In the sixth and final installment of NY1's "Psychopolitics" series, Rita Nissan tells the story of three women who were once part of Fred Newman's psychotherapy and his politically-charged world.
"I learned more about New York politics in my therapy training in Georgia than you can imagine," says Erica Van Meir.
"It's all connected and it's so hard to describe, to separate it," says Phyllis Schulman. "It's all intertwined and connected."
"You were required to be part of their community, one-hundred percent," says Nanette Harris. "Nothing else mattered."
These women all got out — out of Fred Newman's world of Social Therary.
Newman created Social Therapy in the 1970s, and it's now practiced in nine centers nationwide. He also has a hold over the Independence Party in New York City and a youth charity, the All Stars Project.
"Most of the people treated him like he was an idol," recalls Schulman. "Like they worshiped him.
In Atlanta, two former patients and one former intern reached the same conclusion: Newman has a way of drawing people in and never letting them go. It was only when they asked questions that they realized what they were part of.
They say it's a cult.
They shared their stories with NY1 to help others who may be caught under Newman's influence.
"I think it took me about a year and a half to really realize what it was about, and I'm still mortified every day, the more I learn about this group," says Erica Van Meir.
Five years ago, Van Meir needed to complete an internship to get her therapy license. She saw an ad for Social Therapy.
"Right away they sounded very friendly, interesting," she says. "They were from New York."
Van Meir signed up, but now wishes she had stayed away. She says vulnerable patients were recruited through therapy to work for Newman's causes, like his theater company.
"I witnessed patients going on the streets and asking for money for Fred Newman's plays," she remembers.
And his politics.
"Mayor Bloomberg's name came up a lot towards the end of my training," Van Meir says.
In 2001 Bloomberg received Newman's blessing and ran on the Independence Party line. Newman and his social therapist protŽgŽ, Lenora Fulani, claim credit for Bloomberg's victory. Their party put him over the top.
On a trip to New York, Van Meir says a patient told her about the time he spent with the campaign.
"(He said that) he was getting further involved in the Newman movement in New York, and that he spent a day with Fulani meeting the people they were working with to get Bloomberg elected," she says.
Van Meir says patients were convinced that doing these things would help them recover.
"They use phrases to make clients believe that the more they get involved, they more they will develop," she says. "But it's a very self-serving kind of agenda because these people aren't getting help in their lives to help them get out of therapy; they are being made dependent on Newman and his group for their community, for their development. And I feel that's dangerous and wrong."
Phyllis Schulman had a similar experience.
"There were a lot of red flags that were going off, but I was in an emotional state and I chose to ignore them," she recalls today.
Schulman spent four years as a social therapy patient in Atlanta. In 1997 she was grieving the death of her fiancŽ and needed help. She says it wasn't long before she was manipulated into volunteering.
Schulman says she was convinced it was good for her development.
"In hindsight, they do this mind control thing with you where it's so subtle and so sophisticated that you don't realize what's going on," she says.
Schulman says she worked the phones, raising money for Newman's theater and his youth charity. She says she even volunteered for the therapy center that she was seeking help from.
Schulman says did administrative work and had access to former patient records.
"I was organizing the files and cleaning the files, boxing up files," she explains.
She says the boundaries normally kept between patients and therapists were constantly violated.
"My therapist used to call me at night to talk to me about the volunteer work that I was doing," Schulman says. "I had lots of functions at my home where my therapist was present."
And she says there were signs she was in a cult.
"When I questioned something, they would give you an answer where you think your question was answered but a few minutes later you realized you were totally confused," she says.
And the same signs were visible to Nanette Harris.
"To me it felt like they were going to suck me dry. and I wasn't okay with it," she says.
Harris devoted ten years to Social Therapy. She says she liked her weekly sessions so much, she trained to become a social therapist. Harris says she knew there was a connection to a political group, but was never asked to join.
But she did become active in play readings.
"They were the stupidest plays you ever read, but that's beside the point because Fred wrote them," she recalls. "You can't say 'it sucks' because Fred wrote them. That's a big deal."
But then, during a meeting in New York, everything clicked.
"It was like boom, light bulb," she says. "As soon as I sat in on that meeting, in my mind I said 'S**t this is a f*****g cult.' That's exactly what I thought."
She said everyone around her acted just like Newman.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, they talk like him, they sit like him. That's not normal,'" Harris says. "It just freaked me out."
Newman says he feels for the people who had a bad reaction to Social Therapy. But he says they're probably exaggerating.
"People have relationships with people who they sleep with, who they have children with, who they love," Newman says today. "Then they break up. Three weeks after they break up, they characterize the entire relationship, sometimes called marriage, in negative terms, in nasty terms, in hostile terms. We all know about this. You don't have to have a cult for this to happen. All you have to do is live in the world to understand that."
But Nanette Harris, Phyllis Schulman and Erika Van Meir say the world Fred Newman lives in is one they wish they were never a part of.