This essay appeared in Common Boundary, July/August 1996. Reprinted in xy magazine (Australia), spring 1996.
I had a ponytail for four years. The longer it grew, the more I hated it. I spent hours in psychotherapy, obsessing about how soft it made me look, threatening to have it cut off. Yet I knew that if I didn’t have it, I would lose the sign that marked me—somehow—as different from them.
Having finished a degree in social work, I had a job counseling men referred for child molesting. To my female coworkers, many of them career feminists, I was the Sensitive Man, the Male Role Model, the Man Whose Behavior Will Pave the Way Toward Change. And although the agency where I worked had placed a want ad in the newspaper, I was the only man: The Only Man at Staff Meetings, the Only Man in a Roomful of Angry Women, the Expert on Why Men Are the Way They Are.
My partner Betse, with whom I live, reports that each evening I arrived home from work looking white-faced, my tie loose around my neck, my collar stained from perspiration. She would ask, “How was your day?”
I’d look back at her, as if from some parallel world, and answer, “I don’t remember.” Even the facts of the previous hour eluded me: how I tidied up the office after the last child molesters’ therapy group, how I’d climb into a cab (too exhausted to consider the subway), how I asked the driver not to talk to me.
“I’m talking to you!” she would shout, interrupting the blankness of this other world I inhabited, reminding me of the world she lived in, where connection was safe, expected.
Late into the night, I’d bury my attention in the television, sheltering myself in its flash and noise. Long after she went to bed, frustrated with me, I marveled at the simplicity of talk-show conversations, the straightforward way participants threaded together their stories: question, answer, question, answer. I’d stay awake until, exhausted, I was certain I could sleep without having a dream I would remember.
Psychotherapists talk about a phenomenon called vicarious trauma, or secondary stress, a constellation of symptoms, not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder, that afflict people who work with trauma survivors. Because I worked with many sex offenders, their victims, and families, I watched these symptoms appear in my own life: emotional numbness, forgetfulness, overeating, depression—a profound disconnection from my feelings and the world. Secondary stress disrupts the imagined division between the order of the therapist’s life and the chaos of the client’s. Working with child molesters, I felt trapped between my duties as a helper and the fear and vulnerability I felt as a human being. I hid the emotional toll of my work from everyone. I believed that no one could understand what I was going through and that, if I discussed what was happening, I’d uncover the extent of self-inflicted damage.
At first I didn’t believe I was so alone with my work. I didn’t see my experience mirrored in the extreme isolation of the men I counseled. Sex offenders, I told myself, were truly isolated, survivors of an outdated model of masculine socialization. The child molester believes he needs no one. Denying the need for connection, he secretly seeks it out in places where he doesn’t have to admit vulnerability or relinquish control.
But leading a therapy group for molesters changed my view of myself and my aloneness. During one session I pressed one man to clarify his recollections. “Do you remember being sexually aroused?” I asked. “Did you have an erection?”
A rustle in the room as men shifted in their chairs. Each man liked to think that he had been caught for a one-time, impulsive act, an experiment, inconsistent with his “true” sexuality. Admitting to arousal by his child victims is the most difficult hurdle of treatment.
“No,” he insisted. “I didn’t have an erection.”
“But you ejaculated,” I said. “The police report says there was semen in her underwear.”
“I did molest her, but I didn’t have an erection.”
“How could you not have an erection?” I asked. “That’s why they call it sexual abuse.”
“You can ejaculate without having an erection,” another man piped in. Several men, all of whom were arguably in denial of arousal, nodded and traded similar stories.
I was lost. At the time I was 27 years old, in a roomful of men the age of my father. When more than two of them insisted that a man could ejaculate without an erection, I began to question my own experience. Had I been doing it wrong all these years? How had I come to assume that my own experience was “right”? I felt exposed and immature. A kid.
Their rationalizations about “half” and “partial” erections clouded my mind. I dropped the subject. In the following weeks, I quizzed my male friends: Can you ejaculate without an erection? The question made them visibly uneasy. I felt stranded between two worlds: the culture of so-called “non-offending men,” where any serious conversations about erections was met with discomfort, and the world of child molesters, where the same discussion was riddled with distortion. Whom could I ask without embarassment? Where can men go to have their sexual feelings respectfully mirrored and acknowledged?
Inevitably, in spite of his carefully crafted denial, the child molester shows his inherent violence. He yells, threatens, or pounds the furniture in the therapist’s office. One evening, during group therapy, I was explaining “transitional objects,” cuddly belongings that give children and adults a sense of security. For a ritual to explore trust, I told the men, each should bring one of his own transitional objects to group next week. He would tell a story about its meaning to him, then explore how it would feel to allow someone else to hold it for a week between sessions.
“Do you want to see my transitional object?” one man asked.
Before I answered, he showed me, but I didn’t see the object itself, only the flash of light on the blade.
