abused. In contacting him again I hoped to be met with a caring response, I wanted to be reassured that Grossbard was capable of behaving as an ethical, responsible professional who can admit mistakes, and that he wasn’t just someone who harms others, defends themselves, and shrugs it off, another buried body. Here is an excerpt of the letter:
As a result of taking the drugs you gave me I experienced euphoria and terror, changes of my personality, mania, anxiety, and psychosis. You were the only person I had to help me understand what I was going through, and as the experience proceeded to overwhelm and terrify me, I had little choice but to rely on you more and more. My earlier mistrust of you was reversed, which you fostered as part of “breaking through” and “becoming open.” Your role as therapist, which was little more than a pretext, gave way to the role of religious teacher on my new found “journey.” Under your tutelage I dismissed the negative sides of my experience and instead considered the euphoric, epiphanic side as definitive and truly healing. All that was bad came from my personal problems, only good came from the psychedelic experience. I mistakenly believed, with your encouragement, that a drastic switch from the chronic depression I suffered before taking the drugs must be entirely positive. I put enormous significance on mania, dissociated states of elation and relaxation, detachment, and paranormal events, without any understanding of their true nature in context. I championed the feeling of being high and the emotional release that it promoted, and interpreted the roller coaster I was going through as decisive spiritual insight and therapeutic recovery. I proceeded to embrace wholeheartedly a new, “transformed” religious conception of myself, a self unconcerned with mundane matters such as functioning in the world, and piously contemptuous, as you were, of the values and interests I had held close as a community activist and political philosophy student before I met you. I began, in your eyes, to “heal,” and with your encouragement I believed this.
Under your guidance and in the name of religious “surrender” I dispatched all common sense, hesitation, and doubt about the drug experience. With your leadership I disregarded the numerous danger signs warning me that my psychological problems were not in fact improving. I was blinded to the fact that what I was going through was not some miraculous therapeutic breakthrough and dramatic religious conversion, but was instead deeply enmeshed with mania, dissociation, and psychosis — pre-existing problems which were not only not alleviated by the psychedelic drugs, but worsened by them. Forcing myself with your assistance to focus on the mystical realities unfolding through getting high, I denied how I continued to be incapable of the most basic day-to-day functioning. I ignored the continuing chaos in my finances, work, relationships, housing, family, and creativity.
I even disarmed, under your influence, the critical thinking which could have allowed me to see this danger I was in, and resisted it, on your insistence, as “just my mind” or “my crazy ego.” Whenever I expressed doubt and showed concern about my finances, family, lack of stable home, sexual identity, recurring depressions, dangerous lack of judgement or my ongoing failure to have friendships or close relationships, you pressed me to rely on the religious viewpoint you preached and “let go” of these worries. I was led to consider the temporary relief provided by denial and dissociation as sufficient “healing.” Any attempt I made to criticize your way of doing things or to reconsider the validity of my “transformation” you immediately dismissed as reflections of my “mind,” my “fears” and my “holding on” and not “surrendering and having faith.” None of the suffering I was going through was ever considered as an effect of the psychedelics themselves or of the guidance you were giving me, but was instead to be accepted as “part of the journey.”
…An ethical therapist would have approached me, a client with a clear and well-documented history of ongoing severe psychological disturbance and traumatic violence, with great caution and attentiveness — not religious formulas and an absolute faith that healing would come through getting high. A responsible therapist would have helped me to understand what happened in the mental health system, and to understand what validity there may or may not be in the diagnosis I was given. A responsible therapist would have taken my reliance on a disability check as a central concern and measure of my progress. A responsible therapist would have helped me restore the life interests and career which had been interrupted by my hospitalization — not discard them in favor of a new, presumably superior religious vocation.
A responsible therapist would have been alert to the dangers posed by my psychological history and unlikely to try the unorthodox and controversial approach of large-dose, multiple session psychedelic therapy with me. A responsible therapist would have informed me that, among underground therapists who administer psychedelics, there is a near consensus against their use with clients who have psychosis and extreme dissociation histories. A responsible therapist would have explained a very good reason why they were proceeding against such a consensus, and would have been even more protective against worsened dissociation and other potential negative consequences. Any responsible therapist would have certainly considered less invasive treatments first, such as numerous holistic methods I had never tried (including safe and non-invasive methods of achieving altered states of consciousness) — instead of just treating me like a long line of other clients with the faith that getting high could help anyone who came along. A responsible therapist would have recognized that real harm that can come from psychedelics — harm you repeatedly dismissed as the mainstream culture’s fear of insight and enlightenment. A responsible therapist would have helped me to put what positive aspects there were in the drug experience — such as insight, mystical epiphanies, and relaxation — to beneficial effect while protecting against the dangers of worsened dissociation and psychosis. Above all, an ethical and responsible therapist would have been vigilant against the abuse of power, abuse which you invited with your disregard for professional norms and your assumption of role as a religious leader and teacher, and abuse which so many others using psychedelics on a religious path warn against.
(In a follow up letter, after Grossbard did not respond, I wrote these requests: 1. Publicly acknowledge to me, in writing, that you have done me harm due to your indifference to normal professional protections and your disregard for the potential side effects of psychedelic drugs. 2. Publicly commit in writing to change your behavior so that others are not harmed.)
