Dangerous Intimacies: Racism, Risk, and Recovery

Dangerous Intimacies: Racism, Risk, and Recovery

by Rebecca J. Lester
Rebecca Lester shares her powerful clinical work with a client at the intersection of social work and cultural anthropology.

I Have These Fantasies

“I have these fantasies,” Ivan told me, his voice low and cold as stone, his eyes sliding away from mine and fixing on the wall behind me. “I wait for one of those women outside the building. I get her alone, and then I strangle her with my bare hands.” As he said this, his hands tensed and grasped, as if wrapped around someoneʼs throat. "I can almost feel it," he said.

 
“I have these fantasies,” Ivan told me, his voice low and cold as stone
An African-American man in his early 60s, Ivan (a pseudonym) was in therapy with me for PTSD when he made these statements. I was surprised he expressed these feelings to me. Not because of the intensity or violence of Ivanʼs words, but rather by the mere fact that he actually allowed himself to utter them out loud. We had been working together for over two years at that point, and this was the first direct expression of anger he had ever shown in session. Ivan had talked often about feeling angry—stating it in a vague and matter-of-fact way—but he had refused to do more than that. When I would encourage him to elaborate, he would just shake his head, press his lips tightly closed, and wring his hands. As I later learned, this was not resistance in the classic psychotherapeutic sense—it was something altogether different. By the time Ivan finally spoke his anger, I had come to appreciate what was at stake for him in doing so.

 Resentment: A feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury (Merriam Webster)


Three years before this encounter, Ivan—a thirty-year seasoned social worker and substance abuse counselor who had received numerous commendations—found himself in an unexpected situation. During a session, a client told him she had herpes and was planning to go out to spread it to as many men as she could. Alarmed, Ivan told her that was unacceptable, and that she absolutely could not do such a thing. The client became angry and stormed out. On her way past the front desk, she told the receptionist that Ivan had grabbed her and sexually assaulted her. Rather than come to Ivan and ask him what happened, or asking anyone else if they saw anything untoward during Ivanʼs session (he always left the door part way open during sessions with female clients), the site manager broke protocol and went directly to the police. Ivan, unaware of the accusation, went about his day.

The following day, the police came for Ivan, hauled him down to the police station, and harshly interrogated him for four long hours. They pressured him. They threatened him with violence. They yelled in his face. They laughed as they told him they could plant drugs on him and throw him in jail anytime they wanted to, so he might as well just confess to what he had done. This kind of scenario would be a harrowing event for anyone, but for Ivan—a black man who grew up in the inner city—interrogation by the St. Louis police was especially fraught. “I really didnʼt know what they would do,” he told me. “

When you grow up in the city like I did, you stay away from the cops at all costs
When you grow up in the city like I did, you stay away from the cops at all costs. I was completely at their mercy. I honestly didnʼt know what would happen to me in that room.”

Ivan was eventually released and, following a thorough investigation by both the police and the Department of Mental Health, was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the client in question had recanted, admitting that she made up the allegation because she was angry. But it was too late—Ivanʼs life was in tatters. Word had gotten out among both the professional social work community and the neighborhood that Ivan was a “sexual deviant” of some sort, though in typical gossip fashion, the details became contorted. He came home to see “child molester” spray painted on his garage. He had rocks thrown through his windows. Neighbors crossed the street to avoid him, and he was asked to leave neighborhood gatherings. His girlfriend of two years left him because of the rumors.

"They know exactly what calling the cops on a Black man can mean," he stressed
But worse than all of this were the symptoms of PTSD Ivan developed in the wake of his interrogation at the police station. He had nightmares and flashbacks. He would spontaneously start shaking uncontrollably and pouring sweat. He paced incessantly. He became completely unable to function, let alone work. And most intense and troubling for Ivan was his absolute terror of women. “I canʼt be anywhere near women,” he told me. “Iʼm terrified of what theyʼll do, if they might accuse me of something, of what would happen then. I canʼt go back to that police station. So, I stay as far away as I can from females.” This might strike you as ironic, as I am a woman, and Ivan was telling all of this to me. In fact, we talked about this often, and I will return to it in a moment.

Ivan, understandably, harbored a great deal of resentment about everything that had happened to him. Notably, however, he was not upset with the client who accused him: “The client is, well, a client. You donʼt expect them to act rationally,” he said. Nor was he upset with the police who interrogated him: “The police were doing their jobs. I was just some guy they thought had done this thing.” Rather, his resentment became directed at the coworkers—all of them women—who called in the police rather than following company protocol. “Thatʼs what I donʼt understand,” he said. “My coworkers, those women—they knew me. I had worked there for six years. Thatʼs what really gets me.” In other words, Ivanʼs resentment derived from the intimacy and vulnerability he had cultivated with the people—women—who then turned on him and put him in danger. The fact that some of these women were Black women particularly upset him. "They know exactly what calling the cops on a Black man can mean," he stressed. "They put me directly in harmʼs way. I canʼt believe they did that."
 

