Matthew Israel Interviewed by Jennifer Gonnerman

From sugar-coated lollipops to electric shocks, the road to discipline. Jennifer Gonnerman talks with the Rotenberg Center’s founder Matthew Israel.

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JG: How did you first meet Dr. Skinner?

MI: I was a freshman in college. It was 1950, at Harvard College, and I had a social conscience, I think, and I wanted to do some good with my life. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought I might go into government or something, Foreign Service or…and Harvard at that time had a science requirement. And I thought I’d get it out of the way my first year so I took first semester in astronomy. I needed another half year of science and I saw they had some courses that were open to freshman in the rubric of natural science and one was called “Human Behavior,” by someone named Skinner. And the description sounded good, and I took it, and I liked very much his approach because he was trying to bring the methods of natural science to the study of behavior. A lot of the study of behavior is with the methods of social science. They’re less rigorous; they’re the methods of political psychology, which at that time there wasn’t really data on it, and I thought it was a very fascinating notion.

I got angry at myself at one point because I didn’t seem to be reading anything except what professors were putting on their lists of books you’re supposed to read. So I said, “Let’s pick up some books that aren’t assigned to me.” And Skinner had written a utopian novel called Walden Two, and that really captivated me because what he said in that book was in something I alluded to yesterday: He said that a lot of the issues in the world have to do with what we understand to be the nature of man.

Is he a free, rational person able to choose between good and evil, between truth and falsehood? And if so, John Mills and the democratic approach to government make a lot of sense. If he is primarily motivated by sexual issues, then the Freudian makes a lot of sense. If he is primarily motivated by his position in the economic class struggle, then Marxism, communism makes sense. Prior to taking this course I was feeling that way. How do you know who’s right? What combination of theories is correct? Then along comes this little book that says it isn’t one way or the other way; our best understanding is that each individual person is what he’s made by his genetics and his conditioning history. He’s not good or bad, or primarily this way or that way, but the way to find out is through the methods of experimental science.

Which was, he called it—[experimental science] came to be called behavioral psychology, and he said therefore the way to find out how people really should be organized and how society really should be governed is through experimenting and we need an experimental community. So he described this utopian community where it was essentially an experiment in living—and it captivated me. I thought, “My God, that’s a wonderful solution, because people don’t have to pretend to know the answers. You only have to say, ‘Well, I’ll find the answers.'” And that was, I decided that my mission was to start a, that, utopian community.

JG: And about how old were you at this point? Twenty?

MI: I was 17 or 18, a freshman in college.

JG: So you decided at 17 or 18 that you wanted to start a utopian community?

MI: Absolutely. I was very serious about it; I didn’t think my life would have any real…I wanted my life to have some meaning but I didn’t know how to do that. First I went in and told him he should assign that book because he wasn’t assigning it to his own classes. And he told me some story, some joke, about professors assigning their own books, and I said, “Well, you should,” and he did assign it the next year, as well as 1984.

JG: He assigned 1984 too?

MI: Yeah, because he wanted to give all sides of the issue.

He then began to. . .a lot of people. . .he wrote the book right after World War II, it was kind of something he was offering in return to veterans as a way of hope for a better world, and a number of people wrote to him and asked, “Where is this place?” It was described as being in Canton—I assumed it was Canton, Ohio—and Skinner would give me the letters people wrote into him asking where this place was and I started a little newsletter to people interested in it.

I started to major in psychology, but found the other courses were very boring. He was writing a book called Science and Human Behavior and in it analyzed all of society with these same basic principles. He shows how religion, politics, economics, education— they’re all agencies using behavior to mold the individual. Then he also put forth the idea in this book, as well as in Walden Two, of determinism, that ultimately all behavior is lawful and that although that seems pessimistic at first thought it’s actually optimistic because it means you can—by changing the environment and conditioning history that people have—make a better life.

JG: So is that why [the JRC is] in Canton today?

MI: That’s an accident, but that’s why the students. . .I didn’t know how to start, how to go about this. I don’t want to make this story too long. What happened was that I became discouraged; I thought maybe everybody when they’re young they have these ideas that they want to do good and that real life is something different. My father was a lawyer and I thought maybe that’s what I was going to have to do, and I didn’t want to go to Army because the Korean War was on, so I went to law school for two years and got headaches and I didn’t think that was for me.

Decided to go back to graduate school and study under Skinner, which was what I then did, and at that time he was working on “program instruction” teaching machines. My first approach was to start a business to make program instruction teaching machines in early 1960s, and that didn’t work out. I was hoping it would be so successful it would support the utopian community. My next approach was I started two communal houses, hoping they would grow into a community. That didn’t work out well.

JG: Where were the houses?

MI: One was in South End in Boston, one was in Arlington.

JG: And they just flopped?

MI: Well, they had all the problems of a marriage without the satisfactions people have in marriage. All the problems of living together.

JG: How many people were in them?

MI: The first had six or seven people; the second had five. The first had a three-year-old girl who had these terrible behaviors. Screaming. She was very spoiled. Her mother was a Freudian. She was an unwed mother, but she gave me the chance to do training with her child.

JG: What did that entail?

MI: Well, the first thing was that she had to stop this; she was very wild and screaming. I had started a group called the Association of Social Design—people who wanted to work toward building a behavioral community—and at a party she would walk around with a toy broom and whack people over the head.

JG: This was the Association of Social Design?

MI: Yeah, we’d have a meeting once every eight days, invite people, try to get people interested in a utopian community; that was when behavioral modification was beginning to. . .the first journals were in the ’60s, and I remember at one point she would be screaming and I would retreat to my own room, and she’d be trying to pull away and get into my room, and I’d have to hold the door on one side to keep her from disturbing me while I tried to talk to someone.

When she was screaming one day, I asked her mother if I could try a few behavioral procedures, and her mother said, “Okay.” I would reward her when she was quiet and not screaming, but that alone didn’t seem to work sufficient. One day I found myself alone in the house with her and she started to barge into my room when I was trying to work or something, and maybe she was screaming or whatever; I found myself putting her in her room and saying, “There’s no screaming. Time-out for you.” Time-out was a procedure that was being used in a lot of papers and literature. The idea was that you took away the opportunity for reward—it was time-out from reinforcement.

And she kept screaming, and that was annoying. And now she’s trying to come out of the room and I’m a 40-year-old, in my late 30s, holding the door on one side and this little 3-year-old is on the other side, and I thought, “This is ridiculous.” I went into her room. I gave her a snap on her cheek, and said, “There’s no screaming when you’re in time-out.”

JG: What is this, like a. . .

MI: A punishment. It’s a snap on the cheek with the finger; it was either a snap or a slap, I’m not sure which. And I went outside again and I would measure how long she was quiet. And I noticed: I did this a couple of times, and she would stop her crying. And I would take walks with her—that was a source of a lot of reward—and it got to the point where she was so well-mannered that if I sat across the table from her and she started to do something inappropriate, I could just shake my head at her like this, and she would…Instead of being an annoyance, she became a charming addition, a charming individual to the house.

