In his new Amazon Original Story "Bad Therapist," Evan Wright details the rise and fall of Christopher Bathum, who despite lacking a college degree or license in drug counseling built a chain of about 20 addiction treatment centers in Southern California. Last February, he was convicted on 31 felony counts for sexually assaulting seven female patients, according to the L.A. District Attorney's office.
The suspect was described as red faced, perhaps the result of a skin condition. He was a white male, fifty-five, about five eleven. His eyes were blue. He was balding, with graying blond hair that stuck up in tufts, making him look like a classic mad scientist. He was often spotted in a blue blazer. Victims noted his potbelly and small penis, which some described as "smelly."
His name is Christopher Bathum, and he was once the king of a mighty rehab empire. His employees called him the "Wizard."
He treated film stars, singers, and famous athletes, but most of all it was ordinary people -- many in their twenties, damaged, seeking help amid the plague of addiction sweeping the country.
Bathum had a solution. It was called Community Recovery Los Angeles, or CRLA.
Starting in 2012 with a lone rented mansion rising in the mist and sunshine above Malibu, California, he built a chain of more than twenty sober-living homes, outpatient clinics, and medical labs across Southern California and Colorado. In the span of four years, annual revenues zoomed past $30 million, on track to double every few years as he planned to expand across the country.
Bathum was a practicing psychotherapist, specializing in PTSD and sexual trauma. Though he sometimes went by "Dr. Bathum," he preferred the more informal "Chris." It fit his eclectic approach -- fairly common in California -- that blended hypnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Eastern mindfulness practices he'd picked up as a young man living in India. He was as comfortable adjusting patients' chakras and conducting Native American healing rituals as he was discussing the science of addiction. He was pragmatic, too, an adherent of Milton Erickson's school of results-oriented "brief therapy." Bathum liked to say, "If you can't help somebody in a few sessions, you're probably rusty, and you should quit charging them."
Bathum earned his reputation as an addiction expert largely on the strength of his book "Walking Miracles," coauthored with Wayne Raiter, a nationally recognized interventionist. Their book promoted something they called the "systemic family" method treating addicts in the context of their families. (Raiter says he pulled the book from publication when he found out his collaborator was a criminal. He also accuses Bathum of plagiarizing material in their book, which he says he was unaware of at the time. Bathum has not responded to this accusation.) Their work borrowed heavily from pioneering family therapist Virginia Satir, but Bathum laid out their derivative method in prose that made it seem original and exciting. Raiter traveled the world touting their book, and its method was widely adopted within the recovery industry. As of 2019, American Addiction Centers, the nation's first publicly traded rehab chain, has cited the systemic family method on its website, along with Bathum and Raiter's book, "Walking Miracles," though Bathum's name is not mentioned.
At CRLA Bathum hired top talent. His medical director was Dr. Robert Waldman, an addiction expert briefly famous for testifying during the trial of Michael Jackson's physician for wrongful death. CRLA's family program director was Candy Finnigan, the tough-talking star of A&E's "Intervention." Bathum spritzed the lower ranks of CRLA's staff with minor celebrities. Former "Full House" star Jodie Sweetin was a patient administrator. The guy who led clients on "experiential therapy" surf lessons was Brandon Cruz -- Eddie in the cult 1970s series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." His director of regional operations was Josh "Lazie" Resnik, former bassist in the 1990s metal band Danzig.
Bathum was a phenomenal salesman. He once pitched an investor in a meeting held in a Native American sweat lodge. No charts, no PowerPoint, no pants, just Bathum talking in the smoky darkness. It was all settled with a sweaty handshake when they were putting their clothes back on. Within days the guy began wiring funds that would eventually total $650,000.
Bathum considered himself a master of what he called the "entrepreneurial art of recovery": working with regulators, obtaining certification from the Joint Commission -- the nation's premier health-care rating agency -- and building insurance-claim-processing centers that were so admired that competitors sought out his company to handle their back-end work.
But Bathum had a unique business plan, one tied to his progressive social views. He developed housing and job programs for recovering addicts. He gave away "scholarships" for addicts without the means to pay for treatment. In Hollywood he opened a commercial center that included a coffee shop, a recording studio, and performance and retail spaces, where his patients could find jobs and express themselves.
Bathum was a proponent of creative chaos, which he often referred to in shorthand as "mischief." Another of his books is "Conversations With Dog," a meditation on sex, chaos, and transgression. Written in the voice of a coyote trickster -- who seems to be Bathum's alter ego -- it exhorted readers to make their minds "your special place of amazing mischief."
Even as his company grew to more than two hundred and fifty employees and some four hundred patient beds, Bathum's mischief spirit kept everybody off-balance. One day he'd bring in specialists to immerse staff and patients in New Age therapies like cranial sacral healing and Tibetan sound baths. The next day he'd load everyone into the white patient vans -- called "druggie buggies" in the trade -- and take over a go-kart track in the Valley for hours of competition on the asphalt.
