I didn’t know anything about group therapy until the 1970’s. Somehow, I ended up in an experimental program at Langley Porter Institute in San Francisco where I got to talk to a psychiatrist — these sessions were only like $5.00 each because I was part of an experimental program. This program was for people who had been sexually abused in the past. In the late 1970’s, people weren’t really talking about this sort of thing, and some really didn’t know much about it unless they experienced it themselves. Two psychiatrists dedicated themselves to figuring out the best way to help those who had gone through the trauma. I remember their names were Phil and Barry. I don’t remember their last names, but I can picture them. Phil had dark curly hair and wire-framed glasses and always looked serious, and Barry was a small guy who laughed a lot.
I initially only talked to Phil who asked me so many personal questions. Sometimes I didn’t want to answer them, but somehow I did. He wanted to see if I would be a good fit for something called “transactional analysis,” which is group therapy. They were forming a group. I remember talking about stuff I wrote about, which was usually about a girl who didn’t fit in anywhere and tried to find her way. That was me, yet people would not know that about me. I was always happy and playing guitar and singing, and having fun. I hid the pain so well. Only my sister’s friend’s mom saw it and recommended I check out Langley Porter Institute. I was shocked. I’m perfectly okay, I told her. She smiled sadly. She knew what my sister and I had been through, especially me.
So, I decided to go and answer lots of questions and talk about myself in comfortable ways. I was deemed a good fit, and one day I found myself in a well-lit room with three other people. I’ll never forget them. Another young woman and two young guys. Arlene was a registered nurse with red hair and freckles, very cute and friendly. Paul was a skinny guy with big glasses, the nerdy type, who as a musician and opera singer, and who also worked at a music store. Steve, a dark haired, pensive guy who seemed quiet and more serious, was almost a lawyer. He was in his last year of law school. I was a legal secretary in downtown San Francisco, but really I was a writer and musician art. For me, the job was just a way to make money and support myself. I was already completely on my own by age 19, had my own apartment in San Francisco. We were all doing well to many who knew us. The year was 1978.
We all told our stories — it took a little coaxing and a couple of sessions to do this. I think I went first, with my sad story of the evil stepfather who entered the picture after my mom and dad divorced when I was ten. My mother did not know about sexual abuse, yet she was educated and well-read. I totally believe she had no idea until I blew the whistle and drove the monster away. It took me a long time to do it because I was afraid. I had been abused many times, but only by him. No one else in my family was abusive and everyone was horrified that it happened and my mother never let him return. I did not realize just how lucky and fortunate I was to have an awesome, supportive family and friend network who rallied behind me and supported me 100%.
Arelene was abused by a family member, but no one believed her, and Paul — poor Paul had been abused so badly from a young age that he wasn’t even sure of his sexuality. It took Steve longer to open up, much longer. We didn’t push him.
The four of us became close like we shared something no one else knew about. The psychiatrists weren’t sure if we should meet outside the meetings at first, but we started to meet anyway. I will never forget that night we all sat at Arlene’s red and white checkered table, ate spaghetti, drank wine and passed around a joint. We laughed and laughed. We laughed about our abuse and made jokes about it. We knew it was horrible, but still, we laughed. That was the night I knew the healing was really happening, for all of us.
At our next session, we confessed to the psychiatrists about meeting outside the group, and they realized that perhaps it was okay. We were all learning, all healing. Group therapy was the best thing that happened to me.