And I’d teach her how to play by herself. I’d say, “If you can play by yourself for a while”—I’d set a timer—and I’d say, “If you can play by yourself for two minutes, we’ll do something fun.” It was the same basic behavioral techniques. It was general property. It wasn’t something I invented; it was obvious principles. So that was kind of an eye-opener to see how effective this was. Skinner’s work was mostly with pigeons and rats, and he speculated that the same basic principles would work with human organisms as well. And only in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s did people start to actually do research with humans, at first with psychotic and retarded people, then with more normal, unimpaired individuals.

JG: What was this little girl’s name?

MI: Andrea.

JG: And what ever happened to Andrea?

MI: I don’t know. I would like to know.

JG: So she was in some ways your first pupil. I don’t know if pupil’s the word.

MI: Yes, that’s right, and there was a couple that joined the house that summer, largely because they found her so
charming. She could be a sweet, charming little girl.

JG: How often would you have to slap her on the face?

MI: It was just a couple times. I think I didn’t use a slap. If I used it the first time, then I went to just a cheek snap. I would give her instructions to just follow directions. I’d say, “Andrea, we’re going to learn to follow directions.” I’d give her directions that weren’t necessarily meaningful things. I’d say, “Touch the doorknob, please.” If she did, I’d pick her up and reward her extravagantly. If she refused, I might give her a snap on the cheek.

Skinner had not really been a proponent of punishment. His Walden Two was a world where reward was used so skillfully that you didn’t need to ever punish. And he said of punishment that it works temporarily but in the long run it has—he related a lot of the problems people had to punishment early in life. That was the theme of the Freudian approach also.

Anyway, to skip forward a little bit, in the late ’60s I decided perhaps—these two communal houses were in ’67 and ’68—and I decided maybe a better way was to start a school, because a school will provide jobs for the members of the community. And that’s how I got into starting a school.

Once the school got started—it started in the homes of two students in Providence, Rhode Island—once the school got started, I think the first couple of employees…I insisted they had to be people interested in Walden Two.

JG: The first couple employees?

MI: Yeah. And then I found that I didn’t want to compromise the quality of the school by making that requirement. And I also found as the next three or four years went by that I was getting such satisfaction out of running the school that the potential satisfactions of the utopian community were less important to me. I was sort of getting satisfaction out of real life, for the first time really, so the dream of the utopian community kind of faded away and I worked on developing the school. But little elements of the school, in some respects, still has similar elements of Walden Two.

JG: Were there any elements in particular?

MI: Well, Walden Two had a…there was a woman described—there are a lot of elements, really, if I think about it—there was a woman who went around the community with a clipboard just asking the members—there’s only 1,000 people in the community, and she would ask people if they’re satisfied with things and if they had any problems. ‘Cause the idea of the government community is that you wanted to have a community where people are getting their needs met, things are working smoothly.

We have a discussion board for our staff—it’s online—which does the same thing. In fact, the practicing employees are required to make some entries.

JG: So you don’t need someone with a clipboard anymore?

MI: Yeah, we don’t need the clipboard. Another example would be, yesterday we talked about the “programmed opportunities.” In Walden Two, he described some training and self-management, with little children, and one example of the training would be they would have to sit in front of bowls of hot, steaming cereal when they were hungry and not eat it. Or there was another where they would hang lollipops around their neck and coat them with white sugar so if they lick them they could tell. These were essentially little programmed opportunities that were hopefully intended to build resistance, tolerance to frustration, ability to defer gratification for a period of time.

JG: So that’s the bit you were telling me about with…

MI: The programmed opportunities where we deliberately present a stimulus which might trigger a problem behavior, and you hope that it doesn’t and you teach the student, you try to prompt the student so that it doesn’t—you reward him if it doesn’t.

JG: So it’s like a lollipop with the white sugar?

MI: Yeah, it has some similar aspects; you’re trying to teach self-management. You’re programming stimulus which might trigger a problem behavior, but you want to teach the student the opposite behavior.

JG: Are there other things in Walden Two that…

MI: Other people comment when they visit here that there are, but I’ll try to make it a very ideal environment for the students. I think that Walden Two was written at a time when people weren’t interested in nutrition, but I think if it existed today…I mean an optimal environment would be one where you’re eating in ways that are helpful to your health. I think—it came as a surprise to me the extent to which the corporate influences are involved in setting health policy in this country. I don’t know if you read—most of us don’t realize that these committees that set the guidelines for what we eat…

JG: I read Fast Food Nation; I know Eric Schlosser. I got a good taste for…

MI: Good, the committee that sets the guidelines, I think in fact [someone] filed a Freedom of Information Access request and found that the majority of the members of the committee had economic ties to the food industries. So people who have economic interests in seeing you eat their foods—the meat industry, the dairy industry, for example—are…and it also came as a surprise to me that you could do anything about the chronic disease of aging.

I thought, “As you get older, you might get heart disease, you might get cancer, but there wasn’t anything you could do about it.” Most people do think that way: Just these are just the things that happen to you. Most people get their own—and me too—you get your education about medicine and drugs largely from commercials on the evening news, and the fact that through diet you could do something to avoid or delay things like heart disease or cancer, the fact that heart disease begins when you’re a child—during the Korean War, when they opened up teenage kids and their arteries already had plaque— so I think that having to—that’s a small thing—probably the most the whole notion of Walden Two was that through behavioral procedures you can make people, and by changing behavior using behavior modification, you can really change people’s behavior and help them lead a better life.

Walden Two was a comprehensive environment. The notion was that you needed to have the whole environment under control. With a school like this, we have an awful lot. Not the whole environment, but an awful lot. Those are a few things that just occurred.

JG: And you grew up in Brookline [Massachusetts]?

MI: That’s right.

JG: And how many kids in the family?

MI: Two. I had an older brother.

JG: And was he interested in the stuff you were interested in?

MI: No, not at all. He was an electrical engineer and he did not like psychologists. He had had bad experiences with psychologists. He was involved in the development of computer-controlled air traffic systems. He eventually worked for Defense Department on strategic air defense systems. I guess in the course of his life he encountered psychologists who were not helpful.

JG: He was an electrical engineer? Did he ever help you with BRI [Behavior research Institute] or JRC’s electrical needs?

MI: He was on the board of directors at a certain point in his life. He was living in Washington then. He was on the board for a while.

JG: Did he help with the GED at all?

MI: No, he was…I think he was…no, he didn’t happen to, but he was still alive at the time that we first built it.

JG: And were you the older one, or the younger one?

MI: Younger.

JG: And how old are you now?

MI: I’m 73.

JG: And you said your dad was a lawyer?

MI: Yes.

JG: And I think you said on the website that you went to high school with Dukakis?

MI: Yeah, I went to high school—we used to run cross-country and practice together.

JG: Cross-country?

MI: Yeah.

JG: So were you in the same grade, or no?

MI: He was one grade behind me.

JG: Did you have any kind of friendship?

MI: I thought it was a friendship, because I wrote [somewhere] that I was disappointed later.

JG: Did you have any contact after high school?

MI: No, he went into politics. He went to Swarthmore and then into politics. I would just hear about him from mutual friends.

JG: Did he ever talk to you in later years?

