As of March 2021, Jordan Peterson is back. Sort of.
His new self-help tome debuted at #1 on The New York Times’ list of “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” top-sellers, but after a single week, dropped to fourth place — behind, among other things, a new “guide to life for young women” by Fox News host Dana Perino. And his accompanying promotional tour in the mainstream media pretty much began and ended with a single, contentious piece in London’s Sunday Times.
So he’s not quite where he used to be. But where Peterson used to be, and how he got there, are still worth examining.
This week, we’re re-airing “The CANADALAND Guide to Jordan B. Peterson,” originally broadcast February 5, 2018, our look at how a University of Toronto psychology professor became a global media phenomenon almost overnight.
In a new introduction to the episode, host Jesse Brown says he’s “certain that what happened with that guy happened for a reason, and that we still need to try to understand that reason.”
We’re also re-upping the below piece, originally published June 1, 2018, about the effect that Peterson’s overnight celebrity had on his clinical practice — and the consequences for one patient in particular.
“You know,” Jordan Peterson said, to a large audience at the University of British Columbia this past February 15, “I’ve also been accused, three times in my career, of sexual impropriety. Baseless accusations. And the last one really tangled me up for a whole year. It’s not entertaining.”
When Samantha, a former patient of Peterson’s who does not want her real name used in this story, saw a video of those remarks on YouTube, she wondered if Peterson was talking about her. Eight days prior to that talk, the College of Psychologists of Ontario (CPO) — the profession’s governing body — had released its decision regarding her professional misconduct complaint against him, the culmination of what for her had been a challenging 10-month process.
The dates roughly lined up. Her complaint against Peterson, however, had not concerned sexual impropriety.
“That is not what this is. This is not that,” she said in a recent sit-down interview. “This is about a bad doctor who didn’t do his job, and I got hurt.”
Jordan Peterson, the public figure, often talks about the patients of Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist. While he doesn’t name them, he frequently tells their stories and cites their issues, both to illustrate examples of the social ills he opposes and as evidence of his success in helping people. (In his book, he notes that he has disguised details of their identity. Elsewhere, he does not say this.) By Peterson’s own description, his life as a public figure became “too hectic” for him to continue providing private counselling, because he was worried he could “drift” or “make mistakes.” Ultimately, his public role won out, and Peterson left his private practice and stopped seeing patients.
Before he did, in the months when his old and new lives overlapped, one patient believes he did her more harm than good. Because of this, Samantha filed a misconduct complaint with the CPO that led to the regulatory body expressing “concerns” over a number of Peterson’s practices.
A note on the CPO’s website, published in early February, described in broad terms an “Acknowledgement and Undertaking” that Peterson had entered into with the college as a result of an allegation of professional misconduct. The undertaking, to be in effect for a minimum of 90 days, was “to address issues of communications with clients, which may constitute boundary and/or quality of service issues,” with Peterson agreeing to develop “a plan to prioritize clinical work with clients above other competing interests.” Late-March news stories in The Varsity and National Post provided no details about the findings beyond what the college released. Because the CPO’s Inquiries, Complaints, and Reports Committee chose not to refer the complaint to the Discipline Committee for a full hearing into whether professional misconduct had occurred — opting to instead resolve the matter by providing Peterson with advice and obtaining certain undertakings from him — the substance of the matter was kept confidential.
But CANADALAND has obtained the full 18-page decision by a three-person panel of the CPO’s Inquiries, Complaints, and Reports Committee, a document that comes to the following conclusion:
“After reviewing the investigation materials, including copies of Dr. Peterson’s email correspondence with [Samantha], the Panel formed concerns regarding Dr. Peterson’s use of email in general in communicating with [Samantha]. The Panel believed that its concerns regarding Dr. Peterson’s email communications could be characterized more broadly as either an issue regarding the quality of services, or as an issue regarding boundaries with clients.”
Upon reviewing Peterson’s clinical notes from his sessions with Samantha, the panel concluded that she did benefit from his services in a number of ways. Samantha, however, feels differently.
Taken as a whole, the document suggests a portrait of Peterson as a professional struggling to manage competing interests — raising concerns about the quality of his care, his respect for patients’ boundaries, and his safeguarding of patients’ privacy — during a period when his life rapidly changed.
