Friday, June 23, 1995

(!995) Therapist examines strategies for dealing with incest

Therapist examines strategies for dealing with incestBy Linda Bayer
Washington Jewish Week - June 23, 1995

When Cloe Madanes explained her revolutionary treatment for incest to a group of Israelis recently -- the perpetrator begs forgiveness on his knees before the victim -- an audience member said the technique would never work for Jews because they are forbidden to kneel.

On the contrary, Madanes replied. Maimonides made one exception to the prohibition against bowing down: when a person has sexually violated another.

Madanes, who related the story in a recent interview, says the Bible offers many such insights into the nature of sexual abuse.

For her new book, "Sex, Love and Violence; Strategies for Transformation," she began her research on incest, sexual violence and sadism by delving into Scripture. The result was a 16-step recovery program aimed at transforming violence back into love.

The strategy employs rituals for repentance and reparation that must precede forgiveness and psychological healing. Reminiscent of the Yom Kippur service that emphasizes slichah (pardon), tshuvah (return from sin) and tzedakah (charity to compensate for wrong-doing), she asks the perpetrator to offer money to the victim in addition to words of regret.

In the process, Madanes involves the extended family and ultimately the community in the healing process, calling upon the "tribe" to correct egregious assaults upon intimate relationships. She searches for strong members of the community to serve as protectors for victims of rape. Later, she brings the offender within the family back into a protective role.

In outlining these steps, Madanes has put together an optimistic book about what people can do to work through the often agonizing aftermath of sexual abuse.

In the process, she singles out the conflict between love and violence as the essential problem in life and the source of all therapy.

"People struggle for power over their own lives and the lives of others," she writes. "The wish to love and protect others is the highest human aim."

"Sex, Love, and Violence" connects the development of psychology to a decay among religious institutions during the 20th century. Madanes, co-director of the Family Therapy Institute of Washington, D.C., also criticizes psychology for separating morality from therapy.

Relating psychotherapy to mysticism, she says the practitioner must identify with the client's pain if treatment is to be successful.

Sometimes humor works well as a therapeutic tool. "Like a comedian, the optimistic therapist rises above the horror but never forgets it," Madanes writes.

In directing recovery from traumas like rape and incest, Madanes asks the entire family to kneel before the victim and apologize for not realizing what was happening or taking steps to protect the victim.

Later, the therapist meets alone with the victim and discusses how a person who has survived terrible violations can develop special qualities of compassion.

Not that Madanes confuses the issue of responsibility. In her view, perpetrators almost always claim to have been provoked, seeking to share blame with victims -- an approach she condemns.

However, Madanes also helps those who have been hurt to find ways to accept the past without denying their pain.

She notes that abusers were frequently attacked themselves as children and that the fathers of these assailants usually had sexual problems. Still, she does not excuse the rapist on these grounds.

According to Madanes, family members often reject her view that because a sexual assault targets a person's spirit, it is worse than a physical attack.

Yet when all other steps are complete, Madanes works to help offenders forgive themselves -- but not before amends have been made to victims.

In the book, she also deals with the violation of human rights in divorce cases, noting that it is "a woman's natural right to live with her children."

And she criticizes the destruction of a moral framework that results from the termination of parental rights, which she said often occurs in an arbitrary fashion in America.

In "Sex, Love, and Violence," Madanes confronts some of the most depraved aspects of human behavior without distraction or distortion.

Meanwhile, she musters the courage to hope for healing in situations that might easily elicit despair even among doctors exposed to all types of perversion.

Most touching are the transcripts of actual cases in which therapists make progress with offenders and families.

"Sex, Love, and Violence; Strategies for Transformation" by Cloe Madanes (256 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95).

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