I sent this letter, and my worst fear materialized. I was harmed even further. Grossbard denied crossing professional boundaries, denied he had done anything wrong, and took no responsibility at all. Confronted with the sexual touching and violation on the floor of his office, he told me it never happened (though years later did acknowledge, in front of witnesses, that it did; they are willing to submit court affidavits about what they witnessed). I had given him an opportunity to work through what happened, but instead he treated me as if I was the one with the problem for contacting him. He cut off communication. I could hear and see him in my mind rolling his eyes and shrugging, with the exasperation of someone convinced they are right and annoyed that anyone thinks otherwise. Apparently I was, as he told Pollan, just one of the “crazies,” making things up against him. He brushed me aside.
But he also underestimated me. One of the things I was doing since I left him was learning to be a mental health advocate for other people. And for myself. He might have shrugged off challenges from others before, but I don’t think he was ready for how unwilling I was to be dismissed.
When I received Grossbard’s denial, I was deeply hurt. He wouldn’t respond further, and so I was motivated to complain to the California professional board regulating licensed therapists. Though they took no action (citing a short statute of limitations on therapist abuses that, I believe, further serves to protect abusers), it sent a message to Grossbard. While I never agreed to remain silence or keep his secrets, I had asked for $20,000 (all of which went to partially repay a school loan, for a school program at California Institute of Integral Studies I enrolled in while I was Grossbard’s client and with his encouragement, but didn’t complete because I was in chronic crisis and in no shape for graduate school). I did not state that I would refrain from telling my story publicly. He sent his payment.
That was more than 15 years ago. Then Michael Pollan’s book was published.
Reading my, or a similar story, through the distorted lens of Grossbard’s account to Pollan reignited deeper concerns. I am convinced psychedelics — powerful suggestibility drugs, powerful dissociative drugs — themselves contributed to my vulnerability as Grossbard’s client. MDMA is a notorious love drug that dissolves defenses and emotional protection; psilocybin at high doses can be so terrifying you rush to protection from whoever offers it to you as a “guide”; and all psychedelics confuse the ordinary self and create radical openness to suggestibility and influence. But psychedelic therapists also take these drugs themselves, often repeatedly over many years. I suspect psychedelics can magnify a therapists’ own problems — getting high can convince you that spiritual elevation entitles you to devotion from those around you and the freedom to disregard client protections.
Many others have pointed out that psychedelics seem to have the power to send people into these states of inflated self-importance. Pollan gets this part right:
“It is one of the many paradoxes of psychedelics that these drugs can sponsor an ego-dissolving experience that in some people quickly leads to massive ego inflation. Having been let in on a great secret of the universe, the recipient of this knowledge is bound to feel special, chosen for great things…. For some people, the privilege of having had a mystical experience tends to massively inflate the ego, convincing them they’ve been granted sole possession of a key to the universe. This is an excellent recipe for creating a guru. The certitude and condescension for mere mortals that usually come with that key can render these people insufferable.”
But this isn’t just a recipe for creating a guru: when mixed with the power imbalance between therapist and client it’s also a recipe for therapy abuse. Despite Grossbard openly blaming his client and these other red flags in their interview, Pollan still doesn’t connect the dots: there is no mention of therapy abuse as a risk of psychedelics in How to Change Your Mind. Meeting one of the world’s leading trainers of psychedelic therapy so unsettled Pollan he was concerned for his own physical safety, but he doesn’t mention what this might mean for the safety of other clients.
It seemed clear to me that being Grossbard and Bourzat’s clients means becoming tremendously vulnerable to these two dominant and charismatic healers. Clients turn to them for protection from the powerful mind-blowing experiences of psychedelics, and then, recruited into a subculture where faith and “energy” replace critical thinking, over-idealize them. Remember this is all happening in California, notorious for spiritual practitioners using meditation and drugs and therapy tools to elevate themselves out of touch with reality. When all goes well this seems great — you have discovered the solution to the universe. But as soon as there is a problem, things get dangerous.
Motivated by the Pollan book (and Pollans’ account being repeated elsewhere, such as the London Review of Books), I reached out again to Grossbard, this time to meet directly on a video call. I invited two colleagues I trusted to carefully witness our conversation. I chose them to feel safer, and also because I knew I could count on them to challenge me with an honest appraisal where my own judgment might be clouded — either positive or negative — towards the therapist I had such deep intimacy with. I trusted them to support my balanced and compassionate truth-telling and to help me temper my own reactions and hurt feelings that could cloud my capacity to respond ethically and with dignity, with compassion towards Grossbard and Bourzat as well as myself even as I hold firmly to my truth. I wanted to not be alone with the distress the meeting would likely evoke, I wanted their guidance on how to make it through this difficult life passage, and I also wanted an outsider’s perspective of what was going on, because the injuries of the abuse were still leaving me with feelings of self-doubt and conflicted loyalties.
In the meeting Grossbard sat with supreme self confidence and calm, identifying himself as a vehicle of healing. He denied doing any harm whatsoever, and was uninterested in how it felt for me to be in such pain from our work together. He opened our meeting by quickly saying “I know that I love you” and “you look the same.” Even as I felt the creepy pull of “surrendering” to my old loyalty, I also recognized he was radiating the same alarm-raising vibe that Pollan had written about.
He startled us by not only acknowledging he had touched me as I described, but admitting he touched many other clients and students the same way he embraced me — clothed genitals to genitals facing each other seated in his lap. (This was with two witnesses, who agreed to attest to what they heard in a court affidavit.) He said the only problem in my case was that, unlike other clients, I wasn’t “ready” for his healing touch. He said this with absolutely no hesitation, with the same heedless self-serving entitlement on display in his interview with Pollan. At the end of our hour-long talk and my effort to get him to see the hurt he had inflicted, he offered what he considered an apology: he was sorry, but not for any behavior of his own, he was sorry only for me being so “sensitive.”
