The Reinvention of a Therapist
Jo Benson promises to help women struggling during the pandemic. But clients have reason to be wary.
From the June, 2020 issue
"Real is how I do things," therapist Jo Benson writes on her website, AllYourTruth.com. Benson, who's currently conducting her practice online, invites prospective clients "to start walking around in the shoes of the woman you know you're meant to be."
Benson's website notes her BA from St. Louis University and MSW from Boston College. Her profile on PsychologyToday.com says she specializes in PTSD and other types of trauma, eating disorders, and women's issues. And it offers hope during a stressful time.
"You feel like you're drowning and because of all this social distancing, you don't have your friends or normal distractions to help," Benson writes. "You thought you had gotten past all your 'food issues' but they're back and now your kitchen feels scarier than this pandemic."
She urges prospective clients to "imagine feeling confident to let go of your worries about your body ... Imagine a life where you don't hate yourself, where you feel seen and understood." On her website, she describes herself as as "an expert on eating disorders, shame, sexual trauma, rape culture, and resilience." And she says she can help "rebuild your opinion of yourself after someone else's [opinion] made you crumble."
Benson knows a lot about rebuilding opinions and imagining new lives, because she's done it herself. Until this past December, Ann Arbor therapist Josephine Audre Benson was Portland, Oregon, therapist Emily Marie Clark.
As the Observer went to press, that rebranding was still a work in progress. Benson's Instagram account, @all.your.truth, included inspirational messages signed emilyclarkcounseling. The articles on her website's "speaking and writing" section bore Emily Clark's byline. And though the "contact" page gave her location as "Ann Arbor, MI 48105," the map pinpointed Clark's former office in Portland.
Those digital fingerprints are traces of a turbulent past. In December, Clark surrendered her Oregon social work license to resolve complaints dating back to 2016. She was barred from practicing in the state for five years and
would have to undergo a psychological examination if she ever applied for a license there again.
Afterward, an Oregon official emailed another complainant, a disillusioned former client. The woman, who asked not to be named, shared that message with the Observer. It promised that the settlement agreement would be posted on a federal registry, which "reduces her chances of getting a license in social work" in another state.
The Observer was unable to find such a posting. But if it exists, it wasn't much of a barrier. On January 10, according to Multnomah County court records, Emily Clark got a parking ticket in Portland. By March 13, Jo Benson had a Michigan social work license.
AllYourTruth.com lists Benson's license number. The state's online database confirms it's valid and says there are no "open formal complaints" against her. But Andrew White, a former boss who is one of the Oregon complainants, is dismayed that the Michigan licensing board seems to be following "the same pattern as in Oregon" by not responding to initial complaints.
"Licensing is designed to protect the public," he says. "But most social workers are highly ethical, and the system's not set up to handle someone like Emily Clark."
The former client--we'll call her "Marcia"--says she was referred to Clark as a specialist in trauma recovery and eating disorders. She turned to her for help with body-image issues and negative comparisons to high-achieving siblings.
Clark "portrayed herself as this feminist heroine overcoming bias" related to body size, recalls Wayne Scott, an Oregon social worker and lecturer on professional ethics who for a time was Clark's supervising therapist. Marcia says that Clark often held up her success as a marathon runner as evidence of what a woman can do if she believes in herself, describing her own highly ranked finishes as triumphs over low expectations for women runners who weren't thin.
Marcia says she also used her own achievements as object lessons in overcoming intellectual obstacles. On her office wall, right above where Marcia sat, hung three diplomas--the most impressive a Harvard MS in neuroscience. Marcia says she often referred to her Harvard research.
In the spring of 2018, Marcia says, a plaque on Clark's door proclaimed her new status as a fully licensed social worker who no longer needed a supervisor. She "made a big deal of it," Marcia remembers.
But early last November, Marcia says, Clark told her that she would be "rebranding" herself as a life coach. She said it was necessary because she'd been mentoring social work students in other states, which was not allowed by her license. Marcia accepted the explanation, as she did everything Clark told her.
"There were no red flags, because I wasn't looking for any."
She was so impressed, in fact, that she wanted to recommend Clark to a friend. But when she looked for Clark's website, she found it had been taken down. And when she Googled Clark's name, red flags were flying.
A September article in the Vancouver, Washington Columbian reported that Clark had finished an astounding second in the women's division of the Apple Tree half-marathon in Vancouver. But the glory was short-lived. According to the paper, "some of the race's faster runners ... said that Clark was not among them earlier in the race. Photos from on-course race photographers were reviewed and did not show Clark among the race's fastest women."
The cheating was first reported by Derek Murphy on marathoninvestigation.com. Murphy, who lives in Cincinnati, describes his site as a hobby that's turned into a second income by becoming an essential resource for race organizers and runners.
Murphy says he wasn't surprised to hear from the organizer of the Vancouver race. He'd been alerted months before by a runner suspicious of Clark's results and knew she had previously been disqualified in runs in Eugene, Oregon, and in Chicago.
Murphy wrote that the Vancouver race organizer had seen Clark riding a bicycle during the race--but when confronted, claimed it was her twin sister. She doesn't have a twin sister, and when Murphy emailed to advise her to come clean, she did.
