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Therapy in the Danger Zone - Page 2

The family ate up all of my structural and psychoeducational interventions. They particularly loved the role playing, especially the session in which they got to put words to experiences that had previously seemed completely beyond their understanding or control, like drawing their family with and without boundaries and then telling stories about the differences. With my family systems focus, I soon got a picture of what had made the abuse possible. Horribly neglected as a child, Tanya had been a desperately insecure young woman looking for a knight in shining armor. She found him in Joe, who certainly appeared to fit the role—a physically imposing, reassuring figure, someone who even made his living as a policeman protecting the community. It isn't surprising she saw him as her ticket out of her own abusive family to a better life.

Over the first several months of therapy, Tanya seemed to make great strides. She got a job, became a much more competent parent, signaling to Laura that she no longer had to be the "parentified child," a favorite label of systemically hip structural therapists at that time. Tanya dutifully contacted a divorce attorney to begin exploring the avenues for divorce and, as the weeks went by, I began to feel more and more confident about my work. Maybe I really did know what I was doing after all.

Everything seemed to be falling into place when I received an emergency call informing me that Joe would be released from jail in two weeks. I was also told that, since Tanya and the children were under a court order of protection and supervision, he wouldn't be allowed within 360 yards of anyone in his family. It didn't make sense to me that the courts would let Joe anywhere near the family, yet the implied restraint, however shaky, eased my mind somewhat. What was most important to me was that, since he wasn't going to be allowed anywhere near his family, I still wouldn't have to meet this monster. So I tried to calm down the now-panicky family, assuring them that the laws would keep them safe. I was confident that the newly empowered Tanya would rise to the challenge of having Joe loose on the streets.

Then, right before my eyes, the family structure that we'd worked so hard to put in place began to fall apart. Even as I tried to consolidate the changes Tanya and her children had made and validate their newfound strengths, I began to suspect that something was wrong. Laura started drinking and refused to follow any of the rules that we'd worked so hard together to establish. Tanya and the kids began to miss sessions, and, when they did come, Tanya seemed distant and preoccupied. As the children's grades declined and Tanya began missing work, I felt a distinct sense of disconnection between us.

As it turned out, the family knew something I didn't. Within 48 hours of his release from prison, Joe had bought a mobile home and parked it on a side street 360 yards from the family home. I soon discovered that, despite her protestations to the contrary, Tanya had never really planned to divorce Joe. In fact, she'd been talking to him daily and had even approved his plan to buy the mobile home. Faced with this return to the old family dynamics, Laura took the car and ran away. I felt utterly betrayed. Angry and deeply confused by what was happening, I wished that I, too, had the option to run away. It was as if we were back to the very beginning of the treatment.

With the family backsliding in this way, I began to wonder what to do about Joe. My colleagues all assured me that he'd disappear if we pretended he didn't exist. After all, how could Tanya give up her newfound independence and competency? How could she still want a relationship with this dreadful man? But despite this advice, it was clear to me that Joe wasn't going away. He was back in the center of the family and I had to see him.

The problem was that nothing in my training had prepared me to work with a man 20 years my senior who'd sexually and physically abused his family members. Nevertheless, I asked Tanya for his phone number and invited him to come in to meet me. I had no idea what I was going to do in the session, so I simply told myself all I needed to accomplish was to be able to stomach talking to him, and to get him to come back for a second session. That was the extent of my treatment plan.

When the day came for our first meeting, he sat in the waiting room,
a huge, scowling presence, who, nonetheless, was impeccably neat. As he stood up to walk with me into the session room, I felt a shiver run down my spine. All of a sudden, meeting him seemed like a terrible idea—there's no way, I found myself thinking, that this devil can change into a human being. Once we were alone together, having no real idea how to treat a perpetrator, I had no choice but to sit and listen, trying to discover his humanity, something that he himself had seemed to misplace repeatedly in his treatment of his family.

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