I was a contractual therapist with a church-affiliated non-profit agency, and they had dispatched me to an office in a church on the edge of the city. “Office” is a generous label; I suspect if I had not been there, they would have been using it as a utility closet. It was winter and since I worked evening hours, the place had been dark and deserted long before I arrived for my “shift.” There was a “security” man (I use the term loosely; he was the brain-damaged relative of a church member, and he used to look me up and down, seemingly assessing whether I was fit to be in his church; if I were thoroughly covered up, he would nod; if I wore less than a turtleneck and long skirt, he would smirk and shake his head) who prowled the perimeter of the building and grounds, but he did nothing to add to my sense of security. It was a creepy place to be, alone at night.
The agency that employed me had an undergrad psychology student to do telephone “intakes,” meaning that he screened the clients I would be seeing. He asked about things like chronic mental illness, suicidality, substance abuse. Because this interviewer did the intake questions and the scheduling, I would welcome new clients into my office/closet without ever having had even telephone contact with them.
On this particular evening, I opened the door to see a clean-cut, casually dressed man, in his mid-twenties. His name was Guy. He didn’t look me in the eye, even when he shook my hand. This, and something about his aura of fearfulness and extraordinary strength, made me uneasy. He wasn’t very tall, but portrayed a large presence due to his musculature. Very thick, roped body type. And short, very curly brown hair, which I suppose pushed my “aw, a cute little boy” button. That’s probably the only thing that made me feel comfortable enough to bring him in and shut the door. And maybe that was also the thing that made me overlook (until he sat down and took great pains to position it) the large, heavy gym bag he carried in his left hand.
It could hold a gun. Or knives. Rope. No, duct tape. And chloroform.
I began with the initial interview and assessment, as Guy’s eyes avoided mine, instead casting furtively all around the little room. He was depressed because he was having trouble with his live-in girlfriend. She had many complaints about him and was threatening to throw him out. They had a child together, a toddler. He showed me a picture of his daughter, and for the first time, he looked right at me, to see my reaction. She was gorgeous, indeed, and I told him so, and he blushed, then put his head back down. He continued talking about his depression and life at home. And I tried to stop looking at the gym bag. We agreed to work together, seeing each other once a week.
I saw Guy and his gym bag for only about four weeks. When he would get angry while talking about his girlfriend, the veins in his neck would stand out and he’d clench his fists, in ways that made me glance at the gym bag, which I sometimes forgot about as I got to know him better. His love relationship continued to deteriorate, and it became clear that he would need to move out of their apartment. He decided to go to a neighboring state where he could find work and where he had some relatives. I was sad to end our time together; I had come to care for him, and he was making progress in therapy. At that last session, I finally said to him, “Guy . . . what do you have in that gym bag?”
He blushed only slightly and said, “My dirty clothes. I work construction, and I come here right after work. I thought it would be disrespectful to come here all dirty, so I stop in the gas station down the street and wash up and put on clean clothes.”
I felt about this big. Here I had been thinking that this sweet, vulnerable man-child was possibly capable of harming me, indeed that he may have been coming to our sessions armed and dangerous. And instead, he was being astonishingly considerate and respectful of me. Shame on me.
Then we continued our “termination” session. At the very end, I said to him, “Will you be seeing your mother when you move back to Pennsylvania?” I knew they weren’t close.
“No. Ever since what happened with my step-dad, she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
We had only focused on the here-and-now during our brief association, so of course I had to ask what had happened.
“I beat him to death with a baseball bat.” In the remaining few minutes that we had, Guy elaborated only enough to say that he had been in prison for five years for that crime. I don’t remember much else of what was said in those last few minutes as I shook his hand and wished him well.
The next day I called the intake worker, David, and suggested a change to the initial phone interview. “Hey, David,” I said, real friendly-like, “I want you to add a question to the intake form” (I could almost see this eager, conscientious, wannabe therapist on the other end of the phone line, preparing to write down my suggestion verbatim). “I want you to add DID YOU EVER MURDER ANYONE WITH A FREAKIN’ BASEBALL BAT?!” I told him the story, he apologized profusely . . . No harm was done. But I would have liked to have known that.
Years later, in my private practice, I decided that I won’t meet male clients alone for the first time at night when there aren’t other people around. Sometimes that means I can’t accept a particular client. Oh, well. They can take time off, or come in before work, or whatever, if they’re that motivated to see me. After I get a sense of them, usually just a session or two, I will give them an evening appointment if that’s more convenient.
And of course, I don’t ask someone who calls for the initial appointment, if they’ve ever murdered someone with a baseball bat. I just casually go down my list of innocuous intake questions, and somewhere between “on any medications?” and “any known allergies?” I ask, “Ever had any trouble with the law?” That should cover it.
file under: &Work &Can’t Make This Stuff Up