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Bad Hug

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

On this week’s episode of Cover Storyhost iO Tillett Wright and collaborator Lily Kay Ross look at the practices of Salvador Roquet, a Mexican psychotherapist who is known as “the master of bad trips.” By understanding how Roquet influenced Françoise Bourzat and her husband Aharon Grossbard, we realize that boundary-crossing may be inherently baked into the psychedelic guide training that caused harm to both Lily and Susan, and that they are far from alone in experiencing abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to be their therapists and guides.

Cover Story

Mind. Body. Control. Uncover the dark truth in Power Trip, a new investigative series with original reporting from New York Magazine.

To hear more about Roquet’s methods and the moment Susan decided to leave the psychedelic community, listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, and find the full transcript below.

Just a quick note: This series deals with sexual assault, so please keep that in mind when you decide when and where to listen. As in previous episodes, we’ve changed the names and voices of some of the people that we’ve interviewed to protect their identities. Also, at the very beginning of the episode, there are brief sounds of porn and violent war scenes. 

iO Tillett Wright: Imagine you’re lying on a floor. Lights are flashing and projectors are playing movies on all the walls. The Mexican psychiatrist Salvador Roquet has given you LSD, maybe mescaline. You’re tripping your face off.

The projectors start playing porn and murder and war scenes from The Dirty Dozen. You put a blindfold on and you get hit with ear-bustlingly loud music. There’s a classical piece from Debussy with a Japanese synth cover of the same song by Tomita layered over the top, just slightly off enough to feel fucked up. Then Balinese chanting starts, layered over the classical, then dad rock — Quicksilver Messenger Service and Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, all at once. Then Ravi Shankar comes in, like auditory whipped cream on your nightmare sundae.

Then Roquet’s assistants start walking around banging pots and pans, for some god-awful reason, holding live microphones up to you while you freak the fuck out. Hours later, you’re still high as a kite and one of the assistants comes up and says,  “Cliff, we’re going to give you a shot of ketamine. Would that be okay?”

We’re talking about the conductor of this chaos orchestra, one of the founding fathers of modern psychedelic therapy… And also, one of Françoise Bourzat’s teachers.

In the 70s, Salvador Roquet was called a “master of bad trips”. Those bad trips, horrifyingly, were by design, to help people get past their deepest primal fears of death and sex, and mommy. We called up a guy who worked closely with Roquet for a long time to understand… what the fuck.

Dr. Abraham Sussman: His model came from the realization that just below the surface in most human beings is a roaring river of instinct and feeling and wild capacity and terror. From his point of view, in giving up our access to this primal stew, many people in the modern world have given up their feeling, their heart, their sense of life, their sense of discovery, their sense of amazement, and that intention of therapy is to help people recover that sense of amazement.

Wright: Roquet gave people high doses of psychedelics, blasted music and disturbing imagery at them, and observed as they completely began to crumble.

Dr. Sussman: He took lots of risks with everyone, which was his genius and his brilliance

Wright: Cliff Bernstein, the guy who got that surprise ketamine shot, says that it probably wasn’t a great thing to offer him while he was super high, but overall, he still had a positive experience.

Cliff Bernstein: My ego, gone. I did not know I had a name, I didn’t know I had a history. I was flying above highway 580 in Oakland. And I could feel the wind somehow. I remember the headlights of cars down below.

Wright: To help his clients come back to earth Roquet ended his sessions with something like group therapy, where everyone “re-integrated” and talked through what happened for them.

At other points in his career he was… different. In 2002, Roquet’s name came up in a lawsuit. A former student dissident named Federico Emery Ulloa accused Roquet of using some of the same techniques from his psychedelic sessions to torture detained activists in the 60’s. Supposedly, Roquet was trying to treat them, make them better citizens. Although Sussman says he had another motive.

Dr. Sussman: I’ve talked with Salvador about that. He was in a bind, the authorities were going to shut him down. They were going to put him in jail.

Wright: But Emery has described the torture in detail. In interviews and testimonies, he said Roquet drugged him against his will, blasted him with pornographic films at full volume, and then participated in an interrogation that left him — in his own words — in a state of terror. Emery Ulloa later called it “psychological torture” and said it affected him for the rest of his life.

Dr. Roquet himself ended up going to jail twice in the 70s. Once in Mexico, and again in the U.S., for giving people drugs during sessions. So he developed a drug-free version of his practice, where psychedelics were replaced with things like breathing techniques and fasting and sleep deprivation…

Françoise Bourzat: …drama therapy and artwork and ritual and bioenergetics and …

Wright: When we talked to Françoise Bourzat, she said she and her husband Aharon Grossbard — he’s the one who introduced her to Salvador — actually ran these drug-free Roquet-style retreats for a good ten years.

