How it's done, in Damon's own words
I remember the first day I came to his office. There was a little waiting room on the floor below, with piles and piles of magazines. I couldn’t figure out why they had so many magazines before, but considering the number of times I went there I could have read some of them all.
Then Dr. Breffni Barrett came down to greet us, with his professional smile and a greying stubble. He brought us up to the office on the second floor so we could see it, telling me I wouldn’t be starting the sessions at first. I understand now that that was so that my brothers could warm up to my father first; it would make me the only one in the room resisting.
But at the time I was fine with it; after all, I had no desire to begin “Reunification Therapy” with my father. I was forced to do this under the threat that we must if we wanted to see our mom, who we hadn’t seen in over six months. I figured I’d just wait them out, not budge. I only had about a month of sessions until when we were supposed to get visits with my mother, so it shouldn’t be too hard.
That didn’t pan out as expected, but that’ll come later.
A few months passed by before I began, with only Evan and Ryan having to take the 30 minute car-ride twice a week down to San Diego. I wasn’t a very happy camper during this time, since I was having a hard time adjusting to middle school. Combine one part lack of social experience and one part traumatized by the loss of my support system and you’ve baked up a delicious world upside down cake. For the frosting on top, mix one part no one understands me and two parts philosophy to make me sit under a tree every lunch meditating, alone in the quad.
Then came the day that I needed to begin sessions. I walked in the front door with my guardians and brothers, all of us sitting in the waiting room below. My father was already in the room. I glanced through a Discovery magazine for a few minutes until I saw Dr. Barrett's figure lumber down the white carpeted stairs. My brothers and I followed him up those stairs and into a hallway. After taking two right turns, we arrived at his office.
His office was two rooms. One of them had his desk and computer, along with some bookshelves and artwork. The one you entered into, though, had a plush white armchair on your right along with a matching couch right in front of you. The couch was against a window through which a soft, white light filtered through. On your left was a comfortable swiveling chair.
When we entered, I had my hand up to my face, blocking my father from view. I said that I didn’t want to see his face, so Dr. Barrett and my brothers sat on the couch. Eric was sitting in the armchair, so I took Dr. Barrett’s usual swiveling chair and turned it to face his wall.
That was the first thing he had to work on, obviously. If I refused to even look at him, how could I ever be convinced to leave behind all my beliefs and live with him?
This is important simply because it highlights the magnitude that the doctor was able to change me. That there was no way that I simply changed on my own and decided it was okay to live with Eric. I came into that office refusing to even chance a look at him between my fingers, believing that what the court was doing was an injustice and that forcing me unwillingly into therapy with the threat of my mother was detestable. I left that office believing that I was fairly safe living with good old dad and that the problems did not spawn from the court but that the way to move forward lay in my mother’s desperate hands.
So that was the first week. Dr. Barrett continuously told me how a look couldn’t hurt me and that even if my father was abusive he wouldn’t hurt me in his office. I retorted that he molested me and I didn’t want to talk to him, much less see his face. My father kept up pitiful pleadings for mercy from a crime he said never existed.
I remember distinctly that sometime along these lines Eric kept dropping lines like, “I understand completely that it’s not your fault,” and “to no fault of your own”. Even then I knew that he was pushing the blame and wrongdoing onto my mother, albeit in an unsaid manner. This made it seem more appealing to give in and say yes. After all, I wouldn’t be admitting my wrongdoing; I would just be allowing my mother to be blamed, a much easier pill to swallow.
Also early in the therapy Dr. Barrett introduced me to his projector, which dropped from the ceiling behind the couch. On this he showed me the video he had from one of the first times I ever reported the abuse, at the Chadwick center.
At five or six years old, I was a bundle of energy that wasn’t easily contained in the confines of the kid-friendly room. The couch there was just a sort of carpeted piece sticking out of the wall, with neon colors and abstract blobs on it. I don’t remember everything from the video, but one thing that the doctor made sure stuck out in my mind was what happened when the interviewer left the room. I was just a kid, and I was leaping off of the couch and curiously examining my reflection in the one-way mirror.
Then Dr. Barrett tried to use this as evidence that I wasn’t abused. He said that victims of sexual abuse wouldn’t be as happy and energetic on the outside as I was, and that since I just spoke of a “hard thing” that it mustn’t have been sexual abuse. He said that the idea of sexual abuse spawned purely from my mom, and she convinced me that it was true. My father brought up his defense from several years before that he pulled me over the bar of my bunk bed, and that’s what had happened. Of course, this defense only covered the first incident of abuse, not the years of ensuing reports.
I still insisted on what he did, but nevertheless after a week or two I was able to turn my chair around and look at his face. I noticed he didn’t seem to have as much hair, with his beard shaved cleanly off and his head hair thinning. He didn’t look like the man I remembered him to be. He looked… cleaner.
