Note: This piece deals with subject matter that some readers may find disturbing.
By Marc Gilson
Have you ever had thoughts of harming a child?
What a horrible question. But how might the world be different if that question were asked more often? Or at all?
In my role as a life coach, I’ve spoken with thousands of people from around the world for over fifteen years. Men, women, old, young, rich, poor, educated, under-educated. Each is facing, or has faced, a range of tragedies, challenges, losses, or heartbreaks that have had profound impacts on them – on how they see themselves and the world around them. Perhaps the toughest of these challenges is abuse.
As any therapist, social worker, or coach will attest, a distressingly large number of people were abused as children. Sometimes this abuse is verbal, sometimes physical or sexual. In each instance, the event or events in question haunt the victim in ways that time or – in cases where there is legal recompense – justice, cannot adequately diminish. In short, the psychological and emotional wounds can heal, but scar tissue remains.
There is no magic formula for treating or coaching someone who suffered sexual abuse as a child. But I try to help the client understand five important things about their experience of abuse:
1) It’s in the past. The past is real, but the past is not now. Now is where life happens.
2) You don’t need to fix anything. What happened, happened. And it’s not a problem that needs to be solved. Allow the experience to be what it is, nothing more or less.
3) It’s true that there are life lessons in every experience – including the horrible ones. But the hard fact is that the value of those lessons may not outweigh the pain of the experience.
4) You are not to blame. You didn’t ask for it, cause it, or deserve it. You simply experienced it.
5) Your ability to heal does not depend on anyone else. The problem is no longer the experience. The problem consists of the set of thoughts and feelings you have now in the wake of the experience. And what you do with the thoughts and feelings that you have now is up to you and no one else. It’s where the line between pain and healing is drawn.
These concepts, once internalized and manifested in action, are the foundation for the rest of the work we do in coaching sessions for abused clients. The points might seem obvious and simple to the casual observer. Even so, these are not easy steps for those who have experienced abuse. Everyone is different; there is no silver bullet, no set time table, no single solution to healing abuse.
It’s easy to assume that the incidence of child abuse is limited, and relegated to what’s reported on the evening news. Sadly, the problem is far more widespread than that. I am sometimes astounded at the “pervasiveness of perversity,” as we sometimes say. Child abuse is staggeringly common; so common that I would venture to say that the odds that anyone reading this piece right now having experienced some form of abuse are almost as likely as not. Every single day, five kids die of child abuse in the US alone. That may not seem like many relative to things like hunger or disease, but it’s 150 a month; not by disease or accident, but at the reckless hands of an adult. A preventable tragedy.
Consider that 30% of those abused who survive will end up abusing their own or other children. Eighty percent of 21 year olds who report abuse (who REPORT abuse, mind you), suffer from some form of psychological disorder. Suffice to say, the numbers are not encouraging. Nor are they improving. (For more, visit: http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics)
Of course there are many forms of abuse, and while it’s tempting to judge or rank these forms of abuse according to their severity (as some therapists do), the bottom line is that abuse is abuse. Still, it’s safe to say that the issue of sexual abuse where children are concerned is certainly considered the most egregious of the abuse taxonomy. To violate the trust of a child, to use your power of intelligence, size, or control over a child in the form of abuse is, to most, unpardonable. Is there anything in the world today more deplorable than child abuse? Is there anything worse than a child abuser or pedophile?
Listening to the stories isn’t easy. Victims can find it very difficult to talk about these experiences. But when they finally do, the details can be stomach-turning. The cruelty adults are capable of perpetrating on a child seems incredible sometimes. Interestingly, it’s rarely the physical experience of abuse itself that weighs most heavily on the victims. More often, it’s the sense of powerlessness and loss of trust. The psychological scars are usually the deepest.
While the majority of my exposure to this issue has come from speaking with victims, I’ve also spoken to a few – a very few – of the offenders themselves, the abusers. In my coaching experience, I’d guess that the ratio of victims to offenders is probably 100 to 1.
In 2005 something happened to cause me to think about that fact, and realize that it means that for every 100 abused clients who seek help and healing there are about 99 abusers who don’t. These are my estimates, of course, and in no way scientific. But it still suggests an obvious discrepancy: victims are far more likely to seek help than offenders.
