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Betty Berzon, 78; Writer, Psychotherapist, Activist Helped Establish L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center

January 25, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Betty Berzon, an author and pioneering psychotherapist, who was a beacon of the Los Angeles gay and lesbian community for three decades, died Tuesday at her Studio City home after a 20-year battle with cancer, according to her partner, Terry DeCrescenzo. She was 78.

In 1971, at a time when gay professionals could lose their livelihoods if they publicly affirmed their homosexuality, Berzon helped found the country's first social service agency for gays and lesbians, now called the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. She was a leader in the human potential movement of the 1960s and was instrumental in organizing the first meeting of gays in the American Psychological Assn. at a time when her profession still classified homosexuality as a mental illness.

In later years, she wrote bestselling self-help books -- including "Positively Gay" (1979), "Permanent Partners" (1988) and "The Intimacy Dance" (1996) -- and a popular advice column for the website PlanetOut.com. In private practice, she counseled only gays and lesbians, particularly male couples.

She also wrote a memoir, "Surviving Madness, A Therapist's Own Story" (2002), which won a Lambda Literary Award for excellence in gay and lesbian writing.

According to her often anguished account in that book, her life was cleaved into two distinct halves: The first part was dominated by inner battles over sexual identity as a deeply closeted gay, and the second half by political and social battles she led as an openly gay activist.

Berzon was born in St. Louis on Jan. 18, 1928, to teenage parents, whose unhappy marriage encouraged her to seek solace outside her family from an early age. She started dating boys when she was 14.

She was aware of a strong attraction for other women but buried those feelings, explaining in her memoir that she "had heard of homosexuality ... heard that it was a sickness" and wondered if she had "caught" it. When a woman in her dormitory at Stanford University tried to seduce her, Berzon fought her off and dropped out of school.

She moved to New York City, where she talked her way into a job at Gotham Book Mart, a legendary haunt frequented by such literary heavyweights as W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal and Eugene O'Neill.

Her job ended abruptly when its eccentric proprietor, Frances Steloff, threw a book at her head, but the overall experience of working there served Berzon well when she arrived in Los Angeles in 1950.

That year, she opened Berzon Books in Hollywood with a $10,000 gift from her stepmother. She quickly established the bookshop as a force on the local literary scene when she arranged an appearance by British poet Edith Sitwell, whose admirers swarmed the store.

Berzon later hosted a reading by Anais Nin, the avant-garde writer of fiction, journals and erotica, who adopted the bookstore as her headquarters and became a regular in Berzon's salon.

Despite a promising beginning, Berzon Books lasted barely a year. Berzon said the stress of running the store, coupled with the end of her affair with a woman, sent her into a deep depression. She tried to kill herself and spent a year in and out of mental hospitals.

She recovered under the care of a psychiatrist who, in keeping with the prevailing view of homosexuals as mentally ill, assured her that she did not have to be gay. She convinced herself that he was right and, with his blessing, emerged from her last hospitalization with the idea that she could forge a new career in psychology.

By 1952 she was enrolled at UCLA in a course on group dynamics. Her professor was Evelyn Hooker, the social psychologist whose later work would lay the foundation for research leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. Berzon concentrated her studies on group psychotherapy, earning a bachelor's degree in 1957 from UCLA and a master's in 1962 from San Diego State.

In 1962, one of her professors founded Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla and hired Berzon as its first employee. With two giants of humanistic psychology -- Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow -- as research fellows -- the institute surged to the forefront of the human potential movement. Rogers became known as the father of the encounter group, a mode of personal growth in which a therapist helps members learn to express their true emotions. Berzon mastered its nuances under Rogers' tutelage.

By the mid-1960s Berzon was focusing on ways to provide group therapy to people who lacked access to a trained psychotherapist. The product of her research was marketed as "Encountertapes," tape-recorded instructions for self-directed encounter groups. The project received national attention, and Berzon became a popular speaker, particularly for her "Quest for Love" workshops for singles.

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