I made my first appointment with Gloria the autumn I realized that the nature preserve, near my home in southern Maine, was the only place that made sense to me anymore–the predictability of the seasons, leaves flying on the autumn wind like embers, the silky snow of milkweed trapped in grass. As I watched the ocean pound the beach at high tide, I felt an answering pressure in my chest.
In my search for a therapist, I’d heard a lot of things about Gloria–she’d been variously described as “intuitive,” “politically aware,” “funny when you least expect it,” and “calm.” I seized on calm: I wanted–no, needed–a still point, a peaceful promontory in the ocean of loud, unrepentant excuses I heard daily from the men I treated in a batterer-intervention program, men who committed unspeakable violence against those they claimed to love.
Gloria’s office window overlooked a garden blazing with the last scream of color before slipping into winter dormancy. A carved Buddha rested between a burning bush and purple asters. Gloria herself had a flavor of the old-fashioned–silver hair pulled back in a chignon, shoulders draped with an Iranian shawl–and when she smiled and handed me a cup of steaming tea, a sliver of quiet entered me. Her eyes were observant behind wire-rimmed glasses. I knew she’d taken in the jittery swing of my crossed leg once I sank into an overstuffed chair.
Gloria sat down opposite me, tucked her feet beneath her, and watched me quietly for a moment before saying, “You’re the therapist, I believe, who runs intervention groups for violent men on probation.” I understood then that there’d be no wasted time with her, that in five minutes she’d understood my own edgy, get-to-the-point temperament. I nodded. By then, I was doing three groups in one state and two in another. I was doing trainings for lawyers and police and judges. I was doing a course in violence at a local college. I was doing a small caseload of survivors. I was doing violence.
“And you’re here because?” she asked.
How could I describe the black pit widening in my gut each year, the gray haze like a smoky window through which I viewed the world, my husband’s growing anxiety about my lengthening periods of silence? I’d rehearsed saying that something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what. Instead I blurted: “I know too much and I think maybe it’s killing me.”
I was instantly embarrassed. So damned melodramatic. You’re a therapist, too, not some B actress. Oh hell. I waited tensely for her response. Gloria whistled softly, something I soon learned she did when something struck her as important, though she wasn’t very good at it; her whistle often broke off mid-trill. She regarded me calmly over the rim of her mug. “Too much?” she repeated. “What is it you know and how is it killing you?”
That was how it began, with revelations I’d previously shared with only a select few, those who worked with me in the relentless world of violence. We were therapists counseling men who broke their children’s bodies, raped their wives, killed those they were closest to. My closest confidant was my cofacilitator, Don. We seemed telepathic, instantly knowing in group who should say what, when, and to whom, and sharing experiences impossible to talk about to outsiders.
A frequent topic of conversation was “crossing the border.” Terry Tempest Williams, the great naturalist, says, “Restraint is the steel partition between a rational mind and a violent one.” The theme that haunted everyone I knew in the violence biz was the possibility that this “steel partition” would crumble, granting sudden access to the place deep inside us that’s capable of abusing others to control them. Where did the border lie and could everyone cross it? I didn’t know anybody in the violence business who believed the answer was no.
But this dark conviction was our secret. We knew those on the “outside” would dispute us, so why argue with the uninformed? We were a hypervigilant, cynical lot.
We worked in the police station, Don and I, its own world where drunken shouts and terrified recitations and graveyard humor traveled up the stairs from the front desk on the scent of burnt coffee and cold pizza. We sat in a circle of 20 men, the majority wishing they were elsewhere, a few believing we were their last hope, though by then we were weary saviors. We’d asked them to bring in one example of emotional or physical violence in their daily surroundings. Instead, each man came in bearing 15, 20, 30 examples–astonished observations of music, ads, movies, friends, bosses, relatives, strangers. A truck driver described an MTV video in which Axel Rose drove his girlfriend off a cliff. A cop recounted Sting’s song: “Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” He shook his head. “Stalking. It’s goddamn stalking.” A pediatrician held up a popular ad with a photo of a 6-year-old girl draped in mink in a way that suggested she had breasts. There was something bruised and ancient about her lipsticked mouth. The black type beneath screamed, “A woman is never too young.” The group concluded that violence is pervasive, sneaky, that nobody’s above it.
