This is part three of my interview with Terry Peterson, MSW, about her work with sexual offenders.
EA: Tell us about what treatment looks like for outpatient sex offenders.
TP: I’m glad you clarified outpatient offenders because inpatient treatment is different, more intensive. Outpatient offenders are generally seen for group therapy once a week. Groups consist of about eight members, all convicted of some type of sexual offense. More and more, the convictions have to do with possession of child pornography. The offenders are commonly seen for a two to three-year period. Additionally, some are seen for individual sessions as well. All are required to undergo a polygraph examination approximately every six months to ensure that they are abiding by their probation orders. They are each followed by a probation officer. Some are involved in substance abuse treatment as well.
EA: Sounds like there could be a lot of collateral work for you.
TP: You think? Absolutely there is. A lot of phone conversations and a lot of paperwork. And meetings. Meetings with probation, with polygraphists, the people who operate the internet filter that keeps offenders from being able to access pornography. Meetings with other family members, church elders, physicians, victim therapists. Some weeks there are more collateral contacts about the client than there are actual appointments with the client.
EA: Is all that extra work necessary?
TP: I think so. It forms a community to help keep people safe. Like it or not, these offenders are members of the community and most of the time I think we have an obligation not just to potential victims but to these offenders as well. After all, it was our culture that these guys grew up in. There must have been something about it that triggered abusive behavior. For example, I don’t think our society does its best job in teaching men how to manage emotions. Conversely, I’m not sure we’re at our best when we raise daughters to devalue themselves and thus leave themselves open for exploitation. It’s more complicated than that, but it’s the basic picture. We all live and grow together. Sometimes we screw up and sometimes we don’t understand why. That’s what treatment should do. Teach us how that happened and how to fix it.
EA: When you’re retired, will you miss anything about this kind of work?
TP: Well, I can tell you what I won’t miss. I won’t miss speeding through town and running up and down the halls of the courthouse hoping I’ll make it to a hearing on time. I won’t miss written quarterly client reviews. I won’t miss watching men board the bus for prison when there was no rational reason for it to end that way. I won’t miss people telling me I’m wasting my time treating sex offenders. But, I will miss feeling that I’m contributing to the larger societal picture in a positive way and how this satisfies my obligation as a citizen. I will miss seeing the light go on over an offender’s head when he finally gets it. For that matter, I will miss seeing the light go on over one of those collateral contact’s head when he or she finally gets that in order to solve the riddle of sexual abuse, we must work together and acknowledge the victim’s pain as well as the offender’s. Sometimes it’s an unusual Folie a deux we’re working with and that can be extremely challenging and rewarding.
EA: Folie a deux?
TP: It’s generally seen as a shared psychosis, but I like to think of it as a shared dysfunction in a family. Like an expectation that abuse will happen. There is so much of that in our society. Families with big hopes but with an underlying submission to the idea that things are going to turn out the same. I’ve seen generations of victims and offenders in my work. It’s sad, especially with so much help available out there.
EA: But I thought less than fifty percent of perpetrators who had been molested as children. What do you mean when you talk about generational abuse?
TP: I can see where that might be confusing. What I mean is, well, sexual abuse that happens in families most likely has little to do with sex. It’s the fulfillment of a strong emotional need. And that need must indeed be very strong for it to overcome the perpetrator’s knowledge of right and wrong and to break the taboo against it. If you combine that emotional need with the belief that something sexual can satisfy it (even though it doesn’t), then it’s a set-up for sexual abuse. If a child gives you the attention you crave…
EA: You do realize that there’s probably a lot of you in my character, Dr. Carmen Carillo?
TP: Oh, I see we’re back to you again. I’ve read SCABLANDS and THE YELLOW and I have to say I don’t see it. I’m not quite as spontaneous as Carmen. I do some heavy thinking before I make decisions. I think we share an understanding of how men operate, but the comparison ends there. Besides, isn’t she like thirty years younger than me?
EA: Well, she’s partially you then. Anyway, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. Is there anything else you’d like to say about anything at all?
TP: Yes. Please don’t ask me to do this again. And, thanks you for the kind words. You have been a big supporter of women in this business. Years ago, it felt like we were the token females in a group so men would have someone to play off of, now it feels like we’re the real shrinks. The men still play off us, but we have more respect. But, all that means is I’m old and need to retire.