In summary, here is what CANADALAND learned through our interview with Samantha, by reviewing her complaint and the CPO’s decision on it, and by verification through other sources:
Shortly before Jordan Peterson decided he couldn’t be both a media personality and a practicing psychologist at the same time, he cancelled sessions with patients, later claiming illness, while maintaining an appointment to appear on television; he responded to messages from patients with auto-reply emails which brought up the challenges of his burgeoning fame, directing recipients to send argumentative emails to his ideological opponents; he employed his wife to sort through emails from patients without first asking for their consent; he shared potentially identifying information about patients with other patients; and he twice visited the restaurant where Samantha worked, returning after she had implored him not to, having seemingly forgotten that she worked there.
When asked questions about Samantha’s allegations, the college’s findings, the management of his practice, and his public comments concerning accusations of “sexual impropriety,” Peterson wrote in an email to CANADALAND:
“The complaint you are referring to was submitted to the College last year. After their investigation, I was instructed to reconfigure the methods I was using to handle my email in the wake of the huge volume of messages I began to receive after the investigation was completed. I had already done so months before, in any case. The College took no other action, and I have a professional obligation to make no further comments.”
The next day, Peterson’s lawyer, Financial Post columnist and Newstalk 1010 host Howard Levitt, sent CANADALAND a letter, by both email and hand delivery, threatening to commence “proceedings for libel and injurious falsehood” if any of the information contained in the detailed questions to Peterson were published or circulated.
“Proceeding with such a story,” he wrote, “provides credence to scurrilous allegations by a disgruntled former patient/client whose reportage has already been thoroughly rejected.” (We have published the full letter at bottom.)
The letter included a printout of Peterson’s page from the CPO’s member’s directory — recently scrubbed of information concerning the professional misconduct allegation, at the conclusion of the undertaking’s 90-day period — describing it as “unblemished.”
It is not clear when, precisely, Jordan Peterson left his clinical practice as a psychologist.
In late March of this year, he told The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s main student newspaper, that he’d put his practice on hold more than a year earlier, “long before this undertaking was formulated, as the constant demands on my time made it impossible for me to continue properly.” (He had also taken a break from teaching classes at the university, where he is tenured, for the 2017-18 school year.)
In a brief phone call with CANADALAND last week, Peterson said that he stopped seeing clients in June 2017.
And to the National Post’s Christie Blatchford this past January, he said, “I haven’t been doing it this year because, well, I folded up my clinical practice because my life has become so hectic that I can’t. I have a rule for my practice, which is when I’m listening to you I don’t think of anything else. And so my life has to be in pretty good order for me not to drift. And I don’t want to drift during a session, because, first of all, it’s your time and second, because you make mistakes that way. And I don’t want to make mistakes.”
At her late-afternoon therapy session on September 27, 2016, Samantha claims Peterson was “distracted.”
“He made me sit there while he did an email,” she says. “And he said, ‘It can’t be helped.’”
Earlier that same day, he had published a lecture to YouTube, “Professor against political correctness: Part I,” and introduced the world to his opposition to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, adding gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal law. The Varsity reported on the video immediately, publishing an article at 1:33 p.m.; by the next evening, the National Post had picked up on the story, which would go global in the following weeks, growing from a campus conflagration to an international controversy.
Samantha had been seeing Peterson at his U of T office every other Wednesday since June 2016 — mostly to sort out issues concerning employment prospects, to help her move beyond restaurant jobs.
Things went well enough in their sessions that summer, but Samantha was developing an attraction to Peterson — what she has since come to understand as a case of transference, a well-known occurrence in therapy in which a patient unconsciously redirects feelings for a third person on to their therapist.
Samantha told Peterson about her feelings in a mid-October email, and he praised her for disclosing them, encouraging her to be open with him about such things and that it was something they would “definitely have to keep an eye on.” This left Samantha feeling vulnerable, but eager to address the issue in their next session.
Peterson cancelled her next appointment, set for October 26, in an email sent early that morning on which Samantha was bcc’d. He would later tell the CPO this was due to illness.
