In our work we are constantly affected by those with whom we are involved. This paper explores and exposes the intense personal reaction that can result from a deep involvement in the life of another. It demonstrates how the boundaries between self and other can become blurred.
This is a story of a personal crisis, evoked by my involvement in someone else’s life crisis.
Like many helpers’ crises, it begins with an intellectual curiosity. It is a crisis of boundaries. A crisis of determining where one’s self ends and another person begins. A crisis of reaching out and reaching in at the same time. It is a crisis triggered by the doctoral research that I have been conducting into ritualistic abuse.
She had suspected from the beginning that she held the end of a long thread that when tugged would unravel an unending snarl of horrors. Intuitively, she knew that Evangelina. . . was the borderline between her orderly world and a dark unknown region. Irene concluded that it was not only her natural and professional curiosity that had driven her forward, but something akin to vertigo. She had peered into a bottomless well and had not been able to resist the temptation of the abyss. (Allende, p. 126)
I wept on Friday night. Not cried; wept. The kind of tears that come from deep within. I made no attempt to stop myself. Rather I sat on the floor of my room and shook with the rage and helplessness I was feeling. When I did stop, I was surprisingly numb, non-feeling yet deeply saddened at the same time. Looking back now, after a few days, I realize that what I experienced was the beginning of a shock reaction in response to the events of the previous 24 hours.
I had spent the previous week in Victoria immersed in materials related to my dissertation. The latest set of material was much more graphic than any that I had previously read, so graphic, in fact, that I was finding it hard to accept. I had spent much of the time trying to come up with other explanations or possibly rationalizations for the reports from some ritual abuse survivors.
Despite the attempts I made to slot the stories into neat clinical explanations, I met with no success. The only other explanation that I could come up with was that the people telling the stories were crazy: that they must be unreliable storytellers. Even this did not work. I am long past the time when I could accept the premise that just because someone was “crazy” (or a child or elderly), that someone could not tell the truth.
The other problem was that my friend, Katherine, who is a ritual abuse survivor, had already told me similar stories. I had to believe what she was telling me simply because I know her as an honest and sincere person. I trust her. I was, therefore, stuck in a double bind. I could not disbelieve the stories I was reading. At the same time I did not want to believe the stories.
I like to be able to figure things out. Unfortunately I was becoming further and further mired in the contradictions in my feelings. I was also coming across contradictory opinions in the literature about the motivations of abusers and the credibility of survivors. Some downplayed the issues and urged caution in approaching the topic. Other writings accepted ritual abuse as a truism that only needed further research; they had no question regarding the reliability of the accounts and experiences of survivors or of the existence of the cults. These apparent contradictions played to the two sides of my struggle. The end result was further confusion.
Another priming point for the crisis I was entering involved a meeting I had on the previous weekend with two friends, during which they had caringly expressed some concern about my area of research. Both of them are senior managers in adolescent treatment centres and have a better than average understanding of the issues connected with ritual abuse. While not trying to talk me out of doing the research, they clearly voiced their worry about my doing research in ritualistic abuse. I dealt with their concern in a fairly intellectual manner and managed to minimize, to myself, the message they were trying to give me. I spent the next few days trying to avoid what they had to say. However, by the time the triggering point came for my crisis I had finally heard the message that there was going to be a price to be paid for doing research in this area.
The final contributor to my crisis was my friend, Katherine, who is a survivor. She was in Victoria at the same time as my other two friends, and I managed to spend quite a bit of time with her. Much of this time was spent doing things other than discussing her abuse. Although we did talk about it, most of our time together centred around other, less stressful, activities. She appeared to be at peace with herself for the first time since I had met her. There were times during those few days when she seemed genuinely happy. She laughed much more than she cried, which is rare for her. Her pain was gone from her face for much of the weekend. I began to hope that she was finally beginning to break free from the ghosts of her past.
Looking back on this hope, I realize that I was unconsciously trying to deny the seriousness of her situation. I was enacting an adult version of “kiss and make better.” If I could help her find some peace, then perhaps her past would stop haunting both of us. If the past appeared to go away, then so would the people who had caused her the pain. I felt that somehow I could magically make the past and her perpetrators disappear. The arrogance I was experiencing should have been my first clue that something was going to happen. I cringe now when I think of my naivete or stupidity.
My confusion and arrogance, my denial of the
seriousness of her situation, and the concern of my friends were all
factors in how I responded to the crisis I was about to experience.
These factors may, indeed, have been the beginnings of the crisis rather
than contributors. Whatever they were, I know that I was spending the
days leading up to the crisis being driven in opposing or maybe
seemingly opposing directions. I believed I could deal with the forces
at play here by intellectualizing and in some ways denying the
seriousness of ritual abuse. I believed that somehow, through the power
of my skills, I could miraculously “save” my friend. I could take myself
out of social work, but I could not take the social worker out of
In some ways, though, I knew I was going down a false path. I was driven to take in as much information as possible regarding ritual abuse. I must have known that I was going to need more than my arrogance to deal with what I was experiencing and the situation with which I was connected. I was trying to take care of myself even as I was busily denying that anything was happening.
Everything came together on Thursday evening. After my last class I returned to my office to drop off some papers. I was planning to go out for dinner with some friends who were in town to do a presentation at the university. I was looking forward to spending time with them. When I got to my office there was a message on my desk to call Katherine. I thought about not calling her as I was in a hurry to go out.