Françoise Bourzat: And he called that Convivencia.

Wright: Like, convivium. The name that Lily remembers floating around at the underground meeting of guides that she went to. They were a bunch of renegade healers, passing down their methods — including their work with psychedelics — and adapting them along the way. It was Roquet, Françoise, her husband Aharon, and another important mentor of theirs, named Pablo Sanchez.

Françoise Bourzat: The mushrooms and the LSD, and then the ketamine and the music for eight hours and all this preparatory work, the long integration after and the no sleeping — all that was Salvador’s style.

Wright: Twenty-plus years later, Lily and Dave get on the phone with Susan, this woman who’d been enrolled in Françoise and Aharon’s underground training to become a psychedelic therapist.

Lily Kay Ross: One of the things that I asked Susan about pretty early on was whether Salvador Roquet had come up in the training. The reason I was asking her was that I had stumbled on his name in Françoise’s book and then I’d been on this week-long, obsessive bender trying to scoop up everything that I could find about this guy.

Wright: Susan showed us the hand-written notes she took at the training. There’s a whole section on lineage, where Françoise and Aharon’s ideas come from. And Salvador Roquet is central. Susan’s fast cursive says, “Father of our work.” But when she talked to Lily, Susan told her she was a little disturbed by the readings about Roquet.

Ross: It’s starting to shake her confidence in the underground training.

Wright: Why?

Ross: Part of the issue is that before the training, the things that had upset her about her therapy with Eyal, she thought were just because it was Eyal. She thought that he’s an outlier. But now she’s starting to wonder whether some of these practices might be baked into the therapy and the history. The music and the way they talk about primal instincts and directing the psychedelic sessions like he’s a movie director or something rather than just letting people have their own experiences. So at the training, Françoise goes on to speak about Pablo Sanchez, whose teachings she’s also held up as important of her lineage.

Susan: And then, one of the guys in the group yelled out, “I heard that you had a relationship with Pablo Sanchez!” to Françoise.

Ross: I’ve asked Francoise and she told me that her mentors did not cross boundaries with her. But I can say that Dave and I have now talked to 8 people who say that Françoise’s mentor Pablo Sanchez was having some sexual contact with women he was treating in his psychedelic therapy sessions. Almost everyone we spoke to told us that Françoise was one of the women that Pablo Sanchez had a sexual relationship with. I talked to one man who had been very close to Sanchez for about a decade and he also confirmed witnessing the relationship. So Susan’s second weekend of training comes up. Françoise’s husband Aharon arrives and Susan says that she sees scratches on his face.

Susan: So one of the men in the cohort, I was talking to him on the break and he was like, “I did a journey with Aharon last night and I attacked him.”

Ross: So this gets at the idea that in this group, sometimes people are encouraged to fight with their therapists as though that’s healing.

Susan: He was like, “I was already on a really high dose of mushrooms. And then he had me snort 5-MeO-DMT and I attacked him. But after that, I saw him as God. And then it was like, okay, break over. I remember I was like, okay, that’s weird. 

Ross: So it was around this time that Susan started hearing first and secondhand accounts of men who were struggling to figure out whether the kind of touching that had happened in their psychedelic sessions — including sometimes touching of genitals and anal areas — was okay with them.

Wright: What did they tell people was going to happen in regards to touch? What did people consent to?

Ross: There’s no reality in which a client could possibly consent to something like that.

Wright: I’m currently reading a web page called “Therapy Never Includes Sexual Behavior.” It’s from the California Department of Consumer Affairs, and it says: “Sexual contact of any kind between a therapist and a client is unethical and illegal in the State of California.” And this is even for two years after therapy ends. The site lists warning signs. They are unwanted physical contact, telling a client that they are special, or that the therapist loves them, excessive out of session communication, inviting a client to a meal, dating, isolating a client from friends and family, and fostering dependency on the therapist, and so on and so on. The site also says: “It is always the responsibility of the therapist to ensure that sexual contact with a client, whether consensual or not, does not occur.” So, like Lily said, consent does not apply here.

If you read Susan’s notes from her training with Françoise and Aharon, they also, by the way, say no sexual touching is allowed. But in their training manual, they suggest students may seek further education in techniques like “sexual healing work with substances.” Which may include, “sexual contact between client and guide.”

Ross: By the time Susan gets to her 3rd training session, she’s getting pretty freaked out. Aharon starts talking about what he calls “borderline” people. Referring to Borderline Personality Disorder.