At this point Dr. Barrett no longer overtly tried to convince me that I was lying and that Eric never did anything. It must have seemed futile after a few weeks, since I hadn’t budged in the slightest. I knew I was abused, and his frontal assault fell miserably against my will.
Now emotional ploys started to be dropped all over the place. “Well he’s still your dad,” and, “He raised you all that time, and this is what he gets?” came from the doctor, while Eric kept dropping anecdotes to things I had done when I was little. “I remember when you were just a little runt and we used to…” became more common by the session, at which point I really did start to feel sorry for the poor old chap.
Now was the time for the ultimate message, the pinnacle everything else culminated into: put the past in the past and move on. Since it seemed that they wouldn’t convince my brothers nor I that the abuse didn’t occur, they came up with the second best option. Even if the abuse was real, it was a long time ago and we should get on with our lives.
It’s not hard to see how sugar-coated this would be to three young, tired, traumatized children. Especially after, for the first time in years, experiencing what a social life was like; Dr. Barrett pinned down exactly what we wanted to do. Exactly what any kid in that situation would want to do. We wanted to forget about it; we wanted to just try to have as much fun as we could.
This also played on another basic desire: inactivity. It meant we could throw our hands up in the air and not go through the tiring struggle of trying to get back to our mom. The summer before, we had been running away to her house in the middle of the night. Granted, it was made sure we wouldn’t want to do it again.
So now we just sat back and tried to make the best of it while idly hoping something would happen. It also chipped away at our responsibility to not get influenced by the doctor, so it really worked two ways.
Another thing to note is that I was really into philosophy at the time. And leaving things in the past is a major concept in philosophies too, where it helps liberate people from past experiences that continue to haunt them. This is a good thing, and I still think that leaving the past in the past is a good exercise that probably most of you reading this would benefit from.
The only problem with how Dr. Barrett did it is that we weren’t leaving the past in the past. We were leaving the present in the past. In the present my mom had all contact with us stripped away. In the present I was going to be living with an unpredictably apathetic person. In the present the court battle still raged, and in the present we were being told it was in the past. That’s why, for people who have memories that truly don’t influence their lives any longer, letting it go is a good thing that can lighten the soul. Yet at the same time, those same words can truly reflect a false pretense that everything is just fine.
At some point my stepmother, Nicole, started attending a few of the sessions. I pitied her, mostly. To me, she was another victim of my father, so she was more likeable than this contradictive psychologist or my abusive dad. The only important thing I remember her doing is simply supporting my father with anecdotes about how amazing he is and that he would never harm a hair on our heads. Sometimes there was some guilt tripping about how distraught my father seemed when we were still in hiding. Otherwise she was just agreed with everything Dr. Barrett said.
My brothers and I really wanted to talk about the court case, though, not about our father. Whenever we brought up why it was the court wouldn’t listen to what we wanted, we were told that they were afraid our mother would influence us. Then they would say how bad it would be if we ever were influenced by her, and that she was very persuasive. Basically, that forcing us to spend hours in confrontational therapy trying to change our beliefs was okay, but if we were moved by what our mom said that she was horrible for trying to change our opinions.
We needed to make up our minds on our own, after all. Dr. Barrett was just introducing us to new ideas, showing us the other side of the story. Mom had while we were in hiding to tell us all about her side of it, so now we owed it to everyone to hear our father.
Which leads us into another major category, that of the great divide. That’s the concept that there are two sides to our story: our mom’s and our dad’s. The idea of truth was eradicated, instead replaced by a “we may never know what happened” mentality. This put my reports of sexual abuse and my father’s denials on the same level, a he-said she-said. Though my reports of abuse no longer were mine, and were pushed onto my mother’s case.
Ignored also was the probabilities of which is true. We were convinced not to look for what really happened; it was in the past and should stay there (Sound familiar?). There was no way to be absolutely 100 percent sure of what went down, so somehow that makes it a fifty-fifty scenario. Even though children practically never lie about abuse and child molesters practically never tell the truth, even though I had corroborating evidence, even though my father had no coherent story, even though the court had shoddily investigated, even though my father failed a polygraph test, we still couldn’t be sure. So there was still the possibility that he was innocent.
By now Dad, which they made me call him, was starting to have parties at his house. He would invite some of my old friends from before we went into hiding to his house, mention it during the sessions, ask if we wanted to come. Dr. Barrett would say that that would be a good way of reintegrating since there were so many people there. He wouldn’t do anything with all those witnesses.
Oh man was it enticing. A party with friends I hadn’t seen for years? The promise of safety? Good food? It was so much more appealing than sitting by myself in the home of guardians that I hadn’t known more than a year. Still I refused for a few weeks. Once Evan and Ryan started going, though, I followed suit.