You might be asking some very sensible questions at this point: Why should we be concerned about that? Why should a child abuser think about seeking help? After all, they’re psychologically messed up, right? They’re morally deficient individuals. They’re cruel and reprehensible. Psychopaths. They don’t deserve to “heal.” They don’t deserve support, even if they wanted it. They deserve prison. Or worse.
Generally speaking, I would agree with you. I harbor no love for child abusers. But it’s here that I have a confession to make. Although I feel well-prepared to work with a client who has suffered child abuse, I feel ill-equipped to work with an abuser.
And in 2005 I had my first child abusing client. Let’s call him Paul.
Paul originally contacted me because he said he wanted to work on some “issues from the past” he felt were holding him back in terms of having a solid relationship with a woman and generating more income. This is a rather typical set of presenting symptoms for a life coaching situation. But here’s what Paul said to me on just our third coaching session:
There’s something you should know about me. Something that will probably make you run. In 1988 I went to jail for six years for sexually abusing a child.
Imagine yourself in my place for a moment. I’m not Paul’s friend, co-worker, or barber. I’m Paul’s life coach. I’m paid and expected to assist Paul to become a healthier, happier human being. My job is to be “present” to Paul and to hear him out on all aspects of his life, and then help him move forward. But for me, this was a curve ball. Somehow, this changed the game. I detest child abuse. I don’t care who you are or what the situation, if you abuse a child, my desire to see you as a happy, successful person has suddenly taken a nose dive.
But there was something in Paul’s statement that kept me from ending our coaching relationship on the spot (an option I had every right to exercise, at my own discretion). He said, “Something that will probably make you run.” Was he being manipulative? Was he playing me somehow? Was that a challenge? What if I ended the coaching relationship? What if I refused to offer my services to this pervert? I decided to ask a few more questions, and in the next few minutes of our conversation I learned several key things.
First, Paul had seen a total of seven therapists in twelve years. Second, Paul had been on at least five anti-depressant medications and a handful of sleep aids since he had been released from prison (some seemed to help, some had made things worse – but nobody was sure which did what). Third, Paul was haunted, if not tortured, by his own actions. And fourth, and this was the biggie for me, Paul had spoken to two different people about his desire to harm a child before he acted, and had been rebuffed. One of them, a priest.
Now I realize that hindsight is 20/20. There is no guarantee that Paul would not have abused the child in question (a girl his own teen-aged daughter baby sat), even if someone had intervened. But what if someone had?
I asked Paul some questions about what happened leading up to the abuse.
He said it had started with a relationship that went sour. He was hurt by a woman he loved deeply, but who ultimately left him. He felt alone and unloved. Then the nightmares started. In the nightmares, HE was the one suffering the abuse, although to his recollection, he never endured such treatment as a child in real life. Unlike some abusers, he had no known history of being abused himself. In these nightmares, he was stripped bare, beaten, and then comforted by an “angel” who held him, naked and bleeding, and made him feel the only real moment of love and comfort he could identify since he was a child. The dreams would change every so often. Sometimes it was not an angel but a ghostly male figure. Sometimes the beatings in the dream were severe, sometimes very light, “almost playful,” he confessed. But over time, the dreams intensified to the point where he would routinely awaken in the night, perspiring and sobbing, yet sexually aroused. He knew something was wrong. Very wrong.
After awhile of this, he went to speak to his priest. A lifelong Catholic, Paul had believed that his hope for psychological rescue would most likely come from the church, from spiritual absolution. He told the priest, and later me, that he felt that his only option to be involved in a loving relationship was to be the comforter of a naked and scared child. Even if that meant creating the conditions himself. To relive the experience of the dream, he felt the need to recreate it in any way he could. Twisted, yet logical. So, he confessed. What he expected and had prepared for from the priest was judgment, dissuasion, warnings, and maybe some help. According to Paul, the priest simply heard his confession and then matter-of-factly suggested he see a therapist. He did.