Murphy says Clark admitted to biking most of the Vancouver race--and to cheating in other races since 2013. He posted a statement in which she blamed anxiety, panic attacks, shin splints, and "fear of being seen as incapable" and vowed "to be an honest athlete from now on."
But she wasn't honest with her followers on social media. On Instagram, she wrote that she'd "been disqualified from races because they 'found it impossible to believe that someone of my build could hold these paces.'"
Days later, she posted another improbable time in the Chicago marathon and was disqualified. According to an article in the Willamette [Oregon] Week, she said that asthma attacks had caused her to miss checkpoints.
Once they're exposed, serial cheaters usually stop, says Murphy. "It was really unfathomable," he says, "to be caught and then go out and cheat again. It blew my mind."
It turned out the racecourse wasn't the only place she'd been cheating. Willamette Week reported that Clark had neither attended nor worked at Harvard.
The flood of revelations was "jarring and shocking," Marcia says. "We'd built trust between us. Now I was questioning everything about her."
Marcia canceled further sessions with Clark and started monitoring her social media. She says she watched as the therapist wiped clean some of her online personae and rebranded others: her LinkedIn and Facebook profiles went dark and the name on her Instagram account changed, first to "heyEmilyhey" and then, as the year waned, to "Jo Benson."
By then, more than three years had passed since Andrew White first complained to the Oregon social work licensing board that Clark had misrepresented her credentials. He says he followed up with many more complaints about her in the ensuing years.
Wayne Scott was Clark's supervising therapist when Marcia started seeing her in 2017. "I finished my work with Emily in spring 2018," he emails. He says he was "under the impression that she had finished the required hours, passed the test, and was done with supervision." So last year, he was "mortified" to discover that her PsychologyToday.com profile still listed him as her supervisor.
"She really pulled the wool over my eyes," Scott says. "She's an expert at shaping her own narrative."
Scott, too, filed a complaint with the licensing board. He says they didn't respond, but when Marcia contacted him with her own concerns, he recommended she add her complaint to the others. Marcia's complaint noted: "During the twenty-three and a half months that Emily was my therapist ... she was unlicensed or had an inactive license for nineteen of those months."
Asked why the Oregon board took so long to act, the state's senior compliance specialist Mindy Tucker blames "a backlog of investigations." Tucker and Scott say that Clark hired an attorney who was able to block inquiries into her client records. Though the board noted that she had falsely promoted herself as a fully licensed social worker on her website, in social media platforms, and on podcasts, she was allowed to surrender her license and forgo a formal hearing.
The Observer emailed questions to the address listed on AllYourTruth.com and left messages on the contact phone number. At press time, there had been no response.
If Emily Clark legally changed her name to Jo Benson, we could find no record of it in Washtenaw County or in Oakland County, where she grew up and where her parents, David Clark and Carolyn Romzick, live. Both dentists, they share a practice in Farmington Hills. Reached there and asked about their older daughter, Clark replied: "I'm afraid I'm not willing to talk about that."
On AllYourTruth.com, a box headed "Jo Benson, LLMSW" bears a badge that says "verified by Psychology Today." But therapists pay $29.95 a month to be listed on the publication's website, and its verification appears to be cursory: Scott says they never replied to his emails asking that his name be removed from Clark's listing. Though Benson's website lists eleven "professional contacts," at press time, none had responded to the Observer's inquiries. (Scott believes she carried them over from her previous profile as Emily Clark.)
On AllYourTruth, Benson until recently listed herself as working with the Ann Arbor DBT Center. But the center will not confirm she's a counselor there. Told her history makes us skeptical, a staffer there said, "I would go with your suspicions."
White, her former boss, says he sent four emails to the Michigan board this spring raising questions about her practice. She has a "limited license," which requires her to do clinical work under the supervision of a fully licensed therapist--but Benson's online marketing gives no indication that she's supervised. (Scott's name was eventually removed from her PsychologyToday.com listing.) At press time, members of the state licensing board had not responded to White's emails nor to the Observer's questions about her licensing status and practice.
A runner himself, White says some Oregon marathoners have become aware of her Michigan reincarnation. They fear she might try to cheat in races again. But his concerns run much deeper: he's worried about her clients. In running, all that's at stake is prestige; in therapy, it's people's mental health.
"The changes she's made mean that new clients don't know who they're confiding in," he says. "She advertises that she works with high-risk clients: trauma survivors. To do that, your ethics need to be spot-on."
"I worry about anyone who would have her as a therapist," Marcia says. "How can she keep doing these things?"
White, a behaviorist, thinks he knows: "I'd say that if your behavior doesn't have consequences, you keep doing it."
On her website, Benson tells prospective clients, "you don't have to care what the people who don't matter think of you." She also observes: "Some people just can't see you clearly. But others really can."
Emily Clark was able to shape her own narrative for years after alarms were raised in Oregon. In an email to the social work board there, Marcia worried that even losing her license might not stop her: she could "just become a 'life coach' which is what she was going to do here before I reported her."