EA: Well, congratulations and good luck in your retirement. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of you.
This is part 2 of my interview with Terry Peterson, MSW, a woman who has devoted much of her professional life to evaluating and treating sexual offenders. I have just asked her the big question: Can sex offenders be cured?
TP: Hmm. Can sex offenders be cured? If you mean, can their behavior be stopped, then yes, they can be cured. Before you start yelling, let me amend the statement and say, a good many sexual offenders can be cured. I hate that you used that word…cure…because it’s chock full of controversy and I don’t like that.
EA: Let me ask this then: Is there a type of offender that can’t be cured?
TP: Yes. I have no problem saying that there is a certain subset of offenders that, once caught, should never see the light of day again. These men cannot keep their behavior under control. They can’t stop touching children or raping women and men. Sadistic sexual sadists should never be eligible for parole. But let me put a bullet point next to this rant and say that the percentage of offenders who fit the category of intractable child molester, rapist, killer, is very small compared to the large numbers of offenders who are seen in treatment every year.
EA: In my novel, THE YELLOW, (see how I did that?)…
TP: Oh yes, you’re so subtle in your plugs.
EA: Anyway, in the novel, the protagonist, Dr. Carmen Carillo, faces a group of angry women who would be happy if every single offender on earth were put away for life, or worse.
TP: Yes, and…
EA: Well, don’t you think that’s a bit excessive? No, I retract that question. Have you ever received any blowback from women because of the work you do?
TP: In my personal or in my private life? I guess it doesn’t matter because the answer is the same in both situations. Yes, I have. In different contexts, of course. For example, I’ve been asked by women what have I done to reduce the numbers of POC who are incarcerated for sexual offenses. I wish I had that kind of power. I am very aware that in general POC have a higher rate of incarceration than white folks. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but my guess is that where sexual offenses are concerned, POC are less likely to get treatment and probation than their white counterparts. Another question I get from women has to do with my personal history. I must have been victimized myself and am untreated, or undertreated, otherwise, why would I be working with men like the one who assaulted me. I don’t answer that question because to do so seems tawdry and unnecessary. And maybe a little inappropriate.
EA: Have you ever had women try to interfere negatively with an offender’s treatment, to create an atmosphere for an offender that’s counter-therapeutic?
TP: Are you talking about your novel again? The answer is, not that I know of.
EA: Okay, here’s one I wonder about. So, there you are, alone in a room of maybe eight to ten sex offenders, all of whom have committed an offense against women or children, sometimes men. What does that feel like and what have been your experiences with these men, like say have they ever become inappropriate with you?
TP: I think you already know the answer to that question. Men who are put in that position will resort to what they know to try to reach some level of familiarity. Which means a good many of them will use seduction in its various forms to achieve it. Most aren’t out and out crude, but some think they’re being more hidden than they actually are. Charm, being teacher’s pet, trying to achieve co-therapist status, those are as much forms of seduction as directly giving me the old up and down or being overly direct with language.
EA: But how does it feel?
TP: Nerve-wracking. My days are filled with putting out fires that require a lot of attention. Therefore, in an evening group after just such a day, when a guy tries to tell me I look nice or I’m way too good of a therapist, it wracks my nerves and makes me feel like punching him in the neck. Which wouldn’t be very therapeutic by the way.
EA: So, what would you do in a case like that?
TP: Like it or not, I have the power as therapist. I need to use that power to keep the individual moving ahead. It’s a teaching moment. There are better ways to get your point across with women than trying to bed them. Just a tip to men in general, women tend to listen more closely when your eyes are focused on theirs and not to a point further south.
EA: It’s part of the so-called cure then? To learn new ways to interact with females?
TP: Yes. Oh, EJ, at last a breakthrough for you.
EA: Speaking of that, you seem to use a lot of humor in your work. With such a serious subject, how does humor fit into the grand scheme?
