The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Therapist and Client Face Sexual Abuse Memories

Authored by Sydney K. Reed, M.S.W.

The #metoo movement has brought many women’s experience of sexual harassment and abuse out into the open. Statements in the media by powerful men seem to imply that men have a right to do what they want to women and, not to worry, as women will go along with this. Finally there are the court cases that have landed some well-known men in jail.  This prepared an emotionally aroused country to listen with conflicted feelings about the testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.  Time will tell how these issues will be addressed in our country.

In the meantime, the issues will surely present themselves in the offices of many therapists.  A week ago, a former client came into my office crying openly and beside herself in anger: Anger at all men, everywhere.  She had just heard from her college age granddaughter that she had just been sexually assaulted by a male massage person in a hotel in a big city overseas.  She had listened and talked to her over the phone, but she felt very helpless about what else she could do.  She was furious at that man and the entire cultural landscape that seems to support this behavior.  She was furious at her husband just because he was a man.  Listening to her express her intense feelings about the situation, we were able to recognize and unpack the many layers of her upset.  She herself had been sexually abused in her first job as a young person.  She told no one, but felt very ashamed and self-blaming.

I shared my experience of talking to the post graduate program trainees recently about the research on fear by neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (1994).  Building on decades of previous studies of the brain, LeDoux was able to map out the neurological pathways of fear.  The pathways are so efficient that nature conserved this fear system in the brains of creatures over evolutionary time from fruit flies, rats, dogs, and humans.  He reports being very respectful of the fear response. Once it’s laid down in the brain, it’s there forever, he states.  It can be modified over time by talking about it and getting a more cognitive view of it.  However, the fear response can be triggered by the memory of the original stimulus, and even set off by a very heighten stress level unrelated to the original stimulus.

As I asked questions to help her sort out the many levels, she calmed down and admitted her husband was trying to be helpful and she wasn’t seeing that.  Well, maybe “ALL men” was an exaggeration. She would talk to her husband about her upset.   There are some other family relationships in which she might feel too vulnerable to share such information.  That reality needs to be respected as well as examined for possibilities in the future of having a more open relationship with those family members.  Her granddaughter’s privacy also needs to be respected.   Was there a possibility that some norms in society were changing slowly? What part did women play in how the norms were created?  Women scholars have written about the role women played in creating the patriarchy that includes the powerful men of privilege we are hearing about in the news at this time.  The client seemed to have been helped by the session.

In this time of national discussion of the issue of sexual harassment and abuse, I’ve had some thoughts about my own experiences 50 plus years ago when I was in college.  I was sexually harassed by a college staff member who frequently counseled and guided students, this being the time before mental health counselors were available to students.  “No” was effective on the several occasions the harassment occurred.  Rebecca Traister’s article in the New York Times Sunday Review of September 30, 2018 puts my response into words.  Talking about Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony she says Ford “didn’t yell, or did not betray a hint of the fury she has every reason to feel. That is how women have been told to behave when they are angry:  to not let any anyone know, and to joke and to be sweet and rational and vulnerable.”  After several years of marriage, I told my husband who was a friend of this person, as I also considered myself to be.  Just recently I have been recognizing the event as sexual harassment.  Thankfully, there was no issue of fear…probably more feelings of confusion, embarrassment, and a sense of betrayal by a trusted person.

The sexual assault that occurred after college when I moved to New York City was a very different matter.  Having gone with friends from my hometown in Montana to the 1964 World’s Fair in the outer boroughs of the city, I was making my way back to Manhattan alone by subway.  Only one month in the city, I was anxiously trying to read the subway maps when a well-dressed middle age man asked if he could help.  Looking back I can see how he worked the conversation to build my trust.  He said I was on the wrong subway but he was going my way and would help me find the right station.  I followed him to what turned out to be a deserted station in which he trapped me in a floor to ceiling turnstile.  He said he had a knife and said he would kill me unless I co-operated with him.  Just then, another man much smaller than my attacker, walked into the station.  I said very loudly and clearly, “This man is trying to hurt me.  Please help me.”  He was Latino and I prayed he spoke English.

After I repeated myself several times, he took a few steps toward the turnstile and my attacker fled.

My rescuer said he first thought we were just “having fun” and he didn’t want to disturb us.  When he finally understood, he repeated many times as we walked back to the correct station, “That man was a very bad man.  All men are not like him.”  I thought that was such a therapeutic thing to say to a young woman.  He offered to take me into the city but I did not want to cause any more trouble and said I thought I could do it by myself.  I had no thought of calling the police. I was in shock.  That evening I told a man who was working on a similar service project as I was in East Harlem what had happened.  He was very upset, and said I must be crazy, that I needed to see a psychiatrist…  In other words, he blamed the victim.  And as it was clear that I did have some responsibly for my naiveté, I ended up not telling anyone else except my roommate at that time.  I of course told my husband when I married some years later.

During my training to be a mental health worker at Chicago Read State Hospital, four years after this event, in psychodrama training, I reenacted this event.  The biggest male fellow trainee was chosen to hold me down and I was to attempt to thrown him off.  I did in fact do that but somehow that didn’t make me believe I was strong and could handle such an event again.  And being angry then wasn’t enough to take away the fear.

The fear of being told I was going to be killed and then escaping by chance left a huge impression on me.  The fear was such that I refused to be in an elevator alone with men. I worked in an elevator building eventually and was able to desensitize myself and diminish my fear by traveling down first one floor and then more floors with a man in the compartment.

However, I’ve never had the need to learn to manage myself alone in a taxi unless I know the route and can tell the driver exactly what streets to take.  In November I will be in Washington for the fall conference.  My niece has moved there.  Her mother suggests it would be wonderful if I went to see her.  She lives in a suburb of D.C. that I’ve never heard of….”Oh,” my sister-in-law exclaimed, “you can take an Uber”.

I just got my plane tickets today.  November is a ways away.  Time will tell how this gets handled.

Somehow, sharing this story with The Systems Thinker seemed like the next step to take at this time of focus on issues of sexual harassment and abuse.

I’ve wondered if women who are coming forward publicly will then have the opportunity to talk more openly with their families.  Bowen theory talks about the advantage of an open system in the family.  My blog today offers me an opportunity to share more information about myself to some members of my extended family.  They will know me better because of this.  If sexual harassment or abuse has happened to other women or men in my family, they might feel more open to talking about it.

As I listen to the debates and the accounts of ruined lives, I think about Bowen’s admonition to an audience who had watched an interview with two elderly women who had been sexually abused when they were teenagers.  He cautioned the audience to not focus solely on the abuse but to look at how well these women had functioned throughout their life.  The impact of the abuse needed to be put in the context of their functioning for their entire lives. This is particularly true for therapists working with survivors.   Just as my client needed a broader perspective so she didn’t hate All Men, our thinking together about abuse needed to be informed by the knowledge of the resilience within human beings.  Making sure the client feels heard is of paramount importance.  Joining in that same emotional intense state with the client will not be useful to the client.

Citation:  Joseph LeDoux, “Emotion, Memory and the Brain”, Scientific American, June, 1994.

Sydey Reed

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