After the meeting my confidence wavered and sank into self doubt: I had finally confronted this powerful man who had loomed so large in my past, and he remained utterly convinced he was right and I was wrong. Maybe I had misjudged him and gotten all of this confused? Maybe the problem was in me? Was this therapy abuse? I called my two witnesses, asking for feedback. They were appalled by what they saw, their fears confirmed: yes, this was clearly systematic therapy abuse by a repeat violator of boundaries completely convinced he is doing no wrong. One of my colleagues, a licensed therapist and international teacher, was so disturbed she took it on herself to contact a therapist she knew who worked with Grossbard to alert him about what I had told her and what she had now seen firsthand.
The spell was finally broken, and I haven’t doubted my truth ever since.
Like many survivors of abuse, I thought I was the only one. In trying to understand better what was going on, and to prepare to publish my experience, I started to look up and reach out to several of Grossbard and Bourzat’s clients and colleagues. By coincidence I met others connected with them, and was led to others who told me they were harmed by psychedelics and harmed by people trained by Grossbard and Bourzat and connected to the Center for Consciousness Medicine school they founded with their daughter Naama Grossbard. I also had more discussions with a friend from Canada harmed in the MAPS trial, who was learning more about the history of abuse patterns in psychedelics world.
I kept hearing about a client who had filed a lawsuit against Grossbard and Bourzat, someone I was told had an experience with parallels to my own. A lawsuit against Grossbard I found online turned out to be for a different complaint (about violating confidentiality), and I did discover a notice that Grossbard had been fined by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences for unprofessional conduct in 2015, without details. But I couldn’t find the lawsuit people were talking about.
And then I located it: a 2000 lawsuit filed against Grossbard and Bourzat by a former client for sexual battery, fraud, professional negligence, and 12 other complaints. The lawsuit had been in the San Francisco Court warehouse but unavailable to clients and the community because it wasn’t in a digital format online. I went to the downtown office and paid to retrieve it, and sat reading in a mixture of shock, familiarity, and validation. In the suit I found disturbing similarities between the plaintiff’s account and my own experience. You can read the lawsuit here.
Both Bourzat and Grossbard denied all allegations in the lawsuit. A former client told me the case was settled only after they paid a large cash payment in exchange for the plaintiff signing a non-disclosure agreement (they are willing to attest to our conversation in a court affidavit).
In the suit their former client alleges that Grossbard and Bourzat administered MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, and ayahuasca to him without providing information about risks. He alleges that Bourzat began a four year sexual relationship “not limited to, acts of kissing, hugging and fondling” and contact with intimate body parts including “sexual organs, groin, and buttocks… Bourzat told [plaintiff] that their kissing was therapeutic. Bourzat encouraged and allowed [plaintiff] to kiss her, as well as kissing him… On at least one occasion Bourzat told [plaintiff] that her love would heal him and that he was lucky to have her as his therapist. Bourzat told [plaintiff] she would never abandon him…. “
According to the allegations in the suit, this “sexualization and eroticization of therapy by Bourzat for her own advantage and to satisfy her own needs [caused plaintiff] to suffer humiliation, mental anguish and severe emotional distress. During the approximately six years of his treatment by Bourzat and Grossbard,” alleges the suit, “[Plaintiff’s] depression worsened dramatically. He became highly anxious; he experienced panic attacks. He felt suicidal and had suicidal ideation. When plaintiff told defendant Bourzat that he was severely and suicidally depressed, and that he felt like he was going crazy and totally falling apart, defendant Bourzat advised plaintiff to deal with his depression by taking ‘more walks in nature,’ and to engage in more therapy sessions involving mind altering substances to ‘open himself up.’” Bourzat also disclosed confidential information about the plaintiff and other clients, according to the allegations.
The lawsuit also alleges Bourzat and her husband Grossbard had the plaintiff do work at their home including gardening, landscaping, and babysitting. And, in a parallel with the way I experienced each of them enabling the behavior of the other, it also alleges that Grossbard “knew that Bourzat was unfit for her position because of her history of romantic, sexual, and other inappropriate relationships with clients,” but “negligently and carelessly allowed his wife to commit battery, sexual battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress” on the plaintiff.
“At no point prior or during their treatment of [plaintiff] with mind-altering substances,” the suit alleges, “did defendants explain to [plaintiff] the probable or possible medical, physical, psychological, or emotional effects of the substances they provided to him. At no time did defendants explain any possible risks of ingesting MDMA, mushrooms, ayahuasca… During the course of defendants’ treatment of plaintiff, on at least one occasion, Bourzat ingested substances herself, telling [plaintiff] that this mutual ingestion of mind-altering substances was part of the therapeutic process…. Once Bourzat dispensed to [plaintiff] 150 mg of MDMA and advised him to “journey” by himself, in order to bring up [plaintiff] buried feeling prior to discussing the termination of the sexual relationship between Bourzat and [plaintiff].”
