Eugene Landy

Psychotherapist to Brian Wilson


Eugene Ellsworth Landy, psychologist: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 26 November 1934; four times married (one son); died Honolulu, Hawaii 22 March 2006.

The controversial psychotherapist Eugene Landy was best known for his relationship with the Beach Boys' troubled leader Brian Wilson. In a life that included stints as a music promoter, a radio producer, a pop culture analyst and psychologist, Landy earned his greatest notoriety during the years he served as Wilson's 24-hour-a-day therapist.

At first, Landy earned credit for weaning the musician off the drugs, alcohol and junk-food binges that had swollen his body and dampened his creativity. But by the late 1980s, after Landy eased into the role of his patient's co-writer, co-producer and financial manager, the psychologist became the target of lawsuits and a government investigation.

In the early 1990s Landy surrendered his psychologist's licence and was barred from contacting Wilson. The episode proved so explosive that, even 15 years later, the central figures in the drama - Landy, Wilson, the minders hired to enforce the psychologist's rules, musicians and collaborators - usually refused to speak about it on the record. "I can't say anything, because you just don't know what Landy's going to do," one former employee said to me last year while fending off an interview request for my Wilson biography, Catch a Wave: the rise, fall and redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (due to be published in June).

Unpredictability had long been a Landy hallmark. Born in Pittsburgh in 1934, he was the son of a doctor, Jules, and a psychology professor, Frieda. Despite his family's academic background, Landy dropped out of school after sixth grade (he later claimed to be dyslexic) and worked in the fringes of showbusiness. An early supporter of the jazz guitarist George Benson, Landy served briefly as the then-struggling musician's manager.

Landy served in the American Peace Corps and Vista (Volunteers in Service to America) before returning to school in the early 1960s. He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the California State College, Los Angeles, in 1964, then a master's degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma in 1967, capping his training with a PhD in 1968. Moving to Los Angeles, Landy set up a practice that specialised in treating drug abuse, particularly among young people. He soon parlayed his mastery of the hippie lexicon into a reference book, The Underground Dictionary, published in 1971.

Working with drug addicts helped Landy design a therapeutic system he called "milieu therapy", during which the doctor and his assistants would control every aspect of a patient's life. The programme proved especially popular among Hollywood's élite class of dissolutes - Landy later claimed patients ranging from the shock rock star Alice Cooper to the actor Rod Steiger. And when Brian Wilson's first wife, Marilyn, sought help for her famous husband in late 1975, Landy was the first, and only, psychologist she called.

What Landy found, tucked into the shadows of Wilson's mansion, was an overweight, unwashed 33-year-old musician whose once-flawless ear for creating dazzlingly innovative pop music had been dulled by years of depression, drugs and alcohol. Given free reign to restore his patient's mental health, Landy threw water on Wilson to get him out of bed in the morning. He enforced rigid exercise and diet regimes, then led him to the piano to write new songs. Within weeks, Landy had Wilson back in the recording studio. Six months later, the trimmed-down Wilson made a dramatic return to the stage, just as the Beach Boys' new album, 15 Big Ones - the first to be produced by Wilson in a decade - soared up the sales charts.

You couldn't argue with the results. But Landy's skyrocketing bills infuriated the Beach Boys' managers, who fired him in November 1976. By the early 1980s Wilson was in even worse shape than he had been in 1975. Contacted by the Beach Boys management, Landy agreed to take on his old patient with one condition: this time he would have complete control over Wilson's life, with no exceptions.

Once again, Wilson got free of drugs, lost weight and got back to work. By 1985 he looked healthier and happier than he'd been in two decades. But friends and colleagues noticed troubling things, too. The bodyguards surrounding Wilson - nicknamed "the surf nazis" by his friends - had become a constant, sinister presence. Old friends and even family members said they had been barred from contacting him. And Landy had also added his name to his patient's creative and personal affairs.

A 1988 solo album, Brian Wilson, earned rave reviews. But Wilson confessed to one reporter that he heard voices in his head. Friends and colleagues were dismayed by the amount of medication Wilson was given, and by the tremors and black-outs it seemed to cause.

The California Board of Medical Quality Assurance filed an official case against Landy, accusing him of "grossly negligent conduct" in his treatment of Wilson and other patients. In 1989 Landy agreed to surrender his licence, but his work with Wilson continued. The duo set up a corporation, Brains & Genius, and worked together on a new album, titled Sweet Insanity. The album was never released. In 1991 a court ordered Landy to stay away from Wilson.

"His one regret was that he didn't get out sooner," says Landy's wife, Alexandra Morgan. "If anything, he lost sight of what was best for Eugene in his desire to help Brian."

Landy moved to Honolulu in 1993, where he set up a new practice. His primary hobby in his final years was Argentinian Tango. "The last chapter of his life was very quiet," his wife says. "He was starting over."

As had Brian Wilson. And though the musician often spoke angrily about the control the psychologist wielded over him, he also spoke warmly of him, as in a 1998 interview with the American radio interviewer Terry Gross. "I miss him," Wilson said.

Peter Ames Carlin

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