Almost as an afterthought, I realized that something must be wrong as it was an unusual time of the day for her to call. Even then I seriously considered not calling. I was not sure I had the energy to deal with whatever was happening with her. I was not sure that I wanted my evening out spoiled in any way.
As I sat at my desk, I realized that I had to call her. By the time I dialled the phone I was experiencing a sense of dread. I knew that whatever I was trying to avoid was about to hit me full in the face. I was scared as I dialled the phone. Looking back, I am not sure if I was scared for her or for myself. Maybe it was for the both of us.
When Katherine answered her phone she was clearly in distress. There was an animalistic quality to her voice that suggested pure terror. She was in a panic state and was verging on being out of control. She kept repeating my name over and over. It took quite a while for her to calm down enough to be able to tell me what had happened.
The day before, she had received a package in the mail from her mother. The package contained religious candles. It seemed an innocent enough gift. These candles, however, reminded Katherine of her victimization. Looking back, it appears that the present was a clear attempt to set Katherine up for a fall.
She had returned from work earlier in the evening. On her answering machine was a death threat, given in a distorted voice by a man. The candles and the threat were apparently meant to push her over the edge. They came close to succeeding. She was, when I called, reliving the feelings of helplessness and terror she had so often experienced as a child.
Without even really thinking about it, I went into the safety of my crisis worker mode. I talked to her calmly and quietly. By repeating her name after everything I said to her, I helped her to become grounded and more focused in the here and now rather than the past. Slowly she began to move into the present. Together we formulated a plan whereby she would call a friend to come over and take her to the police station to make a complaint. This served to get her somewhat focused outside of herself while also providing a bit of protection by involving the police. It was important to get her moving rather than allowing her to be immobilized with fear.
My response to her was automatic and somewhat detached. My training and experience as a therapist had kicked in, and I was responding in a rote manner. Emotionally, however, I was in a panic. I felt helpless and had to fight a wave of panic that seemed ready to overwhelm me. I felt that I was getting out of control. These feelings are quite unusual for me, and this added to my sense of impending panic. The feelings were building upon each other. I do not think Katherine was aware of any of my feelings: she was caught in her own terror and in her trust of me.
She was asking for my help in a way that I interpreted as a cry for protection. I felt that I had to rescue her, to save her from her “demons.” I had to do it but I could not do it. I could not guarantee that she would not be hurt. My sense of helplessness was very much like the feelings I sometimes have regarding wanting to protect my children from the crueler aspects of life. It is difficult to accept that, despite one’s best efforts and intentions, the people one cares about are still vulnerable.
I also became very aware of my own physical vulnerability. This was no longer just an inquiry into an area of interest. It was no longer an intellectual exercise. I was now truly a participant in the process. I could no longer pretend to be a detached observer. Although I do not believe I am really in danger, there were moments when I was expecting the worst to happen. At times, I was expecting great hordes of abusive cultists to hunt me down and kill me. These feelings were not grounded in reality: they were a manifestation of my sense of helplessness and powerlessness.
I spent the next 24 hours consumed by this crisis. I talked to Katherine numerous times on the telephone. I managed to be calm in my talks with her and tried to project an aura of being in control. However, as she regained a sense of equilibrium, I began to lose mine. As she reconnected with her strengths, I became very aware of my own sense of being out of control. That evening, after I had helped her to become as safe as was possible, I went home and wept.
The next day I went to my home town. I spent the following four days with my wife and children, some of my closest friends, and Katherine. I was there but also not there at the same time. I felt quite detached. It was only when I was with my children that I felt connected. They seemed able to bring me back from whatever place I was spending my time.
I tried to talk to my wife and friends about how I was feeling. I badly wanted to discuss the details of ritual abuse.
Unfortunately none of them could hear it. Nobody could listen to the details. They are so obscene and so unbelievable that the people closest to me could not hear me. This in itself was a startling experience. My wife and friends, all counsellors, could not listen to what I had to say. It was not that they did not want to listen to me, it was that they could not hear me.
As I was going to bed on my last night at home, my wife said that I looked as if I was finally letting go of my fixation on ritual abuse and actually looked relaxed. Just the mention of the term brought back a groundswell of emotion. I did not sleep that night. I thought about what a cruel world we live in and wondered if I was fooling myself in thinking that there was any good in the world.
By morning I had convinced myself that I generally live in a narrow and protected world surrounded by family and friends, each of whom pretends that the world is a safe and wonderful place. I was convinced that we were fooling ourselves. The world is not safe. The majority of people live in pain and terror while some of us pretend that things are okay.
I was at the height of my vulnerability at this point. I wanted to run away from Katherine. I wanted to run away from the world that she represented to me. I wanted to run away from my own vulnerability.
I have slowly come back to a sense of balance about the issues related to this crisis. I know I cannot run away. I also know that I do not really want to run away. This crisis, in fact, has been an important step for me. I am beginning the process of understanding the impact of abuse. I have, in some ways, gone through an experience of secondary abuse whereby I have “lived” some of the terror and helplessness Katherine lives on a regular basis. I may be at a point of integrating some of the experiences she has undergone into my own context. This is an important component of beginning to understand.
My life is entwined with that of Katherine. We are on a journey that is far from over.
Allende, I. (1987). Of love and shadows (M. Peden, Trans.). New York: Knopf.
This feature: Charles, G. (1994). Explorations. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol.9 No.1, 53-58