But that afternoon, Jordan Peterson was in TVO’s Toronto studios, taping an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on the topic of “Genders, Rights and Freedom of Speech,” according to the episode’s producer and another person who appeared on it. The episode aired that night.
Peterson does not appear to have mentioned this to the CPO. In summarizing Peterson’s comments to them about his need to reschedule his patients’ appointments, the panel wrote that “Dr. Peterson acknowledged rescheduling one of [Samantha’s] appointments, and indicated that this was due to illness. He stated that he had to reschedule all of his clients’ appointments scheduled for that day.”
When Samantha responded to an email that offered new dates to meet, she received what appeared to be an auto-reply aimed at his growing number of supporters — attempting to mobilize a letter-writing campaign in his battle against political correctness at the university:
Thank you for writing.
At the moment, I am unable to keep up with my email correspondence, although I will try at some point in the future to respond personally.
If you are emailing me about current PC-related issues, you could consider sending your comments to the following individuals. Remember that the only way that any of this can be straightened out is through carefully articulated and reasonable arguments. I would say that the vast majority of the letters I have received have been exactly that, and it’s just what is needed. Assume rationality on the part of the recipients, and make a careful case. We want to play in the court of reason. CC a copy to me, if you wish:
The message then gave email addresses for seven U of T officials who had taken him to task for his stated refusal to refer to students by their preferred gender pronouns, or whose opinions on the matter he hoped to sway; he offered additional information about some of them, e.g., “authors of the letter censoring me” or “in charge of HR policies at the U of T, including the mandatory antiracism training demanded by the socalled Black Liberation Collective.”
Samantha continued to see Peterson through early December 2016. At times, she says, they would discuss how his growing celebrity was affecting him.
“He was pretty giddy about all this stuff. It was certainly no concern for me. Everything was focused on him.”
As Peterson became more embroiled in the public sphere, Samantha found herself confused by what she described as his erratic demeanour. The first time she saw him after confessing her attraction towards him, she found him harsh and forbidding, “a 180” from how he’d been in previous sessions. He did not bring up the fact that she had shared her feelings towards him. Peterson later explained this was because he placed greater urgency on other issues she had raised, which the CPO panel found to be a “reasonable course of action.”
Eventually, at a subsequent appointment, she brought it up herself, telling him she’d be leaving as a client because the transference wasn’t being dealt with.
That’s when she recalls Peterson becoming sheepish and coy, looking down and avoiding eye contact.
He encouraged her to play out the fantasy in her mind to see what the consequences would be. She recalls him saying, “Well, you can’t help who you’re attracted to.”
“He asked if I was scared I would be trouble for him,” she wrote in her complaint. “I said yep. He responded that lots of trouble has walked into that office and that there was more than one way to solve a problem.”
She says she found his tone ambiguous and suggestive.
“When I think about it now, the only thing I think is he was just using me to feed some need for validation,” she says, looking back. “That’s it.”
“Dr. Peterson,” the panel wrote, “believed that he appropriately dealt with the transference issue by discussing transference and encouraging [Samantha] to play out the fantasy scenario in her imagination, but to embed that in an imaginative dramatization of all the real-world consequences that would ensue.”
The panel agreed that his “approach to dealing with the issue of transference appeared appropriate in the circumstances.”
In their final session, in early December, Samantha says that Peterson “looked very, very ill,” had “lost a lot of weight,” and “drifted.” With possible reference to her upbringing, she claims he said, “You grew up wild, and now you need to be tamed.”
According to the CPO’s synopsis of his submissions, Peterson maintained that he worked with Samantha “in good faith” and “sought to provide high quality care at all times.” He also acknowledged “that he was briefly ill during December 2016, but states that his illness did not interfere with his clinical practice,” except for the one time he rescheduled their earlier appointment.
At 5:39 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, Peterson sent Samantha a brief email: “Would you please provide your phone number for my records? Thank you.”
An hour later, she did, despite having already given it in earlier messages when first arranging to become a client.
At 9:20 p.m., he sent an email on which she was bcc’d:
Subject: Dr Peterson on vacation until end of year
I’ve been in the middle of a political storm, as you may know. I’ve decided to take a break until the end of the year. So my clinical appointments are suspended until early January. I will be in touch late in December to make new appointments for the New Year.
Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
The message did not provide information for patients who might require assistance while he remained unavailable, such as referrals to other psychologists or links to mental health resources.
The CPO took issue with this omission in their findings.
“It appeared to the Panel that this might have been a significant period of time during which clients needing services may not have had access to their psychologist,” they wrote. “The Panel believed that remaining unavailable to clients for several concurrent weeks could place vulnerable clients at risk without having a comprehensive plan and mechanism in place to ensure clients are receiving needed services when such events arise.”
Two days after receiving this email, Samantha informed Peterson that she would not be returning as a client in the new year.
“Please accept my best wishes,” he wrote back.
The month after Samantha left therapy with Jordan Peterson, he showed up with his wife and some guests at the restaurant where she worked, while she was on duty as a server.
She says she’d told him the name of the restaurant chain many times, and in one of their final sessions, recalls him asking — and her telling him — at which of the chain’s locations she worked.
“I burst into tears in the back. Had to be taken off the floor early,” she wrote in her complaint. “My bosses have never seen any such behaviour from me and took careful note. I did not serve his table. I did not engage him in any way.”
They did not end up interacting at the restaurant, and Peterson told the CPO panel that he neither remembered she worked at that location nor saw her there. The panel found the explanation reasonable.
Shortly after Peterson’s visit to the restaurant, in the early hours of January 19, 2017, she wrote to politely remind him that she worked there.
“I understand I am no longer your client, but I would hope where I work would be of some consideration for you when eating out in the future. … I don’t have much, but I have that job. Please be more careful.”
The following week, she emailed a request for appointment receipts, so that she could seek reimbursement from her employer’s benefits program.
It was to the same Gmail address with which they’d communicated throughout their client-therapist relationship, but she received an apparent auto-reply:
I am trying to answer the majority of the emails that I am receiving. Many people are sending me carefully thought through, heartfelt and often profound letters, as well as words of support, which I appreciate and which have been practically very helpful. However, I literally cannot keep up. A few days occupied with other matters and I am hundreds of emails behind.
Please do not presume that your email is unwanted or unwelcome (or, indeed, in most cases, unread), and please do not feel slighted if you do not receive an answer. I would like to answer every letter but it is simply impossible to do that and to maintain my other obligations.
If you are writing a letter, and you would allow me to make it public, please indicate (and also whether you would want identifiers stripped away beforehand). I would like to make an accessible archive of such writing, partly because so much of what I have received is of such high quality.
Many of you have also been concerned about the volume of hate mail that I might be receiving. I have received a total of three negative letters, none of which could be truly considered hate mail. That’s it, for the last four months. Perhaps I have received something approximating two thousand letters of support over that time period. So that’s a pretty good ratio.
Truly, thank you for writing.
Dr. Jordan B Peterson
Samantha didn’t hear back about the receipts and so tried again three days later.
She got the same auto-reply: “I am trying to answer the majority of the emails that I am receiving…”
She tried again the following week.
Again: “I am trying to answer the majority…”
She responded, “THIS IS A HORRIBLE WAY TO TREAT PEOPLE!!!!!”
Again: “I am trying to answer…”
In its decision, the CPO panel expressed concern that such auto-replies “may have invited the involvement of Dr. Peterson’s clients into his personal or academic matters unrelated to his clinical practice in an inappropriate manner” and that they “might reasonably be interpreted by a client as Dr. Peterson indicating that he was dealing with other matters and was not available to assist them.”
In mid-February, Samantha got in touch with U of T’s Department of Psychology, which forwarded her message to Peterson and left him a hard copy. At 11:40 that night, he emailed her: “I have been swamped with emails. Apologies for missing this. I will take care of this this weekend. I hope that you are doing well.”
“I am not doing well,” she replied the next day. “I doubt severely that it’s because you are so besot with emails that the ethics of your practice should go out the window. Looks like excuse. And shoddy footwork. And avoidance. And a lack of accountability. It isn’t okay to hurt me.”
Again, the auto-reply: “I am trying…”
That evening, Samantha says, Peterson and his wife showed up to her place of work a second time. She wasn’t there that night, but her manager — recalling her reaction on the previous occasion — sent her a text.
