We lived so far north in New York State that when I gave IQ tests to children and asked them what two countries bordered the United States, they invariably said “Canada and Albany.” I was doing a full-time two-year internship at a community mental health center to supplement my research psychology degree with clinical experience so I could become a psychotherapist. New York state had a slot for such a job that paid a real-job salary rather than the token stipends paid around Boston, where I had gotten my Ph.D. from Harvard.
My husband graduated before me as a sociologist and took a job teaching at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, right on Lake Champlain, a ferry ride from Grand Isle Vermont and a one-hour drive south of Montreal, just north of the Adirondacks. After one year of commuting to see each other, we decided to move in together near Plattsburgh, where I spent the next two years completing my dissertation, working at my full-time clinical job, and finishing a small painting or pastel every morning before work of the gorgeous farmland surrounding our condo, viewed from the front and back sliding doors, documenting the changing seasons. I had been painting since my mother got me private lessons at sixteen, a life-long gift, and continued to take studio art courses until the move to Plattsburgh.
The job was both fascinating and grueling, my patient population extremely diverse, but with one thing in common: a multitude of incestuous families. Plattsburgh was the hub of mental health treatment for the university, Dannemora state prison guard families, family social services which were just downstairs, family court which was down the street, and the local Air Force base, the oldest in the US, which has since closed.
The way incest was treated depended on the population. I ran an incest group for adolescent girls, and in it was one girl whose father was imprisoned in Dannemora for twenty years for sexually abusing her and her friends. There was another girl whose incestuous father was in the Air Force and he received no repercussions at all. This was before incest was recognized as a pervasive societal problem.
The girl with the father in Dannemora wanted to visit her father there for the first time after many years. She was sixteen and felt ready. His therapist and I talked about the wisdom of such a visit and it seemed her father wanted to apologize to her and she was eager to hear it. So on a bright winter day, she, a fellow male therapist and I entered the barbed wire gates of the maximum security Clinton County Correctional Facility and were led to a large room with a long, wide table. She was seated between me and the male therapist. Her father was seated on the other side in chains.
They both started to sob. He apologized to her for what he had done, but also said that he did it because it was done to him. I said that was no excuse. Mostly they were both silent, crying, until the guard said the time was up. She cried all the way back to the clinic, but later said she was grateful for the opportunity to see him. We also had some sessions with her mother who was essentially a useless, brain-damaged alcoholic. The Air Force adolescent’s family refused to be involved in any treatment at all.
I wore out after two years and started to bug my husband to find another job near Boston. I read the classifieds in his Sociology journals and found a job at Tufts University. He stayed there for the rest of his career, into his sixties, when he died of cancer. I had some excellent clinical positions in the interim.
Now that he is gone, I have retired. The first thing I did was discard all of my books on sexual abuse. I dumped them in a book box outside of a Catholic church. They repulsed me. It’s been three years since his death and I still watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit every day. I know every script by heart. But I am grateful to no longer have to try to fix anybody but myself, which is hard enough.