When Therapy Takes a Personal Toll

A Therapist Working with Abusers Reaches a Crossroads

Michelle Cacho-Negrette
Woman with her head in her hands | Photo by Liza Summer/Pexels

I made my first appointment with Gloria the autumn I realized that the nature preserve, near my home in southern Maine, was the only place that made sense to me anymore—the predictability of the seasons, leaves flying on the autumn wind like embers, the silky snow of milkweed trapped in grass. As I watched the ocean pound the beach at high tide, I felt an answering pressure in my chest.

In my search for a therapist, I’d heard a lot of things about Gloria—she’d been variously described as “intuitive,” “politically aware,” “funny when you least expect it,” and “calm.” I seized on calm: I wanted—no, needed—a still point, a peaceful promontory in the ocean of loud, unrepentant excuses I heard daily from the men I treated in a batterer-intervention program, men who committed unspeakable violence against those they claimed to love.

Gloria’s office window overlooked a garden blazing with the last scream of color before slipping into winter dormancy. A carved Buddha rested between a burning bush and purple asters. Gloria herself had a flavor of the old-fashioned— silver hair pulled back in a chignon, shoulders draped with an Iranian shawl—and when she smiled and handed me a cup of steaming tea, a sliver of quiet entered me. Her eyes were observant behind wire-rimmed glasses. I knew she’d taken in the jittery swing of my crossed leg once I sank into an overstuffed chair.

Gloria sat down opposite me, tucked her feet beneath her, and watched me quietly for a moment before saying, “You’re the therapist, I believe, who runs intervention groups for violent men on probation.” I understood then that there’d be no wasted time with her, that in five minutes she’d understood my own edgy, get-to-the-point temperament. I nodded. By then, I was doing three groups in one state and two in another. I was doing trainings for lawyers and police and judges. I was doing a course in violence at a local college. I was doing a small caseload of survivors. I was doing violence.

“And you’re here because?” she asked.

How could I describe the black pit widening in my gut each year, the gray haze like a smoky window through which I viewed the world, my husband’s growing anxiety about my lengthening periods of silence? I’d rehearsed saying that something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what. Instead I blurted: “I know too much and I think maybe it’s killing me.”

I was instantly embarrassed. So damned melodramatic. You’re a therapist, too, not some B actress. Oh hell. I waited tensely for her response. Gloria whistled softly, something I soon learned she did when something struck her as important, though she wasn’t very good at it; her whistle often broke off mid-trill. She regarded me calmly over the rim of her mug. “Too much?” she repeated. “What is it you know and how is it killing you?”

We worked in the police station, Don and I, its own world where drunken shouts and terrified recitations and graveyard humor traveled up the stairs from the front desk on the scent of burnt coffee and cold pizza. We sat in a circle of 20 men, the majority wishing they were elsewhere, a few believing we were their last hope, though by then we were weary saviors. We’d asked them to bring in one example of emotional or physical violence in their daily surroundings. Instead, each man came in bearing 15, 20, 30 examples—astonished observations of music, ads, movies, friends, bosses, relatives, strangers. A truck driver described an MTV video in which Axl Rose drove his girlfriend off a cliff. A cop recounted Sting’s song: “Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” He shook his head. “Stalking. It’s goddamn stalking.” A pediatrician held up a popular ad with a photo of a 6-year-old girl draped in mink in a way that suggested she had breasts. There was something bruised and ancient about her lipsticked mouth. The black type beneath screamed, “A woman is never too young.” The group concluded that violence is pervasive, sneaky, that nobody’s above it.

Two incidents sprang to mind. The first was a recent training session I’d done for a group of district attorneys. After I’d described the components of emotional and verbal abuse, a young intern burst out, “My husband yells all the time and throw things and scares the shit out of me. That doesn’t mean he’s abusive or might become violent.” As her mouth tightened in self-righteous anger, I battled my impulse to ask, “Then why are you so afraid?” The second incident was during a walk in the nature preserve the previous summer. I’d found a small garter snake that had been stoned to death in the place where it had the most right to be safe. I’d stared bleakly at its dented body and the offending rock beside it and choked back fury.

“We’ve all got it in us to be abusive,” I told Gloria tensely. Something darkened inside me, as though I’d lost a battle I didn’t know I was engaged in.

Gloria touched my hand for a moment. “Then,” she asked, “is it part of our work to figure out how you can live with that belief?”

