6 Replies to “The Minotaur of the Behaviorist Maze: Surviving Stanford’s Learning House in the 1970’s”

  1. Hi Robert,

    My younger brother, Brett McFarland, was also at the Learning House. It had to be about about 75-76, because we knew Dennis and Leslie Dow who were there as staff.

    Just wondering if you remember him or not.

    Thank you.


  2. Hi Shelly, thank you for writing! I believe your dates are correct here. Brett and I were probably interned together.

    I believe I remember him. Was he of small statue, with blond hair and glasses? The only child whose name I still recall clearly was Martin, a young Mexican American who was a remarkable thief. He had an interesting pastime of taking up a station on a street corner and handing out money to all and sundry. Cool kid.

    I think I recall Dennis and Leslie too. Young, white, earnest? Joggers?

    Would be happy to get in touch with Brett.

    Best, Robert

  3. Oh that gave me the chills! Yes, that was Brett – blonde hair and glasses. I remember Martin now too. 🙂 Brett liked to give things away too. One year he gave away every Xmas present he received. I’m sad to report that he took his own life at 25 years old in 1994.

    I think there was a boy named Mike Dominguez there then as well. If you can believe this, he was killed, while Brett was still alive and very young, by a distant cousin of mine in a car wreck when he went out in the street to retrieve a ball.

    I was at Learning House every Sunday it seemed, dropping Brett off from home visits. Your article just startled me. I looked up Learning House last night after watching the short film version of Short Term 12. Then it all flooded back to me about that place.

    My most vivid memory is that they had the book “Where Do Babies Come From” or something like that in their books int he downstairs room. Also that Brett told me that he lost his virginity by a counselor there. NOT Leslie or Dennis!! They were nice and the only counselors I really remember. They aren’t a couple anymore from what I’ve heard.

    I really appreciate your article. I feel like I understand Learning House from Brett’s perspective, more than I have in the past.

    Thank you.

  4. Remarkable.

    Yes, I remember Mike Dominguez now too, I believe. A heavyset, black haired fanatic of KISS, whose Dad had Nazi war memorabilia around his house. Mike liked to dominate others. His threats of murder hurled from that containment space beneath the stairwell where the ones I had in mind when I wrote my article (some were directed at me).

    I also remember that doggone book. Enlightened porn. That would be typical of Learning House — learning experiences with no meaningful context given. After all, since human beings are just stimulus response machines, what’s the point of cultivating their inner sensibilities, of conveying human values?

    I’m grieved to hear of Brett’s early death, as well as Mike’s.

    I am so touched to hear from you, Shelly. Please, share more of what you remember. I think it would be of interest to anyone intrepid and concerned enough to read this article.

  5. I was brought up in England by a child psychologist mother and psychiatrist father. My mother was also an extreme narcissist. She was very ambitious and I believe identified herself primarily as a psychologist. I don’t feel I had a mother, only a resident shrink. She would constantly comment on and judge our behaviour.
    I’m not schooled in this field, but I suspect that at the time (I was born in 1963) the overriding psychological approach was behaviorism. Any show of emotion was strongly disapproved of at home and we were given no physical affection. When I was brought home after birth I was put to sleep alone in my room at night. Looking back, I see that our household was miserable and dominated by my mother’s obsession with intellect and need to pretend. We were constantly asked to perform as if we were happy children.
    I’m still trying to figure out what happened to me. I have suffered with crippling self hatred, inability to feel emotion or express emotion, failed and abusive relationships, and a blackness of meaningless and rage inside. No amount of therapy or meditation has healed me, yet.
    As you have been through (probably worse) a similar experience, I’m curious to know in what ways you think being raised by a behaviorist psychologist mother would affect her four children. I feel like I was raised in a cult, the cult of reductionism, but one that society respects.
    I would be grateful for any insights you may have. Thanks

  6. Hi Susan, please pardon my delay in responding to your message here. I must say that everything you’ve written rings true, and I have no doubt it is the end result of a long, arduous process of introspection. You were, indeed, raised in a cult. I fully understand your internal rage and the disintegrating forces you reckon with in your life.

    The task, of course, is to forgive our parents, because we remain caught in a dynamic of victim/perpetrator as long as we cannot pardon their trespasses.

    The problem is, how do we heal our wounds enough to forgive the surrealistically cruel, unconscious behavior of the people who were supposed to cherish and love us beyond all things? I don’t have an easy solution, obviously. I think it’s a demanding spiritual path, a life-time vocation, to heal the inner child, confront the family’s and one’s own internal demons, and to let it all go, water under the bridge, as if it had happened in a previous life.

    Certainly, what I’ve learned is conventional therapies generally don’t work at this deep level of healing. It’s only when we can move out of this nexus of victim/perpetrator that we can begin to be released into a larger view, one which includes love in unexpected places, forgiveness despite all evidence to the contrary, laughter in the midst of grief, etc. There are various ways folks achieve this transpersonal perspective. For me, it came through working with ayahuasca and other indigenous shamanic medicines and lineages such as the Native American Church, many years of hard training in a Zen temple, lots of aikido, pilgrimage, and some work with some excellent therapists.

    I believe at bottom, however, it was prayer and intention that brought me through. I’ve come to see that prayer is very badly understood. It’s actually the creative interaction we have with the vital, living cosmos, our shaping of our destiny.

    I hope this response has been useful for you. I am certain that you can achieve your goal of healing, Susan, if you attract the right circumstances and people to you.

    Best, Robert

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