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.

Long before Group was published, Solotaroff learned of Romero’s borrowing habits. His book, though, makes no mention of this clear violation of professional conduct standards established by New York State education law.

These transactions alone are reason for Riverhead— despite its $250,000-plus investment— to “doubt the integrity” of Group. Remarkably, the notion that a deadbeat who grubbed money from his own patients might have other than saintly motives for cooperating with Solotaroff is lost on the publishing house. Improper loans like these were only some of the indications that Romero was a tainted character.

Until Romero’s life completely collapsed in mid 1997— when the psychiatrist landed in a Pennsylvania rehab clinic for substance abuse treatment— Solotaroff and Riverhead planned on identifying the doctor by name. Indeed, a prototype of the book jacket includes a blurb about the “unconventional Dr. Romero.” The doctor, eloquent proponent of the “talking cure,” was to play a key role in helping to promote Group. But faced with Romero’s stunning demise— and tawdry professional conduct— Solotaroff subsequently implied it was the plan all along to shield the doctor’s identity.

The pseudonym Solotaroff chose for Romero seems to reflect the disgust with which he eventually came to view his collaborator. In Group, Romero is dubbed “Charles Lathon,” which a source said was Solotaroff’s play on the word charlatan.

Along with Romero, Solotaroff also gave the six patients a piece of future movie proceeds, though it does not appear that any film deal has been struck for Group. This stake was offered in conjunction with the patients’ 1997 signing of final releases for their stories. In fact, one of the patients profiled in the book asked a reporter if he had any information on a possible film adaptation. The patient, who noted that they had only read portions of Solotaroff’s work prior to publication, dismissed Group as “too saccharine.” The patient complained of barely recognizing quotes attributed to them by Solotaroff, but did not demand changes prior to the book’s publication. Commenting on Solotaroff’s florid prose, the Times noted that “the reader may begin to wonder about the exact nature of Solotaroff’s relationship to his thesaurus.”

A comparison of a late draft of Group, circulated earlier this year and obtained by the Voice, and the published book, shows that a variety of patient quotes were changed, though the tweaks did not appear to alter meaning. Some edits are amusing. In one scene in the draft version, a patient with whom Solotaroff dined is said to have “crunched the last of his haricot verts, and sat back, exuding adrenalin.” The book claims the man was crunching pommes frites. But at least the italics survived the rewrite.

The book’s biggest overhaul came in Group‘s epilogue. Earlier this year, when Riverhead publicists sent out galleys of the book to reviewers, they went to the extraordinary length of manually razoring out the last chapter since it was undergoing “further editorial changes,” said publicist Marilyn Ducksworth. The epilogue focuses on Solotaroff’s mid-1997 return visits with the six patients. But the real surprise—
unveiled on page 336 of the 339-page book— is Solotaroff’s “discovery” that Romero was a debt-ridden substance abuser whose practice and marriage were in the toilet.

Two of Romero’s former patients strongly dispute Solotaroff’s claim that he was shocked to learn of Romero’s collapse. The author’s revelation, they said, is nothing more than a crass literary device.

Robert Hodes and Joel Donnenberg— who each met Solotaroff through their business dealings with Romero— contend that the author had known about Romero’s substance abuse problems. Solotaroff, the pair said, told them he was fearful that the psychiatrist’s fall could derail Group. Both men recalled Solotaroff blaming Romero for putting his book in jeopardy, with the writer describing himself as an innocent victim of his collaborator.

In a Voice interview, Hodes, 45, said that at the time Romero entered rehab, Solotaroff told him that the psychiatrist had previously confided in him the details of his drug experimentation. Hodes ran a karate dojo that shared a Fifth Avenue loft space with Romero’s psychiatry practice. He was owed $7750 by Romero for several bounced rent checks.

Donnenberg, who Romero treated for depression and prescribed psychotropic drugs like Prozac, Clonapin, and Effexor, agreed to loan Romero $5000 after the psychiatrist phoned him begging for money in early 1997. Donnenberg, 45, also agreed to pay $5000 for a worthless painting by Romero, who fancied himself an artist, and loan the doctor his camera. But Donnenberg declined his broke doctor’s request to co-sign an apartment lease. Though aware of Romero borrowing money from Donnenberg, Solotaroff chose not to mention it in Group, instead offering a sympathetic portait of a doctor “steeped in suffering and incapable of thinking his way out of it.”

Donnenberg and Hodes also recalled that Romero would openly discuss with them confidences shared by other patients. “Anything you can imagine that was indiscreet, that a physician should not reveal,” Donnenberg said, “Phil seemed to have lost the capacity to hold it in.” One patient was a well-known supermodel, about whom Romero spoke often, said Donnenberg. At one point, Romero even showed him a book containing a nude photo of the woman, Donnenberg added. State law prohibits a doctor from revealing “personally identifiable facts, data, or information obtained in a professional capacity” without that patient’s consent.

Hampered by court judgments and nonpayment lawsuits, Romero was certain that his financial salvation was Solotaroff’s book. In a tape-recorded conversation with Hodes in May 1997, Romero announced there was “no doubt [Group] will be sold to TV and to movies, which will give us a serious chunk of change right up front. So, within the next 12 months, there’s gonna be a major influx of money from Paul’s book.”

By July, Romero was in rehab and planned business ventures with Hodes and Donnenberg were dead. Solotaroff was panicked, Hodes recalled, because he feared that, in light of Romero’s behavior, one of the patients profiled in the book might not sign a final release authorizing Solotaroff to tell their story. The doctor’s troubles had caused collateral damage to Hodes, Donnenberg, and Solotaroff, and the men— all of whom had been treated by the doctor— felt betrayed.

