Dave: (This is a continuation of the session with the Martin Family: See the post from 9/23, “Disrupting A Unified Family Story”)
The Martins scheduled a second session. Then the family left my office. I made a short phone call then headed for the hall. Mother was waiting for me just outside my door, her husband and the kids had gone to get the car. Her body was tense and she started into an urgent description of John’s father. There was a startling contrast between her manner in the office and this frenzied woman in the doorway. My memory affected by her intense emotion somewhat distorts the situation. Her face was close to mine, her hair now slightly undone, her eyes larger, mouth distorted by emotion, she spoke rapidly in an intense hushed undertone.
She had not wanted to say much in front of the children, and expanded on details of what sounded like five years of horror for her. He had beaten her. He was involved in a trucking accident that killed a friend. She was certain he had murdered the man and made it look and sound like an accident. She left him after he “body slammed” her and fractured her coccyx. Her ex-husband had been a bad boy, who did not graduate from high school. “I am afraid (projective identification, of course) John will be just like him”. There was much more urgency and emotion in the doorway interaction than what had occurred during the interview.
After she left I rethought our interaction. It was obvious she was a seriously traumatized woman, she concealed the depth of her disruption by her composure during the interview. She was a dramatically different woman in the hallway afterwards. I guessed the way they told the story in the office, with John as the impossible problem, organized experience to keep anxiety away.
Several days later, she left a message canceling their appointment. No explanation. I had no further contact with them. I let the pediatrician know what had happened and encouraged him to send them back. I was disappointed they never returned. I wanted to be helpful but felt as though I let them down.
There was a great deal unsaid, but I thought through possible explanations for this experience. I have been doing this for 40 years, so I considered a number of variables to make some assumptions based on my experiences. What comes next are things I don’t know, but what I constructed out of experience with many families.
The mother had been a single parent for nearly 5 years. It is likely John, her oldest child, was her closest emotional relationship during those years after this very traumatic marriage. Like all little boys he felt responsible for his mother. Then when he was about 9, the new man showed up. It is not unusual in this situation, for a young boy to be upset, and misbehave when the new man is around, especially if the new man doesn’t know how to connect with kids. The byproduct to the misbehavior is that the new man sees how to be important to the new woman in his life. He will get this little kid under control. The mother can’t control him. He will show her how it is done.
Conjecture about the husband- man. He was a small, taciturn man with a poker face. He contributed to the conversation, but only in a limited way. He had been in the military before becoming a prison guard. I had no evidence of him being ‘abusive’. But his background suggested he was a man who knew the rules and knew how to enforce them. I imagined him to have a ‘zero tolerance’ mindset. He was not good at discussion. She, with her history of abuse, was not good at challenging let alone questioning a man like him. She complied with his rule system, not only for the kids, but for her. She was careful not to challenge him, and learned to say she sees things as he does even when she wasn’t sure. She probably was not much good at “zero tolerance”. She dared not challenge his parenting pattern, it must be good, it is endorsed by the State Department of Corrections. It worked on inmates it should work on her son.
Mother altered herself to accommodate this rigidly conservative man. It is likely the man defined his chief rival, John, as misbehaving. If he didn’t call him “sir.” He was misbehaving. If his room was not up to military or prison standards he was misbehaving. John became a problem as he entered puberty—(symbolically) his manhood was emerging—and that is likely why she began to see him as “like his father”. And seeing him like his father was deeply unsettling.
Mother was grateful to have a man who was not physically threatening. But he threatened—implicitly, to be disappointed in her. She learned to accommodate his needs, his patterns. He was not physically punishing. But she did not feel the support that comes from being loved. She felt support by doing her duty which meant seeing John as bad boy. The Corrections Officer was what I call “insane”, locked inside sanity, locked in unbending, pathological sanity.
the observations of my therapeutic practice with these kind of family unity is that they tend to present something royal. and still, one cannot stop that intuition that something important is being held back. something is lacking. and then, there is the black sheep that tends to disrupt the unity order.