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Obituaries

J. Densen-Gerber, 68; Founded Drug Treatment Center

May 19, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber, a psychiatrist and lawyer who founded Odyssey House, a controversial treatment center and program for drug addicts, has died. She was 68.

A resident of Westport, Conn., Densen-Gerber died May 11 of cancer in New York City while visiting one of her children over the Mother's Day weekend.

Heiress to the Densen box manufacturing business, she once said she felt compelled from childhood to carry on the family name.

Soon after she founded her program in 1967, she won the support of top New York officials, including Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the late '60s and New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch in the 1970s. The program expanded through the 1970s, with centers in New England, Louisiana, Michigan, Utah and Nevada, as well as New Zealand and Australia. Densen-Gerber also launched an affiliated treatment program for addicted mothers.

In time, however, her authoritarian management tactics and extravagant lifestyle and financial troubles at Odyssey House cast a shadow over her work. While her drug-free treatment for recovering addicts gained wide support, the group therapy tactics that were part of her program came under increasing fire.

Critics saw Densen-Gerber's strong personality being played out in her psychotherapy methods. "I'm feisty, abrasive, difficult, demanding, short-tempered," she told New York magazine in 1979. "I don't need to be liked."

By current standards, Prof. William Miller told The Times last week, "Odyssey House uses a combative, confrontational strategy."

A professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Miller has researched drug and alcohol addictions for 30 years. "The good scientific data is for programs that work in just the opposite way," he said.

Complaints by former residents of Odyssey House and a state investigation showing irregularities in Densen-Gerber's use of public funds for the program led her to resign in 1981. The next year, she refunded $20,000 in excessive personal expenses to the state. When she resigned, she remained active in several of the offshoot programs of Odyssey House.

She also wrote a number of books on addiction and child abuse, including "We Mainline Dreams: The Odyssey House Story" (1971) and a semi-autobiographical "Walk in My Shoes: An Odyssey into Womanlife" (1976).

Born in New York City in 1934, the only child of two lawyers, she was raised with a household staff and graduated from Bryn Mawr college.

At her parents' insistence, she completed Columbia University law school before she entered medical school at New York University.

She later said her work with drug addicts helped her resolve some of her own painful experiences from childhood. Her strong-willed parents, she said, left her feeling inadequate and dependent.

While she was still in law school, she married Michael Baden, a medical student who rose to prominence and controversy as a forensic pathologist. They divorced in 1997.

She is survived by two daughters, one son and two grandchildren.

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