MI: Well, my father supported him in his political campaign, and my father’s law partner was an advance man for him in his campaign, and I didn’t have occasion to speak with him, though I’m sure I went to a fundraiser. The part that I wrote about was when we had our first big controversy over aversives. I think he was just running for president, and I’m sure he didn’t want this controversy to have any adverse affect on his run. And from that respect, I can understand, but I was disappointed personally. The way it was explained to me was because there was litigation involved, he couldn’t speak to me. If he had even said that, it would have been nice.

JG: Did your parents or your dad have any kind of punishment policy when you were a kid? Were you ever punished? Disciplined?

MI: I think I was spanked a couple of times. I was put in a room in a kind of time-out for losing privileges.

JG: Was it emphasized at all?

MI: Oh no, it was just normal. I was very fortunate in family life. They were very good to me, very good to me.

JG: What kind of lawyer was your dad?

MI: It was just a general practice. He did a lot of corporate law and real estate.

JG: You were telling me about Brandon yesterday and the SIBIS practice and the decision to take this one yourself…

MI: We started the program in ’71, and the procedures we used were the spank, muscle squeeze, water spray, and pinch.

JG: Were these things others were doing, or did you come up with them yourself? The spank, the water spray…

MI: The spank has been going on since time began. Aromatic ammonia was a procedure that was used, where you break a vial of ammonia under the nose. You do find a lot of these in the literature of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s—more so then, because it has become so politically incorrect. What you’ll also find is the skin shock. They would use a cattle prod. My consulting psychiatrist would say, “Why don’t you use the skin shock? It’s so much cleaner.” I was frightened to get into that because that seemed too big a step. People could understand a spank because everyone has probably received one in their life, but no one had received a deliberate electric shock. You had to get ahold of the student and that could result in a struggle. And injuries did occur in those struggles. All the injuries that the staff were getting built up, and around ’89 and ’90, this new device called the SIBIS came about…That plus the frustration of seeing so many injuries led me to say, “Let’s give this a try.”

JG: You were telling me about a time when you were giving Brandon four or five thousand shocks but it didn’t work.

MI: It was in automatic negative reinforcement mode, which means you saw that he had a bandaged arm. He was hitting his head as well as spitting and vomiting. He had to hold his hands on a switch, and while he held his hand on the switch, he would not get a shock, and if he took them off, he would receive about one per second. Unfortunately it wasn’t strong enough. He would keep taking his hands off. At this point you have to realize I thought his life was in the balance. I couldn’t find any medical solution. He was vomiting, losing weight. He was down to 52 pounds. I knew it was risky to use the shock in large numbers but I had to weigh that against…If I persevered that day, I thought maybe it would eventually work. There was nothing else I could think of to do to keep him from these behaviors. But by the time it went into the 3,000 or 4,000 applications, it became obvious it wasn’t working, so we gave up. Nobody was actually administering it. It would happen only if he took his hand off. He would be shocked in the arm and leg. The problem that day was that the shock was too minor; it was of no effect. It wasn’t even strong enough to make him want to stop it.

JG: Was this the turning point in the development of the GED?

MI: Yes.

JG: How do you know how strong the GED should be?

MI: There was no standard. It’s hard; the literature each give a different description of devices that had been used. We knew what SIBIS was and we wanted it to be…to feel two to three times stronger than that. In the literature some of the durations had been as long as two to three seconds. So I chose two seconds.

JG: Tell me about the first time you used the GED.

MI: There was one student. I forget his name. Brandon was the second.

JG: Would you use it yourself on Brandon?

MI: Yes, we had a remote and we administered it. It was always used with a remote control.

JG: And at what point was the GED-4 created?

MI: The mid-’90s.

JG: And why did you develop the GED-4?

MI: Because some students had adapted to the GED. You can adapt to aversive conditions and procedures. The body is made that way. Odors, for example, are aversive at first, but the body adapts. That happens, unfortunately, with many kinds of punishment as well.

JG: Have people adapted to the GED-4? Is there a need for a GED-8?

MI: I don’t think so. It hasn’t happened, fortunately. I wouldn’t rule it out—it could happen, but it’s so effective. It’s not used very often. You see, the more effective something it is, the fewer times it is used, and the less the chance of adaptation. So it’s conceivable, but not likely.

JG: Have you ever used the GED-4 on yourself?

MI: Yes.

JG: What does it feel like?

MI: It’s very painful.

JG: How many times have you tried it?

MI: A couple.

JG: That was enough?

MI: Yes. I demonstrated the GED-1 for a reporter and he wanted me to show him the GED-4, but fortunately he changed his mind. Must the surgeon demonstrate surgery on himself?

JG: Is that parallel—to the surgeon—how you think about your work?

MI: I think this is a treatment, and that is where the advocates who are opposed to it will not accept that notion—that it can be seen as treatment. They seize upon describing it as torture and abuse. But of course it’s treatment. Why else would I want to encounter all these objections and controversies, and put my work in jeopardy every couple of years? What good reason would there be for this? Why would I do this if there wasn’t some reasonable reason for it? Psychologists shy away even from doing research in this. They know in their hearts that it’s effective. But they’re afraid because psychology is so political. A consultant of ours once said, “If you made a discovery in physics or astrophysics, it might turn the whole field around.” Psychology is much more politically encumbered in some ways. Education is that way too. Procedures that are effective don’t get adopted because they’re effective. For example, there was a study decades ago on how to teach children to read, comparing all different procedures. The best results were two behavioral procedures. Nobody adopted them. There’s a politics to education and psychology. You could have a procedure that worked, but it wouldn’t be adopted. Skinner developed a whole field of instruction and education procedures, but that doesn’t mean it was going to be adopted.

JG: Do you think that if you were in a different field things would be different?

MI: Well, maybe I am underestimating the degree of politics in the field of physics and astrophysics. But in psychology…I’ll give you one example. They did a study in positive behavior support—these are the people who should be completely against shock. So they did a survey of all the most prominent people in positive behavior support. They sought out the journal editors at journals like the Journal of Positive Behavior [Interventions]. I think they surveyed 140 people and got like 70 responses or something. And they asked, “What procedures would you consider using?” Their purpose was to try to show something like “people used to be using these terrible procedure called aversives.” But what they found was that 10 percent of these people admitted, because it was done in a way that they could answer without using their names, 10 percent of these people who are committed to using non-aversive procedures admitted they would use shock in some circumstances, including self-abusive behaviors. If 10 percent—and that’s not even asking those who aren’t philosophically opposed to it…

JG: Do you think a lot of your opponents secretly would use this if they could?

MI: Well, that data is what it is. They answered that way. I do know that you’ll find a lot of psychologists who acknowledge that this is an effective procedure, but they wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Why should they? Their career would be jeopardized. They would not be invited to speak at conferences, they would not be held in high regard. [Pauses.] It’s just politically difficult.

JG: Do you think this is a price you’ve paid for going down this path over the years?

MI: It obviously is. I think so, but I mean behavioral psychology was just politically incorrect when it began. It still is not. But science is supposed to be a search for the truth.

JG: So if people are taking shots at you, that’s just part of it?

MI: You’ll find in the field of nutrition, how some people have made discoveries. There is one physician who has reversed heart disease, and at the Cleveland Clinic they will not offer that treatment. It’s too politically incorrect, but the clinic still has places like McDonald’s and fast food in their corridors. Yet members of the board of directors of that clinic will come to him privately for help. Every field is probably like that.