Although unsure whether her former therapist’s repeat visits were the result of an intention to somehow interact with her or inattention to what she had told him, Samantha says the anxiety of this was too much.
“I left my job because of it.”
Although it is not clear from the panel’s summaries of Peterson’s submissions whether he acknowledged attending the restaurant on more than one occasion, Samantha’s former manager confirms both visits.
Peterson told the panel that he would no longer go to that location.
Samantha learned in a January 2017 Toronto Life profile of Peterson that he referred to his wife Tammy as his “executive assistant” and that she handled all of his media requests. She wondered if that meant his wife had access to the intimate emails she had sent to him, and the thought of it humiliated her.
In an email exchange resolving Samantha’s receipt issue (he told her the appointment-booking software should have been issuing them automatically), Peterson made an attempt to patch things up and re-initiate therapy.
“If you would like to schedule an appointment again, I would ask that you cc [Tammy’s email address], if you would do so,” he wrote. “Don’t include any personal information. She is helping me sort out my email, and keep track of messages that I need to respond to and not miss. And you don’t have to cc her, if you feel that would constitute a barrier to continuing.”
Samantha shifted most of her communications with him to text message.
He eventually texted back in mid-March: “I don’t use text. That’s the reason for the delay. You have to email. It’s best to cc Tammy, who helps me schedule and keep track of what is vitsl [sic]. She knows nothing about you except that you are a client. I am, as I said, inundated with emails and other requests, so this is the way it has to be right now as I have no other solution.”
After sending several more texts without a response, Samantha made her complaint to the CPO on April 5, 2017.
Although Peterson told the panel his wife had no access to patients’ personal information, the panel shared some of Samantha’s concerns about privacy.
They wrote, “If Dr. Peterson’s wife, whom Dr. Peterson indicated was officially employed to assist with his practice, accessed his emails for scheduling purposes only, the Panel would not have formed any concerns. The Panel noted, however, that Dr. Peterson indicated that his wife was assisting him with sorting through his emails.”
They recommended that in the future, Peterson should inform patients that staff might have access to some of their personal information, and have patients sign consent forms to that effect.
The CPO panel also noted a different potential privacy violation that Samantha had not flagged: Peterson had sent her reminder emails that included his daily schedule of appointments, each timeslot accompanied by a patient’s initials. She was shown not just her own initials but those of several others.
The CPO wrote that they were “concerned this could lead to a potential breach of clients’ confidentiality…a client could recognize another client when arriving or leaving an appointment and would be able to discern that individual’s initials from Dr. Peterson’s emails.”
While Jordan Peterson no longer sees patients, his patients may have little choice but to see him. Their former therapist is now world-famous, and his former patients still play a role in his life and in his celebrity. Asked by The New York Times to cite an example of left-wing bullying, Peterson told this anecdote:
He says one patient had to be part of a long email chain over whether the term “flip chart” could be used in the workplace, since the word “flip” is a pejorative for Filipino.
“She had a radical-left boss who was really concerned with equality and equality of outcome and all these things and diversity and inclusivity and all these buzzwords and she was subjected to — she sent me the email chain, 30 emails about whether or not the word flip chart was acceptable,” Mr. Peterson says.
The details of that story appear specific enough that they could easily identify his ex-patient to her boss and to any colleagues who were aware of the “flip chart” exchange. CANADALAND asked Peterson if he had permission from this former patient to use her story publicly or if he was concerned about her being identified. He did not answer the question.
Samantha does not know if any of Peterson’s other patients might have had similar experiences. She doesn’t know if anyone else has read her intimate emails to him. She doesn’t know if he visited her workplace as a sort of post-treatment communication, or if he simply forgot that she worked there. And she still doesn’t know, when her former psychologist publicly blasted three people for “baseless accusations” to a crowd of his fans, if she was one of them.
What she is certain of is that she should not have been made to worry about any of these questions.
“It’s been probably one of the most painful, horrible things,” Samantha says of the nearly two years of her life since first meeting Peterson, including the difficult CPO complaint process.
“There were so many avenues to avoid this kind of pain for a person. So many places where I could have been taken care of, right? But none of these measures were employed to make sure I was okay. None of them.”