Susan: You’re always going to get those borderline people that come to you and will claim you’re not doing the right thing. Or if someone criticizes this work, it’s because they’re borderline. (giggle)

Ross: And at another retreat, Susan says Aharon brings it up again

Susan: He said, “we’ve been sued multiple times.” And then I raised my hand and I was like, “well, what do you do when you get sued?”

Wright: Here’s what we know: there’s one lawsuit from a former client that Françoise and Aharon settled. And another instance where they say they paid money to a former client who accused Aharon of inappropriate touch. In both cases, they denied any wrongdoing. After this one retreat that involves taking MDMA, Susan is driving home and has this run-in with an angry driver. Where they pull over and the guy comes up to her window and is carrying a gun. And Susan says that she’s weirdly isn’t afraid.

Susan: It got me reflecting on how much I wasn’t having normal reactions to the things going on.

Ross: And in the thick of the confrontation, she realizes she doesn’t have a fear response to what’s happening.

Wright: Wait, wait, wait. This is not a hallucination? This is a real thing?

Ross: Yeah.

Wright: Jesus Christ.

Susan: It made me start to think about how my perception was altered so much and my reaction to things was maybe dulled down. You don’t want to just eliminate fear. Fear serves a purpose for us as human beings. It’s important to be afraid when there is danger.

Ross: So Susan is finally like, Okay, something is wrong here. And she’s been working with this new mentor for a while, a woman that she likes. She goes to her and she tells her about all the stories she’s heard about people being touched in ways that bothered them. And then, evidently, her mentor goes to Françoise.

Susan: She wrote back to me an email and it said, “I spoke with Francoise this weekend. All of the things you shared with me are incorrect.”

Ross, reading the email: “Hi Susan. I did speak with Françoise this weekend and it seems that most of the information you were given was not correct, which can be a danger if it does not come from the people who are directly involved in the situation.

Susan: And you should tell the person who told you to stop telling people about them.

Ross: So it’s around this time Susan decides to get the fuck out. That’s when she makes the call to this other podcaster and eventually, she gets sent to us. And we started doing video calls.

Susan: I was searching all podcasts for anything because I wanted to see if there was something about the way psychedelics can be used for mind control and manipulation.

Ross: It’s one of the things I think about a lot that people take a certain refuge in the idea that they’re immune.

Susan: Yeah, people think like, oh, you’re dumb or you fell for this thing or that wouldn’t happen to me.

Ross: Uh-huh.

Susan: I was realizing this, this potential of this openness that I’d read about in the scientific literature that psychedelics provide. Flip the wording on that and its suggestibility. I think the psychedelics put me in a really vulnerable state and suggestible state. A porous state. If you’re using marketing tools on someone on psychedelics, it’s going to work.

Ross: Susan’s experience before she met us was pretty isolated. Like “why am I the only one that’s so alarmed by this?” But ever since Susan contacted us we’ve been digging.

Wright: What have you found?

Ross: Have you buckled your second seatbelt?

Wright: We’re talking about Françoise Bourzat, the psychedelic guide who, when I first talked to her, made me feel like I wanted her to guide me.

Françoise Bourzat: We have trained hundreds of people, And we’re doing that in Jamaica. And we’re training people in Canada. We have been training trainers here.

Wright: So she’s been a trainer of trainers. But Lily’s now got a different picture.

Ross: So in the last 20 months, we’ve spoken to about a dozen people who say they felt harmed working with Françoise or Aharon or one of the people that they’ve trained. And we’ve talked to another half dozen people who say that they have witnessed harm or have been told about it directly from a person who was hurt.

Wright: Oh fuck.

Ross: I think one of the refrains that comes up a lot, that I’ve been thinking about a lot, is that this isn’t bad apples, this is bad ideas. Dangerous ideas.

Wright: Sorry. But it sounds like a bad tree.

Ross: Or maybe a whole orchard?

Wright: Mmm.

Ross: Of course, the problem is the same as it’s always been in this world, which is that if you say something is dangerous, people are really quick to be like, “shut the fuck up. We’re trying to get these drugs legal. You’re gonna mess it all up.” They make it out as if talking about real harm is more of a problem than the actual harm that’s being done.

Wright: I want to just clarify something, I don’t hear you saying that psychedelics are bad. Is that correct?

Ross: Yeah Like it’s not the drugs, it’s the people.

Wright: Right.

Ross: I appreciate you bringing it up because I don’t want these drugs to be illegal. I think if you’re going to market them as a therapy to people who are suffering from PTSD or depression or conditions they haven’t been able to kick, people who’ve experienced sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape — those people are the most vulnerable to the things that can go wrong and can be the most hurt by it. That’s part of why I think it’s so important to talk about.