TP: The humor is for me. Ha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The very fact that it’s such a serious subject demands that humor be used. Otherwise, how do you break through into the issues that need to be talked about? When I use humor, I’m not making fun of a serious subject, I’m making inroads into an offender’s way of thinking about himself. Once in a while, a man will bring in a joke about an offender. It’s a way to get them to look at themselves psychologically in a less severe manner. It allows them to relax and open up. To experience the gamut of emotions that being honest delivers. I appreciate humor for the power it has over pain.
EA: Well said. It’s almost like you know what you’re talking about.
TP: Are you for real?
Stay tuned for the third and final part of my interview with Terry Peterson where she talks about what treatment looks like for an offender and what life after treatment holds.
After having just released THE YELLOW, the second book in the Carmen Novels Series, I’ve been thinking more about the role models for my character, Carmen Carillo. And while I have talked more generally about the women who work in the sex offender treatment field (Women in The Heads of Men), today I have the good fortune of interviewing one of the best in the business, and an individual who also happens to be one of those character role models. Terry Peterson has been evaluating and treating both adult and juvenile sex offenders for 25 years and tells me she is finally going to take the plunge and retire this year. But, before she does, I thought it might be interesting to pick her brain about her work over the last quarter century. In spite of the title of this post, this woman is definitely not crazy, although given the work she does, some might think so.
EA: Welcome Terry. It’s so nice to see you again. Have you missed me?
TP: What was your name again?
EA: Oh God, it’s starting already?
TP: You bring it out in me, I guess.
EA: I thought we could start with the question that is usually on everyone’s minds: Why would you want to involve yourself in the treatment of men who have done such horrendous things?
TP: Well, first of all, let’s expand the question a bit. When I first started doing the work, it was with children, meaning adolescents who had committed sexual offenses. And women as well. It’s not just men we’re talking about. That said, I do understand the question and I get it a lot. I think I can safely say that I fell into the work. Before, I had been focusing on the victim side of it, for Child Protective Services, for a sexual assault center, that sort of thing. Although I had always had some minimal contact with the perpetrators back then, in family sessions or in the field, over time I began to notice them more and how they didn’t seem at all like the big bad bogeymen I was raised to believe.
EA: Hold on. You started to feel sorry for sexual deviates?
TP: Clean out your ears. I didn’t say that. I said I started to notice the differences between what the myths about sexual offenders are and the reality of most of these folks. If I told you the stories of some of these guys and left out the part that they were sex offenders, you’d think what miserable, horrible and sad lives they’d led.
EA: If that’s how you got into the business, what makes you stay?
TP: I’m not staying. I’m retiring. Yay!
EA: Will this dancing take long?
TP: Sorry. In answer to your question, I’m in a helping profession, and I believe that I’ve helped people. I get rewarded by the work I do. It doesn’t happen every day and the work is full of moments when I tear out my hair, but in the long run, I truly believe I can help make a difference in people’s futures.
EA: People who see this are going to think, “Oh boy, here we go with another Pollyanna.”
TP: I don’t care if they think that way. It doesn’t stop me from working. And if they knew me, they’d know I have a ton less sugar in my system than Pollyanna ever had.
EA: What’s the hardest part about doing your work?
TP: Seeing the client’s fail for no good reason. Like forgetting to come to sessions. Failing polygraphs. Denying they have problems. Being unable to make a good connecti0on with their probation officer. I’m kind of old fashioned in that I want my clients to be honest with me. I don’t ask for a whole lot more. In this business, if you’re honest from the get-go, you’ll find it’s much easier to make it to the other side.
EA: And what does the other side look like?
TP: Mostly healthy. More human, caring, trusting, understanding. Skilled enough to keep from getting to the same bad point again. More optimistic and motivated.
EA: So, that brings us to the million-dollar question. Can sex offenders can be cured?
Tune into the next installment where Ms. Peterson addresses the issue of cure and what to do when an offender comes on to you. See you then.
Sex brings out the best, and worst, in people. Or I should say, sex brings out people, because there sure have been a lot of jaws flapping about it on social media these days. Sexual harassment, no, I mean sexual assault, no, sexual impropriety, no, I mean sexually deviant. One guy's post I read said, "It's just weird behavior." He was referring to Louis C.K., of course. And he was talking about the actual behavior CK was involved in, not the complex side effects of such behavior.
