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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

Where the Rich Go to Cry

A former Hollywood agent and the former head of AOL Time Warner team up on a mental health spa for the frazzled elite.

October 14, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz and Stacie Stukin | Special to The Times

For those who knew Gerald Levin as the almost Machiavellian 80-hour-a-week chief executive of AOL Time Warner, it will be hard to imagine him as he was this summer in a boat off the Caribbean island of Bimini. When a group of dolphins came swimming by, Levin, although not a great swimmer, donned his snorkel and jumped in.

"It was an unbelievable metaphysical experience. You're entering their world," says Levin softly.

As he recalls the moment, his voice is modulated to just above a whisper. He is calm and calming, with a shock of white hair, a white beard, and a demure blue checked shirt and chinos. "You feel blissful. A lot of people would cry, but not out of sadness."

Levin dived in at the instigation of Laurie Perlman, a former agent at Creative Artists Agency who was testing alternative mental health treatments.

Perlman, who is in her early 50s, is founder and chief executive of Moonview Sanctuary, a new high-end clinic for the rich and, often, famous. It is a kind of psyche-spa for the burned out, the depressed and the anxious elite who want total anonymity and are willing to pay $175,000 a year for the latest innovations in mental health -- no insurance accepted.

Levin, 66, is not a client. He is a "spiritual advisor" at the clinic and Perlman's romantic partner. The two met when Perlman sought him out as a possible board member. Levin had just lost a bitter corporate battle and left AOL Time Warner in 2002. He told CNN that he wanted to put the "poetry" back in his life.

There is at least visual poetry at his office at Moonview, in a lush building in Santa Monica. It is an expansive suite of soothing earth-tone spaces, all carefully anointed by Perlman with $60,000 in art and antiques from Bali: a 6-foot-high drum, Rousseau-like paintings of verdant jungles, a plow that's been turned into a bookshelf.

The facility is preternaturally cool, and it's quiet except for the tinkling of a fountain fashioned from a white marble Buddha.

Moonview always feels empty, though that's because all scheduling has been arranged so no client ever runs into another client.

In his years as a corporate titan, Levin never tried any sort of counseling, but now he has tested many of the treatments Moonview offers.

"I'm a great object lesson," he says. "How are we going to get clients to overcome their fears?" As with the dolphins. "I had fear. But once I got in, I couldn't wait."

Moonview offers a dizzying array of 60 specialists, offering Western and Eastern medicine, traditional psychiatry, psychopharmacology, talk therapy, neuro-feedback, high-tech scans that study brain waves, chiropractic services, acupuncture, reflexology, art therapy, equine therapy and more. The practitioners include UCLA professors and veterans of some of the well-regarded local rehabilitation facilities, as well as shamans and psychics.

Perlman's specialty is life after life, which can be more prosaically described as talking to the dead. Moonview also offers specialized services for those in legal trouble and their families. Indeed, Moonview will tackle a client's whole support system, including the complicated web of relationships that keep a star going.

"This whole place was designed because when I was an agent, I saw people implode from high media exposure," says Perlman, who represented Madonna back in the pop icon's "Lucky Star" days.

Perlman officially launched Moonview a year ago and has poured $2 million into the venture. Perlman, who earned her psychology doctorate from Ryokan College, a local nonaccredited program, doesn't position herself as the sanctuary guru -- she insists that Moonview be run as a collective, with all major decisions reached by a consensus of the core staff.

But she does know celebrities.

"Let's say somebody takes a tumble," Perlman says. "That tumble ignites a huge damage cycle, whether it's their concert schedule, or TV series, or their movie shooting, or their constituency, or their shareholders. They want privacy and a comprehensive team. It's almost a pit crew approach to be able to get them fortified and back on track."

Although Moonview isn't suited to those who need hospitalization, it can treat a range of patients, says its medical director, Terry Eagan, a psychiatrist and a former chief resident of psychiatry at USC. They include people suffering from mental health issues such as "depression, anxiety, panic disorders, insomnia, pain disorders." Yet they can also help "patients with difficulty functioning in their world. Not that their brain isn't working ... their way of interacting with their world is just not working."

Like a former alcoholic who acts as a rehab counselor, Levin is a former power junkie on hand to help clients sort through their high-powered lives.

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