By Steven Ing
I awakened to the sound of yelling and screams; my younger brother slept through it all. I began hearing a sequence of loud concussions as my mother's body hit the walls of our little home. I could tell it was my dad out there with her. I sort of caved in on myself in a fugue of indecision: go out there and save my mother, or stay safe but utterly tormented by her pleading and crying. I initially went with safe, but those sounds were too much. I covered my head with the pillow — trying desperately to block them out — but my little pillow wasn't up to the job. When I couldn't take any more, I sat up and shouted, "Stop it! Stop it!" A hush fell over us all.
The ensuing silence confirmed that perhaps my father did have enough decency to not beat my mother with witnesses present.
I was 5 years old.
I spent much of my childhood refining and practicing many of the techniques that would ultimately serve me as a psychotherapist later in my life.
But because it came so easily to me, because of the sheer amount of work I had done in understanding my family by the time I entered the workforce, I initially rejected the idea of becoming a counselor. Upon reflection, that initial rejection was predictable: I had grown up as the eldest child of an alcoholic mother and a father whose own mental illnesses would never be fully known, because he was shot to death in an encounter with police when I was only 12 years old. My father led a life of violent crime and intimidation of authority. He was unarmed when he was killed, but police made sure he would never come back from that final confrontation; medical personnel stated he was so full of lead, bullets fell out of his body when it was picked up for removal.
While working toward my own healing after such an inauspicious beginning, I began what would become a lifetime's search for why and how good people (even the police, in some cases) can come to do bad things, and why couples who start off with so much love and hope can go so disastrously off course from their dreams.
Currently Freud is out of fashion. But he somehow seems relevant to my understanding how I had become so fascinated with helping other damaged men like my father when they too had committed terrible acts — usually against their own loved ones. I came to realize that by helping the fathers of other children, I was helping them in a way I wished I could have helped my own father — and ultimately supporting those children in a way I wish I could have been supported. I came to realize that my work helping others was a way in which that five-year-old boy could begin facing the overwhelming terrors of the past.
In my years of helping people who had behaved very badly, even criminally, I learned that helping them was impossible without first understanding them, and that true understanding was impossible without love and compassion. That last bit came easier than you might imagine when I realized no one begins a life choosing to become a wife beater or a child molester. We all want the same things, and somehow, some of us lose our way.
I came to see that if I cared about victims, I should spend far more time helping perpetrators. Many perpetrators have multiple victims, after all, and helping one bad guy helps prevent their potential future victims from ever becoming victims.
As my career has unfolded, sex crimes, violent crimes and tormented marriages have remained my focus. And from these overwhelmingly sad situations, I have learned how to help those of us who may never commit crimes but also never find lasting personal happiness.
I have come to see that just as alcoholics who shared their stories (like First Lady Betty Ford) gave rise to our learning about functional and dysfunctional families, so too could the sexually criminal and the violent individual teach us how to have more loving and peaceful homes and personal lives. These individuals can and do teach us about functional and dysfunctional sexuality and how to become truly loving and happy in our relationships—if only we can begin to listen to the lessons they have to teach us. What they have taught me is that our learning to love in an intelligent way is what we were made to do, and that — in the end — this knowledge can help us experience rich, fulfilling lives no matter where we begin our journey.