Wright: Tell me your stories.

Ross: So one of the first things that we found is a lawsuit that was filed against Françoise and Aharon more than 20 years ago in 2000. My friend put in a request for the court records, but we had to wait a couple of weeks because they had to pull the physical court records out of a warehouse somewhere. The man who sued them had gone to them for therapy. We’re not going to say his name to protect his privacy. But the case was settled and he signed an NDA.

Wright: What did he say happened?

Ross: So the first thing I want to say is that Françoise has denied the allegations that he makes. She has said that these are false claims and that they only settled the case to protect her work and their children. And I have spoken to Francqoise about this, but we’ll get to that later. The initial complaint is over 40 pages long, and we’re pretty disturbed by it.

Wright: Wait, that’s a really important factor to me, because if they’re saying that it’s patently made up, that’s a lot of made up.

Ross: Yeah. The lawsuit says that Françoise supplied him with various drugs that she said would open him up during their sessions. It says she told him that he needed to “fall apart.” So there’s that idea of breaking people down or breaking down their resistance to heal them. Salvador Roquet rears his stroboscopic light head again.

It was 1994 when he first came to Françoise for help. By the next year, the suit says that Françoise began having sexual contact with this man and it lasted for almost five years. It says Françoise was kissing him and encouraging him to kiss her. She told him that their kissing was therapeutic. The lawsuit says she had harmful and offensive contact with his sexual organs, groin, and buttocks, and that she told him that their actions were necessary for his emotional health, healing, and growth. And that his, and this is a quote, “passion needed awakening.”

Wright: What?

Ross: She told him that her love would heal him.

Wright: Oy.

Ross: Yeah, it looks like you’re having that moment where it’s like you can talk to Françoise and then you get this other information, and suddenly a bunch of things she says mean very different things.

Wright: Yeah, especially when it’s presented through this lens of “we are here for healing, we take care of each other, we heal each other.”

Ross: The case also outlines a really important point that comes to bear in a lot of these cases. The lawsuit says that he had begun to see Françoise as “an all-loving mother figure” and that with the drugs and their practices, he was in a “regressed, childlike state.” That made consent impossible. The lawsuit does a really good job of explaining how a therapist can abuse the childlike trust that people might have for them. Are you familiar with the idea of transference?

Wright: When you misplace something on someone else, right?

Ross: Like transferring the feelings that you might have towards a parent onto the therapist. I think it is a thing that happens and that professionals are taught to work with. It’s like, “if you’re projecting your mother feelings on me, why don’t we unpack what that’s about?” And that could even include if they’re expressing sexual feelings, but it can go bad where the therapist exploits those feelings.

Wright: Yeah, that seems pretty bad.

Ross: So this client alleges that Françoise gave him drugs to help him break down his inhibitions and amplify his sexual feelings. And instead of helping him understand those feelings, the lawsuit says that she attempted to fulfill his “infantile fantasies and desires as well as her own.” These kinds of experiences make it really hard to trust a future therapist. How do you trust a therapist again, after your therapist does these things to you?

I think it’s worth pointing out too, that like all the while, as this lawsuit alleges, this man was getting worse, not better. And the lawsuit points out that Françoise isn’t even a licensed psychotherapist, even though she presents herself as one.

Wright: She’s not?

Ross: No. She is working under the supervision of her husband, which is why he is also part of the lawsuit. And all this time, they’re both having him do various little side jobs for them, so he’s gardening and he’s babysitting their kids. Under the care of Françoise and Aharon, he gets more depressed than ever. He loses a lot of weight and develops asthma. He starts having anxiety and panic attacks and at a certain point, becomes suicidal.

Wright: Wow

Ross: We understand from someone close to the lawsuit, that there was several years’ worth of diary entries related to the case. At this point, I’ve spoken with two people who were clients of Françoise or Aharon’s during this period and they both say that they understood Françoise to be having relationships with clients at that time.

Over the past year or so, this lawsuit started circulating in the community of people that are connected to Françoise and Aharon. There was also another allegation circulating about boundary-crossing. So Françoise and Aharon released a statement. Françoise’s statement says that this lawsuit is a fabrication, but that there was another relationship that did happen with a client, but that she did her work to stop doing that and repair the situation.

Wright: I have her statement in front of me. It says: “The lawsuit was settled through mediation out of court, which was unfortunate because the allegations were not true.”

Ross: Aharon’s statement talks about how he will hold clients and that sometimes because of the altered states they’re in, he thinks that they might misinterpret what he’s doing.

