Take it to the Limit, Part II
In Take it to the Limit, Part I we met the Leader of the Pack, the tall and confident head honcho in a group of adolescent boys in residential treatment. He never challenged me again after our initial encounter, and at various times he even spoke up when other boys in the group were getting too far out of line. They listened to him. They followed him. But that doesn’t mean he always made for a great role model. One day sexual perpetration reared its ugly head in a session, courtesy of the Leader of the Pack and his impulsive imagery, and what ensued amounted to a symbolic gang rape against me—though all group members were otherwise in control of themselves. When a therapist suddenly finds herself or himself victimized by a group that’s cooperative and compliant but using non-verbal processes to indicate a loss of limits, how can limits be restored via non-verbal means?
Here’s how it went down. The boys in this adolescent RTC group had expressed a desire to create body-tracing drawings. (As an aside, I would caution most therapists against using this method in the absence of graduate coursework or supervised training that covered the therapeutic indications and contraindications of body-tracing drawings; otherwise, they’re on their own when it comes to defending themselves if a client accuses them of anything inappropriate or if a client is retraumatized.) With staff present to protect both myself and the boys, the group members took turns tracing each other.
The Leader of the Pack took his turn on the floor, lying on his back on top of a huge sheet of clean paper. But before his tracing partner could make a move, the Leader suddenly turned so that he was lying on his side. And thus his body tracing was made in profile. Others began to imitate this. Once the body tracings had been completed, the boys began to use various drawing materials to embellish them.
That’s when the Leader of the Pack really decided to embellish his body tracing. Taking advantage of the fact that his had been made in profile, he quickly added a phallus large enough to need its own scale (if you’ve been to Pompeii and seen the image of Priapus in the House of the Vetti, you understand what I’m talking about). He was obviously pleased with his decision and its outcome, and the other boys in the group then began devising creative ways to add disproportionate phalluses to their own body tracings.
The process of embellishing actually took several sessions. In each, the boys were cooperative and compliant as well as crude and crass, making sure I noticed what their drawings were about. I chose to remain neutral, the silent victim, and was supported by my supervisor in doing this. Why? I’m sure the RTC staff members who were witnesses to the process also wondered the same thing.
Finally, the day came when the group members would be hanging their finished body-tracing drawings on the wall and sitting in front of them to discuss and celebrate their work. There was much laughter and whooping as the boys helped each other collect the drawings, which had been completed in the previous session, and tape them in front of a semi-circle of chairs. Then we all took a seat, myself included, and beheld the series of hyper-masculinized images. Suddenly the group members fell silent and looked at the floor. Feet shuffled and bodies shifted uncomfortably.
The Leader of the Pack was the first to speak. “This is embarrassing”, he said. The other group members mumbled in agreement. The Leader then initiated a conversation about the drawings and the energy behind them as being inappropriately directed at me. The boys, some of whom had been sexually victimized and went on to become perpetrators themselves, realized that they couldn’t continue to run from the effects of their actions against others. They were staring face-to-face with their inner offender.
And that’s why I’d chosen to remain neutral and silent during the embellishment—and victimization—phase. Had the boys displayed overtly dangerous or destructive behavior, I would have made a different therapeutic call. But because the loss of limits happened via image, the restoration of limits also needed to happen via image. If I’d spoken up about the symbolic behavior that was happening all around me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to neutralize the situation—in fact, I might have added more charge to it while depriving the group members of the opportunity to see themselves. Trusting the process yielded greater therapeutic gain than anything I could have forced upon the group.
The session ended with apologies and other gestures that helped the group members move themselves out of shame and toward guilt—which was a step in the right direction. They never again used the group to perpetrate against me, although there were still the struggles one would expect from adolescents in residential treatment. Even so, one by one, they left the facility, the Leader of the Pack included.
I’d like to say that the Leader of the Pack never pushed limits again. But one night sometime after his discharge, he and another former group member were drinking along the tracks of a commuter rail. The Leader decided to play chicken with the train, and he left behind a three-year old daughter. For some of the people we serve, taking it to the limit one more time can mean taking it to the limit one last time. I’ll never forget you, the Leader of the Pack.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan May 2014