JG: What kind of negative effects have you seen with the GED?

MI: The only one is that it leaves a mark, and in some students it creates a mark that may last for days. I can’t think of a single one except that it leaves a mark.

JG: You never see loss of appetite, or someone having a seizure? Nothing negative? It must affect everyone differently since everyone is so different.

MI: It feels different because everyone’s skin is so different, and the resistance is different. But it has the most dramatically positive effects. Because suddenly, once the behaviors, once they change, the student is happier; he’s more relaxed; he’s enjoying life more. This has even been reported in the use of SIBIS. They have reported that some children help the experimenter put the device on. They weren’t resisting. Some students seem to recognize that this is helpful to them. I can’t think of a single negative effect other than the fact that there is a mark. And obviously it’s painful—that’s a direct effect that happens at the time.

JG: Have individuals ever become less affectionate or more withdrawn?

MI: No, just the reverse. They’re able to now go home and enjoy their family. Their family will take them home. They become more a part of their family. Their life becomes better. They become happier and more relaxed. You didn’t see anybody cringe when I walked up, or when a staff member walked up to them. We’re never the source of solely aversives. We’re the source of huge amounts of rewards, as you can see, and you’ll see in the rest of your tour. I don’t think there is any program that has gone to the lengths that we have to have reward systems. I don’t know if I pointed it out to you, but in some classrooms, there’s a little reward box with toys they can earn, or rent, or borrow, as a result of their behavior. The reward corner. The reward room, a big arcade-type of room. There’s a reward afternoon. No school has made the effort we have with the powerful systems of reward that we have. I cannot think of any ill effects, particularly with the

GED. That’s the beauty of it: You don’t have to worry about the side effects you have with drugs. The known side effects, not the side effects that show up five years later, once it’s too late to change them.

JG: Is there any age limit at the top or bottom of who gets a GED?

MI: We haven’t really set one. But we don’t get the very young children.

JG: What’s the youngest kid you ever had?

MI: I’m not sure. Maybe seven or eight.

JG: At what point did you decide to start trying to expand into high-functioning kids?

MI: There always have been high-functioning students. The first two students we started working with when we stared a residential program, one of them was a schizophrenic that would be a high-functioning student. The other was classically autistic. So there have always been some. When the proportion became larger, I know that prior to our moving to Canton, in ’96, we already had a classroom for higher-functioning kids. So in the early ’90s, we began to put together a classroom.

JG: Did you personally have any questions in your mind about whether your system would work for all of these types of kids? Even just the ones I met the other night? You have such a wide range of problems. Did you ever wonder about whether it would work for this rather than that, the autistic kid versus the other kids?

MI: I did have some questions whether as applied to the higher-functioning students maybe they would become so angry that there would be too much counter-aggression. Now for the first time, we have students like Katie who can tell you, “It helped me.” But yes, I did have some questions.

JG: Was your fear primarily about whether there would be some kind of counter-aggression, or were there other questions?

MI: I had no question about whether it would be effective. Fortunately or unfortunately, these basic principles, such simple principles, do seem to work with all organisms. We all have events that will function to accelerate behaviors—that’s rewards. For all of us, there are events that will function to decelerate behaviors—aversives. Gravity is a perfect example of a decelerent, a sort of aversive consequence that we can’t escape. They seem to be very fundamental principles of behavior.

JG: When you said, “For the first time, we have people like Katie,” when you say first time do you mean because she can talk to you?

MI: Yeah. She can talk to you. And she can say…If we had only autistic-like students, they wouldn’t be able to say, “Gee this has really helped me. I didn’t like it at the time. It was really painful. If I could have asked you at the time, I would have asked you to stop it. But this really helped me. That’s when I stopped my [behavior].” They’re also able to tell you how much they appreciate being off drugs.

JG: What kind of counseling do higher-functioning kids get?

MI: We call it “behavioral counseling.”

JG: And that has nothing to do with psychotherapy, or sitting for an hour with a shrink?

MI: It’s a behavior approach, and I describe it in the website; it’s very easy to find that part. If you look under the “special features” there is a section that goes into the difference with behavioral counseling. Traditional counseling, one problem with it is that for some of our students it can be a rewarding event, a chance to get out of the classroom, sit down. Like one of the students did last night. I think he really appreciated the chance to talk to you about his feelings about his family, his father, his mother, whatever. In a behavioral approach, you have to be careful that no rewarding event takes place after a problem behavior. So if I engage in aggression and you immediately send me to see a therapist, and I can now talk about my problems and I enjoy doing that, there is a risk there that I have actually arranged a rewarding event after a problem behavior, and therefore you may show that problem behavior in the future to make that rewarding event occur again. In other words, it can function inadvertently, not intentionally, as a reward. So therefore, we don’t schedule it on a weekly basis, because the weekly appointment might occur at the wrong time, during a loss of privileges status. We make it part of the rewards system. If you have been doing well, and gotten some contracts, then you can talk to your psychologist. The second thing is that we don’t have the traditional privacy issues. Traditionally if you go to a psychologist or psychiatrist, they’re not supposed to tell anyone what went on in that session. We want everything that happens to a student to play a role towards improvement. Here, what you say to a behavioral psychologist may very well…that psychologist may talk to a teacher and fix some things; there is not a wall between the two. Thirdly, there is an assumption in traditional psychology that simply gaining insight into a problem will be beneficial. Behaviorists tend to be skeptical. It’s just like you might have knowledge that cigarette smoking causes cancer. But the knowledge, we’re skeptical that it may cause a change in behavior. We have more skepticism than most about just having an insight. Thirdly, fourthly, or wherever we are, traditional counseling often makes the assumption that all of your problems now are related to something from back when you were a child. Behavioral psychologists are a little skeptical about that. We don’t see why there is a special causal nexus that should be assigned to what happened when you were a child, versus what happened last week, or yesterday. We just have more skepticism about some of the things they have in traditional.

So in a behavioral counseling, the psychologist uses the same principles. First of all, the goal of the counseling is not just to provide a sounding board for the student for his or her problems and what their parents did and whatever in their past. The goal is to get desired behavior now and in the future, whatever the past was, and to help the student make the best of his time here. Also, the goal is to teach the student what these principles are, so that he or she will look at his or her behavior in the same way. It’s very different if you are looking at your behavior and you’ve been taught to believe that everything has to do with what my parents did to me. And you look at life in a certain way. If you have a different view and you say, “My behavior comes from what I’ve been conditioned for in the past,” that’s a very different understanding, and it will lead to differences in how you handle your current problems. So we think it’s more effective for the student to start to look at his own behavior in a behavioral way. So we try to teach in the behavioral counseling to analyze in the same way that we analyze behavior here when we’re trying to change the student’s behavior. We dispense with the generalities and we talk about specific behavior and how we go about changing it through rewards, punishments, whatever. So it has a different goal. It’s not done on a rigid schedule. It’s still talking.