The shuttering of Romero’s practice forced Hodes to vacate the space he had shared with the doctor, who authorized Hodes to sell or dispose of his property left in the loft. But before vacating the conjoined space, Hodes and his wife Anna met up one evening in the loft with Donnenberg, Solotaroff, and the author’s wife. As they drank champagne, Solotaroff’s wife burned sage, Hodes and Donnenberg recalled, to “purify” Romero’s space. Quickly, Hodes recalled, the evening turned into a “cathartic experience” as the three men took turns destroying most of Romero’s artwork and some of his personal property. “Are you familiar with the term Kristallnacht?” Donnenberg asked. At the end of the night, Solotaroff’s wife left with Romero’s collection of classical music CDs and a stamp set from China.

Romero’s downfall clearly forced Solotaroff to recast Group. A comparison of the published book and a late draft reveals how Solotaroff is carefully distanced from his protagonist. In the book, Solotaroff claims that he visited Romero’s Manhattan office one day in July 1997 to buy the psychiatrist a drink to mark the completion of Group‘s first draft (two months earlier, Romero told Hodes in a taped conversation that the draft was already complete). There, he discovered Romero drunk. A single call to one of the doctor’s friends— apparently Hodes— turns up information that his book’s central figure is a deadbeat drunk who regularly goes AWOL for days at a time. “It would strongly understate matters to say I was stunned,” wrote Solotaroff.

Later that month, according to Group, Romero checked into rehab “less at the beseechment of friends” than at the possible seizure of his medical license. The author then briefly recounts a visit to the rehab center’s rolling campus, where he spoke about treatment protocols with the doctor’s therapist.

The draft version offers a rather different series of events from the finished book, which strains to distance the author from the doctor and his various problems. This draft states that when he discovered Romero plastered, the psychiatrist did not know his collaborator’s name. Instead, Romero addressed Solotaroff as “Mr. Pulitzer.” (The author’s bio notes that he has been nominated twice for journalism’s highest prize.) Instead of claiming that a close friend of Romero’s gave him the lowdown on the doctor’s debauchery, “Lathon’s neighbors” are credited with quickly bringing Solotaroff up to speed. The author then claimed to have broken down in tears because “so painful was the sight of that proud man debased that I could not help myself.”

The draft version also states that the morning after discovering Romero drunk, Solotaroff and a friend of the psychiatrist “entered him into a treatment facility.” (The book itself claims the rehab admission came sometime later in the month, not the next day.) There, it was Hodes and Solotaroff— not Romero’s estranged wife or any other family member— who met privately with the admitting therapist to provide a précis on the doctor’s addictions. Hodes recalled that he and Solotaroff each offered the intake official details of Romero’s substance abuse.

But when Group was published two months ago, the fact that Solotaroff himself was the one who carted Romero off for treatment had been removed from the book. Were Solotaroff to admit this level of intimacy and involvement with Romero, his pose as detached observer (“I knew little about him”) would appear fraudulent. A reader might also wonder, when he drove Romero to that treatment facility, was he looking to salvage the man or the manuscript? The final draft also noted that Romero’s behavior “begged a question: what was canned, and what was candid, and how could I tell the difference?” This glimmer of self-doubt, though, was edited out.

Hodes laughed at Group‘s description of how Solotaroff found Romero in a stupor, calling the account “completely untrue.” Hodes said that Romero had frequently spoken with him about his alcohol and drug abuse. And while Hodes advised him to stop, the frequency of Romero’s binges only increased. So when Hodes found drugs strewn across Romero’s ramshackle office, he said he contacted Romero’s own physician as well as the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct and the Committee For Physicians’ Health. It was then that Romero agreed to seek treatment. According to Group, after voluntarily surrendering his medical license, Romero later had it “provisionally restored” so that he could resume a limited practice, one which allows him to treat children and adults under “rigid supervision.”

Shortly after leaving rehab, Romero promised Hodes and Donnenberg that he would make good on his debts. But as months passed, all the pair received were promises from the doctor and Solotaroff that they would be “made whole.” Romero had given legal assignments transferring a portion of his book income to both Hodes and Donnenberg, but no money materialized. When they threatened to go public with their complaints about Romero, Solotaroff, they said, helped arrange for Hodes to be reimbursed for the bounced rent checks. Though the check was drawn on the account of Romero’s attorney, Solotaroff said that he was the source of the funds, having borrowed the money from his father, Ted. (Solotaroff’s bio reports that he “comes from a dense literary provenance,” noting that Ted Solotaroff, a well-known book editor, worked with authors like Norman Mailer and Russell Banks.)

In connection with a small claims court action filed last year by Hodes against Solotaroff and Romero, the author settled that suit by paying Hodes another $3000. Solotaroff was sued, records show, because he allegedly promised to cover another debt owed to Hodes by Romero.

As for Donnenberg, he finally got back his $10,000 late last year. As part of the settlement, Romero signed an agreement promising that he would no longer “engage as a therapist in
individual psychotherapy or group therapy, nor will he prescribe psychotropic medication to patients.” Donnenberg said he requested this pledge, which the psychiatrist eventually ignored, because he believed that Romero had overmedicated him.

As a condition of Hodes’s and Donnenberg’s financial settlements, Solotaroff required both men to sign confidentiality agreements barring them from speaking about the deal. Hodes’s agreement barred him from talking about Group until the book’s publication, while Donnenberg was gagged in perpetuity. In fact, each man was specifically prohibited from talking to media representatives and, strangely, to anyone at Solotaroff’s publisher.

Such reserve would seem anathema to
a journalist who describes his personal vocation in soaring, majestic terms: “My subjects are those who are strangled by silence, whose suffering is compounded for being made to keep mum,” Solotaroff once wrote. “If there is anything I know and honor on this planet, it is the power of dire necessity: the story that absolutely needs to be told, the pain that needs to be tended.”