Grossbard and Bourzat denied all these allegations. It is very hard, however, to imagine that the plaintiff just fabricated everything. Did he really invent being a client of Grossbard and Bourzat, make up an elaborate detailed account, accidentally include patterns familiar with what happened to me, go to the trouble and expense to hire a lawyer, file the statement in the court and attest under threat of perjury that it is true, and then gain a large settlement, all while there was, as Grossbard and Bourzat claim, absolutely nothing true about any of this whatsoever? That just doesn’t seem possible. It seems much more likely that Grossbard and Bourzat got caught, felt like they deserved impunity from accountability because of their elevated status as healers with a divine mission to spread psychedelic healing, defended their privilege using money and the law, and didn’t care if that meant dishonestly invalidating the truth to a judge and lying about what happened with their former client.
But the most important reason it is hard to believe Grossbard and Bourzat’s denials about the lawsuit is this: I talked to one of their former clients and students, a person who had worked with Grossbard and Bourzat closely as part of their circle of psychedelic guides. They told me they personally knew the plaintiff in the suit and that these allegations were in fact true: Bourzat did have a sexual relationship with this client.
They also added more: they told me that they refused a request from Bourzat to persuade the client to drop the suit. They also said that this was not an isolated incident: Bourzat had sexual relations with two additional clients. I knew both of the clients she identified, and one was a friend at the time: I remember he was very vulnerable and distressed, and I can’t imagine the impact such a betrayal by Bourzat must have had on his life (I tried to contact him but was told by a mutual friend that it was still too painful for him, decades later, to discuss it). This person who told me all this said they are willing to attest it in a court affidavit, because they said they were so disturbed that Bourzat and Grossbard, who are leaders internationally and claim to be spiritual, continue to lie to everyone.
Then I was put in touch with three other former colleagues of Bourzat and we discussed what they said they witnessed, which lined up with what I had just learned. All three said the allegations in the suit were true, and that Bourzat had sex with the client who filed the lawsuit and also with two additional clients.
It seems that what happened to me, and the denial they did anything wrong, fits a pattern. Bourzat and Grossbard, emerging as leaders in psychedelic therapists and entrusted to train other trainers and therapists internationally, appear to have repeatedly harmed people and then actively hid what happened, defending themselves with lawyers and money. It was inevitable that at least some of this would eventually become public, that someone would get ahold of the lawsuit out of the court archives, clients would start talking more openly, and people would be asking questions as they came more into the public eye. But Bourzat and Grossbard seemed to have imagined they could just operate as if nothing had ever happened, give interviews to reporters, write books, and join school faculties all under the banner of “expanding consciousness” while hiding all this from the consciousness of others.
Then I made another discovery that helped me understand: it turns out the public was misled about Bourzat’s credentials as a therapist for decades, and the colleagues at her training school helped make it possible.
Bourzat had been certified in Hakomi Therapy — a school in the San Francisco Bay Area with extensive overlap with psychedelic therapists (Grossbard and Bourzat encouraged all their students to enroll in the Hakomi training; Hakomi is associated with psychedelic therapy internationally and the MAPS MDMA treatment manual recommends Hakomi alongside such methods as Holotropic Breathwork). But the Hakomi Institute chairperson and past director both told me (documented in letters) that the Institute disciplined Bourzat for ethical misconduct, then took legal steps against her to enforce them.
Bourzat was discovered committing what they described only as “multiple ethical violations”, underwent an internal investigation, and received the harshest penalty available: having her Hakomi therapy certificate unconditionally revoked, with no chance of reinstatement. The director said it was a remarkable action, because it was the only time he had ever seen a Hakomi certificate revoked for ethical reasons. (A former Hakomi student who witnessed the process in the school confirmed Bourzat was denied certification for breaking the rule against sexual contact with clients.)
None of this was ever made public. When I joined her workshops and community we all believed what she told us: that she was a certified Hakomi therapist in good standing. It added to her authority and our trust in her, that she had the backing of the Hakomi Institute. The Hakomi chairperson said that after losing her credential, Bourzat just continued to represent herself in public as a certified Hakomi practitioner anyway, including in her book’s biographical statement, on her professional website, on the web pages of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, on her faculty web page of the California Institute of Integral Studies where she taught, and elsewhere (all documented in web screenshots). The chairperson told me that when the Hakomi Board received a formal complaint about this decades later, they promptly sent Bourzat a letter telling her to stop the misrepresentation of her therapy credentials and violation of the Institute’s trademark, or face legal action.
Only after this recent complaint did Bourzat change the wording on her public biographical statements and website. She no longer says “Hakomi certified:’ instead, she now says “Hakomi trained,” still falsely implying she has a certification and is in good standing. There is no mention or explanation about losing her credential and misleading the public about it, much less the ethical violations themselves and whether she addressed them.
(Bourzat’s lawyer denied she falsely represented herself as a Hakomi certified therapist. It’s hard to imagine how this can be true, given that the Hakomi Board chair wrote to me otherwise, the former director confirmed it, and the falsification is documented in multiple web screenshots.)
While the Hakomi Institute did revoke Bourzat’s certification, crucially they also never bothered to tell the public about it. In a pattern similar to how other therapists had been quiet about colleague misconduct in the psychedelics therapy scene, the Hakomi Institute kept the revocation of Bourzat’s certification hidden amongst themselves (other credential oversight institutions publish details of all disciplinary actions openly). This meant community members (and journalists such as Pollan, who publicly endorsed Bourzat in her book advertising) had no possibility to make a fully informed judgement about Bourzat, because they could only rely on Bourzat’s false statements about being credentialed without anything available from the Hakomi Institute to contradict it. In this way the Hakomi Institute for decades enabled Bourzat to hide her misconduct and continue advertising herself falsely to clients and her school employers.
