A Perilous Opportunity
To appreciate the elegant simplicity of the impulse that arrived last fall during the meditation retreat, one must have at least some appreciation for the complexity of the situation we were facing. Adam, for example, has been in a relationship with Myra’s mother since before the abuse, which was understandably aggravating a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship.
After moving through the judicial system, Adam embarked upon a lengthy therapy program for sex offenders. Later he returned to the neighborhood, where everyone was aware of his problem, and renewed his friendships with the members of Light Morning community, including Lauren. Myra, on the other hand, hadn’t seen Adam since the abuse. Her father and step-mother were convinced that complete isolation from the person who had abused her was the best path toward healing.
During the summer of 1998, some of our neighbors were beginning to voice deep concerns about the festering emotional wounds and their effects upon the girls. One friend sent Adam an incendiary, frontal-assault letter.
This simplified sketch hints at the emotionally charged environment into which the Chapel Hill impulse was introduced.
Cecile: It felt like both an honor and a tremendous opportunity to be asked to help the community use Open Hearted Listening as the next step in their healing journey. It was also a big stretch–to apply the tool that we had been using primarily with couples to a completely new situation, and with teens, who were outside the age range we normally work with. Some of the relationships were quite estranged and had very little of the commitment that an intimate partnership has.
Daniel: For me there was definitely a sense of excitement, that was also tinged with fear. It was a high-octane issue.
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Myra: I said “Yes” to this process in order to confront Adam with my feelings. To give me a chance to look at him, and to show him how disgusted I am. To tell him in person how much he hurt me and how I will never be able to trust him or feel any type of regard toward him.
Lauren: I wasn’t that interested when the session with Adam was first suggested. But I knew it would be good for me in the end. So I did it.
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Adam: Committing to the Open Hearted Listening sessions was both a responsibility and an obligation. Beyond that, it felt like an indebtedness–some way that I could at least start to scratch the surface on the debt that I owe to the community and more specifically to the girls and their families. It was an opportunity being held out to me for some partial redemption.
I was concerned initially for my own vulnerability. I didn’t know the facilitators and felt that I might be viewed, in their eyes, the way society views a sex offender, rather than from a more enlightened perspective. It was hard for me to trust someone I didn’t know.
Consequently, I was afraid. It was a selfish fear–I didn’t want to be beat up any more. I had been working, ever since the abuse, on trying to allow myself to feel vulnerable. That was one of the ways in which I was sick. In certain areas, I was unable to feel vulnerable. Therefore I lacked empathy for vulnerable people, including the victims of my crime–your daughter and Myra. I would block those feelings.
In the years since my crime, I had been making some progress. And I became afraid that with my new-found vulnerability I would be smashed by the same people I had smashed earlier, without adequate moderation. There was a sense of taking a risk.
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Daniel: Adam was concerned that the girls’ anger might be used to punish, and that the process wouldn’t be reciprocal. That he would get dumped on and not be able to offer his perspective on the situation.
Cecile: We responded to his concerns by educating him about the process. Because from the outside, that’s what it looks like–especially in this situation, where Adam was only going to be listening. From the inside of the Open Hearted Listening experience, however, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the listening or the speaking. The healing opportunity is there for both people.
So that was an important concept to convey to him. But of course it was only a concept. It wasn’t until he began to learn the process, and practice it, that he realized its potential. Then he began to feel okay.