Another thing is that there is an assumption in traditional therapy that verbal behavior has a lot of control over your nonverbal behavior. We’re skeptical about that too. Human beings have verbal and nonverbal behavior. Saying the right thing does help a little bit, but it isn’t the whole thing by any means. It’s like saying, “I should quit smoking.” That may help a little bit, but there’s often not a total correspondence between what you say and what you do. We all know that. If these principles are so powerful that we’re able to change behavior here effectively, I think it’s probably the most effective treatment available.

JG: Would you ever think in some special circumstances that a kid needed more cognitive behavioral therapy?

MI: Well, if you can show that it really helps, I have no problem with any kind of therapy. I think cognitive therapy is useful, but I think that too should be done from a behavioral perspective. Some specific techniques—like in cognitive behavioral therapy, you’re taught to take things to the extreme, to consider the logical inconsistencies of your thinking. I mean, if that really helps somebody, I have no problem with that. But these simple basic principles that we use, I think, are more powerful, should be done first and provided anyway. Also, as far as counseling, we don’t just routinely provide it automatically on a schedule. If the student’s doing well, then maybe they don’t need it. We don’t restrict it to once a week. They can talk to a psychologist clinician as often as they want to.

JG: If they are on LOP [Loss of Privileges] status they can’t go to the psychologist?

MI: I doubt they’re allowed to during the LOP period.

JG: You were telling me yesterday about behavioral rehearsal lessons. Is this a concept and a phrase that you came up with yourself?

MI: There’s always been the word “behavioral rehearsal.” It’s often used in social-skills training. Say if someone’s learning to become more assertive. You might role-play. Let’s pretend that I’m the employer and you’re whomever. You would rehearse the behavior. It comes from, and you’ll find it used, in that context. It seemed to be the closest phrase to what we were doing.

JG: And that’s something that doesn’t happened that often, I think you were saying.

MI: Very rarely, but it can be very helpful. Particularly for behavior you just don’t want even one instance to happen. You want to use this in a preventative way instead of waiting for the problem behavior to occur, which could be disastrous.

JG: One of the things that you get criticized for a lot is this whole question of peer review. It comes up a lot? You know, “Why hasn’t Dr. Israel submitted any of his work for peer review?” I have read the responses so I could write the answer myself, but…

MI: Well, first of all, just yesterday there is a paper that’s about to be submitted by a psychologist from Holland named Peter Duker. He uses shock therapy with mentally retarded individuals and it’s a great success in helping them get out of restraint. He sent one of his graduate students here last summer, and she’s written a paper. He had the same thing—”Why don’t you publish?”—and now she’s helping him.

We’ve been so busy just managing and running the school and defending ourselves against enemies. It’s been hard to justify the time. Plus it’s a two- or three-year process to get a paper published. And the GED can’t be used outside of here, so it isn’t easy for other people to do research on the GED, so if it was done, it would have to be done here. We’ve been growing very fast and the psychologists have been stretched thin just doing their work as psychologists and clinicians. We call them clinicians now. It’s a long story; we can talk about it if you like.

JG: This paper, you said, is about to be submitted somewhere. Where is it about to be submitted?

MI: We were talking about submitting it to the Research in Developmental Disabilities. I can give you a copy of it. It’s just in its draft form. It was just sent to me yesterday. Duker’s graduate student…

JG: You said, “We’ve been so busy just managing and running the school and defending ourselves against enemies.” It sounds exhausting.

MI: When we’re not doing that, we’re growing very rapidly. It’s a big project. Most programs are not in a position to put up a battle.

JG: You guys seem to be the most resilient.

MI: We were very fortunate then. We were much smaller then [in the 1980s]. The parents brought a lawsuit against us as well as against the agency that was trying to close our program. At a certain point, I think the judge found that the agency had acted in bad faith. They all tend to do something similar, which is they bring in a group of experts to bring in a review that ends up very negative. You can usually point out that the experts are really not neutral or were already biased against aversives to begin with. He [the judge] made a finding that what in Massachusetts was acting in bad faith. He then ordered that our attorney’s fees would have to be paid by the commonwealth. Now they didn’t appeal that, but I’m not sure that would have held up if it were appealed. But that then caused the commonwealth to come to a settlement agreement. That settlement agreement said that we could use aversives so long as we went to court on an individual basis. And that agreement has protected us in Massachusetts ever since. What happened then in the ’90s was that we had been transferred from one agency to another as part of the remedy for that first lawsuit. We were transferred to give us a fresh start from what was then called the Office for Children to the Department of Mental Retardation, which assumed the same obligations from that first settlement. Then in the ’90s, it came to be headed by an anti-aversive ideologue, a person who just philosophically…he had been head of the Massachusetts Association for Retarded Citizens. He essentially violated the terms of that settlement agreement that we had reached earlier to settle the first controversy. Because that agency now violated the settlement agreement, we asked that the agency be put into a receivership. It was a remarkable thing. The judge actually put a state agency in receivership. Not us, the state agency. With respect to all of its licensing activities, the Department of Mental Retardation was placed into a receivership. The head of the agency was fired by Governor Weld. There was a receiver that gave us protection for almost ten years. Unfortunately, the receivership ended about nine months ago. Now, I got into all this to tell you that fighting these battles is very expensive. We got very fortunate that the judge ordered that our legal expenses would have to be borne by the other side.

JG: So that was quite a victory in the mid-’90s.

MI: And then they appealed it to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. And finally it was sustained only in ’97. That’s when the governor called the commission.

JG: So now you’ve got a whole new cast of characters.

MI: Yes, it’s very unfortunate. We can’t spend our time improving the program as much as we’d like to. We have to spend a lot of time on other activities.

JG: What do you think about this guy, Ken Mollins [Evelyn Nicholson’s lawyer, who filed a suit against the JRC last year]?

MI: I don’t think he believes in his heart in what he’s doing. He’s out for the publicity and the money. I don’t think in his heart that he believes we’re doing anything inappropriate. In fact, at first he said he had nothing against JRC. He said he was just going to sue the school system that placed the child here. Then next he added that he was suing the State Department of Education. Only very recently, about four or five weeks ago, he added us to his lawsuit. I think he’s a lawyer, and I don’t think even the mother thinks we did anything wrong in her heart. I think they’re doing it for the money. Unfortunately our legal system is such that you may have no case, and I think that’s a very bogus case, that whole business with Nicholson. But even having a case, the other side’s going to have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to defend it. And there’s eventually going to be a settlement, because one side will say, “You don’t have a case against me, but I’d rather just pay you the money than pay the lawyer.” I think that’s what’s going on.

JG: Why do you think it’s a very bogus case?

MI: Because there was nothing we did that deserved any kind of condemnation or lawsuit or injury. The boy was receiving treatment as many of the students here are. He was benefiting, as I said to you yesterday. His chart may be among those that I showed you. He showed as much improvement as any of the students here. This lawyer has been involved with that same foster mother. I think that she adopted him. I think that she was also the foster mother of twelve children. He’s involved with her in a suit against another school about a time-out procedure. I think he’s in the business of finding…well, anyway, he’s also been working with this Tim Minton, the WNBC TV reporter that came up undercover. The mother gave written approval. The mother withdrew approval. That’s happened with other mothers before. We immediately stopped the procedure. Where’s the harm? Who did anything wrong? What possibly, what harm did anybody do? We offered a treatment; the mother not only accepted it in writing, but used it in the home. The child benefited tremendously from it. If you would trace where he is now you would probably find that he is in far worse shape. He wound up in a psychiatric hospital last I knew. But the mother could benefit economically enormously from this. If you saw the pictures of him…He was a healthy, happy young man. He wasn’t injured in any way. He only improved by his period with us. When they withdrew permission, they had a terrible time finding a place to take him. It took them about six weeks. We have a whole thing about Nicholson too. We’ve written lots about Nicholson.