But keeping her credential revocation hidden isn’t the only way the Hakomi Institute may have enabled psychedelic therapy abuse. I was told that many people in the San Francisco Hakomi community and broader psychedelics scene knew for decades that Grossbard and Bourzat violated client boundaries. Nobody went public or took action — perhaps because of the illegal nature of psychedelic drugs, or because therapists want client referrals, they don’t want their drug supply interrupted, or because Grossbard and Bourzat are powerful people with growing personal influence and money. Or was it because the Hakomi Institute of San Francisco didn’t want to interrupt the steady flow of student enrollment generated from Grossbard and Bourzat, who recommended the school as a component of their own trainings? As a result, it looks like Grossbard and Bourzat were enabled by a similar code of silence that has protected abusive therapists since the beginning of psychedelic therapy.
I’ve encountered such reflexive self-protection among therapists before: I challenged the president of my therapy training school the Process Work Institute about his sexual misconduct with a client, and quickly discovered that the school knew he had lost his license, and why, but didn’t share it with the students or school community. The school even allowed him to continue claiming he had a valid license on the school website while he was seeing clients from his school office. (The school said it was an oversight, and has since pledged changes in how it handles misconduct cases among its faculty.)
And apparently this wasn’t the only way the Hakomi Institute may have shielded Grossbard and Bourzat from scrutiny. While Grossbard is not a practitioner of Hakomi psychotherapy, and his wife was only posing as one, they both encouraged their students to go to the Hakomi school. So I was myself enrolled in the San Francisco Hakomi training when my relationship with Grossbard was unravelling. Here’s what happened:
As things reached a crisis point, I turned to one of my Hakomi teachers for help, Manuela Mischke-Reeds. I told Mischke-Reeds about the sexual mistreatment by Grossbard. But despite being alerted to this serious misconduct, Mischke-Reeds took no action and didn’t follow-up: she didn’t report it, refer me, or advise on what to do. Only later did I find out that Mischke-Reeds was also a psychotherapy trainee supervised by Grossbard (and had shared office space with him) and friends with Grossbard and Bourzat. Is that what happened, her loyalty to him got in the way of responding to a sexual misconduct report?
Looking back, if this Hakomi teacher Mischke-Reeds had taken some action — any action — it might have made a crucial difference in my life. All I wanted was some validation and support when I reached out for help. So at the same time I was back in dialogue with Grossbard and Bourzat, I gathered my courage and wrote to the teacher about what happened. Maybe I had misunderstood, maybe when I told her I had been mistreated she had in fact done something I didn’t hear about? Or maybe she would appreciate the opportunity, now years later, to show she does care, to apologize for her mistake and make amends with me?
Instead, Mischke-Reeds wrote back to say she didn’t remember me telling her about Grossbard mistreating me at all. And she wouldn’t even consider the possibility that, not remembering either way, I might in fact have told her. Instead she just broke off communication, as if I was causing a problem by reaching out to her in my effort to clear things up. (Mischke-Reeds later said she wasn’t ignoring the seriousness of sexual misconduct, possibly for a second time, but that ending contact with me was somehow my fault instead — because my emails were “aggressive.” You can judge for yourself by reading the emails here.) While I accept that maybe she didn’t remember, why cut me off instead of even considering she might have done something wrong? Why not take sexual misconduct seriously? What was going on here?
Mischke-Reeds is one of the more powerful and well-known teachers in the Hakomi therapy community. I began to worry: was I again running up against a professional industry protecting itself at the expense of clients? I decided I wouldn’t let her cutting me off be the end of it. I wrote a letter of complaint to the Hakomi Institute, the oversight body which certifies her as a therapist and a teacher.
The Hakomi Institute did respond, but they treated me more like someone who was upset and needed calming down than someone raising a real ethical alarm. Hakomi Institute essentially took the side of the teacher: they wouldn’t acknowledge that the teacher might even possibly have made a mistake not taking a report of sexual misconduct. They wouldn’t acknowledge that there even might have had an unethical conflict of interest if a supervisee of Grossbard heard a report and didn’t act. Hakomi decided that in response to my complaint, they would take no action, and not offer real help. And now, for a second time, I was cut off from communication.
To make matters worse, they capped off their interaction with me with a condescending dismissal all too easy for therapists. In their final letter they wrote, “We hope you will be able to take another step toward letting go.”
It was getting familiar to have therapists brush me aside. But No, I don’t think we should just let this go. I started to feel there was a pattern of unethical self-protection going on, a chain of silence that had harmed me and others, and I wasn’t going to give up here either. In their response to me they wrote, quite offhandedly, that they believe talking to colleagues about possible misuse of power “takes a great deal of skill and sensitivity.” That raised an alarm. What if a therapist doesn’t feel up to “a great deal” of skill and sensitivity, you’d better just stay silent when you think your colleague might be acting unethically? Isn’t it imperative that therapists talk about possible ethical violations all the time, without hesitation — not just when they can avoid offending their colleagues? Who are they trying to protect here?
I had reached an impasse with the teacher, and now I had reached an impasse with the teacher’s Institute. They left me nowhere to go, but I wasn’t going to give up. I decided to take the dialogue public. First I sent them a draft of this essay, just as I had with Grossbard and Bourzat, to give them a chance to respond and correct any inaccuracies.
