Disclosure in a Therapy Session
to a perpetrator in a therapy session gives women structure, support, and control.
After all, a therapist's office has been her safe place. A therapist can help
women to gain confidence about their reasons for wanting a disclosure as well
as help with planning it, identifying expectations, and determining the possible
outcomes. This process is how women gain a sense of control over the disclosure
and feel prepared. Women are reminded that this is not about revenge or behaving
in an abusive manner toward the perpetrator. Disclosure is not about yelling,
screaming, or being violent. One act of violence never justifies another. Acting
out a revenge fantasy is not constructive to healing and brings women closer to
a perpetrator's behavior rather than the behavior of a woman who is healing. If
a woman is feeling and thinking more about revenge than honest disclosure, she
may have more outrage and grief work to do before she is ready for a healing disclosure
with a perpetrator. Remember, adults can express their thoughts and feelings without
Therapeutically, I have shared in this process
with women. I have found it interesting that a perpetrator who is determined to
be safe (not actively violent) for contact chooses to attend the session. First,
I send a letter requesting the appointment. I state in the letter that "Lucy
Smith has been in treatment for childhood sexual abuse and would like to meet
with you." I do not state that he is the perpetrator. I give the time and
date of an available appointment. I ask that he call me, not Lucy Smith, to confirm
his decision to attend the session. Usually, when he calls he wants to know the
reason for the meeting. I state, "She is requesting the appointment to discuss
the reason." I then ask whether he is willing to attend. I do not tell him
what will be discussed at the appointment since that would be a breach of confidentiality.
I do ask him to plan on fifteen to twenty minutes of his time and not a full hour.
I have concluded thus far through my own experiences that perpetrators seem to
attend these appointments for two reasons: They want to know (1) what a woman
remembers about the sexual abuse and (2) with whom she has discussed his behavior.
have found that when perpetrators admit to the sexual abuse, most of them have
taken some responsibility for it even as they made excuses for it. They do
not necessarily show remorse for what they did or the harm they caused to her;
rather, they show remorse for being exposed and may give some indication of the
harm, but not on an emotional level. They do not seem capable of emotional vulnerability
within this context of their behavior. Some of the men do apologize and ask to
be forgiven; others do not apologize or ask to be forgiven. When an apology is
made, these men do not seem to grasp the level of harm they have inflicted upon
the child or understand at a meaningful human level the damage they caused to
the child or the woman she became.
A symbolic disclosure usually occurs when a perpetrator is deceased or unsafe
to confront directly or when a woman decides that this kind of confrontation is
best for her. The purpose of affirming her recovery, releasing any remaining sense
of shame, and breaking the silence of the abuse is still met through symbolic
disclosure; it is just accomplished by different means. Women choose a symbolic
way, personal to them, that transfers the shame and accountability to the perpetrator,
even though he is not directly there to receive them as his responsibility.
preparing for a symbolic disclosure, a woman has planned a ritual that is significant
to her. Women choose a place for this disclosure to occur, a place that has emotional
significance to them. I have accompanied women to the house where the sexual abuse
occurred or to their homes where they have felt safe and free of the abuse. We
have met in my office where women have felt trust and understanding about the
trauma of sexual abuse. We have also gone to grave sites where women have burned
or buried letters to a perpetrator. Some women have burned an effigy or a picture
of the perpetrator. Others may want to cut him out of pictures or destroy a significant
gift he gave her. Sometimes they want to include something that is symbolic of
a specific memory of the abuse. One woman chopped up the toy chest her grandfather
gave her and burned it in her backyard while she told him what he had done to
her as a child. She stated, "I never knew that I could feel so good getting
rid of that toy chest. As I burned it, I cried, and it was for both of us. I felt
clean afterwards and exhausted. It was a good feeling, an incredible feeling."
Symbolic disclosure happens at a location that each woman decides is important
for her emotional healing; the disclosure often has a spiritual meaning to women
and can include a prayer of gratitude for their healing. Emotionally, women who
symbolically disclose experience the same kind of relief and empowerment as women
who confront a perpetrator directly. As with the direct confrontation, we plan
what she will do afterward and we process her experience on the day of the disclosure.