Between groups, Don and I went to the nearby Ben & Jerry’s for a weekly ritual of sundaes, a child’s treat cleanly innocent and somehow sustaining. The group had exhausted us. “I wanna go home,” Don sang, calypso style, as I added a chorus of “Day-o.” But behind the weariness in Don’s eyes, I saw something more, a steely hardness that wasn’t present when we started this work. Back then, we’d set each other on fire with our enthusiasm, alternating the role of cheerleader when the other began to flag. But now, Don had a way of standing, of staring at a man that he didn’t believe, a way of holding his shoulders that looked suspiciously like a challenge.
Don ran his hand through his hair, then leaned over and skimmed some of my fudge sauce. “Maybe that assignment was a bad idea,” he mused. “Now that they see how common abuse is, maybe they won’t want to change.”
“It’s only the threat of jail that makes them change, anyway,” I retorted, swiping caramel from his sundae in retaliation.
“Sneaky, sneaky,” he scolded, waving his spoon at me threateningly. “You’re right. I don’t know anybody who’s not abusive–except us.” He grinned. “And I’m not sure about you.” I grinned back and said, “I’m not sure about you, either.” Our smiles were edgy. We’d worked together a long time, but knew little about each other outside this police station. “Damn,” I muttered as though joking. “Who can we trust if we can’t trust each other?”
I saw concern on Gloria’s face when I appeared for our next session. With my arms crossed tightly over my chest, I repeated the details of the last session with the men. “It’s hopeless,” I said between clenched teeth. “It’s everywhere. Everyone’s abusive.” We were sitting in a patch of fading sunlight, our shoeless feet resting on the table between us that held our empty mugs.
“Do you believe that?” she asked.
Two incidents sprang to mind. The first was a recent training session I’d done for a group of district attorneys. After I’d described the components of emotional and verbal abuse, a young intern burst out, “My husband yells all the time and throw things and scares the shit out of me. That doesn’t mean he’s abusive or might become violent.” As her mouth tightened in self-righteous anger, I battled my impulse to ask, “Then why are you so afraid?” The second incident was during a walk in the nature preserve the previous summer. I’d found a small garter snake that had been stoned to death in the place where it had the most right to be safe. I’d stared bleakly at its dented body and the offending rock beside it and choked back fury.
“We’ve all got it in us to be abusive,” I told Gloria tensely. Something darkened inside me, as though I’d lost a battle I didn’t know I was engaged in.
Gloria touched my hand for a moment. “Then,” she asked, “is it part of our work to figure out how you can live with that belief?”
“I guess,” I answered, a part of me relieved that she hadn’t tried to change my mind. Yet inside, like some disappointed waif, was sadness that she hadn’t offered some mysterious koan that would make me question my desolate conviction.
I drove to the nature preserve through what would be the last good snow of the year. Parking where I imagined the yellow lines to be, I pulled on my sock cap and snowshoes and stepped out into a world of white ambiguity. I broke trail through stands of heavily coated hemlock and pine, pausing at a rare balsam to crush some needles and hold them to my nose. Five deer ran swiftly by. One snorted in warning and something in me swelled with pleasure.
As I snowshoed, I thought of my last session in Gloria’s office. She’d asked me to tell her about my childhood in a New York City ghetto, where violence was so commonplace that a week without an incident was an occasion to rejoice.
“Commonplace?” Gloria asked. “What type of violence are we speaking about?”
“Violence,” I answered irritably. “My best friend was sexually molested by her father. The woman upstairs was regularly beaten. Rapes and gang deaths were run-of-the-mill street stuff.” I paused, considering. “It gives me a real advantage in group. I’m never shocked by anything I hear.”
Gloria regarded me closely for a moment. “I know that you’ve turned your childhood into something useful,” she finally said, her voice quiet. “But I’m sad that you experienced such trauma.”
“It’s over,” I told her uncomfortably. “I’ve dealt with it.”
“Do you think it’s connected to your current vision of people?” she asked mildly.
I thought, suddenly, of my high school English teacher who’d encouraged me to write and told me that I could go somewhere in this world, and of my mother’s unshakable optimism despite our poverty. I thought, too, of the shoemaker on our corner, a Holocaust survivor who’d cheerfully offered a Tootsie Roll to each of us kids whenever we delivered shoes for repair. Despite the savagery swirling around me, many people–neighbors, relatives, teachers–had given me faith that there were good people in the world. But that was a long time ago, I thought in annoyance. Where was Gloria going with this stuff?