I hope you know me well enough by now to understand that I get that the women he confronted sexually have every right in the world to respond the way they have. After all, in a reasonable world, a woman should not have to look across the room and witness a sick man plying his illness in front of them the way CK did. And what man asks anyway, "Do you mind if I take my penis out?" Was he that quickly bored with the conversation? No. Louis CK, like Kevin Spacey in my last post, has a sexual disorder that compels him to repeat the same inexplicable by normal standards sexual overture. Why, you ask, would a man who has fathered children and been in a marriage and who has great wealth need to approach women in this way? Why can't he just hire a sex worker or find a friend who might like to participate in some consensual role play? Because that's not what his behavior is about. It's about being eroticized, turned on, by masturbating in front of astonished females, a behavior most likely nourished by a lifetime of finely-tuned fantasy. In spite of what you read as these revelations roll out, one after another so that it seems like the whole male world is erect all the time, this is not normal behavior. It is normal if there is consent involved, and isn't that what we're talking about anyway, whether or not there was consent given? In CK's case, it doesn't look like it was.
But, my oh my, how we do get worked up about sex in this culture. It almost seems like inappropriate sexual behavior is worse than murder or serious assaults. At least, we tend to get more energized about it on social media. It reminds me of the way we used to be about addicts, especially alcoholics. Why don't they just stop drinking? Why don't they just take a look around themselves and see how they're ruining the lives of their loved ones? They can stop; they just don't want to. We've come a ways since then on our views about addiction and compulsive behavior. Alcoholism is an illness, isn't it? Addiction is an illness, isn't it? Compulsive sexual behavior is an illness, isn't it?
I once sat in an Abnormal Psychology class and listened to the instructor talking about mental illness as simply being an exotic extension of normal mentally healthy behavior. The difference, he posited, was a loss of control over his brain function. Is it possible that deviant sexual behavior is an extension of "normal" sexual behavior, with the intervening variable being a loss of self-control over sexual expression? I'm not sure a man like Louis CK would risk his career and future success over masturbating inappropriately, if he felt he actually had control over what he was doing or felt compelled to do. I am fully committed to the idea that there are some men who should be put away and never see the light of day again. There are evil men out there who humiliate and debase, beat and murder in a sexual manner. But like normal sexual behavior, there are also gradients of deviance, some of which can be changed. Shouldn't we treat these individuals as if they have an illness and be encouraging when they take steps toward rehabilitation?
We all fall on a continuum where sex is concerned. If we haven't gotten into any trouble because of our sexual behavior, we can applaud ourselves for our self-control. Just remember, there are still states who can legally prosecute you for deviant behavior if you have consensual oral sex with your partner.
I hope we can continue having conversations about sexuality here. I hope to make it more normal to do so. I mean, if you even say the word over and over enough, it becomes just another word. SEX, SEX, SEX...There, don't you feel better?
Recently, an actor named Anthony Rapp disclosed that the actor, Kevin Spacey, sexually assaulted him when Mr. Rapp was 14 and Mr. Spacey was 26. Since then, other men have disclosed similar behavior on Mr. Spacey's part, although these men ranged in age (at the time) between 17 and "in my twenties." The disclosures have set off a hailstorm of angry tweets, blog posts and conversations about Mr. Spacey's audacity in coming out as gay at the same time he apologized for what sounds like the sexual assault of a minor. The gay community, after years of educating the public that homosexuality and pedophilia are not related, is understandably angry with Mr. Spacey for seeming to blame his behavior on the fact that he is a gay man. Mr. Spacey says, in his apology, that he doesn't remember the incident (I suspect he does), but proceeds to apologize in one of those post-modern quasi-apologies that seem to benefit the perpetrator more than the victim. I am a fan of Mr. Spacey's acting, but I am not a fan of his seemingly predatory behavior.
Having worked for nearly forty years in the field of sexual deviancy, I have encountered many men of Mr. Spacey's ilk, men both confused and acutely aware of their sexual behavior, but unwilling to step forward and stop it before trouble comes knocking. But I am not here to offer conjecture on Mr. Spacey's sexuality. What I am most concerned with is how some have responded with his assault of Mr. Rapp by calling Mr. Spacey a pedophile. I have so far seen no evidence of that being true.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - V (DSM-V) describes a pedophilic disorder as intense and persistent sexual fantasies or behavior involving prepubescent children occurring over at least a six-month period (I'm paraphrasing here). I have always described to men in treatment with me that my definition of pedophilia is a person whose primary erotic interest is in prepubescent children. A true pedophile represents an absolute danger to young children and indeed is most eroticized by them.
