Hard Case

Marie Clark's group-therapy sessions are a sex offender's worst nightmare. Her down-and-dirty approach gives some of her colleagues the willies too.

Clark says she always wanted to own her own business. "My vision was to have a private practice: individual and family therapy. Wives whose husbands don't want them to work -- life issues." She laughs. "I probably would have been bored out of my mind."

Instead, she earned her master's degree in one year and went to work at Kankakee State Hospital in northern Illinois. "You hit the ground running, and I mean literally," she recalls. "'Here's 156 clients -- see you later.'" The patients were so severely ill, Clark says, that after she went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest she decided she'd wasted three bucks: Her job was far more intense.

She later learned that the staff had bet she wouldn't last four weeks. "Young black female psychologist," she shrugs. "But I'd get there at 6 a.m. sometimes, stay till 7 p.m. I wanted to help these folks. A lady on suicide watch took a hairbrush and cut her wrist clean through. Later I had a client at BSI who said he'd cut his wrist. I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'The blood shot everywhere.' I said, 'Then you really did cut your wrist.'"

Jennifer Silverberg
“Once you get people to take responsibility for their own behaviors, then you can work on their self-esteem,” says Marie Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
“Once you get people to take responsibility for their own behaviors, then you can work on their self-esteem,” says Marie Clark.

She looks off into the middle distance, remembering again. "I cried at least once a week at Kankakee. My parents said they'd pay for me to go back to school, because they hadn't taught me to not get so upset. Other psychologists gave off this air of having it all under control. I was, like, 'Aw, God, what did I miss?'"

After three years and several promotions, she began sending out résumés and found four job openings in St. Louis. "One said to be a psychologist working with sex offenders with the newly passed law. I didn't know one thing about sex offenders. Zero. I knew they were bad people, they committed rape. In the interview they said, 'What are your thoughts about working with child molesters?' and I said, 'Child molesters?' They said, 'They're sex offenders too.' I said, 'Well then, child molesters it is.'"

As director of MoSOP, Clark designed the program from scratch, trained staff statewide and wrote policy upon policy, loading up on conditions and waivers. "There were 82 lawsuits against me. I've been in every federal court in the state. But we never lost, because the inmates had signed forms.

"I have those same forms here," she adds. "They just say BSI."

After Clark covered MoSOP's backside, she gave the program teeth: "You gotta remember, I was 27 years old. They would come to me and say, 'We have a murderer who's also a rapist -- will you treat him?' I felt honored. I said, 'Yes, if we can make parole release contingent upon successful completion of MoSOP.' And 30 days later they had implemented that."

Meanwhile, she was rifling through big-city phone books at the public library, tracking down authors of journal articles and asking them questions. "I called up Gene Abel -- he was the penile-plethysmograph man," she mentions, referring to a procedure for measuring arousal. "He wanted me to use one of his machines, but I said, 'Gene, I just can't be hookin' up no penises.'

"And after about three years, people started calling me up."

Spend an hour with the three therapists at Professional Psychotherapy Services, another state-approved local provider, and sex-offender treatment spins around like a stage set to reveal a different world. Psychologist Roger Gennari speaks in a voice that stays gentle even when he's outraged. He believes it's possible to challenge and probe without attacking, humiliating or shutting down clients' emotions.

Gennari refuses to comment on Clark's program but readily explains the methods employed at PPS. "Untrained therapists don't know how the hell to do what we're doing, so they say you can't do it," he says. "If we react with compassion and acceptance, then they feel safe to express themselves." That doesn't mean tolerating the behavior, Gennari adds quickly. "Acceptance isn't predicated on 'Everything you do is fine.' It's predicated on 'You are a human being like me' -- because if I haven't worked on my empathy, they are not going to work on theirs."

Len Powers, a former clinical director at Masters and Johnson, is one of the two licensed therapists who works with Gennari. "When someone discloses something that is painful or personal, we deal with it in a way that encourages him to continue talking about it," Powers says. "We don't shut people down if they get emotional. Once you shut somebody down, they may not get back there for a long time. In group this week, a guy disclosed being abused as a child -- how that changed his relationship with his parents and with men in general. Everybody else in that room has molested a kid. They are seeing the results of what they did, 25 years later. That's much more powerful than if we sat there and pointed it out."

When an offender's mother insists her son is innocent, the PPS therapists don't feel obliged to confront her; they just don't permit her to serve as his supervisor. If a client denies, distorts or lies, they take careful note but don't attack. Nor do they make elaborate rules to control a client's wardrobe or budget or force him to get an apartment on his own.

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