The Art of Not Knowing the Answer

A Trauma Specialist Shares Her Most Therapeutic Moment

Mary Jo Barrett

They say you always remember your first.

It was 1978, and I’d just graduated from social work school. I saw myself as a kind of perky Jane Addams, brimming with altruistic energy. I’d just landed my first job as Illinois’s first in-home family therapist for child abuse and neglect cases. And my very first case was the Byford family.

The Byfords lived in what’s known as a Chicago bungalow, a narrow brick house with a low-pitched, overhanging roof. But the Byfords’ house wasn’t the neat and clean type with mowed grass and flower boxes under each window. When I walked on the dry, brown grass, dust blew up in my face. The windows were grimy. The place looked more like a bunker than a home.

When I first met the family, the father, Robert, was serving a six-month sentence for domestic abuse. He’d sexually abused his 16-year-old daughter, Laura, for many years. Yet when Laura opened the front door for me, she was warm and welcoming, with a cute bob of a haircut that I immediately envied. I was struck by her bubbly hospitality, given what she’d endured.

Laura stood in dramatic contrast to her mother, Reesa, who was still in pain from two broken ribs Robert had dealt her three weeks earlier, on the day he’d gone to jail. She was curled up in a barrel chair in the corner of the room, wearing a faded housedress over gray sweatpants.

Carl, age 14, was a playful kitten. Within the hour, he was teaching me the latest dance steps, cavorting across the floor in a yellow Grateful Dead T-shirt. He, too, had been beaten by his father. Later, in an individual session, Robert explained to me that he’d hit Carl “to beat the gayness out of him.”

Five months into my work with the Byfords, I walked up the front steps for a scheduled visit and heard loud voices and the sound of crashing glass. I pushed the door open and found Laura, Reesa, and Carl in the living room, shards of glass around their feet. I watched Laura pick up a drinking glass from the coffee table and hold it over her head like a quarterback, aiming straight for her mom. Reesa was huddled in her barrel chair, crying, “Please don’t hit me.” Carl was pacing back and forth like a caged cub, his hands over his ears, muttering, “Shut up, just shut up!”

When Laura heard me come into the room, she spun around to face me. “I hate you,” she shrieked. “I hate you all! You were supposed to take care of me!” She whirled to face her mother. “Dad is getting out of jail today! And he’s coming here!”

My mind went blank. I found myself falling backward into the couch I’d avoided for months because it smelled like cat piss and looked like it’d swallow me alive. Voices in my head taunted, You have no strength, no skills. You have absolutely no idea how to help these people.

A low, keening sound snapped me back to the present. Laura was crumpled on the floor. Carl was crouching next to her. “Mary Jo, help me,” Laura whimpered. “Help me.” I looked frantically around the room, unsure what I was looking for—maybe a way out. At that moment, my eyes fell on Reesa. We gazed at each other. It was as though I passed whatever strength I had to her, and she then passed it back to me.

“Reesa, I need your help,” I said. “I need you to help me help your children. What do you need from me?”

Reesa stood up, walked over to her children, and got down on her knees next to them. Gently, she began to stroke their hair and rub their backs as they cried. I’d never seen Reesa this way with her kids. She looked up at me and said, “Help me keep my children safe. I want to be a good mother. I need your help.”

Something had happened here. But I didn’t know exactly what.


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I worked with the Byfords over the next four years. During that time, I witnessed enough of these shifts that I began to call them Byford moments, even when I’d experience them with other families.

About a year into my work with the Byfords, I walked into their home and found Reesa, Laura, and Carl sitting forlornly in the living room. They looked sunken, as though all the energy had been sucked from their bodies. Reesa looked at me dully. “Will we ever be normal, ever have fun like other families?” she asked. “We’re so sick,” added Laura.

“Well,” I said, playing for time, “what do you think fun is, and how could you have it?”

They thought for a while. Then Carl shrugged and said, “I think bowling would be fun.”

“Say no more,” I responded. “Excuse the pun, but that’s right up my alley.” A little-known fact about me is that in my youth, I wanted to be a professional bowler. My mother told me that this was impossible: Jewish girls do not become professional bowlers. But that didn’t mean that a Jewish social worker couldn’t take a client family bowling!

“If you guys can find a bowling alley and decide on a time,” I said, “I’ll meet you there.” Reesa organized the outing, and I met them at the alley the following week. Carl and Reesa were decent bowlers and Laura not so much, but she was a good sport. We even talked a bit about bowling as a metaphor for family—acting as a team, cheering each other on, and yet remaining individuals. I walked out of the lanes that night musing, I’m not sure what happened here, but I think they had fun.

Then, a few months after Robert had gotten out of prison, I visited him. It was our sixth session. When Robert had first been paroled, his supervision order forbade him to be within 300 yards of his family. So he bought a motor home and parked it on the street exactly 300 yards and one inch from the family bungalow.

On this particular day, I walked into the motor home and found Robert hunched in a kitchen chair. All the color was washed from his face. You should know that Robert, a six-foot, four-inch ex-cop, usually spoke in a dominating, scary voice. Now, he wouldn’t even look at me. “Robert, what’s wrong?” I asked. Silence. I took a deep breath and walked closer to him. “Tell me how I can help.”

I saw then that he’d been crying. He looked up at me. “Do you think I have what it takes to be a decent human being?” he asked.

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Mary Jo Barrett, MSW, is the executive director and founder of The Center for Contextual Change, and the creator of The Collaborative Change Model: A Meta Model for the Treatment of Complex Trauma. She’s coauthor of Treating Complex Trauma: A Relational Blueprint for Collaboration and Change.

This blog is excerpted from "Keeping the Faith," by Mary Jo Barrett. The full version is available in the May/June 2016 issue, Unexpected Gifts: Six Master Therapists Recall Their Most Unforgettable Sessions.

Photo © Kiosea39/

Topic: Families | Parenting | Trauma

Tags: abuse alcohol | abuse survivors | child abuse | Child abuse & neglect | childhood abuse | childhood trauma | childhood traumas | divorce | Emotional abuse | families | Families & family life | families and family therapy | family | family counseling | family counselors. | family therapies | family therapist | family therapists | family therapy techniques | home | love | love and relationships | post-traumatic stress disorder ptsd | rapport | recovery | severe trauma | sexual abuse | strategies | strategy | substance abuse | therapy strategies | Trauma | trauma and recovery | trauma recovery | traumatizing childhood | violence

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