Ritual abuse: The experience of therapists working with controversial narratives

Ellen Rudikoff (1996)

In this study I explored therapists' experiences of working with controversial clinical material, specifically Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). I conducted in-depth interviews with eight licensed doctoral level psychologists who worked extensively with trauma clients. My results indicated that they experienced both the content of SRA narratives, and the treatment context, to be qualitatively different, more complicated, and more disturbing, than other clinical material. My study was situated within the theoretical frame of social constructionism with particular emphasis on the concepts of subjectively determined truths and the co-creation of narratives. As the process and content of treatment simultaneously draws together many narratives, or truths, including those of clients, clinicians, the psychological community, and the dominant culture, I suggest it is important to consider their influences on the intimate dyadic treatment relationship. The five major findings that emerged in my study reflected profound personal and professional challenges to participants. My findings were that participants (a) experienced vicarious and active traumatization, (b) felt silenced and professionally isolated, (c) struggled to provide treatment in the midst of uncertainty, (d) confronted the concept of evil, and (e) found ways to cope with their experiences. It is hoped that these findings increase our knowledge of the therapeutic process when it involves controversial material, increase our awareness of the importance of the larger contexts in which that process occurs, and encourage us to consider what we, as individuals and as a discipline, can do to better support that process. Specifically, I suggest that psychologists (a) examine the content and supporters of controversy, (b) explore active traumatization, and (c) provide a safe professional forum for all narratives. When therapists work with narratives embedded in the context of professional and cultural controversy they are caught in the position of providing treatment that is intensely experienced by clients, the professional community, and the larger culture, while attempting to interpret clinical material, set therapy goals, find support and supervision, and help clients give language to their experiences. I suggest it is crucial that therapists first give language to their own experiences.