The therapist simply listened, prescribed a sleeping pill, and blithely invited him back in two weeks. The second therapist prescribed an antidepressant within 15 minutes of the session. The third tried hypnosis. And so on. After a year, Paul felt no better and believed he was losing a battle with his internal urges.
So one autumn evening, Paul finally acted out his nightmare. He physically abused a little girl in his car while driving her home after his daughter had babysat her earlier. He hit her in the face with the back of his hand and choked her, then tried to comfort her while sexually abusing her. He told the crying girl’s mother she had fallen down some stairs at Paul’s house, and that he was very sorry.
I won’t burden you with more details of the abuse itself, although Paul did share them. What occurred to me, as I was listening to him talk, was that somewhere out there was a now-grown woman who was likely talking to some other coach or mental health professional like me, just like Paul was, and likely taking medications similar to those Paul was taking, and was struggling to free herself from the emotional and mental haunting that Paul was enduring. Paul was obviously ordered to stay away from the victim. But through others, he had learned that she was “doing fine,” in so far as she was married, working, and had children of her own. She had even bravely spoken to a victim’s group, encouraging those who had suffered like she had.
She had, I hoped, found a way to make some sort of peace, and perhaps found a way to “live above the experience.” Paul was the perpetrator, yes. He had victimized an innocent child. But make no mistake – child abuse has more than one victim, even if that victim is someone we instinctively detest.
Paul had opened himself up to me. He had been honest. He admitted his role in the abuse, described it, and the consequences (his jail time, humiliation, employment challenges, excommunication, etc.), his frustration at his inability to move on (he thought his jail time would somehow free him from the pain and guilt – as anyone who works with this population post-release could have told you, it didn’t), and his desire to move forward somehow. It was the first time he had discussed it in any detail since his incarceration, and it was not easy for him. “The thing is,” he said, “I’m not sure I deserve to heal.” At that moment in time, I wasn’t sure either.
Paul never used the word “sexual abuse” to describe his actions. He referred to it as his “mistake.” Mistake? A mistake is something you make when balancing your checkbook or playing chess, not sexually abusing a child. But he insisted on this term and, for awhile, I allowed it.
At one point, I remember driving up to the top of a hill south of town to think. I recognized the obvious, that I was faced with a personal conflict: whether or not to help a man who had harmed a child. Coaches and therapists aren’t supposed to judge. They’re supposed to help the client come to terms with themselves, and then move them forward in the direction of healing, health, and happiness. Paul needed that, and I ultimately made the decision to do my job. Paul was a client, suffering and in pain, and I was going to try to help him with that.
In the sessions to come, Paul did make much progress. But it was not without its hurdles. During some sessions he cried like a baby and said he wanted to die. In others he was defiant and angry, blaming his absent father, the “system,” and even the fact that his mother smoked while pregnant. In one session, he told me this: “Do you believe in demonic possession? Because it would be much easier if I could just assign my actions to something like that.” He also once yelled at me, in the midst of a session: “There must be something wrong with YOU that you spend your time trying to help someone like ME! Maybe you’re worse than me!”
I won’t lie. There were moments when I wanted to end the whole thing and walk away. Paul needed help. But he was highly negative, stubborn, and irritating on occasion. But we stuck with it, he and I. Under normal coaching circumstances, it’s a rather easy thing to remind an individual that he or she is a “good person,” deserving of happiness and success in life. In Paul’s case, this was a harder sell, for both of us. But it was a gauntlet we had to cross if we were going to make any progress. Ultimately, I had to find a way – perhaps against both our instincts – to get him thinking about himself as deserving of happiness if he was ever going to heal and grow. I began to wonder if Paul had so easily donned the label of “child abuser” that he was somehow reticent to give it up. During one very tough session, and partly out of complete frustration, I finally said something like this:
“Paul, take off the damned t-shirt that says ‘I’m a Child Abuser.’ It’s time to get off the cross. Stop identifying yourself that way. You blew it, in a big way. It was more than a “mistake.” It was THE mistake. The biggest, maybe. But enough excuses. You’re still here, walking the planet. So you have an obligation – and an opportunity – to detoxify yourself and join the rest of us in trying to live happier, healthier lives. We’ve covered the child abuse issue and we’re done with it. You’ve talked about it enough. And I’ve heard enough. You can’t fix or change it. You paid the price exacted by the courts. You’ve paid the price elsewhere. You’ll continue to pay it in different ways. That will have to suffice if you’re going to move forward. And if others want to sit in judgment about it, that’s their issue and they can talk about that with their coaches or therapists. You and I have other work to do. So shut up about the child abuse.”
