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Therapy in the Danger Zone - Page 3

There's no doubt that therapy with a perpetrator is a scary business on several levels beyond the straightforward issue of physical safety. The hardest part is that to create a compassionate therapeutic relationship, we have to acknowledge our own dark side, our own ability to do evil. This didn't mean that I had to imagine committing the same violations that he had, but it did mean I had to acknowledge to myself what horrible acts I might be capable of committing under certain circumstances. I had to understand how someone could convince himself that the awful things he'd done hadn't really hurt anyone.

As I sat with Joe in our early sessions, I wasn't focused on change at all. My only goal was to try to see the world through his eyes. Over the weeks as I got to know him, feeling anxious and repelled most of the time, I found myself sometimes feeling compassion as I came to understand how his life had been shaped by his own abuse. Then I'd be filled with self-disgust for feeling sympathetic to a person who'd done such terrible things. These emotional ups and downs were exhausting.

I never forgot what Joe had done and what he still might do, and yet I also began to see, behind his hardened look and blank eyes, a deeply traumatized man, who, in many ways, was no different from Tanya, or his son and daughter, for that matter. Joe's father, intent on "making him a man," had repeatedly beaten him with belts, sticks, wooden spoons—basically anything he could get his hands on—as his mother and siblings had looked on. He was sexually abused by a minister whom he'd turned to in search of a mentor during his after-school hours. Finally, as soon as he could, he enlisted in the Marines and went to Viet Nam.

As a Marine, part of a lead fighting force that, as Joe taught me, prides itself on being first in and last to leave (if you leave at all), he saw devastating brutality in Viet Nam, which only confirmed his view that the world was a dangerous place, where you had to fight
for everything to survive. Returning from Viet Nam more broken than when he'd left, he met Tanya, the lost little girl who needed a way out of her family. He swept her off her feet and into his own dark web of demons and heroes, to which she contributed her own. With all this in the background, they started a family.

Tanya couldn't take care of herself—she really didn't have a self—so it was impossible for her to care for and love Joe or to protect her children. Although Joe vowed that he wanted to be a good father and not repeat any of his own father's mistakes, out of his own intense neediness, he began to focus on Laura at an early age, to the exclusion of everyone else in the family. She became his confidante, his pal, his main source of comfort. In the beginning, he'd fall asleep next to her when he put her to bed, but over time, his narcissism overpowered his sense of moral obligation. First he asked for physical comfort—snuggling, back rubs, kisses—which he believed he deserved. Then he progressed to sex, seeing his own behavior through a distorted lens, which had enabled him to abuse her for years. He'd convinced himself that he was comforting Laura, providing her with the love and warmth they both desired. When she showed no signs of protest, he chose to interpret this as an invitation to continue. He told me he just blocked out the voices that had told him to stop, or that he'd swear to himself he'd stop and, like an addict, find himself beginning it all over again the next day.

Joe was the first of many clients over the years who've taught me how people who feel driven to extremes can persuade themselves that it's okay to do whatever they need to in order to survive, no matter what the price to other people. Even when it isn't a matter of immediate survival, some people will do anything to maintain or regain a sense of value and power that helps them feel safe or gratified. To do therapy with people like Joe effectively, therapists must come to believe that good and evil can exist simultaneously in the same person.

I've since learned that a family like Joe and Tanya's can begin to make the crucial distinction between a chronic state of overarousal and vigilance and "reality" only once a sense of physical and psychological safety has been established. Only after this first stage is it even possible to focus on changing dysfunctional mind-sets, counterproductive behavior, and destructive family patterns. With the court's permission, I was able to include Joe in family sessions (it took another year for him to receive permission to see the family outside of therapy) and began to concentrate the treatment on creating age-appropriate rules and roles.

Tanya and Joe had to learn how to coparent effectively, how to discipline without abuse, and how to validate their children. I had them read parenting books and practice responses in session. The entire family played games in which they had to cooperate and learn to value each other's opinions and ideas. There were sessions in which, with much rehearsal, they shared stories about their personal histories of violence and the impact it'd had on their lives. Slowly a new quality of empathy and compassion for one another emerged in their interactions.

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