On Psychic Change And The Incorrigibility Of Child Molesters

John Borneman is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and the author of "Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany."

In 2008, I began a study of the rehabilitation of men accused or convicted of child molestation. In much of the West, such offenders are the domestic equivalent of the international terrorist, considered the most incorrigible and despised of the modern criminal types. In Germany, the site of my study, they are both given prison sentences and obligated to seek psychological treatment. German courts in fact most frequently make release from prison contingent on therapy. I was interested in the role of therapy in legal rehabilitation, and under what conditions the treatment of offenders (German therapists call them clients) might initiate a psychic change.

Most prison therapy is cognitive-behavioral with pharmacological interventions, aimed at reducing risk by controlling impulses, eliminating "cognitive distortions," or avoiding specific behaviors such as drinking, drug-taking, or contact with children. Yet in decisions concerning release from prison or judicial supervision, judges are often dissatisfied with evidence that claims that an offender has merely adjusted his behavior to societal norms. To speak to the insecurity and fear produced by so-called pedophiles, they seek evidence of a deeper transformation, without being able to name exactly what sufficient evidence might be. Psychodynamic treatments offer such evidence. By means of introspection and reflection, therapists demand that clients think about their unconscious motives and desires, providing them an opportunity for a more fundamental transformation of the self.

To understand the work of rehabilitation and psychic change, I engaged in long term, observational research (what anthropologists call ethnography) in a private institute that specialized in psychodynamic therapy for abused children and their abusers. An ethnographic approach -- presence in actual therapy, following the experience of specific subjects over time -- is more apposite for such study than a controlled experiment. This approach cannot measure the frequency of success or failure with large numbers of subjects, but, by observing and participating in therapy sessions, I could learn what goes on in them and how and why treatment can be efficacious. My participation consisted largely of observing four weekly therapy groups and visiting a prison one day a week.

Introspection and reflection are challenging for anyone, but especially for men accused of child molestation. Talking about their motives and desires not only brings the social stigma attached to their transgressions to light but also initially heightens the shame attached to this stigma. Therapy aims to transform this shame into guilt, thereby enabling an assumption of responsibility for one's actions -- considered an integral step toward successful rehabilitation. To do this, the therapists used psychodynamic techniques to reveal unconscious feelings through their redirection in the personal interaction between therapist and client. In my observations, this redirection of feelings -- transference and countertransference -- provided the key means to access and objectify desires, preconditions for a transformion of the sex offender's sense of self.

In group therapy sessions, the men and boys (the youngest was thirteen) sat in a semicircle facing the therapists, while I sat in a corner of the room behind them taking notes. Except for initial sessions when I introduced myself and asked for permission to sit in and observe, I intervened only once in a group -- at the request of a female therapist (as the male therapist had suddenly fallen ill). All in all, however, I remained relatively insignificant to the therapeutic function of the group. The men in the group often found the interaction to be a respite from the boredom of prison life. They were less concerned with me than with one another's comments, criticisms, and corroborations, which the therapists elicited to serve as reliable reality checks on the relative truth of statements made.

After five years of research, I was able to observe some patterns. I noticed a certain amount of burnout by therapists. Most simply could not bring the same amount of energy and enthusiasm to each session, or to each client. When their investment was minimal, so was that of their clients. Sessions lagged, distracted clients mumbled, everybody appeared bored. Some therapists developed a repugnance to particular clients. Even though they glossed this feeling as a form of indifference, the clients were not fooled. This clearly affected the efficacy of the therapy, as it blocked any positive emotional transference between them and their clients. When the therapist's countertransference was acknowledged, clients who had formerly been lethargic and resistant became more alert and began reflecting more critically and in more detail on experiences that they had withheld.

Although the transference makes therapeutic success more likely, therapists frequently had a difficult time dealing with it, precisely because it entailed emotional transference with child molesters. I observed therapists struggle with this transference as an introject of the disgust attached to the person of the molester. Disgust functions as a defense and a protection from contamination. The proximity of the therapists to the stigma of their clients -- the pollution of the abject -- seemed to locate them, much like those they treated, as untouchable.

In several cases, therapists began to show disappointment in clients who came in with the same complaints every week or who appeared unable or unwilling to engage in a minimal amount of introspection about their own transgressions (instead repeating stock phrases about culpability learned from others in the group). Or, alternatively, therapists began to devote more attention to clients who took an active interest in exploring their own pasts. Some of the clients were classic narcissists, simply using the opportunity to speak to be the center of attention. For others, this kind of attention and scrutiny was to be evaded at all costs. Once, after a therapist left the group and was replaced by another, two of the more reticent members suddenly began to open up and offer insights into their motivations. They seemed to sense that this new therapist was more able to contain their emotions; they began to disclose more and engage in less self-deception.

On the other hand, however, some clients were simply incapable of therapy because they could never grasp what all this talk was about. In the course of the therapy that I observed, they never revealed in either word or bodily expression any understanding of the difference between chatting and introspection, between their inner self and the image of themselves they presented in public appearances, or how they might objectivize their self through critical reflection.

I saw, through all these travails, that therapy provided the offenders, for the very first time, an environment in which they were able to think critically about their experiences and learn about themselves. Participatory research in this setting made special demands on me, also. Moving out of their environment -- of therapy and prison -- into my daily routine in Berlin was radically disjunctive. It was as if I had been in another moral universe. I had to work hard to redirect my thoughts away from what had been disclosed to us in the small therapy room. I had to quit thinking about histories of abuse and violation. And in sharing my research with others, I was often asked to carry the pollution of the abject men I was trying to understand.

The ethnographic approach is a way of learning that shares certain assumptions with psychoanalysis. Both differ crucially from isolated interviews and more controlled experimental research in that there is no controlled deception, no means of isolating the researcher from his or her subject to replicate the same conditions again. For both the therapist and the anthropologist, emotional transference must be converted from a source of anxiety than a method. Therapy situates each of us, in turn -- the sex offender, the therapist, and the anthropologist -- in a set of transferential relationships that provide an opportunity to learn through our experiences with each other.

Child molesters can indeed change and make a repetition of their crime highly unlikely. Psychodynamic therapies in this context of rehabilitation accesses the deeper motivations of the offender, a task elided by cognitive behavioral assessments, normative adjustments, or commitments to sexual abstinence. The offender must begin an internal conversation, a psychic change, to reckon with his act of transgression. Therapy might be assessed as successful not only when the offender assumes responsibility for his action but also finds a more generative way to transform and nurture the self. The rehabilitated offender might then open himself up to empathy for and life with others.