The Charlatans

In his new book Group, Paul Solotaroff chronicles a turbulent year in the life of six Manhattan yuppies and their compassionate, innovative psychiatrist. Through a score of dramatic group-therapy sessions, the patients sorted through their crippling personal problems— depression, alcoholism, wrecked marriages— while Solotaroff sat quietly with his notebook and tape recorder. The product of this "powerhouse theater," as the author calls such meetings, is a voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall volume for which Solotaroff's publisher advanced him $250,000.

And while Group, which was published in August and has received mixed reviews in the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, is filled with dark and distressing moments, the book's secret backstory is far more disturbing. Against this tableau of psychiatric treatment as entertainment, both Solotaroff and his protagonist, Dr. Phillip Romero, have engaged in an array of misleading, dishonest, and unethical behavior, the Voice has discovered.

Clearly driven by an economic imperative— the duo expected to reap a six- or seven-figure windfall for the book's movie rights— the Solotaroff-Romero collaboration is steeped in aggressive misrepresentations and professional malpractice that is carefully hidden from the reader. But through a series of interviews, a review of confidential documents, and an analysis of several drafts of the book, the Voice has tracked Group's troubling evolution.

Confronted last week with questions about their conduct, Romero and Solotaroff fell mute. The voluble psychiatrist, who is portrayed in Group as soliloquy-prone, refused to speak with the Voice— first during a brief phone conversation and later at his Irving Place office, where Romero, 49, closed the door in a reporter's face. For his part, Solotaroff did not return six messages left at his Brooklyn home. When Solotaroff's wife answered the phone last Thursday morning at 9, she said her 44-year-old husband was sleeping and could not be disturbed. He also did not respond to interview requests left with his agent and publicity representative.

The idea for Group, according to the book's prologue, sprung from Romero's successful 1990 treatment of Solotaroff for panic disorder and the writer's subsequent course in group therapy. The journalist, who has written for GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and from 1989 to 1990 edited the Voice's sports section, approached Romero in late 1994 seeking permission to write about the compelling stories that emerged during his therapeutic experience. Romero declined, because "it would break faith with the group."

But, within months, Romero called Solotaroff to say he was forming several new groups and believed one— populated with well-spoken, dynamic patients— was worth chronicling. The hand- picked candidates, Romero reported, were "receptive to letting a writer in" as long as their identities were protected. Describing the six patients, Romero later told Solotaroff, "I've stacked the deck good. This is the smartest bunch of people I've ever assembled."

Addressing Romero's motives for cooperating with him, Solotaroff wrote that the psychiatrist believed that the benefits of group therapy deserved broad exposure. What Solotaroff failed to disclose was the private financial deal he cut with Romero, an arrangement the author did not even mention to his publisher when he inked his contract.

The June 1995 deal between Solotaroff and Romero, a copy of which the Voice has obtained, called for Solotaroff to pay Romero $15,000 up front, with the psychiatrist getting another $32,500 in graduated payments. Nor did Solotaroff disclose his financial deal with Romero to the group's members, one of the six patients told the Voice. Solotaroff also agreed to give Romero half of the net proceeds from the sale of movie rights, a potentially lucrative stake that Romero believed would net him a "serious chunk of change."

Nowhere in Solotaroff's book— or in promotional material prepared by publisher Riverhead Books, a Penguin Putnam imprint— is this financial deal acknowledged. In a Q&A distributed by Riverhead publicists, Solotaroff is asked, "What about the therapist— what were his motives for doing this, and did he twist anyone's arm to cooperate?" Solotaroff repeated his book's claim that Romero saw group therapy as a "means of effecting deep change quickly" and also yearned to display his skill "on an open stage." There was no messy talk of cash here— or in Group itself.

By shrouding his agreement with Romero, Solotaroff apparently tried to sidestep a host of sticky ethical questions. For instance, when Romero selected group members, was he in effect auditioning the future characters in a screenplay?

Asked about the propriety of this undisclosed arrangement, a Riverhead spokesperson acknowledged that "when we acquired Group, we were not aware of any financial arrangement between the author and the doctor. However, in the course of the publication, we became aware that such an arrangement did exist." But, the representative added, "We never had any reason to doubt the integrity of the work at any stage in the publishing process."

At the time Romero and Solotaroff struck their deal, the psychiatrist was in severe financial straits. Indeed, he was borrowing money from his own patients. Copies of loan agreements and promissory notes obtained by the Voice show that, during late 1995, Romero got two $10,000 loans, two $5000 loans, and a $3000 loan from patients. Amazingly, the $3000 loan came from one of the six members of the group Solotaroff was closely monitoring. Shortly after loaning the $3000, the skittish patient demanded the money back and Romero returned the funds.

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