JG: I know the mother obviously signed for the GED at the beginning. When the GED actually starts, do they sign something else, or there’s no need?

MI: I don’t know if she signed for it at the beginning, because I don’t think that he was put on it at the beginning. Just before we went to court, we would have needed her permission. We don’t require that parents who place a child here agree to the use of a GED, because we don’t know whether we’re even going to need it. She even used it in the home at Thanksgiving… [the student’s mother, Evelyn Nicholson, disputes this. She says the GED was only used once…when she had it in her pocketbook and activated it accidentally]

JG: And what was the reason they used it? Do you know?

MI: I’m not sure what the behavior was.

JG: We were talking about this yesterday, “Behaviorism as a Way of Life,” or the club you had many years ago. Is that something you use? I think I read something on your website about the nutrition and diet thing.

MI: I found that one of the most powerful influences that made me a believer. When I told Skinner I was really enthusiastic about his Walden Two, Skinner invited me to, and took me to, he went out and built this device where pigeons could play ping-pong across a table with their beaks. So he built a little table with railing on the side, a pigeon at each end. You could train them to bat a ping-pong ball across the table. To do that, you have to be using reward very precisely. And it’s amazing to be able to do something like that, seeing that the principles can be used to do something you never thought you could do. I thought, “Here’s a way of helping people become believers in this.” So that’s where self-management comes into play. To show to someone that you can accomplish something—changing your own behavior using these principles helps to make the person a little more a believer that there’s something real there, as opposed to, “It’s part of my job.” So that’s why we have the “Behaviorism as a Way of Life” scheme.

JG: So have you in recent years used behaviorism to change anything your life?

MI: Well, to lose weight, to keep your weight under control. One thing that I’ve done, the first time I did something like this—this is not something I invented; it’s a procedure I’ve heard other people use. You write out a check to an agency you don’t…you can write yours to the Fund for More Rockefeller Laws. You write it to an agency you don’t like. You give it to someone else and you say, “I’m going to stop smoking by a certain date,” or “I’m going to lose a certain number of pounds by a certain date.” And if you don’t, you have them send that check out.

JG: So who would you happen to send that check to?

MI: I think I probably chose something political, like the Republican National Committee. It might have been an organization opposed to adverses.

JG: Would you literally write the check?

MI: Oh yes, absolutely.

JG: Is this going back years?

MI: Yes. The first time I did this, it was a revelation to me. As soon as I wrote that check and gave it to someone, I could feel the difference. I had been struggling, myself, with overeating for many years. I think the first time I did this, it might have been the late ’70s. But the first time I did that and gave that check to someone, I could feel the difference.

JG: And do you remember how much that check was for?

MI: It was probably for $1000. It has to be something that is enough to have an effect.

JG: So you pick someone you hate, any enemy or something.

MI: Yeah. So if you’re pro-abortion, you write it to the pro-life people.

JG: So who do you write it to, an anti-aversive person?

MI: Whoever is my biggest enemy recently, someone who’s promoting a bill to ban aversives. I’d contribute to his re-election campaign.

JG: And did you do this just one time, or have you done this repeatedly over the years?

MI: I’m still doing it now.

JG: You’re still doing it?

MI: I do something now using the GED. I’m in the middle of a project now where I have to cut my weight by a half a pound every week. My monitor is the director of human resources here. He knows what my schedule is and I have to give him a report every week.

JG: And do you use the GED if you mess up? How many times have you messed up and had to use the GED?

MI: I haven’t had to use the GED.

JG: Which one, GED or GED-4?

MI: I think it’s the GED-4.

JG: And what do you have to do? You have to lose a half a pound a week?

MI: Yeah, when I start these projects they are to keep my weight.

JG: And does he put you on a scale? Or you have to honest?

MI: No, I have to be honest. I give my report, and I have asked for an exception.

JG: What happened the exception week?

MI: I got married a few weeks ago.

JG: Just a few weeks ago?

MI: Yes.

JG: Congratulations.

MI: Thank you.

JG: So you had to get an exception for that week?

MI: Yeah. And if there are times when I am traveling or eating out and I don’t have access to a scale and can’t control what I eat, then I ask for an exception. But overall, it still works.

JG: Have you ever had to give yourself a GED or GED-4 as a punishment?

MI: No. Not yet.

JG: And are there other things besides sending a check to someone you loathe?

MI: Well, you choose whatever you want. You could say, “I’m going to tear up a dress that I like.” You can choose whatever you think will work for you.

JG: What are other things that you have tried over the years?

MI: I’ve always found that self-penalty is the easiest thing to do—giving away money. I’ve told people that they could try burning a dollar bill, but that’s illegal, from what I understand.

JG: Have you ever had a check sent to some that you hated?

MI: No, because I made the contracts. I usually make them for a limited period of time.

JG: And how long are these contracts?

MI: Thirteen weeks is a typical contract period.

JG: So it’s not like you’re making out checks to Ken Mollins right now?

MI: That would be a terrific person to write to.

JG: He would be terrific. That would motivate you?

MI: Yeah, he would be a good choice.

JG: Do you think that could be a future weight plan?

MI: Yeah, I think…He may lose interest in this fight.

JG: So you just got married a few weeks ago?

MI: I was married once for 7 or 8 years, about 15 years ago.

JG: How did you meet your wife that you just got married to?

MI: I’ve known her for a long time. We met at a conference years ago. She has an autistic child.

JG: And she’s the one who’s responsible for all the design? I think I met her in New York. Did she come to New York?

MI: She was at that hearing in Manhattan.

JG: Does she work here?

MI: She did work here until we got married. Now she’s no longer working here. She worked as a consultant.

JG: She worked as a consultant here. But she’s no longer a consultant?

MI: No, she’s still working as a consultant, but not here.

JG: So if I wanted to talk about the design, she’s the person to talk to? I’m trying to figure out various things I see here, but I don’t know the words. I’m sure she knows all the words like the back of her hand.

MI: She’s not a professional designer; she just has very good taste. I like the taste. You might not like it. I majored in fine arts in college. I didn’t major in psychology—as I told you, I found traditional psychology difficult to take. So I’ve always been interested in painting and sculpture, painting mainly. It’s always been a problem, how to decorate these homes. Some places probably don’t worry about it at all. I couldn’t figure it out. Because you’re going to have different people who are going to work for a while, nobody’s really going to be living in those homes. And it was my responsibility to figure out how they were going to be decorated.

Because of the aversives controversy, we felt we wanted the environment to be more upbeat and positive. And when we were decorating the 240 building first, which was maybe 10 years ago, we happened to put up a Mickey Mouse print. And we found that when you look at a Mickey Mouse print, it’s hard not to smile. It’s just a happy image. And so then we got every Mickey Mouse poster that I could find, and we decorated the whole hallway with Mickey Mouse. And we have a room—you heard about it yesterday—a Mickey Mouse room. So we got these inexpensive posters. They’re $20-$30, and we framed them and mounted them. That’s what you’re seeing in the corridors…I just find that it makes a much more attractive environment.