“Please put that away,” I told him. Trying to be the consummate professional, I continued my explanation about teddy bears, my heart pounding against my chest. This moment epitomized the psychological trap of working with child molesters: feeling frightened and vulnerable and yet obeying a mandate—from a supervisor? From God? From some unwritten code of masculine conduct? Or from myself?—to appear cool and unaffected.
The white faced expressions of the other men compelled me to be more honest. I was supposed to be different, after all. “That scared me when you pulled out the knife,” I stammered.
“Were you scared?” he asked, smiling. Now he had power over me.
“What did the rest of you feel about the knife?” I asked the group.
No one said a word.
My belief in myself as a “special” man was crumbling. In November 1992, in the grocery-store parking lot in the neighborhood where I’d grown up—a place where my family had shopped for a decade, where I took safety for granted—my mother was assaulted at gun point. Had she not fought back and thrown her purse at the assailant, he might have raped her. Over the next weeks, as I advised my mother about managing flashbacks—something I did routinely with clients who were sexual abuse survivors—I found myself crossing another barrier.
Until then, I’d believed unconsciously that by laboring to end men’s violence, I’d bought myself and my family immunity from its random damage. But what did I think shielded us? My acquaintance with psychopaths? My knowledge of techniques to manage aggression? Professionally, I believed I had proven that, sitting at the meeting place of violence and therapy, I could contain aggression, if not master it. It was a powerful fantasy: the probability that my family members might encounter violence was reduced because I had absorbed their share.
Following my mother’s assault, my secondary stress worsened. I began to act out clinically, punishing everyone. Without informing my supervisor, I raised all of my child molesters’ fees. Frustrated with another client’s habitual lateness, I referred him back to his probation officer, reporting that he was “resistant.” Later, in a session with a client who was verbally abusive toward me—not an uncommon occurrence in this therpeutic neck of the woods—I told him he was “fired.”
What was happening to me? Who was I becoming? Or had I always been this way?
A month later, I quit my job.
After I stopped working with child molesters, I started remembering my dreams again, although I didn’t want them back. I was afraid they would be tainted. I wanted to regain the self-protective denial I’d had before I was a therapist, my belief that I was “different,” that I lived untouched by the violence of other people’s lives. One dream, however, was inescapable:
I’m home alone. The telephone keeps ringing. When I pick it up, a voice speaks to me: an obscene caller. “Wayne, is your wife’s vagina tight?” he asks. I try to hang up, but my arm resists. I look around the room, but there’s no one I can tell. Little girls, I think. You’re talking about little girls. But my throat is raw. I have no voice. The silence hangs between us. We cooperate, holding this terrifying connection, our relationship, suspended in the telephone receiver. The red light of the answering machine blinks furiously. Behind each flash is his voice, asking that question. The television emits his voice too. It invades all the sound boxes of my home. I can’t speak about him to anyone. I can only listen.
The dream shattered the membrane that had separated the child molesters from me, the radical feminist man with the social work degree and the ponytail. It forced me to articulate my similarities to the men I counseled: my terror and vulnerability, held captive by a prescribed silence, erupting in irrational fighting back; my desire, maddeningly strong, to be close to someone, juxtaposed against a powerful reluctance to admit dependency or yield control. The masculine paradox: Desire and its negation exist side by side, like the casual sexual encounter that satisfies at the same time that it denies the need for connection. This paradox holds destructive potential for all men: to control those we love through actions rather than to admit feeling, to colonize the bodies of more vulnerable people, to ignore our own powerlessness until, imploding, we destroy ourselves.
After I stopped working with sex offenders, my vicarious trauma faded, My marriage improved. I could remember what I did each day. Occasionally, I dreamed. I cut my hair short. I continued to puzzle over the appeal, strong as ever, of working with violent men.
Today’s younger generations of adults have been characterized as indifferent, overwhelmed by the burgeoning complexity of a new world. Perhaps there is some truth to that summation. Perhaps that explains my desire to cling to the few areas of human activity where the morality is unambiguous, like working to end men’s violence. And yet, as I feel that chaos ebb from my life, the questions persist: Is it possible to treat violent men without becoming damaged? Was I damaged by them, or by myself?
When I counseled child molesters, I had a fantasy: Someday I would light upon another way of being a man, different from my own upbringing, more defiant than a token ponytail, louder than anger, more sustained than six sessions a day and the exhaustion that follows. That fantasy sprang out of a longing to believe there was a difference between child molesters and “non-offending” men, to be cleanly liberated from our common patriarchal heritage. But patriarchy, as pervasive as language itself, lures us with its supplied constructions, its cruel hierarchies: order and chaos, good and bad, powerful and powerless, therapist and client.
Psychotherapists have called the disorder that inflicted me “secondary” or “vicarious” trauma because they want to believe that it does not really belong to us. But vicarious trauma, the doctor’s disease, the illness that afflicts the healer, unveils the polarities—all the systems of “them” and “us”—as they explode. And the neat divisions erupt, spilling over, within ourselves.