As Jo Benson, she is once again licensed--and even if the Michigan board cracks down, she could still rebrand again. There are no regulations at all for life coaches
from the July 2020 issue
Our June feature on "reinvented" therapist Jo Benson drew thousands of online readers from both Michigan and Oregon, where Benson previously practiced as Emily Clark. It also may have finally jolted regulators into action.
Though a former boss said he'd emailed Michigan authorities four times to alert them, in June, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs' website still showed no formal complaints against Benson. But the Observer's emails to members of the social work licensing board finally got a response from LARA. Interim communications director David Harns emails that the regulator "currently has open files on Ms. Benson."
Citing the investigation, Harns declined to comment on why there was no indication of it on LARA's website--or on how Benson was able to get a license here just months after surrendering her license in Oregon.
On May 26, 2020, Julie Reed wrote:
Hello. This article seems to briefly glimpse at the impact of this woman's actions without delving into the true horror of it. Imagine going to this woman as a victim of rape or assault and learning she too has betrayed your trust. The damage this woman could potentially cause to clients cannot be understated.
On May 28, 2020, Penny Austin wrote:
Deep and sincere thanks to the journalists involved in this article. This is an easy subject to overlook but, as another commenter noted beautifully, has far-reaching ramifications for those whom it impacts. As a licensed clinical social worker, conduct of this sort is egregious and extremely harmful. Few take interest in how vulnerable populations are exploited by those claiming to help them. You deserve accolades for all the work you put into this story. Individuals like "Jo Benson" deserve to be rooted out to protect innocent clients and hard-working, reputable social workers everywhere.
On May 30, 2020, Carol Hartford wrote:
The therapist had no affiliation with the Ann Arbor DBT Center. She has never been interviewed for a position. This is a misrepresentation on her behalf.
On June 4, 2020, Leisha Solesbee wrote:
This is terrifying to think of her working with vulnerable, unknowing clients. Even reading through her website, it is clear that she is not the professional she claims to be. I am an LMSW in a different state and am curious if there are additional ways to report her as a concern? Maybe it would help if more individuals continue to call the state board to report her?
On June 13, 2020, ts wrote:
Michael, I want to thank you for writing this article. I'm one of the many who was hoodwinked by Emily Clark in Portland when I hired her to be my therapist. Without going into extreme detail it sickens me that she is able to promote herself as a therapist / advocate / whatever the fuck she'd like to call herself. As your article details she cheated in multiple marathons. She also lied about being engaged / married (she wore a fake engagement ring and when I mentioned this to my dietitian who she worked closely with, the dietitian had no idea about the engagement and then when the dietitian confronted her about it Emily made it seem like I was imagining things / telling lies, whereas she told other clients of hers that she was leaving for a weekend in February 2019 to get married and would be out of town the following week for her honeymoon. There are no indications of a marriage on any forms of social media, in fact many indications that she is in fact not married). She also provided me much advice - under her guise as a therapist - to not seek treatment for my incredibly severe eating disorder (she told me that I wasn't sick enough to need a residential level of care, despite the fact that my MD admitted me to the hospital with near lethal symptoms and I then spent 4+ months in residential care). She also told me that the sexual assault I underwent (which after much time with actual therapists I now recognize as rape) was my fault (despite preaching on social media that it is never the victim's fault), she gaslighted me and despite knowing that I struggled with an eating disorder she constantly body shamed me (once telling me that my body, a size 12, wouldn't fit in an airplane seat like hers could). Additionally, when I looked her license number that was provided on her Psychology Today page as of March 31, 2020 the Michigan database shows
the license was filed under Emily Marie Clark (the same name she used in Portland). This lady is sick. Please try and take this story to a broader audience. I've tried to contact many people to no avail. I just wouldn't want any other individual to be stripped of tens of thousands of dollars from misinformed therapy / coaching and more severely, undergo the trauma that I went through.
On June 22, 2020, anonymous wrote:
I appreciate you writing this article and letting others know the destructive behavior of this women.As a past client of hers its disheartening to know that she has been able to lie and rebrand her self in another state. I am concerned why she is still able to obtain license to treat. Emily proves over and over again that she is very sick and should not be treating patients. There seems to be no remorse for her actions and she just waits out a period of time and repeats the same unethical behavior elsewhere. I would hope that another article like this would have some sort of legal action take against her. I could speak to all the ways she was unethical and lied but at the end of the day Emily needs serious help. She needs to be in a treatment center and get help for herself before she is allowed to see anymore clients and cause additional harm.
On June 26, 2020, Jill Zamojcin wrote:
What kind of "journalism" is this? This sounds more like slander. Unfortunately, therapists have a deal with patients that are "off" their kilter so occasionally coming across a disgruntled, pff-balanced client is a job hazard I'm guessing. This article is disappointing at best and seems like a personal attack against the therapist. Shame on this author. AAO could do much better than this kind of gossipy reporting.
On June 26, 2020, John Hilton wrote:
What you call gossip, Jill, we call investigative journalism: every statement in the article was documented and reviewed by our libel lawyer before publication. And do you really want to argue that "off-kilter clients" made Clark/Benson falsify her credentials and "run" marathons on a bicycle?
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