JG: So is this in the last 10 years that we’re seeing all the color and the…

MI: Since we moved to this building, we’ve been able to do a lot more, these two buildings now. We want this environment to be an attractive environment to the students, to everyone, to the parents when they come.

[Clock chimes.]

JG: That goes on every hour? What song is that, do you know?

MI: I don’t know.

JG: So every hour your clock spins around and sings?

MI: Yeah, we had a wall of these in the reception area of the other building before it was remodeled. We had about 25 different versions of that. And where they were all going off at once, it was rather interesting.

JG: Because it was 25 different songs, right?

MI: Not the same clock—all different clocks all doing different things. We’ll probably put them up again somewhere. This building is going to be really spectacular. We haven’t even done anything yet. All the reward rooms are going to be off of that main corridor there. It’s going to be really nice.

JG: Critics would say that there are elements of the environment that are so abnormal here that how could anyone be prepared for normal life? And I know you’ve heard that over and over.

MI: You have to look at it like the emergency room in a hospital. There are elements in, not the emergency room, but the intensive treatment area. An intensive treatment area is not normal life. Everything is marshaled for one result: to save your life. Normality is not the standard for how that room and those procedures are designed. I think you have to look at this the same way. It starts off being highly abnormal. The amount of structure, there’s all these rewards, all these aversives—not all these aversives. The number of aversives is highly outweighed. But as the person recovers, after the behavior improves, as you can see, they move more and more towards a normal pattern. They get rid of their recording sheet. They get freedom to work outside jobs. And eventually they leave, and go back into a regular world. But at first, you have to make it different if you are going to make a change. It has to be different; it can’t be just the regular pattern of a school. If it was always the way it is at first, it would be more subject to criticism. But if we have a plan where we are gradually diminishing these artificial schemes and making it into a more normal pattern, then I think that’s the way it should be.

JG: I think I’ve heard you quoted before about how various people with medical advances have throughout history run up against controversy, and that history later proves them right, or sometimes it goes the opposite, depending upon the situation.

MI: Yeah, I think maybe that’s what we’re involved in here in a way. Surgery itself was very controversial and done by barbers, I think. The first…

JG: So what do you hope your legacy [will be] down the road? What you’ve done, your school?

MI: Well, I hope the school will continue to defend a treatment that’s effective, even though it’s politically controversial.

JG: It seems like only a certain kind of person would have the inner strength or fortitude to have waged this battle for 10, 20, 30 years, and persisted financially, emotionally. What is this about you that from age 17 or 18 wants to create a utopia, but all these years later is still fighting the fight?

MI: I don’t know how to answer that. You are what you are. You become what you become. I see it as a pursuit of application of a new form of psychology that never was politically correct, that is increasingly being accepted. Behavioral psychology was looked down upon. It’s for rats and pigeons, not humans. [Skinner’s] book Beyond Freedom and Dignity—one of the legislators in MA accused me of being a follower of Skinner. I thought it was a commendation. In some ways, you’re fortunate to be able to fight a battle like this; it gives meaning to your life. If it was easy it might be different. Everyone would be doing it. It wouldn’t be as helpful.

Look at these parents. Can you imagine what it’s like to hear those stories if you’re in my position? To hear them tell their stories one after another? They’re not trained in psychology; they just see the results for their child. As I said at the beginning, how can you stop? I guess I never wanted to go into the world of academic psychology so I was able, by being in a separate program, to do this and it would be defended. And I was just fortunate enough to be able to afford the defense and lawyers. You spend a lot of your time with lawyers. I’ve been very fortunate in having very excellent lawyers to help me.

JG: Have there ever been days when you’ve said, you know, I’ve got enough money— I’ve just had it with this, the politicians, and the licensing agencies, the lawyers in New York?

MI: Well, I enjoy the work. I don’t think I would enjoy my life as much. I don’t think I would enjoy doing anything else.

JG: There isn’t anything else you’d rather do?

MI: Not as much. It’s very satisfying, challenging. It’s like trying to defeat the Rockefeller drug laws. When you take a project like that, it’s difficult but…Have they had any success with that?

JG: Yes, they did alter the laws slightly after the book came out. So do you enjoy the battle at all?

MI: No, I was really enjoying not having a battle. I was hoping the one in the ’80s was the last one. I was really not wanting anymore.

JG: Now you’ve had to deal with two states, and all kinds of characters.

MI: No, I wish I could just continue building the program, making it better and better. I don’t really relish this fight. I hoped this was over in the ’80s. I hoped this was over in the ’90s. I wasn’t happy to have this come again.

JG: What do you think is going to happen next year?

MI: If we’re fortunate, I think we’ll preserve the right of New York children to have this treatment. See, it’s only when we get into the judicial system that we have a chance. Until then—well, look what’s happening in New York: The Board of Regents hasn’t even bothered to listen to the parents. They didn’t give them an opportunity to speak. If we had not gone to court, we’d be nowhere. The only chance is if you happen to have a judge that looks at both sides and is objective. Traditionally that’s what’s saved us.

JG: So will you keep expanding, move to New York?

MI: They don’t seem to want us in New York. We offered to. You know they say they don’t want the money going out of state, so we’d be very happy to open a program in New York. But the Department of Education doesn’t really want us.

JG: So there are other states you’re targeting?

MI: We’re hoping to get referrals from many states. Massachusetts sends about a quarter of our students. Virginia has sent a number. Pennsylvania. We receive a few referrals from Illinois. We have a child from California. But at the same time, we have to be prepared for the possibility that we lose all New York students.

JG: What happens if you lose them tomorrow?

MI: There’s state provisions and federal education law, so they can’t all leave tomorrow, but we’d be a smaller program by half.

JG: They wouldn’t close the program though?

MI: We still have over-21 New York children; we would still have 24 of those. We have all the children from out of state.

JG: I thought California had banned aversives, but they sent somebody here?

MI: They have regulations making it very difficult to use them, but you can get away with it. Only two waivers have been granted in 10 years, and one is for a child here now because of self-abusive behavior. At the time the child came in, we applied to be approved as a California school, and even now we’re appealing the denial of California of our application for approval.

JG: Is there a chance you’ll be approved?

MI: There’s a chance, but only if we succeed in this.

JG: Didn’t you used to have a school in California?

MI: Yes. We started a branch of our school in the ’70s in Los Angeles, a small branch, and began the issue of aversive priorities, and in the course of that we made an agreement to turn the program over to the parents. They then formed a separate corporation to which I consulted for a while, which still exists. It’s still a very large day school in Glendale with 300 day students, and it has a branch in Northern California with 300 students as well, but they can’t use aversives. They weren’t strong enough to fight that battle; they weren’t big enough.

JG: So they stayed open and just took out the aversives?