I don’t know that my little speech was the best or most professional way to handle such a situation. Certainly not textbook life coaching. But he needed to move forward, and that was my job description: help a client move forward. And once we shifted gears – once we began to talk about Paul’s life beyond the heavy shadow of his appalling actions – there was progress. There was hope.
While he may never have clear answers as to “why” he did what he did (something he continues to obsess about), he does know that he was solely responsible for the actions, regardless of what motivated them. We talked about the idea of “broken people,” and Paul wondered aloud whether he was “beyond repair.” Although Paul displayed due remorse during the sessions, he was not completely diffident. He had considered suicide several times, but he also liked life. Still close to his daughter and brother (although his sister had essentially disowned him), still harboring dreams of owning a business, still hoping for a way to gain closure, Paul – like all of us – wants to be a happier, healthier human being.
Does a child abuser deserve that? I can think of many people who would say, “No, he does not.” What, then, are we left with? A crime born of sickness and dysfunction, and yet we lift no hand to repair the source of that crime?
Those who have the luxury of judgment would generally say something about “personal responsibility,” “suffering like their victim suffered,” or the like. I empathize with those sentiments, I really do. The father of Paul’s “mistake” had gone on record with the media saying, “I hope he wakes up miserable every single morning for the rest of his life. I hope he never experiences happiness again.” Had I been in his place, I might have said something quite similar. But I’m not, thank God. And so I have the luxury of hoping for something different for Paul.
Perhaps I’m espousing a very unpopular idea – that the offender deserves the chance to heal. Note that I didn’t say they deserve “forgiveness,” as that’s a matter of the heart for each individual affected by such a situation. But if we refuse the offender’s right to heal, to release the unresolved mental and emotional issues behind the abuse and improve as a member of society, do we not inadvertently condone or allow the conditions that gave rise to the abuse to persist? Can we really expect offenders not to “repeat” when we do little beyond punitive measures to change the underlying beliefs and dysfunction that triggered the action?
If you live in a populated area, the odds are good that there’s a convicted child molester living within three miles of where you sit. Would you prefer that individual be left to wallow in alcoholism, drug abuse, anger, self-destructive behaviors, and apathy? Or would you prefer that neighbor to be working toward something better?
Certainly, offenders do have access to help, although I would argue that it’s mostly after the fact – after it’s too late and the propensity to abuse has turned into a reality, a statistic, and a victim. Society accepts victims. In some cases, we glorify them. Of course, it’s no small feat to raise your hand and say, “I was abused, and I need help.” It’s an act of absolute courage.
But what if the potential offender could say, “I have thoughts of abusing a child, and I need help.” What if we could tolerate the notion that some in our society are, as we sit here, struggling with thoughts of hurting children? What if it was safe to admit the weakness? In short, what if they had access to the same kinds of support before the act?
I saw a television ad for an anti-depressant medication that begins, “Have you had thoughts of suicide?” We want to help those who do, before it’s too late. We set aside massive resources to assist those people, before it’s too late. We mediate, medicate, and intervene where we can, before it’s too late. So why do we wait for a child abuse event before we act?
The focus of healing child abuse is typically on the victims. But in the interest of reducing the number of those victims, can we stop it before it happens? Somewhere, as you read this, someone is struggling with thoughts of abusing a child. And there is a happy child today who will be a victim tomorrow. Do we have the strength to open our hearts and minds to those who are battling thoughts, desires, urges that create a victim out of an innocent? Can we talk to them? Hear them out? Deal with the crisis together, preemptively, before it’s too late? Can we be present to those who are tomorrow’s offenders today? Doing so might just reduce the number of victims – all of them – of abuse.
Special thanks to Bernadine Douglass, whose expertise and insights based on her experiences and work with both abusers and their victims greatly informed this article.