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Working With The Scum of The Earth
Gary Gross, MFT

It was my first sex offender group, and I was the new “guy” hired to co-facilitate the group with a seasoned female therapist. The year was 1988. Thinking I could mostly observe for my first day, I was relaxed while we were doing check-in and a fellow looked directly at me and asked in a challenging manner “So, how do you feel about working with the scum of the earth?” There was a palpable silence, as everyone waited to hear my response. This was a test...

I considered the usual therapist ploys to gain some time and shift the focus—”Do you feel you’re the scum of the earth?” or “How do you feel about having a new therapist in the group?” or “Why would you ask this kind of question?” But, in keeping with being a “real object” (and maybe just not being very quick on my feet), I simply told the group what I felt—that they were getting help, working on their issues, and trying to understand what led them to become sex offenders; that I didn’t consider them the “scum of the earth”, and that I admired their courage to look honestly at their thinking and how this developed into hurtful behavior.

I guess I passed the test because the group deepened that night, and I have continued working with sex offenders in group and individual treatment for the last 20-some years. During this time I’ve often considered why I do this work, what makes it satisfying, and what kind of qualities it takes to do therapy with this population. I’ve been involved with a number of “support groups” with other sex offender therapists, and I see that many professionals in this field struggle with the same kinds of questions. I know I don’t do it for the money or the social support, and when I was a boy I know it was not a goal for my adult life. Like many of us, I “fell” into the work and found that I enjoyed it.

Those of us who continue in this field are a rare breed. At the job mentioned above I replaced a man who worked just one year with this population. When I was taking my licensing exams (when there used to be orals with real live people), one of the standard questions was: “Is there any population of clients that you would have difficulty working with?” and the safe answer was “sex offenders.” At social gatherings I rarely bring up my work, knowing that in a reverse kind of “halo effect” this subject is the kiss of death when everyone is making polite conversation, testing the waters of how intimate to be, and wanting to make a good impression.

In a past life I was a Sociologist (M.A., SF State Univ.,1976), so sometimes I do my own little experiment and actually tell people at social gatherings what I do. Since I have worked with the victims of abuse for the same number of years, I might tell interested strangers about this work, and they all gather ‘round showing support, concern, and a tangible positive regard. When I tell them about working with sex offenders, they grow quiet, and I don’t think it’s my projection that they seem uncomfortable. The conversation lags, and I (or they) move on.

This is a mini example of what my clients face every day, and the reason most of them are so afraid to be honest. The discrimination they experience because of their crimes is evident to all who work with them, and for the majority of the population in California (70% voted for Prop. 83 in 2006), these men and women are, in fact, “the scum of the earth.”

During a recent presentation I gave to my local adult probation department, one of the officers spoke with enthusiasm about the need for “confrontation” with sex offenders, and she suspected I wasn’t “tough enough” on them. I assured her I was able to confront when it was necessary, but that there is much research emerging that suggests offenders respond better to treatment that is compassionate. In my experience, offenders take confrontation much more to heart, as well, and are then better able to generalize their offense specific behavior to other behaviors that involve compulsivity, affect dysregulation, or an abuse of power.

In Jack Kornfield’s most recent book The Wise Heart, he speaks about the need for compassion, saying “When we bring respect and honor to those around us, we open a channel to their own goodness...When they experience someone who respects and values them, it gives them the ability to admire themselves, to accept and acknowledge the good inside.” He later says “We need compassion, not anger, to help us be tender with our difficulties and not close off to them in fear. This is how healing takes place.”

Establishing this authentic relationship is not easy. One of my favorite quotations from The Difficult Connection by Geral Blanchard comes from Indira Ghandi: “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” Perhaps our most important job in the initial stages of treatment is to help that fist relax, and one of the best ways to do this is with clinical skill borne of experience and the simple use of compassion. As Blanchard states in his conclusion, “When we distance ourselves from our vulnerabilities by disclaiming them, the cycle of abuse goes on. When we regard sex offenders as a very different breed of men, the climate for oppression goes unchallenged.”

Acknowledging our own mistakes is one way we can continue to have compassion. This is very much a field where “burn out” is a manifest problem. James M. Barrie wrote that “Life is a long lesson in humility” and the older I get the more I realize this to be true. All of us have done hurtful, stupid, or illegal things in our lives, and the way we pass these off to ourselves is not so different from how the sex offender rationalizes, denies, dismisses or otherwise engages in cognitive distortions. In his most recent book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, Irvin Yalom writes: “No matter how brutal, cruel, forbidden or alien a patient’s experience, you can locate in yourself some affinity to it if you are willing to enter into your own darkness.”

While working with "the scum of the earth" may seem bizarre or depressing, this kind of treatment is on the front lines for the prevention of sexual abuse. This is the challenge of the work, and one of the reasons it can be so rewarding.


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Corte Madera, CA

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