MI: Well, what happened first was it continued, but we turned it over to group of parents, who then ran it as a cooperative. At that time, it was still using aversives. Then they formed their own corporation, with which I’m not involved. It had the same name; it was called BRI of California at that time. It was still using aversives, and then they got into trouble with their licensing agency, and they just couldn’t fight the battle legally, so they made an agreement to stop using the aversives. And then they had to unfortunately return some of their children, young adults, to state hospitals where they’d be difficult to serve.

JG: So they’re still around? A descendant of BRI still exists?

MI: Yes, I think BRI is still their official name, but now it’s called Tobinworld.

JG: Do you go out there and consult for them?

MI: I haven’t for a number of years. I go to California frequently because that’s where my wife lives. She’s the executive director. We’ve known each other since 1974.

JG: You’ve known each other since 1974 and you only just got married?

MI: Well, she was married to someone else who died about nine years ago. We’ve been together for about six years or so. I was afraid of getting married because my first marriage, I didn’t think it was very successful. I was worried that once people get married they take each other too much for granted, and they don’t have to work as hard, so I kind of resisted it. But I knew that she wanted to, and if she’s not happy it’s hard for me to be happy. And I found surprisingly that it’s actually improved our relationship. We just got back from a couple of days to Las Vegas, which I didn’t enjoy much.

JG: You don’t seem like a Vegas type of guy.

MI: No, I’m not into gambling, but she liked it. We went to Mamma Mia. That was wonderful, all the songs. We went to a Cirque du Soleil production on The Beatles, so those were the highlights. I don’t really like to gamble.

JG: I appreciate you sitting with me and talking. I wondered if you think there’s any other place GEDs ought to be used.

MI: They could be used everywhere. Not just the GED, but the positive reward system. It could and should be used—not as a last resort, because it has no side effects. I think it should be used in the schools. Prisons have the problem that people see that as coercion. But if it works here, why shouldn’t it be used elsewhere? If positive procedure was used effectively, you wouldn’t need aversives in most cases. We’re dealing here with some very case-hardened behaviors with a very small sliver of the population; most of the time a very consistent, positive program would be very effective. And the education procedures, the self-instruction program, those are wonderful. The use of the computer, kids going at their own speed—it’s a wonderful technology.

Did you look up those articles about James Velez by Sonny Kleinfeld [that appeared in The New York Times in 1997]?

JG: Yes, he’s an excellent reporter.

MI: Many people in the anti-aversive movement, they’re sort of part of the continuation of the civil liberties movement. They’re freeing the oppressed, and they see this as another population of oppressed individuals who need to be freed. And I think he viewed it in that way. Here was a young man [James Velez] who had been repressed, even sent to a highly restrictive place that uses skin shocks, and now he was freed, with his own apartment in Brooklyn. What a story that is. And Fredda Brown, she came here once, and I confronted her about that.

JG: How’d that go?

MI: She didn’t want to talk to me about it.

JG: About his death, and the whole story? Did she come to visit you or the school?

MI: She came as a consultant. In court cases, the lawyer appointed to oppose our motion can bring in another psychologist to advise them, and one had brought Fredda. She came on one or two occasions to be consulted, and of course she said aversives are not necessary.

JG: So this whole idea of freeing the oppressed—when you look on the internet, people get pretty worked up about you and this place. They start going into the Nazis.

MI: Isn’t that awful? It feels terrible. Some of the people who are the most extreme are these high-functioning autistic individuals who have Asperger’s syndrome. They have their own website; they call it Aspies for Freedom. It doesn’t feel good to read that stuff. It’s not pleasant. Some of them are threatening. I’ve read a lot of that, and some of it was from a high-functioning [former] student. His name was Bill something. He was one of the very first high-functioning students. He wasn’t on aversives, but he went right into us. He’s also sent us some threatening letters. I think he’s unhappy about his life and it’s hard like that.

If [people who write about him on internet] themselves had a severely self-abusive child, they might become a parent of a child here. They’re not opening their minds to that possibility. A lot of people who are opposed are not willing to look at this in a scientific way and say, “What are the risks and what are the benefits?” The risks are that it’s politically unacceptable; it’s painful when you get an aversive. The benefits—they’re not willing to weigh the one against the other. They’re well-intentioned people. They have the best intentions, but it’s very similar to the abortion controversy, to the animal rights controversy, where there’s a right and there’s a wrong and people are not willing to say, “Yes, and animal experimentation is harmful for the animal, but there’s some benefit for society. Yes, abortion is a horrible thing, but it might have some benefits for the family.” They’re not willing to do that balancing.

JG: Why do you think people get so worked up when they hear the words electric shock or shock therapy?

MI: First of all, people are still confusing it with electroconvulsive shock therapy [ECT], where you put a current through the head, you drug them, you put them in the hospital, you make them have seizures. In most of the headlines of articles they don’t take the time to say “skin shock.” They say “shock therapy” and shock therapy in everyone’s head is ECT. Even in the Newsday article that appeared, they showed a picture of a student laying on a bed with a cone affixed to his head. There’s a lot of confusion about that. They’ve seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they’ve heard of ECT, and they think that’s what this is.

The first thing I say to legislators is this is just passing current over a small section of skin, only to cause pain—not to cause a seizure. People never really experience this. They’ve experienced a spank, a pinch, even a muscle squeeze, but they’ve never experienced skin shock. So it’s something different, frightening because it’s different. I was afraid of it. For 10 or 20 years I didn’t want to use it. I never felt it, but it seemed I had enough controversy just using the spank. Why did I need more controversy using the electric shock? That would be worse.

Part of my thinking was that I didn’t want more controversy. I could handle the spank people; people have been spanking children for millennia. They haven’t been shocking people. I thought it was a more understandable procedure because people spank, take away privileges, use time-out rooms. They didn’t use some of the other things we were doing, like the water spray to the face—that was different. But at least they were procedures that you had experienced. Everyone has experienced a spray to the face. They were more in people’s experience, those procedures. Skin shock is not in most people’s experience.

JG: Do you think people should provide it at home?

MI: Well, you shouldn’t just provide it to people willy-nilly, because most people won’t set up the rewards system that really should be…It would be unethical to just use punishment by itself unless it’s part of a comprehensive rewards system in which the rewards are tried first and exhausted more or less, and then you have to add the aversives.

JG: Do you think it is something that could be marketed to parents?

MI: There are parents who swear by the SIBIS. For students who are in this program, we urge parents to use it, and to use the rewards system in the home so we can be as consistent as possible. I do think that whole prison population, if you could set up a really powerful positive rewards system…At one time I thought the only place you could deal with certain, very difficult, violent students might be in the correctional system, and it would be a whole heck of a lot better than just…They don’t use skin shock, but they use isolation. They are using rewards and punishments. Everybody is using them. Schools use them; you use them; we all use them. It’s just that certain ones that we use, we’re accustomed to. Giving a child a bad grade—that’s okay. It’s like drugs. Sticking a needle in someone’s butt and giving them a drug—that’s not aversive; that’s okay. So there are certain things we’ve come to accept. These drugs where they don’t have good evidence for their effectiveness, they don’t follow them carefully after they’re administered, and they get these horrible side effects. That’s come to be accepted. So certain punishments, certain rewards, they’re accepted. Culturally, politically acceptable. The only problem with this aversive is that it hasn’t been accepted. But I think if you look objectively at the benefits and the risks…


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