“How the hell do I know?” I answered irritably, and then quickly looked at my watch. “We’ve run out of time,” I announced, standing up to leave. Gloria slowly took off her glasses, using the mist of her breath to clean them. She looked up at me. “My experience is that you can usually see what you believe is there.”
“Yeah,” I snapped. “And my experience is that you can usually avoid seeing what you don’t want to see, and keep yourself blind.” Maybe you do.
“That also,” she said evenly as I pulled open her door. Then, just before closing it behind me, I heard, “But aren’t those both the same thing?”
We were charting the man during group, a slow extraction of each detail of his crime. He’d killed his 6-month-old daughter to punish his wife for visiting her sister and leaving him to care for their child. Don and I alternated asking questions, while Don wrote the answers on the blackboard. The other men were uncharacteristically silent. As he described the actual murder of his child, I thought, idly, briefly, that I could kill this man if I needed to. I thought this coldly, without emotion, and watching Don’s eyes, I knew he was thinking the same thing.
After group, the other men commended him on how openly he’d told his story without blame or minimization, and the particular pride shining in his eyes as he thanked them left me suddenly so dizzy I couldn’t get up from the chair. I watched Don and something in the way he stood, legs braced as though for a fight, was as frightening to me as the murderer’s story.
At break, we trudged through the slush to Ben & Jerry’s. We sat at the table nearest the window and stared out, our usual banter absent.
“Tough session,” Don said, and then, under his breath, muttered, “Bastard!” I looked at him, stunned. From the beginning, we’d understood: no name-calling. It was something batterers did to dehumanize their victims. I remembered a line of a song written by Bruce Cockburn, a singer-songwriter I’d always thought of as a pacifist, after he’d visited El Salvador: “If I had a rocket launcher, some son-of-a-bitch would die.”
A man from the group was stalking me. There was no hard proof, just glimpses of him vanishing around corners like a seedy ghost, the click of a receiver when I answered the telephone, the muddy tire tracks across the street from my home that washed away in the rain. The other men knew about it. One evening after group, three members walked me to my car and asked if I’d like them to take care of it.
“What do you mean?” I asked, startled.
“You know,” the teacher said, while the accountant nodded, and the lawyer stared uneasily down the street.
Yes. It’ll solve the problem, end my husband’s worry, teach a lesson to other would-be stalkers. As I envisioned the man dogging my steps, Don’s “bastard” echoed in my head. Then something inside me shuddered violently.
“No,” I answered quietly, looking at each of them in turn. “How can you even suggest that? Haven’t you listened to us in class?”
They melted into the night at my “no,” three shadows gliding across the street. I sped home, curving dangerously around corners, running yellow lights, and narrowly avoiding a skunk that plodded across the road. I squealed to a halt in my driveway, gripped my Mace, and hurried inside, where my husband had the lights blazing and water simmering for tea.
Gloria listened quietly as the story emerged in one breathless gasp. Then, after a moment of exhausted silence, I whispered, “It shocked me.”
“You’re shocked because, for one moment, you thought of saying yes?” Gloria asked.
“No. I’m shocked that I could actually have that conversation.”
Gloria sipped her tea and looked out the window at the first crocus buds in her yard. When she turned back, something determined danced in her eyes. “So,” she asked, “why didn’t you say yes?”
“Why?” How could she ask why? I leaned forward impatiently, my hands clasped on my lap. “It would’ve been wrong. Violence isn’t the answer.”
“Even though your life may be threatened?” She leaned forward, too, meeting my eyes.
She whistled softly, then nodded. “Then I guess your contention has been wrong,” she said with a firmness that startled me. “Not everyone’s willing to cross that border after all.” She paused for a microsecond. “You’re not.”
I stared at her, the words sinking in deeply, then fell back against the armchair. For the first time in years, my eyes filled with tears–tears of relief and gratitude. My teeth began to chatter. Gloria stood up and retrieved a worn, red-checked, L.L.Bean blanket for me.
I was unprepared for the explosion in group, though I wondered, later, what I might have chosen not to see: the increasing rigidity of Don’s shoulders as the man lied about what he’d done, despite the police report, the grip of Don’s fingers on the chalk as he stared the batterer down, the tilt of his head as though listening to something I couldn’t quite hear. He was across the room in a few, swift strides and called the man a liar, his voice thick with contempt and anger. I felt breathless. The man was thrilled by Don’s verbal attack. He sprang to his feet in victory and slammed out the door, shouting over his shoulder, “Fuck you, counselor.”