Wright: Aharon’s statement says: In my practice, I have at times held my clients when they are in distress to provide support. I am troubled by accounts I have heard, which suggest impropriety that never occurred.” He also wrote: “I’ve come to recognize that even with consent, the delicacy of these states can sometimes cause confusion, distorted perceptions, and distress, and result in an impact that was not intended.”

Ross: Susan tells a story about Aharon where he talked directly about this idea. And she says it was the day after a group MDMA journey and he was telling a story about a client who had been upset about physical contact during a session.

Susan: He said, “I guess I gave him a bad hug one time. And he took it the wrong way.” And so he’s like, “must’ve been a bad hug! It was just a bad hug.” He’s like, “yes, we had someone come once who told me he was suicidal. So I had him come to our home and he stayed overnight and we worked in the yard and all this stuff. They tell me that’s crossing boundaries, but I’m not going to let him be by himself.” He was painting himself as though he had to cross people’s boundaries to save them. That was just like Eyal said about himself.

Will Hall: And you’re using just audio. There’s no video?

Ross: That’s right. It’s an audio podcast.

So back, probably in like August-ish of 2020, we started talking with this man named Will Hall who had told us his own story about doing psychedelic therapy, this time with Aharon.

Hall: This is my broadcast couch, so…

Ross: It was the late nineties. He says that he experienced a lot of the same things that the man in the lawsuit did and that he gardened for Françoise and Aharon, mowed their lawn, hung out with them at their house. Stuff that people in the therapy world would call dual relationships, which is traditionally not allowed because it just creates more dependence and blurs boundaries. And Will says that Aharon also did a whole other series of inappropriate and upsetting things in his presence like walking naked into the kitchen. And then, eventually, during a therapy session, Will says that Aharon pulled him into a sort of groin to groin hug, which made Will uncomfortable.

Hall: Grossbard embraced me in that way in our session. I complained that this feels sexual. And he said, “no” and we continued. He was immediately dismissive and he would routinely say, “that’s your crazy ego. You’re crazy.”

Ross: Will has written that he was in crisis after the therapy with Aharon and asked them for help paying off student loans. Aharon and Françoise wrote in a statement that they paid Will after he threatened to call the police to have Aharon arrested for working with psychedelics. They wrote that it felt like extortion.

The thing that I want to hone in on here is that when I first started asking around in Françoise and Aharon’s community about how they help people who have experienced harm by a guide, somebody close to them told me that if the person I was talking about was WH (referring to Will Hall), that he had been bringing accusations for years and that he was mentally unstable. And that’s the pattern. There’s a pattern among these psychedelic therapists, in general, of calling people who accused them of doing bad things, crazy or borderline or psychotic, or saying that they have abandonment issues or a vendetta against their former therapist.

Wright: But you’re a therapist. Your job is to deal with people with mental health challenges. So you’re going to turn around and call them crazy?

Hall: It’s very hard to stand up to your therapist because your therapist is the one who has the authority in that situation. They’ve seen your inner world, so they can turn it around and say, “Oh this is your…You’re crazy. You’re overreacting. You’re mentally unstable.” If you add drugs to the mix, you just increase the likelihood that the person is going to doubt themselves rather than push back.

Wright: Just the fact that this person has expressed multiple times “I don’t want to do something. I feel uncomfortable.” And his response is essentially, “you don’t know yourself, you’re doing you wrong.” It takes so much to say “I’m uncomfortable” once, much less having to repeatedly say “no, really though. Actually, no.”

Ross: I’m really glad you said that. This is exactly what the issues are when you are doing a therapy that is based on pushing past people’s resistance. It’s built into the therapy that if somebody is telling you this doesn’t work for me, “I don’t want to do this. This is uncomfortable” that somehow it’s considered to be therapeutic and part of the method to keep pushing past that.

Wright: But I mean, I get it. I understand the conceptual value of saying discomfort has to be pushed past, sure.

Ross: What I’m hearing from you is real-time grappling with what the theory sounds like versus what the reality looks like. Because as you’ll hear in the other stories we’ll get to, the reality does seem to be I, as the practitioner knows what’s happening for you and what your needs are better than you do. So if you tell me something doesn’t feel good, then I have the authority to tell you that you’re wrong or that’s a you problem. And we’re going to explore that together. And the way to explore it is for me to get you to push past your resistance. We keep going because I know what’s best. Dave came up with a name for this I-know-what’s-best approach.

Dave: Psychedelic authoritarianism. Hey, it’s hot. This summer, psychedelic authoritarianism coming to a practitioner near you!

Wright:  In our next episode:

Ross: Hello, Françoise:

Françoise: Hi Lily! How are you?

Ross: I’m good. How are you?

Bad Hug