“I guess,” I answered, a part of me relieved that she hadn’t tried to change my mind. Yet inside, like some disappointed waif, was sadness that she hadn’t offered some mysterious koan that would make me question my desolate conviction.

I drove to the nature preserve through what would be the last good snow of the year. Parking where I imagined the yellow lines to be, I pulled on my sock cap and snowshoes and stepped out into a world of white ambiguity. I broke trail through stands of heavily coated hemlock and pine, pausing at a rare balsam to crush some needles and hold them to my nose. Five deer ran swiftly by. One snorted in warning and something in me swelled with pleasure.

As I snowshoed, I thought of my last session in Gloria’s office. She’d asked me to tell her about my childhood in a New York City ghetto, where violence was so commonplace that a week without an incident was an occasion to rejoice.

“Commonplace?” Gloria asked. “What type of violence are we speaking about?”

Violence,” I answered irritably. “My best friend was sexually molested by her father. The woman upstairs was regularly beaten. Rapes and gang deaths were run-of-the-mill street stuff.” I paused, considering. “It gives me a real advantage in group. I’m never shocked by anything I hear.”

Gloria regarded me closely for a moment. “I know that you’ve turned your childhood into something useful,” she finally said, her voice quiet. “But I’m sad that you experienced such trauma.”

“It’s over,” I told her uncomfortably. “I’ve dealt with it.”

“Do you think it’s connected to your current vision of people?” she asked mildly.

I thought, suddenly, of my high school English teacher who’d encouraged me to write and told me that I could go somewhere in this world, and of my mother’s unshakable optimism despite our poverty. I thought, too, of the shoemaker on our corner, a Holocaust survivor who’d cheerfully offered a Tootsie Roll to each of us kids whenever we delivered shoes for repair. Despite the savagery swirling around me, many people–neighbors, relatives, teachers–had given me faith that there were good people in the world. But that was a long time ago, I thought in annoyance. Where was Gloria going with this stuff?

“How the hell do I know?” I answered irritably, and then quickly looked at my watch. “We’ve run out of time,” I announced, standing up to leave. Gloria slowly took off her glasses, using the mist of her breath to clean them. She looked up at me. “My experience is that you can usually see what you believe is there.”

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And my experience is that you can usually avoid seeing what you don’t want to see, and keep yourself blind.” Maybe you do.

“That also,” she said evenly as I pulled open her door. Then, just before closing it behind me, I heard,

“But aren’t those both the same thing?” Her whistle was so soft and brief that I almost missed it. She said then, “This work changes you.”

Jan, a friend from the battered women’s shelter, met me for lunch. She was pale, circles beneath her eyes, an irritated weariness in her voice as we ordered lunch. She told me that the shelter was filled to capacity and she was scrambling to find safe houses.

“I processed four women this morning, three of them badly beaten,” Jan said wearily. “By the time I got to the fourth, I found out that the only thing her husband had done was slap her.”

“That was it?” I began to sympathize, when we looked at each other in sudden horror. We knew there was no such thing as “only” in the world of violence. We’d both worked with women who’d defended themselves and were slapped across the face for the first time, getting the message that this was just a taste of what’s to come, bitch, shape up or else. We knew that despite protection-from-abuse orders, women were killed all the time, and it often started with “only a slap.” We clasped each other’s hands in wordless sorrow.

Gloria’s words returned in a whistling rush. “This work changes you.” She’d asked her mild, quiet questions when she’d known they were all I could handle, then slowly pushed me to look harder at myself: at the hard-earned optimism of my childhood that was being sapped by the brutality I faced daily; at my growing hopelessness about the decency of human beings; at the imperceptible dulling of my own sensitivities. “This work changes you. ” I got it.

I quit my job the following week. Within days, the tightness in my throat began to relax. Gloria and I had three more sessions. During the final one, we wandered through her garden as she named each plant for me. A police siren drilled through the silence like a jackhammer and, for once, I didn’t wonder if it was answering a domestic violence call. As we passed Gloria’s Buddha, now resting in a bed of blazing poppies, I turned to her and said simply, “I’ll miss you.” Gloria bent to pick a magnificent purple iris and handed it to me, smiling.

This blog is excerpted from “Encountering the Shadow” by Michelle Cacho-Negrette from the March/April 2004 issue.

Photo Credit @ Liza Summer/Pexels