There was shock, and then immediate, frenzied action. Two men ran out the door to try and catch him, everyone concerned about his wife; would he take his anger out on her? I ran down the stairs, a list of phone numbers in my shaking hand as I searched for hers. Don stayed in the room, his eyes skittering away from the now-empty chair as he spoke softly to the remaining men. Later, outside, Don flicked his cigarette over the stairs like a shooting star and I shook my head and held up my hands as he began to speak.
“Not now,” I said and left him there.
I shook beneath the red Bean blanket as I told Gloria about it the next day. She listened silently to the raging flood of words, her eyes fastened on my face. I’d burst through the door with such ferocity that, for the first time in 10 months, she’d hadn’t poured us any tea. She said very little, totally absorbed. By the end of the session, I’d run out of words like a stream gone dry. Gloria walked me to the door, her hand on my shoulder, and then faced me, her eyes meeting mine.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I know how close you feel to him.” Her whistle was so soft and brief that I almost missed it. She said then, “This work changes you.”
I nodded. “You’re right. Don is different, very different, than when we began.”
Gloria looked at me quizzically. Then she said, simply: “See you next week.”
It took two days.
Jan, a friend from the battered women’s shelter, met me for lunch. She was pale, circles beneath her eyes, an irritated weariness in her voice as we ordered lunch. She told me that the shelter was filled to capacity and she was scrambling to find safe houses.
“I processed four women this morning, three of them badly beaten,” Jan said wearily. “By the time I got to the fourth, I found out that the only thing her husband had done was slap her.”
“That was it ?” I began to sympathize, when we looked at each other in sudden horror. We knew there was no such thing as “only” in the world of violence. We’d both worked with women who’d defended themselves and were slapped across the face for the first time, getting the message that this was just a taste of what’s to come, bitch, shape up or else. We knew that despite protection-from-abuse orders, women were killed all the time, and it often started with “only a slap.” We clasped each other’s hands in wordless sorrow.
Gloria’s words returned in a whistling rush. “This work changes you.” She’d asked her mild, quiet questions when she’d known they were all I could handle, then slowly pushed me to look harder at myself: at the hard-earned optimism of my childhood that was being sapped by the brutality I faced daily; at my growing hopelessness about the decency of human beings; at the imperceptible dulling of my own sensitivities. “This work changes you. ” I got it.
I didn’t want to work with the men, with Don, or with myself anymore.
I quit my job the following week. Within days, the tightness in my throat began to relax. Gloria and I had three more sessions. During the final one, we wandered through her garden as she named each plant for me. A police siren drilled through the silence like a jackhammer and, for once, I didn’t wonder if it was answering a domestic violence call. As we passed Gloria’s Buddha, now resting in a bed of blazing poppies, I turned to her and said simply, “I’ll miss you.” Gloria bent to pick a magnificent purple iris and handed it to me, smiling. We hugged good-bye.
Months later, on a sun-drenched August day, I walked along the beach with Claire, a friend from the local sexual-abuse treatment center. We were enjoying ourselves, drinking up the crazy pleasure of kids storming the ocean, the languid ease of vacationers stretched out with their trashy beach reading. A man stood in the water and tossed his 4-year-old up and down in his arms while she giggled joyously. We laughed along with her. He’d tossed her four or five times when suddenly she twisted out over the water and he reached desperately as she came down, one hand grabbing her shoulder, the other her crotch.
Claire stiffened beside me and clutched my arm. “Did you see that?” she hissed. “Did you see him?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, startled.
“He handled her,” Claire insisted.
“You’re wrong,” I answered. “He grabbed her so she wouldn’t fall.” Then I heard it: You see what you look for. An echoing wisdom. The world shifted, literally shifted, like something being knocked into place after stubbornly resisting. I dropped to the sand and breathed deeply.
“Are you alright?” Alarmed, Claire had dropped to her knees beside me.
“Yeah,” I answered and whistled softly, crossing back over a final border into something like faith. A familiar faith, born of a childhood that had thrust me early into life’s messiness–its darkness and its radiance–and had taught me the vital art of holding both. I’d only forgotten how. Now, maybe, I’d begin to remember.
Michelle Cacho-Negrete, a retired clinical social worker, has contributed to The Sun, The Wisconsin Review, Bottomfish, Sierra Magazine and Weird Tales, among other publications. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for short-story writing.