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Therapy in the Danger Zone - Page 5

At our first sight of each other, we all began to cry, and we kept crying, laughing, and telling stories for the next four hours, as if we were at a family reunion rather than a clinical interview. They kidded me about how young and na•ve I'd been when we first met. So I asked why they'd kept coming back. We didn't have a choice, they said, only half kidding, but added that, in spite of my rawness, they felt a visceral connection—they liked me. I was funny and I seemed to care. And most important to Joe and Tanya, I never gave any clue that I saw either of them as terrible people.

Laura, who was working as a schoolteacher, reported being happily married to a man who worked in the computer industry. I felt a bit sad when she told me matter-of-factly that they'd decided not to have children—a decision that, when I asked about it, she thought might be connected to the lingering impact of her own abuse. As she explained it, "I've never really developed much of a tolerance level, and kids take a lot of tolerance." Nevertheless, her career brought her in daily contact with children, and both she and her husband agreed that not having their own children was a good decision.

Don was in a long-term committed relationship with a man the family embraced. Tanya and Joe, both real estate agents, were still married and assured me there had been no physical abuse since the therapy. They regretted that they had no grandchildren, and calmly told me that they believed it was a result of their poor parenting. The once disheveled Tanya looked especially good. She'd become an exercise enthusiast, walking and doing yoga regularly. She reminded me that many times in sessions, when things would escalate, I'd make everyone stop and take deep breaths. Tanya said she still thought of those moments often when she was doing yoga.

Both Tanya and Joe admitted that they still had a great deal of shame over what they'd done to their kids. While everyone expressed some sense of accomplishment at how they'd survived and made their way through life, they agreed that they weren't a very close family. They stayed in touch, but saw each other only on holidays and all felt, in their own ways, that there would always be a cloud over their heads.

They said that they wanted me to know that what stood out for them about the experience of therapy with me was that it had provided them with hope, something they'd never experienced before. I asked what had produced this hopefulness, since it was abundantly clear to both them and me at the time that I often had no idea what I was doing. First and foremost, they recalled, it was my constant focus on safety—something that was new to them. "Do you feel safe with me? Do you feel safe with each other?" I kept asking. Safety had been my mantra.

They also talked about how energizing our sessions were; in spite of all the difficult things we discussed, we regularly had fun together. They remembered the games we played, particularly the time we'd gone bowling together. The humor in our sessions, especially my ability to laugh at myself, created a positive energy and a sense that none of us needed to worry about being perfect.

For the entire family, the experience of therapy had been like school. Because of Joe and Tanya's history, neither really knew how to be parents or spouses. Consequently, they'd welcomed the skills and solutions they'd learned—how to make "I" statements, how to fight fair. They talked about how they'd learned in therapy to be parents for the first time. They were deeply moved that even after hearing the worst about them, I still liked them and believed they could be different. They felt empowered when I asked them what they needed without assuming that I already knew. That helped them feel respected and heard and motivated to achieve their goals.

Near the end of that long interview, I asked Laura if she'd ever worried about whether she'd end up in an abusive relationship or would somehow pass on her own legacy of trauma. She looked surprised and said, "Don't you remember that session?"

I asked timidly, "What session?"

"The session when you asked us each to write down our recipe for a loving family in which no one was hurt," she said. "And, maybe to make it fun, you asked each of us to make out a recipe card, and then you laminated what we wrote and gave them back to us."

She opened her purse and took out a tattered and torn 3-by-5 laminated card—her own recipe for the good life. Written 25 years before, it was derived from her experience of therapy and drawn from her own deepest sources of teenage wisdom at a time when her life—at least her prospects for any kind of happiness—was, in some ways, at stake. All these years later, she still carried her recipe with her everywhere:

-  1 cup - of no alcohol

-  2 tbs. - of having lots of fun together

-   ½ cup - of going to church and practicing what was preached

-  3 tbs. - of following the rules of good communication

-   1 cup - of respecting each other's boundaries and following the rules we all learned

-  As many pinches as necessary of whatever it takes to keep us safe.

"That was my recipe for a healthy family," she concluded. "I knew I'd only marry a man who had all those ingredients and could help me follow that recipe. I learned that here, and I've never forgotten it."

Mary Jo Barrett, M.S.W., is the founder and director of the Center for Contextual Change and teaches at the University of Chicago. She's the coauthor of Systemic Treatment of Incest and coeditor of Treating Incest: A Multimodal Systems Perspective. Contact:; Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at, or at Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.

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