While it's easy to crowd men who sexually assault minors all under one umbrella, it serves no gallant purpose to do so. There are other descriptors which work better and, in Mr. Spacey's case, may actually describe his behavior better. For example, ephebophilia, while not described as a disorder, is a sexual attraction to mid to late adolescents (those 15-19 years of age). In other words, not prepubescents, but those decidedly past puberty. Hebephilia, while also not described as a disorder, is a sexual interest in pubescent minors, or those who are going through or who have recently gone through puberty (those under 15). Anthony Rapp may very well fit into this category. Neither of these classifications describes pedophilia.
It is important that we make this distinction as we discuss the issues emerging in the news on a daily basis. Let's not call sexual assault sexual harassment. It diminishes sexual assault to do that. Let's not call ephebophilia pedophilia. It diminishes pedophilia to do that. And let's not take a "boys will be boys" attitude with any brand of inappropriate sexual behavior as it diminishes our newly emerging societal integrity to do so. What Anthony Rapp talks about is sexual assault, pure and simple. It is an adult male taking indecent liberties with a minor male. This does not, by definition, make Mr. Spacey a pedophile. Instead, it makes him a jerk with a very real sexual problem.
Given the title, I suppose I could be talking about men and their fantasies of women and that would be plenty normal and everyone would understand. But I would prefer to talk about women who choose to be therapist to men who have assaulted women and/or children. I don't pretend to be an expert about what goes on in these women's heads, but I have met and worked with a few and have learned a thing or two about their spirit and motivation.
I am currently writing a series of novels featuring a female protagonist who is a forensic psychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of sex offenders. It's a difficult sell; I'm the first to admit that. Who wants to read about that population of pervs? But it makes it doubly hard to sell the idea that a woman might have a real interest in treating these individuals with the hopes that they will get better. And everyone knows they'll never get better so it's a lost cause on top of everything else. Right? Wrong.
Over the course of the 40 years or so that I've been in this field, I've worked with a number of women. Some of these women have been probation officers, some have been prosecuting attorneys and judges, but the ones I know best have been the therapists, the women charged with establishing a working relationship with the men (and women) who have crossed deeply entrenched boundaries to commit crimes that hardly anyone ever wants to talk about. I imagine these women as angels of a sort. There can be all types of angels, of course (Satan, for example, was once an angel), and some do more effective work than others. I recall one incident many years ago when I was conducting groups with two female co-therapists, the newest one of which showed up at the first meeting wearing an extremely tight T-shirt sporting a picture of a cartoon man and woman, tongues hanging out, lusting after a rather large banana, with the logo, "Peel me one!" scrawled across the front, begging anyone close to take extra seconds to read it. It was my opinion this might not have been the best introduction to the group for this young professional woman to make. The men, on the other hand, seemed to treat her as their new favorite. I've worked with others on the opposite end of the scale; those who come through the door carrying a list of topics to be covered, of behaviors to be commented upon, of chips to be knocked off sturdy shoulders. The "tell me about your week, but you'd better have been good" type of therapist.
There are those women, however who approach this job with a modicum of respect for their clients, a strong need to right wrongs, and mostly with an understanding that these men would not be sitting in a group room with them if they didn't have something wrong in their adaptation to life and that they most likely would die for a chance to change that adaptation so they could feel "normal". Whether the men realize this or not, it's these women who turn out to be their saviors. They are willing to briefly ignore the sexist slights or misogynistic tone for the time being and restrain their anger or disappointment for a time when their response can be more therapeutic and the men can actually hear it and try to make changes.
Of course these women (and men) have their own reasons for getting into the field in the first place, and there will be more about that later, but the ones who stay, who survive the regular onslaught against their woman-ness, are the true angels. I worship them. So should you.
Thanks for reading. If you would like to be advised of when the next post comes out, please leave your name and e-mail address in the comments section.
