Tough Love Success?

Stories of Beth Thomas as a child were popular on the internet if, for no other reason, its shock value. A little kid who made no bones about her murderous rage was fascinating, like a highway accident. In the video, she matter-of-factly explained how she would hurt her brother and how she would kill him and her parents if she could.

Beth’s life has been documented in a three part video

Beth was adopted by a couple who just thought they were taking in a “normal” brother and sister. To their consternation, they found out otherwise when Beth killed and tortured animals as well as her brother. When they realized that the situation was beyond their ability, they placed Beth with a therapist named Connell Watkins who practiced something called attachment therapy.

To say that Connell Watkins is a highly controversial therapist is to make a radical understatement. Ms. Watkins advocated and practiced something called Rebirthing. Unfortunately for her reputation, not to mention her patient, 10-year-old  Candace Newmaker, her treatment resulted in death. Ms. Watkins was convicted of reckless child abuse and given a prison sentence.   A tape of Candice Newmaker’s death exists but has been sealed for “privacy” purposes. I wonder whose privacy they are protecting. We do have a description of what is on the tape.


The tape showed Watkins and Ponder instructing Candace to try to come out of her flannel “womb” and then frustrating her efforts to comply. They blocked her movements, retied the ends of the sheet, shifted their weight, and ignored her cries for help. They ignored her pleadings at least 34 times. They continued the session even when Candace complained of nausea, the need to defecate and a lack of air, and even after she urinated. She could be heard vomiting at one point. She specifically said seven times that she felt like she was going to die, once to which Ponder replied, “Go ahead, die right now.” Jeane, her adoptive mother, who was sitting inches away, repeatedly inquired, “Baby, do you want to be reborn?” At the last, Candace weakly replied, “No.” She never spoke again. Shortly afterwards, even her labored breathing could no longer be heard on the tape. Twenty minutes after that, she was unwrapped and discovered to be blue and without a heartbeat.

At least Beth wasn’t subjected to Rebirthing. But the way she was treated is still worrisome.


In spite of Beth’s dangerous behaviour the therapist was confident she could help Beth since her professional history included working successfully with extremely disturbed children, such as 9-year-old murderers. At first all of her freedom was restricted until Beth demonstrated that she could be trusted. It was a difficult transition for Beth. Children who don’t trust do not like rules. At first Beth was locked inside her bedroom at night so she couldn’t escape and hurt other children or adults in the house. She had to ask permission to do everything from play with a particular toy to getting a glass of water.   Over time these restrictions were slowly removed as Beth’s behaviour improved. Within one year of living in the house her behaviour was so recovered that Beth was permitted to share a bedroom with the therapist’s own daughter. A remarkable transition took place in Beth Thomas. She learned empathy and remorse when someone was hurt. She learned about right and wrong. When she talked about her earlier abuse of Jonathan she wept openly. She no longer talked about hating anyone or wanting to kill anyone. She didn’t abuse herself anymore. Her therapy took years to complete and Beth, like any child abuse victim, will likely live always with the consequences of her abuse.

Alice Miller, author of For Your Own Good, a thinking I respect, is critical of this attachment therapy. She said, “Force, the therapy implies, is used for the child’s own good, and the child will be rewarded and loved for his tolerance in letting it happen. He will come to believe that force contributes to his well-being and is ultimately beneficial. A more perfect deception and distortion of someone’s perceptions is barely imaginable.”

bethsuccessOf course, using force on a child is nothing new. Adults have always thought they knew best. Sometimes, it was even true. The mental health industry is also big on doing things against the will of patients for their own good. So it’s not surprising that Beth was “fixed” for her own good. Of course, Beth was behaving in a way that could not have been tolerated. Something had to change her. But is this really a success story? According to her therapist, it is. After all, Beth is now a nurse. I guess that’s better than serving a life sentence in the Big House. But the mere fact that someone is a nurse does not prove she is mentally and emotionally healthy. What struck me most forceably was the pictures of her displayed in articles lauding the wonderful healing Beth has achieved. To me, her face shows enormous anxiety. It reminds me of another picture I have seen. That of Frances Farmer after her lobotomy. Frances Farmer’s awesome beauty, her face serene with the knowledge of her right to be herself has been replaced by the face of fear.


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