They went on the offensive. They didn’t send any corrections, instead they issued a threat. The Hakomi Board had consulted a lawyer, and if I didn’t agree by a deadline to remove any mention of the Hakomi Institute from my essay, they would file legal action in court against me for defamation. And the threat was signed by Mischke-Reeds, the same teacher I had originally complained against.
It’s quite frightening to be threatened with a lawsuit, but being somewhat familiar with defamation law at this point, I let their deadline pass. I responded by pointing out what appeared to be a pattern of therapists unethically closing ranks against admitting any mistakes: first the teacher took no action when I reported sexual misconduct, then she cut off communication when I asked her years later what happened and if there was a conflict of interest, then the Institute cut me off when I asked them about it, then the Institute sent me a legal threat signed, in another conflict of interest, by the same teacher. No apology was forthcoming for any of this, no acknowledgement they had made any mistakes.
And then the situation became even clearer when I later learned about another conflict of interest the Hakomi Institute hadn’t told me about. The teacher I complained against, Mischke-Reeds, still had a professional relationship with Grossbard and Bourzat when she was responding to me and issuing the legal threat against me on behalf of the Institute. She was listed publicly as a formal Advisor to Grossbard and Bourzat’s new psychedelics training school website, working with them teaching psychedelic therapy. (The listing was removed after my emails.)
My inquiry did apparently lead to some changes on Hakomi Institute’s end: there were international discussions about their relationship to psychedelics therapy (which they were at the time eager to distance themselves from, though a simple web search of “Hakomi psychedelics” makes the relationship plain — and since then have publicly embraced psychedelics, and the growth opportunity it represents for them), and they undertook an internal investigation of how they responded to me. They promised things will be handled differently in the future (I’ve received no follow ups with any evidence this took place). But they weren’t willing to ever simply say they had made a mistake by protecting the teacher: instead they continued to side with her.
This is an Institute representing psychotherapy practices world-wide, and poised to gain even more global influence — and revenue — as psychedelic therapy becomes legal. Their response suggests a dangerous precedent of not taking reports of ethical misconduct seriously, intimidating whistleblowers legally, and putting conflicts of interest in the middle of complaints resolution. And I saw the direct result: after learning about how the Hakomi Institute responded to me, the person who said she was mistreated by two Hakomi certified therapists who were Grossbard’s apprentices later told me she would not trust the Institute with their own ethical complaint to them.
I felt like I was starting to see a very old pattern: therapy abuse and professional secrecy surrounding it. Hakomi therapy is a technique I respect, and the Hakomi training world has grown much bigger than San Francisco Bay Area and Colorado communities that have close ties to psychedelic therapy. However I also heard other concerning things about Grossbard and Bourzat when I moved back to the Bay Area. Some of it involved people trained by the Hakomi Institute, and it raised the question in my mind whether Hakomi’s apparent tolerance of Grossbard and Bourzat extended to others.
I led a workshop in San Francisco, and afterwards a participant came up and told me that one of Grossbard’s close apprentices, a Hakomi certified therapist, suddenly touched her inappropriately in a psychedelics session and then harassed her at her home, leaving her so shaken she had to move. When she went for help from another, more senior Grossbard apprentice, he said the problem was with her own “bad boundaries.” Because the San Francisco Hakomi community is so close-knit, she ended her relationship with it. Another person I met said she ended a business partnership with a Hakomi therapy massage therapist who was a close apprentice of Grossbard: she said the colleague violated clients including after giving one psychedelics, but that Grossbard and Bourzat dismissed what happened to protect him. She also cut all ties to the Bay Area Hakomi community because of how involved it is with Grossbard and Bourzat. And another person, a recent Grossbard and Bourzat student, told me she dropped out of the training after witnessing a disturbing cult-like atmosphere, and after two other students told her they were touched inappropriately by Grossbard. She said her therapist (the same Hakomi therapist who the woman from my workshop said violated her) was “priming” her for sex in psychedelics sessions, including putting her head in his lap and telling her “other clients always want to have sex with me and I have to resist.” Several people told me this therapist is a favored apprentice of Grossbard.
These reports of Grossbard and Bourzat apparently shielding their students from accountability suggested a more systematic belief in their work being above criticism. And then I began to hear more about where they may have learned some of all this from: their own teachers. They both trained with Pablo Sanchez, a licensed social worker and underground psychedelic therapist, and Grossbard studied with Sanchez’s teacher Salvador Roquet, a psychiatrist and psychedelic therapy researcher. Sanchez’s colleague told me Sanchez had sex with many of his therapy clients, which was known and tolerated by his students and colleagues, and also came out more openly after Sanchez’s death. Roquet’s psychedelic therapy included overwhelming clients, destroying their defenses, and then rebuilding their personalities, with similarities to drug mind control techniques. Roquet bombarded clients with high doses of multiple psychedelics, graphic images of violence and pornography, sleep deprivation, and loud chaotic music (Roquet even tortured student activist Federico Emery Ulloa with psychedelics at the request of the Mexican government). Grossbard and Bourzat’s group psychedelics sessions format, which used both ketamine and psilocybin, was learned from training with Sanchez and Roquet.
