November 2009 Archives

Why I wrote "Just Conflict"

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Dove n Elks.jpg

In November of 1986 I flew back to St. Louis from El Salvador. High above the clouds as I peered out the window I had a startling revelation.

I had been in El Salvador as part of an American delegation observing the civil war that was tearing the country apart. The US government was supporting the Salvadoran government whose troops were terrorizing anyone they suspected of being friendly with the rebels. One day earlier I sat in a conference room in San Salvador and heard a woman give an eyewitness account of her pregnant friend being disemboweled by a government soldier while she watched horrified and powerless from the shelter of the surrounding woods.

Looking out the window remembering her vivid account I thought to myself, "How can anyone do something like that."

That is just the sort of statement we often make to ourselves when confronted with the horrific events of our lives. Then I heard again what I had thought, this time not as a statement, but as a question. "What is going on with someone who chooses to inflict suffering on another deliberately?" I realized that I know the answer to that question. Further, I realized the question itself is frightening. We are not curious about the intra-psychic dynamics of those who behave in such obviously harmful ways. We choose instead to believe that they cannot be understood.

At the time I was the Clinical Director of a program in St. Louis called RAVEN and was doing contract work for the Child Sexual Abuse Treatment Program of the Masters and Johnson Institute. RAVEN was then a men's counseling collective which engaged in several programs for social change, among them doing intervention with men who batter and men who commit sexual assault.

The program at Masters and Johnson was targeted at families in which a parent (the father) had sexually abused a child and the non-offending parent (the mother) had hopes of reunifying the family. The question we were exploring was, "What will each part of the family system have to do such that we can be confident that there will not be a re-offense and that we have established such a momentum for healing that we are confident about the children's long term wellbeing." My job was to do therapy individually and in a group with the fathers. I was thus doing extensive clinical work with men who batter their wives and sexually abuse their own children.

As I looked out the window at the cloud cover over Mexico it became clear to me that the government soldiers were not all that different from the men I work with every day. Furthermore it became clear to me that the belief that we can't know why these people do these things comes not from our inability to understand them but from our unwillingness to face our own horror when we do.

As I work with men who batter and with men who sexually abuse, I commonly come face to face with colleagues who try to convince me that what I am doing can't possibly be effective. I have heard advocates for battered women assert that we shouldn't do intervention with the men because they won't change and we are only building unfounded hopes in their partners when we try. I have witnessed administrators of State programs for treatment of sex offenders dismiss therapists from the list of approved providers because those providers were too confident that the men they work with can heal. In effect I was told, "If you think you can help these men heal you are being naïve and they are fooling you."

Each of us wants to know that we are good. And we also know there are people who do bad things. It is more comfortable for us when we can believe that we are not like them. If we come to know them too well, we lose the ability to see them as essentially different from ourselves. If we can comfortably assert that they cannot change, then we don't have to understand them so deeply that we begin to identify with them. Nevertheless, they are not so different from us.

So, as I gazed out the window of the plane, I was aware that I knew why these guys did what they did and I could see that neither I nor anyone else is as different from them as we would like. Seeing that we all do things which are harmful to others and especially that we all do things that harm those we care about the most can help us to heal ourselves, our relationships, and those we care about. But we will not address a problem we say we do not have.

In the 23 years since that realization I have worked to know what goes on within us as we make choices which are abusive to others and to discover ways to talk about those interior dynamics such that anyone can understand them. My challenge was to make it simple enough that the men in my care could appreciate and use the perspectives I was offering to alter their behavior when they choose to harm those they say they love the most.

Both the harm and the healing arise out of how we address conflict. This is the clearest context in which to look at abilities and qualities for building healthy relationships. Time and time again it has been brought home to me that everyone and every relationship can benefit from greater self-awareness, a larger ability to care for ourselves, and a willingness to be fully accountable. If we are to create relationships which are just, we must use tools for addressing conflict which move us all into ways of being that construct what everyone needs. That is both the premise and the goal of Just Conflict.