In the rehab trade, "experientials" are activities like horseback riding, hiking, and surfing that are believed to promote a healing vibe.
Bathum designed CRLA with more adrenaline-oriented experientials -- for example, zip lines across heart-attack-steep gorges. He'd be the first to take the plunge. At CRLA's Summerhill facility, a gabled mansion set on a rolling estate high above the Pacific, Bathum kept an arsenal of paintball guns. Patients and staff would stalk each other in simulated combat for hours in the tawny hills.
When Bathum grew restless in L.A., he'd treat patients to trips into the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, where he'd purchased a landmark geodesic-dome structure. There, he'd hold "Redemption" retreats, focusing on rock meditations and all-night fire ceremonies.
CRLA catered to young people, twentysomethings caught up in the opioid epidemic. Bathum's treatment staff wasn't much older -- guys with tattoos, trucker hats, and well-curated facial hair and sideburns. The cook and later some of the security staff were sober members of the Vagos, an outlaw motorcycle club, whom Bathum had befriended. The staff built a knife-throwing range behind the house at Summerhill. They'd spend hours laughing and puffing on vapes as they threw blades into pallet boards beneath a painted eagle's head. There was an adolescent tough-guy feel to the place, but where everybody seemed to have telegenic faces, like it was a movie Bathum had cast and was directing and starring in.
Zipping through the canyons in his $120,000 white Tesla, with its carelessly littered interior and the key fob he'd flip to any employee or even patient with a few days of sobriety who wanted to take it for a spin, Bathum was the edgelord of his domain. He was always on the go, dropping into his far-flung facilities. He'd do his therapy sessions, lead sexual trauma groups, and conduct "family constellations" -- loud, confrontational gatherings in which participants took on the roles of abusive family members to face painful pasts. Bathum was there for everybody. He hypnotized people, laid hands on them, and used energy fields to awaken their chakras. In the tepee sweat lodge, he'd solemnly chant, guiding the participants through Native American healing ceremonies. Then on weekend Family Days, he'd grin, pass out vegetarian burgers, and receive hugs from tearful mothers, who were grateful for the lives he'd saved.
Bathum had a vision. CRLA was conceived to "unleash the power of community medicine." He'd tell potential investors, "In addiction and mental illness, the idea that you treat people individually, it just doesn't work. You need to treat family structures, relationships, all the systems in which people function. Treatment should be multi-axial. People do better in healing communities."
Some CRLA staffers referred to CRLA's far-flung operations as "the Village." The inhabitants, spread across two states in a couple dozen facilities, were bound together by the odd charisma of their leader--and by technical means. Bathum installed some two hundred cameras in the public areas of CRLA's facilities to watch his patients and staff members. Patient records -- what meds they were on, psychiatric histories, STDs they'd been treated for, personal details they shared with therapists -- were all recorded in "Basecamp," a sort of internal Facebook for CRLA staff members.
Basecamp was turned into daily entertainment. A CRLA staffer who'd worked as a screenwriter at Disney Studios created a morning podcast called "Basecamp Digest." It was slick and funny, delivering gossip and news about the CRLA village in the style of "A Prairie Home Companion," but with a snarky edge. A November 2014 entry shared news about a patient who'd recently overdosed, delivered with music in a comically glib broadcast voice, "Bouncing back from his ER trip David [last name withheld here] is ready for the hard work . . . as long as it's easy!"
Some never left the CRLA universe. After thirty days, patients were offered internships that paid a hundred dollars per week. Some would go on to become staff or get jobs in one of CRLA's businesses. "CRLA was your life."
Bathum said this was by design. "A healing community needs a strong moral structure, distinct from the outside world. That's why people enter any treatment program. Ours is just better."
He could talk for hours. Sometimes after a group therapy session, he'd sit by a fireplace in one of the CRLA homes for an impromptu chat. Sitting cross-legged, in a swami pose, but wearing a blazer that lent him a professorial air, he was surrounded by staff and patients who would crowd around him. For his audience of young addicts, desperate to make sense of their shattered lives, he had answers.
Bathum sounded like a nerd. He had a strong Upper Midwest accent that gave his voice an elfin quality. "This is what neuroscience tells us," he'd begin. "There's a little one-zero switch inside us. On and off. You're okay, or you're not okay. And when you've got that feeling deep inside that you're not, then you need an interaction that makes you okay. Whether it's a good deed or a good story or accolades, whatever it is that turns the signal from zero to one, that's what gives you a hit of dopamine. This is the basic reward system.
"The whole culture of the world is working towards a dopamine hit. Religions developed over ten thousand years to become incredibly good at regulating the reward system. The Christian concept of redemption you can neurobiologically equate to turning the switch from zero to one, from sinner to saint.
"And then we found this new reward system -- opioids, methamphetamine -- that pours in ten thousand times more dopamine than ever before. There's nothing like the interaction of putting some in your arm. You go from sinner to God.
