The Power of Reason (Delaware Wave)

It seems that we’ll never truly hear the end of the horrific case of Earl Bradley, the pediatrician who abused so many children at his office in Lewes, De. The entire situation is almost unthinkable, but it has generated many letters and emails posing questions and assumptions about the mental state of the victims.

The majority of the questions address those who have since come out of the woodwork as teens or adults, claiming mental trauma over alleged childhood abuse — by Bradley or otherwise. Are they just indulging themselves by complaining, or have their psyches indeed been wounded in ways that resist amelioration? Several emails suggested that these wounds could never respond to verbal techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Some people assume that early childhood trauma inevitably, and without exception, ruins people for adulthood. There is no proof of this. In fact, I have spoken to many people over the years who have risen above their childhood traumas, while many others simply don’t remember them and don’t care to. And they’re doing just fine.

Those who question if talk-therapy, i.e., appealing to reason, is enough to ‘cure’ the victims never propose any alternative. So what is a therapist to do in order to help his or her clients heal? Primal screaming? Finger-crossing? Staring at ink blots? What could be better than a regimen based on thought, common sense, and observation of reality as it is today? The only alternative is the pious recommendation that the victims ‘work through’ their childhood issues. This vague, overused buzzword has no meaning unless it’s defined concretely.

Are people who were wounded psychologically in childhood seeking sympathy simply by saying out loud — perhaps for the first time — that it happened? I don’t think so. But there’s always the danger that this can become self-serving if the victim continues to state these truths over and over again in an attempt to excuse his or her not taking responsibility for setting new goals and living life to the fullest in the here and now.

After years of counseling experience, I can count on one hand the number of clients who have asked to spend a lot of time focusing on their childhoods. In fact, dwelling on the past is almost always the therapist’s idea. I promote the concept of ‘solutions, not excuses,’ and just about 100% of my clients tell me this is exactly what they want and need. A surprising number of people come to me after previous attempts at ‘traditional’ therapies (centered on re-living childhood and almost nothing else) have failed — except perhaps for putting a pool in the therapist’s back yard.

Interestingly, most of the criticism I receive comes from fellow therapists and humanities ‘intellectuals’ in general. They insist that ‘It can’t be that simple. You’re leaving out the complexity.’ But they never — ever — identify what that complexity might be. They acknowledge that childhood is often wounding and painful, and of course this is true, especially in cases of abuse. And there’s no doubt that some objective review of the past can be helpful. But when that degenerates into years and years of open-ended focusing on the past, it leaves little room for honest feedback to change ideas, feelings, and behaviors in the present.

Some people assume that I and similarly minded therapists are somehow ‘blaming the victim’ because we hold the psychologically damaged adult responsible for changing his self-defeating beliefs. No, we don’t blame the victims for what the victimizers did. But we do encourage those victims to accept the fact that what’s done is done. And the only person who can do anything about it in the here-and-now is the client. Rather than spending the rest of one’s life seething in anger, wouldn’t it be better to work toward putting it behind you, moving on, and remembering that the best revenge is living well?

In this age of entitlement and self-serving victimhood, it’s not fashionable to hold individuals responsible for the improvement of their own psyches. But it’s actually more respectful and dignified to do that very thing. I have confidence in the potential of human beings, as well as confidence in their power of reason and thought. And that power can do a lot more to help a suffering person, than flawed therapy that ‘helps’ the client remain a victim forever.