Two-thirds of the year I live approximately 8500 feet up in the Andes Mountains of South America. I have never lived for any length of time in the mountains and it can be a frightful place. My house is situated at the base of an extinct volcano that serves as the gatekeeper for any weather coming in our direction. It's a muscular thing, officially called Mt. Imbabura, but more fondly called in indigenous folklore, Taitay Imbabura. Across the broad valley from Taitay, stands Mt. Cotacachi, or Mama Cotacachi. Legend has it that they are the father and mother of the region and it was formed due to their various disagreements and subsequent lovemaking over thousands of years. It rains whenever Taitay is angry or urinating, and if Mama wakes up on any given morning wearing a light dusting of pure white snow, well, then you know that the couple made up sometime during the night.
It can be difficult to breathe at such an altitude, especially for newcomers, and if you do visit, you might suffer from a nagging headache for a couple of days before you acclimate. I live about a mile or so from the sacred Peguche waterfall and it is one of my favorite walks should I become motivated to improve my health. For the most part, the hike takes me along a narrow stream (here called a river) that skirts the base of the mountain and then dives into a forest of eucalyptus and cypress and cedar. Here the path narrows and becomes humus-y and the stream runs clearer and starts up a chatter in the generally quiet surroundings. It is certainly peaceful, possibly because I am unable to see Taitay from there and I could very well be walking through the resplendent woods of North Idaho or Western Washington instead of on more sacred ground.
I can hear the waterfall about a hundred yards before I actually reach it and by that time I have woven my way through cows tethered in the long and very green grass near the path, young lovers planted against tall cedars, testing their abilities, and a few professorial gringos perhaps arguing over the necessity of the Oxford comma. All this before arriving at a platform, precariously built close enough to the falls to receive a continuous heavy mist created by raging water eating into volcanic rock. It is loud and breathtaking and I can see why the ancients considered it a sacred place. Most often I shiver not because of the drifting mist.
By the time I head back, my shirt is soaked, so Taitay having a fit won't really affect me, or so I think. In May of this year, a record was set for the amount of rainfall or urine or tears Taitay managed to produce over the course of the month and on my last trip to visit the waterfall, all hell broke loose. I have been in downpours before, having grown up in Southwest Washington State, or running from the subway to my hotel room in New York City, but Taitay was especially angry this last time. Within ten yards, my shirt and pants were pasted to my body and my hair, in spite of the deluge, seemed to be prickling with every strike of the jagged lightning. I took off jogging, a mistake for me at any altitude these days, and by the time I reached my front gate, I was gasping for the oxygen deprived me by my life-threatening decision to live in an exotic location. But I lived, again, and after one of his most thundering roars, I dropped to my knees and bowed to Papa Imbabura, vowing to find the culprit who had flipped his climatic switch.
Drying off later, it occurred to me I'd been here before. Turns out living at 8500 feet is not all that different from living through a normal November in the Pacific Northwest (on an entirely different continent, I might add). Except for that nagging headache.
It is always an honor to be able to publish a new book and up to this time, I have only published through a large house in NYC. SCABLANDS is my first foray into independent publishing and I am proud to be represented by Wellborn Books and its CEO, Maria Morton. It is also my first stab (pun intended) at the thriller/mystery genre. The main character, Carmen Carillo is a forensic psychologist who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of sexual offenders. But Carmen was not always the main character. I worked as a shrink for sex offenders for over 35 years and my plan was to create a male protagonist, and due to my vast experience, be able to knock out the first novel in record time. Oh writers, we can be both silly and hopeful at the same time. I found out I was far to close to the subject matter and after much deliberation, decided to try a female lead. Wow. What a lesson. I learned it is possible to be silly and right at the same time. I busted through the first draft in mere weeks. And I'm here to introduce you to the result: SCABLANDS, a work I am very proud of.
Stay tuned for more about this book and the series of books starring Carmen Carillo, as well as plenty of info about different types of offenders and therapists and prosecutors and public defenders and polygraphists and victims and families connected with this difficult subject. It is my honor and great fortune to be here, which reminds me of one other topic you may find on these pages. My patchwork of scars. I hope to answer the question: "How many times can one person be diagnosed with cancer and still survive?" Talk to you soon.