Grossbard’s school dissertation enthusiastically endorses Roquet and Sanchez’s therapy of sensory overload and breaking clients down. Grossbard writes, “Participants are pushed to their limits in order to help them see more clearly their fears and blocks and break through them by surrendering and by allowing the disintegration of their intellectual and rational patterns of their relating to reality.” Unquestioning surrender is implicit as clients are moved through an assembly line to tear them down and rebuild them. Any challenges or criticism, like those I brought to Grossbard, are easily dismissed as just “blocks” and “rational patterns”; the word “consent” is nowhere to be found in his dissertation, much less any discussion of therapy abuse. Grossbard, along with Roquet and others, describes psychedelic therapy in positive terms only, with no critical reflection on the authoritarian dangers of a breakdown-and-rebuild model and no mention of the risks of therapy abuse. Any problems, again, are with the client; neither Roquet nor his student Sanchez ever acknowledged anything was wrong in their way of working.
I also remembered something Grossbard and Bourzat taught in their underground psychedelic guide training. Amidst people sharing deepest wounds, venting pent up emotions, and taking powerful drugs together, the group forged a new shared identity, reinforced by the secrecy around illegal activity and their access to supplies of drugs. The psychedelic “medicine” was a holy cause healing the world; any clients who didn’t fit the image of miraculous cure fell away and were forgotten as psychedelic therapy was held up only in positive terms. Grossbard and Bourzat’s only hint that there might be something wrong in this one-sided picture, and that they in fact had faced challenges, complaints, and lawsuits, was telling students that they had to be willing to pay a price that proved one’s dedication to psychedelics as a cause. As Grossbard revealed in his interview with Pollan, his work is so important it justifies brushing aside the rules that apply to everyone else. All challenges are just resistance to healing, a psychedelic version of believing the therapist who can do no wrong because the client is always the sick one.
My friend who was violated in the Canada MAPS PTSD trial was repeatedly told something similar: keep quiet about abuse in the MDMA clinical research trial so as to not undermine the all-important aim of legalizing psychedelics. Other survivors have met the same sacrifice-for-the cause pressure, and the psychedelics world is replete with zealots who believe access to drugs will trigger epiphanies powerful enough to achieve world peace and reverse ecological catastrophe. (More sober researchers are quick to distance psychedelics’ effects from such claims, lest they be tarnished with political or religious affiliation. Meanwhile psychedelics crusaders are showing up across the political spectrum, including right wing billionaires, capitol rioters, and investors just looking for a new lucrative market.)
I had faced down the legal threat from the Hakomi Institute, and I also had to face down the threats from Grossbard and Bourzat’s lawyers. While I remain open to dialogue with them, I had decided there was no point expecting Grossbard and Bourzat to work together privately for resolution and be accountable about what happened with me and others. I had tried that route, been threatened and mistreated, and so I decided I shouldn’t wait any further to go public with my story. This was part of a much larger problem in psychedelic therapy as a whole, and it’s going to take advocacy and public conversation to make real change.
So I sent Grossbard and Bourzat a draft of this essay, with an invitation to respond to me and correct any inaccuracies. And that’s when, instead of a response, they didn’t just consult with lawyers as Hakomi had done, they had their lawyer send me a legal threat (and three follow up letters) informing me that speaking publicly would result in a multi-million dollar lawsuit against me.
The letter was terrifying but I didn’t back down. At first the lawyer said “Mr. Grossbard has not engaged in any sexual touching…Mr. Grossbard’s relationship with you was not sexual in any way…” Then I responded to the lawyer with details, including that Grossbard had said in front of two witnesses he had touched me in exactly the way I described, that he said he touched many other clients the same way, and that I had also spoken with another of Grossbard’s clients who said he touched them the same way (a student of Grossbard who is now a therapist and met with me in person). I reminded the lawyer that California law defines “sexual” touch between therapists and clients as including clothed genital to genital contact, such as sitting front to front embracing intimately on a lap. And then after I had stood up in this way, I received a new letter, saying “Grossbard did not intend to touch you sexually.” [emphasis added]”
The lawyer even tried to tell me I couldn’t quote the 2000 lawsuit against Grossbard and Bourzat because, he said, repeating allegations filed publicly as part of court records is itself defamatory, even if you note they are allegations. I knew that didn’t sound right, but expensive lawyers have a way of sounding convincing. I had little choice but to hire my own lawyers, who I found through the Electronic Frontier Foundation and specializes in defending against powerful interests that use defamation lawsuits to stifle speech.
My lawyers advised me, “I understand that Grossbard/Bourzat’s attorney has informed you that repeating allegations, even when you note that they are just allegations, can be defamatory. That’s not accurate. As long as you’re clear that you’re referring to allegations, your statement is literally true and thus not defamatory. It is a fact that [a plaintiff] made certain allegations against Grossbard/Bourzat.”
It appeared that Grossbard and Bourzat’s lawyer’s position was now weakening. Most people would likely have been intimidated into silence — it was pretty unnerving to get letters from an expensive San Francisco attorney that quote paragraph after paragraph of presumed legal precedent and refer to $5.6 million defamation settlements. But I kept at it, and it became clear the lawyer was using shady reasoning to stretch the definition of defamation beyond the legal meaning, because there was little else to argue with someone who had the facts on their side. I was basically being bullied by influential leaders in the professional world of psychedelic therapy training, who were rich enough to hire lawyers to defend their secrets while they advertised themselves on the side of expanding consciousness and healing trauma.
Even though I did stand up, the threats had their effects. For months I was extremely quiet about what I said in public or even privately to colleagues, shaken by the fear I might be sued and financially devastated. I sank back into the helplessness and trauma Grossbard had left me with, my old loyalty and dependence making me doubt myself. I withdrew from organizing a conference I co-founded, the Psychedelics Madness Awakening conference, when it became clear legal fears meant I couldn’t speak freely about therapy abuse. (I also stepped back because I discovered a conference organizer hadn’t told me she was also working as an assistant alongside Grossbard and Bourzat, even as she represented a conference dedicated to supporting survivors and challenging psychedelic therapy abuse.)
