Although it was 32 years ago, I can still remember my first therapy case like it was yesterday. Fresh out of grad school, on the first day of my first job, I was handed a child protective services report by my supervisor. As I read it, the fear and nausea set in. Nothing about my education or life experience to this point had prepared me for the world I was entering.
The father, a Chicago cop named Joe, who for years had beaten his wife and son, and had sexually abused his daughter, Laura, since she was 11, was clearly a monster, whom I was thankful I'd never have to meet. On her 16th birthday, Laura had finally gone to her mother's room, the family car keys in hand, and said, "Either him or me. Get him out of here or I'm gone!" The mom, Tanya, called the child protection unit of the Department of Children and Family Services and reported Joe, who was immediately arrested. Nevertheless, as a parting shot, he broke Tanya's ribs and smashed her face with the butt of his gun.
On the day of our first appointment, I went to the waiting room to greet Tanya, who was sitting there alone because she hadn't been able to get her children to come with her. A small, fragile-looking woman, she barely looked at me as I approached. I'd fantasized that Tanya was a cold, distant, cruel woman with no capacity to love or attach, but she looked so lost and beaten down that my heart immediately went out to her.
I assured Tanya that we'd start off by slowly getting to know each other and that she could trust me to bring the kids in as we proceeded. Only then would we be able to develop the goals of therapy together. With no experience to draw on and no real guidance in what to do, I decided that the best way to begin was by listening to this beleaguered family with absolutely no feeling of judgment, and that nonjudgmental attention would be the foundation for everything we did.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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 Vietnam.
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. She became his confidante, his pal, his main source of comfort. 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.
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 mindsets, 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.
Joe went into a group with other vets who were violent in their families. Tanya was in a mother's group. Laura and Don were in groups, too. In the vet group and in the offender group he subsequently joined, Joe was forced to confront his abusive history. He learned to identify feelings in his body that were red flags for his rage or sexual arousal, so he didn't have to act them out. He found ways to verbalize his sense of powerlessness and lack of control and identified means of achieving a sense of mastery that weren't violent or abusive.
I learned so much from Joe and Tanya, not only about therapy with traumatized people, but about myself. With them and with many other families like them, I began to realize that, while trauma work isn't for everyone, it was a calling for me. Even though many nights in my early years as a therapist, I woke up startled, wondering how I'd be able to tolerate the awful stories I was hearing in my office every day, I became more and more confident that I have what it takes to help traumatized people confront the past and move forward into the future, however unsteadily. Instead of being intimidated by the intensity and the difficulty of this work, I soon found, when I dealt with less complex and demanding cases, I missed the deep sense of engagement that trauma work provided.
Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the founder and director of the Center for Contextual Change and coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change and The Systemic Treatment of Incest.
This blog is excerpted from "Therapy in the Danger Zone" by Mary Jo Barrett. The full version is available in the March/April 2010 issue, Haunted: The Growing Debate Over the Legacy of Trauma.
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