Constructing The Third Reality

Constructing The Third Reality

How to move from conflict to coexistence

By Mary Jo Barrett

July/August 2003

Eleven years ago, I began the Family Dialogue Project--a mediation program to help families torn apart by child abuse allegations work out some sort of rapprochement. My very first case almost jolted me out of ever taking another. Mr. Woods, six feet four inches tall, walked into my office, extended his giant hand, and grinned wolfishly. "Mary Jo Barrett," he boomed. "So you're the Queen of Incest. My, my, what a pleasure to be in your royal company!" As I gestured him and his wife into the room and we sat down, I was concentrating on breathing deeply, so I had no clever comeback ready. "You look so demure," Mr. Woods continued. "I expected the biggest profitmonger of the psychotherapy world to be somehow more imposing."

I'd invited the Woods in for an initial session after their adult daughter had contacted me a few weeks earlier. Susan Woods had cut off all contact with her parents and two of her three siblings, four years before. She'd accused her father of sexually abusing her when she was a child, which he and most of the family denied. Now, Susan's niece was quite ill and she wanted to visit the hospital and be a support to her sister, the girl's mother. This required running the risk of seeing her family. She'd called me hoping that the Family Dialogue Project, which she heard about through a therapist friend, could help her.

Susan's initial phone call to me was as hostile as her father's greeting. "I know you think all families need to work…

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