"It takes a strong healing community to rebuild the reward system, to overcome the needle. To be free, you have to find the God within."
When he hit that line, a smile would often play on his face. There was no doubt that he'd found his God within. Bathum also spoke of mystical ideas, suggesting that in a pure meditative state, enlightened people -- such as himself -- are capable of traveling through time or of remotely viewing events in other parts of the world. Few thought he was wacky for making such claims. In Malibu, such New Age ideas are as common as the beliefs held in fundamentalist parts of Kansas that humans and dinosaurs once roamed the planet together.
Staff members jokingly referred to him as "L. Ron Bathum," and he'd laugh along. Bathum didn't seem to take himself too seriously. Many believed he made sense of their world in ways no one else ever had. "I felt like I learned everything about myself through him," says Sandra, a former patient. (Sandra is not her real name.) "He was so generous with his knowledge."
Others were affected by his capacity to forgive. Laura Lyons, another former patient, says, "Chris was the only person in my life that ever made me feel like I was worth anything, because he never criticized me. When I relapsed, Chris just said, 'It's not the end; dying is the end.'"
Bathum's largesse revealed itself in other ways. He carried a roll of bills wrapped in a rubber band. He'd peel them off capriciously and slip them to patients in need. Meth addicts who'd lost their teeth -- he'd buy them a set. Felons with outstanding issues with the law -- he'd cover legal bills. Bathum loved buying cars for people. Like a low-rent Elvis -- famous for his penchant for buying Cadillacs for people -- Bathum would dip into used-car lots and emerge with the keys to a previously owned vehicle, now a gift to a CRLA staffer or patient-intern. He had a knack for finding flashy used German cars at a bargain -- like a red Mercedes, totally clean, for six grand.
But people could fall out of Bathum's favor, and often they'd just disappear. As his Coyote narrator explained in "Conversations With Dog," "Your ancient peoples had a healthy habit of banishment and shunning." At CRLA, there was no more severe punishment than kicking people out. Staff would carry out orders to banish someone by dropping them at a gas station in the Valley with no money, no phone, nothing. The pretext was always the same. The targeted individuals had relapsed. In some cases they had failed drug tests. In others, no test was needed. Bathum's word was enough.
From the start of CRLA, rumors occasionally surfaced that Bathum was sexually inappropriate with patients. Those spreading such lies were invariably accused of "getting loaded" and were then kicked out. When someone is accused of being on drugs in a drug rehab, few people question it. As for the rumors that were spreading about Bathum, well, everyone knows addicts are liars. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous tell this joke on themselves: "A drunk will steal your wallet. A junkie will steal it, then pretend to help you look for it." At CRLA, staff members used the terms facts and patient facts to distinguish reality from the twisted versions of it that addicts are reputed to deal in. Anyone who complained about Bathum was simply not credible.
It helped that people believed in his goodness. Candy Finnigan, the celebrity interventionist who worked at CRLA for more than a year, says, "The idea of Bathum doing drugs, or giving drugs to people, was insane." (Finnigan eventually did see warning signs at CRLA and quit.)
Bathum cast a spell. Patients and employees revered him with almost cultish fervor. Josh "Lazie" Resnik, who worked with Bathum for years, says his former boss had a "David Koresh-type charm." He adds, "There were people that if Chris was like, 'Hey, guys, I got a truckful of weapons, and we're going to make a stand,' those people would be like, 'F--- yeah! Let's do it.'"
Bathum also cultivated a wholesome image as a family man. He lived with his wife and three daughters in a multimillion-dollar home on Crest Drive above Malibu. With stone fireplaces and a pool that seemed to hover in the clouds, it was a grand yet rustic Craftsman-inspired masterpiece. His wife, Michelle, a former actress (who in the early 1990s had a bit part in "Baby Talk," a now-forgotten sitcom with George Clooney), was tall and striking, with leonine hair. She was a superbusy mom. Their youngest daughters were special-needs kids, and the eldest was a high school student focused on her ambition of becoming a pop star. They were tight-knit. Bathum's son by a previous marriage, Rasmus, an EMT in Bakersfield, would often visit. Bathum's nephew, Rainer, who was studying neurobiology at Hampshire College, would come during the summers. In his eyes, his uncle was part "wheeler-dealer living the L.A. life" and a "very charismatic, caring guy." He says, "I definitely throughout my life held him in high esteem."
Everyone did. Several times a month Bathum hosted company barbecues at his pool. Says CRLA's former admissions director Justin Hodak, "He opened his house up. We'd stay up half the night talking about new treatment modalities. Chris was always trying to inspire us. He was f---ing amazing. He built the village, man. This powerful community. We'd ask, 'How the f--- did he do that? How did we do that?'"
From BAD THERAPIST. Used with the permission of the publisher, Amazon Original Stories. Copyright © 2019 by Evan Wright