I have her call and check in with me a few days later to see how she is doing.
Sending a letter to the perpetrator is also an option for
women. I may send a brief cover letter to accompany it if a woman asks me to do
so. In my letter, I simply state, "Enclosed you will find a letter from Lucy
Smith who has been in treatment for childhood sexual abuse. I am forwarding this
letter to you at her request." If she gives me permission, I also state that
she desires no contact from him at this time other than to receive and read the
letter. Just as in a direct or symbolic confrontation, the woman has decided what
she will state in the letter and has identified her boundaries with the perpetrator.
She brings the letter to a session to read, think through, and refine before mailing
it; she may choose to send it registered mail so that she receives a receipt upon
its delivery. We discuss her feelings and the process she has been through in
writing and sending the letter. She decides how she will respond if he chooses
to contact her after receiving the letter. Writing a letter to the perpetrator
sometimes leads to a meeting at my office. It can also occur in conjunction with
a symbolic confrontation or meeting with him in a public place. The decision is
up to each woman and is based on her needs.
with the Perpetrator in a Public Place
A woman may choose to contact
the perpetrator herself and request a meeting with him outside of her therapy.
She does so with the recommendation and intent of meeting him in a public place
with at least one support person present. Women have chosen to meet in restaurants,
churches, museums, and libraries. These places have a sense of openness. They
are not isolated, and a woman can leave at any time; other people are there, which
adds a sense of comfort, safety, control, and security. As with the other disclosures,
a woman has written a letter and has identified her boundaries. We schedule an
appointment after the disclosure for her to process and relate what occurred.
She is encouraged to have a support person present, either nearby or inside the
public meeting place. Again, it is important for her to know what her plans will
be after the meeting and to check in a few days following the disclosure. Like
the letter-writing option, this type of disclosure can occur in conjunction with
a symbolic confrontation.
Similarities of the Confrontations
The four types of confrontations discussed here have the following similarities.
First, a woman has chosen to have the disclosure and thus comes to that decision
from a position of strength. Second, she has written a letter stating what she
plans to say to the perpetrator about the sexual abuse, its effects on her, and
what her boundaries are with him today. Third, she chooses who will accompany
her to the disclosure for support and what people she will tell within her support
system. By having someone she knows attend the meeting or be nearby, she has also
identified to this person what kind of support she needs at the time of the meeting
with the perpetrator and afterward. Fourth, she meets with the perpetrator and
completes the disclosure. After the disclosure, she attends a therapy session
to process her thoughts and feelings and to share what occurred during the disclosure
and what her plans are for the next few days. Fifth, she shares the disclosure
with her recovery group. The women in her recovery group are one of her main support
networks, and they are encouraging during her decision to have the disclosure.
The women in her group, who have already completed this process, can share their
experiences. Sixth, she writes a letter to herself stating what the disclosure
means to her healing and her life today. It is a letter about strength, empowerment,
courage, knowledge, closure, and truth.
- Duncan, K. A. (2008). Ending the Pretense. In Healing from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse: The journey for women (pp. 134-138). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information
about confronting the perpetrator. Write three case study examples regarding how
you might use the content of this section in your practice.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Pereda, N., & Segura, A. (2021). Child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Spain: A descriptive study of abuse characteristics, victims’ faith, and spirituality. Psychology of Violence, 11(5), 488–496.
Pruiksma, K. E., Cranston, C. C., Rhudy, J. L., Micol, R. L., & Davis, J. L. (2018). Randomized controlled trial to dismantle exposure, relaxation, and rescripting therapy (ERRT) for trauma-related nightmares. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 67–75.
Vargen, L. M., Weinsheimer, C. C., Coburn, P. I., Chong, K., & Connolly, D. A. (2018). Youth-perpetrated child sexual abuse: The effects of age at court on legal outcomes. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(2), 248–258.
In the four types of confrontation Duncan describes, what are the
similarities? Record the letter of the correct answer the .