Thirty years ago I was speaking to a group of Junior High kids, maybe 100 or more, when I made a mistake.
At the time, I was working on a degree and licensure as a family therapist. As part of my licensing requirements, I was a counselor at two community clinics where we saw clients on a sliding scale, based on what they could pay. I didn’t get paid but I did receive necessary hours toward my licensing requirements. All of my sessions were recorded and spot checked, along with my notes, by experienced therapists who served as my supervisors and teachers. I had to report out on each of my clients weekly during a group supervisory meeting.
Because clients paid whatever they could afford, we received a lot of court referrals. People forced to go to counseling by a judge were the majority of our clients. When someone who wasn’t court referred, someone who was having relationship problems or just trouble coping with life, came in for counseling, they went to the counselors with the most hours. That not only meant all of my clients were court referrals, but because my supervisors thought I joined with clients quickly (clients spent less time beating around the bush before trusting me and talking about what needed to be talked about), a good portion of my caseload were sex offenders of one kind or another. These were not the worst cases (that is, in the eyes of the law, not the victims). These were people that judges didn’t want to send to prison, so they gave them some combination of community service and therapy. These days, I think about half of the sex offenders I saw back then would spent some time in jail.
Sex offenders are good training for someone wanting to be a therapist because everything you experience with your, for lack of a better term, “average” person seeking therapy, is magnified. The denial was often so thick it seemed impenetrable. Not surprisingly, the sex offenders I saw, even those the legal system might classify as the least serious, were exceedingly manipulative. I liked the challenge of it. I liked how the challenge seemed to accelerate my learning. I liked the idea that I was part of a process that might contribute to the offense not being repeated.
But it wore on me. Over time I became less and less patient with these clients, which was actually a good thing, but I didn’t deal with the anger that was building up. Until I was standing in front of 100 junior high school students.
I was speaking about community, but as I looked out across all those young faces, I saw statistics. I knew how many of them had been with people and in places that were supposed to be safe but turned out not to be safe. I knew they were keeping secrets and they believed it was their fault and they believed they were somehow a participant. I knew how they obsessed about all the bad things that would happen if they ever told anyone. And I made a mistake.
I went off script and began to talk about how nothing I said about community could make places safe that were not safe because they were used to cover abuse. I spoke about how the adult was always to blame and never the child. My voice was soft but confident as I talked about the damage done by certain secrets. As I spoke, I could see faces throughout the crowd opening wide with recognition and then closing tight against tears … and then losing the fight. Kids, mostly girls, began crying here and there, and I suddenly realized what I had just done.
Not only had I just “outed” several possible victims of sexual abuse in front of their friends and perhaps even their abuser, I had opened up wounds without any way to stop the bleeding. There were no “counselors standing by.” I couldn’t hang out a shingle after my talk and have kids line up for some therapy. I did my best to encourage them to reach out to someone to talk to but it was lame. We were on top of a mountain and they wouldn’t be going home for days. My heart sank. It was the wrong time and place, the wrong everything. I had accomplished nothing but a stupid mind reading trick that caused pain and then I’d basically just walked away.
Even now, as I tell the story, I ache with regret. I see those kids crying and I feel the feeling I felt then, like I made them cry just because I could.
A few days later I asked to speak to one of my clinic supervisors and told her what had happened. It was my turn to cry. She didn’t let me off the hook. Even though I was speaking through tears she asked me a lot of questions, not only about why what I did was inappropriate, but about why I did it, questions that weren’t as easy to answer. I had used those kids to act out my anger without regard to how it would affect them. I had used those kids to meet my needs without any empathy for their experience and then I felt guilty. That sounded all too familiar.
Very wisely, my supervisor added some victims of abuse to my caseload.
I’m not sure why, exactly, I needed to tell that story now, but I do know this story is as much about the ending as any other part. When I got back to my office at the church where I worked, the senior pastor called me into his office. Word had spread quickly about what he called my little “stunt” at the junior high camp. He gave me a pretty serious rebuke and a long lecture. He didn’t lecture me about putting several kids into emotional crisis and thus signaling to everyone around them that they may have been victims of sexual abuse and doing so without any way to care for them in the aftermath or protect them. No, he lectured me about my assumption that even one child in that group of church kids had ever been a victim of sexual abuse without any evidence or even an accusation being made. He said I was playing into the hands of the anti-family secular psychologists and “accusation mania.” He talked about the witch hunts instigated by selfish and rebellious children who wanted to be emancipated from their parents so they could be free of discipline and the will of God. He protested … a great deal.
I didn’t quit that day, but that was the day I decided to quit.