As Grossbard and Bourzat realized their legal threat wasn’t going to prevent me from speaking out, a colleague told me they had now announced to their community that they were the victims of mistreatment, from a campaign of malicious lies against them — presumably one of the “crazies” challenging them for no reason. After I was on a panel at a psychedelics conference Dr. Janis Phelps of California Institute of Integral Studies contacted me about lecturing at the school’s Center for Psychedelic Therapy & Research. But then she suddenly ghosted me, abruptly stopping communication without explanation; I guessed she was dissuaded by Grossbard and Bourzat. It appeared that after all of our private back and forth, and even after their lawyer’s many threatening letters couldn’t stop me from publishing this essay, two leaders of the new field of psychedelic therapy still won’t come to terms with the truth.
Despite my own run-in with psychedelic therapy abuse, I do believe it’s a good thing to stand down from the war on drugs. Whatever pathway society takes — reckless commercial and medical profiteering or more wise community based decriminalization — it’s up to the community to make psychedelics safer: we can’t just hope therapists, professionals, or pharma — much less the criminal justice system — will do it for us. That means speaking up, not just leaving safety to the experts, not just trusting professionals. In learning about the history of psychedelics and following the thread of my own experience, I’ve seen how psychedelic therapy abuse is enabled by the silence that surrounds it. The failure of institutes, schools, and professional colleagues to respond isn’t going to change until more people have the courage to start talking.
When mistreatment won’t be acknowledged privately, the next step is public action. What is needed above all is for communities to realize that we all have a shared interest in holding each other, and ourselves, openly accountable. And when conflict goes public it needs to follow the lead of Dr. King’s nonviolence truth-telling: replace tribalism and the outrage politics of us versus them with mutual regard and an invitation for change, not vilification and scapegoating. No one is beyond redemption, and once pathways for return are clearer, therapists might be more likely to admit mistakes and come forward, colleagues might feel more free to break loyalties, and therapy as a whole might create more ways to support clients who have been harmed.
Silence and fear are destroying our world, and, as psychologist William James said, any spiritual or religious experience can only be judged by the contribution it makes to people taking better care of each other. The mystical reveries of psychedelic trips mean nothing unless they embolden our moral impulse to speak up and take action; as Carl Jung and other critics of psychedelics have pointed out, without ethical action “expanding consciousness” is meaningless.
And when we speak up and take action, can we do it with compassion and mutual regard? Can we balance the need for truth with the need to hold the other as a human just like us? Can I imagine an accountability, repair, and restoration process for any therapist who mistreats their clients? Could there be a pathway forward for Grossbard and Bourzat? Yes, of course.Therapists who have done harm need to acknowledge the truth, take responsibility for their actions, recognize the impact of the harm, meet the challenge of their own mistakes, commit to change, and offer evidence change is real. Communities that have, by their silence, enabled harm need a similar self-reflection and change process (which is apparently very difficult even for prominent western Buddhist schools).
There will be different standards of what resolution looks like. Does sexual contact with multiple clients disqualify you from ever working with clients again? Does lying and intimidating clients mean you have broken community trust totally? Does the way you deny and hide mistakes destroy your integrity completely? What if laws are broken? Only when accountability is transparent and resolution efforts public — not hidden behind institutional walls — can communities and individuals make the personal decision whether someone can return to trust or not. A first step would be for any therapist who has harmed clients to make public their efforts at repair — and lead the way to a higher standard for the profession as a whole.
— Will Hall
Two advocates have started www.psychedelic-survivors.com after these essays were published, offering support and consulting for survivors. Several people reported these groups were helpful and empowering; I am grateful this new resource now exists.
Note additional reporting:
Ending The Silence Around Psychedelic Therapy Abuse - Mad In America
Michael Pollan's hugely influential new book on psychedelic medicine, How to Change Your Mind , is a watershed moment…
Psychedelic Therapy Is Hyped, But It's Not Risk-Free: How Therapy Abuse Can Retraumatize Clients
Psychedelic therapy is everywhere: on the covers of magazines and newspapers, the subject of recent best-selling books…
"Aharon said it was healing:" How psychedelic therapy was undermined by abuse
When Will Hall started therapy with Aharon Grossbard in 1994, he had no interest in pairing his talk therapy with…
Introducing Cover Story, a New Investigative Podcast From New York Magazine
Photo: New York Magazine. We all want relief - and all of a sudden we're finding it in psychedelics. From underground…
My heartfelt thanks goes to the many people I spoke with over the past 2 years as I prepared this essay and the essay on Mad In America, especially those who trusted sharing their personal experiences with me despite great vulnerability and risk. I especially want to thank Meaghan Buisson and other survivors who have come out against psychedelic therapy abuse, and thank the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their legal assistance. I’m also deeply grateful to the international psychiatric survivor movement for the ongoing friendship and camaraderie that makes my work possible.
About Will Hall
Will Hall, MA, DiplPW, is a PhD candidate at Maastricht University and a therapist trained in Jungian psychology at the Process Work Institute of Portland. He is author of the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs and Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness. A leading organizer with the psychiatric survivor movement, Will holds a certificate in Open Dialogue, hosts Madness Radio, and is a co-founder of Hearing Voices Network USA. You can contact him through www.willhall.net.