Re-Sentiment:
To feel something again, to experience the past in the present.


The Burden of Being Black

In contemporary American psychotherapeutic practice, therapy is supposed to be a safe space where clients can connect with and express their deepest and most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. The reigning ideology is that many of the troubles that people experience can be ameliorated by talking through what is bothering them, expressing unexpressed emotions, giving voice to submerged or disavowed feelings. Feeling again—or maybe for the first time—sentiments that have been foreclosed for any number of reasons. This is often a frightening prospect for clients, but for Ivan it took on additional significance.

When we first began meeting, about six months after the incident in question, Ivan insisted we keep the door open—not just a crack, but wide open. He was afraid to be alone with me behind closed doors. As he explained it, “What if you felt uncomfortable or just decided to interpret something some way and accused me of something? The police told me I could get twenty years for sexual assault. Twenty years! Iʼm 62—thatʼs a lifetime. If there was another accusation, they would put me away for the rest of my life.”
Given Ivanʼs fear of women and his refusal or inability to become angry in session, it quickly became clear to me that the standard therapeutic interventions for PTSD were not going to be helpful. Not because Ivan didnʼt have PTSD or that they wouldnʼt have helped to relieve the internal push of some of his most troubling feelings, but because these interventions assume that a person is situated in a particular way in the social and relational world… or, rather, NOT situated in a particular way. As a Black man, some of the many harmful stereotypes Ivan had to contend with were that of being construed as scary or threatening, prone to violence or loss of control, hyper-sexed. Not only is it likely that such stereotypes prompted his coworkers to call the police, it affected Ivanʼs relationship with his own emotionality, especially his anger.

One day, as he sat in my office trembling and sweating and talking about how his life had become a shambles, I tried to get him to express his anger about what had happened to him. After a few minutes of this, he looked up at me, incredulous. “Iʼm sitting here in this room with a White woman and youʼre telling me to get ANGRY? Youʼve got to be kidding me. I canʼt do that.” I assured him that it was ok, that this was part of his process of healing, and he just scoffed. “Doc, I know you mean well but seriously, you donʼt understand. I just canʼt do that. Iʼm a Black man. Youʼre a White woman. I canʼt get angry around you. Iʼve learned my whole life that thatʼs a dangerous thing to do. I just canʼt do it.” Despite my assurances that it really was ok to do so, Ivan was adamant. It was, he said, for my own protection.

Not that he would ever actually hurt me, but, rather, that I might become afraid of him
Not that he would ever actually hurt me, but, rather, that I might become afraid of him. And that, he felt, would be its own kind of violence. It could also put him in danger. “What if you get scared? What if you call the cops? Iʼd be right back down there looking at twenty years.” Anger, in other words, was not a discrete, personal emotion or feeling for Ivan, at least not in the context of his relationship with me and others who look like me. It was part of an interpersonal anger/fear dynamic with deep social and cultural roots steeped in race, gender, and sexual bias that shaped not only how Ivan expressed his anger (or didnʼt) but also how he experienced himself as a person and how others experienced him—as a potentially threatening, scary force, regardless of his actions or intentions.
 

Ressentiment:
The persistent indignation of the historically oppressed
(Nietzsche)


In Ivanʼs case, it was obvious to me that race likely played a role in his coworkersʼ assuming he was sexually dangerous and calling the police
In Ivanʼs case, it was obvious to me that race likely played a role in his coworkersʼ assuming he was sexually dangerous and calling the police, and that it also likely played a role in how he was treated at the police station. But Ivan himself did not bring up these issues. I waited for many months for him to do so, but he didnʼt. So after about a year, as he became somewhat more stabilized, I did.

One day, as Ivan sat on my couch jiggling his leg and wringing his hands, I said, “I wonder how your being a Black man might have figured into what happened to you. Do you have any thoughts about that?” He immediately stopped jiggling his leg and looked up at me, intently. I worried that perhaps I had offended him. “Doc,” he said. “It has everything to do with it. But I didnʼt know if it was ok to talk about that in here.” I assured him that it was, and this opened up a whole new line of exploration in our work together. It was only in the wake of this that he was able to tell me why he was afraid to get angry in session, and for us to work toward making that a safe thing for him to do.

Ivan doesnʼt blame racism for everything, though. “I keep thinking I must have done something to bring this down on me,” he said. “I must have. Otherwise, why me?” Though at the same time he is adamant: “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldnʼt do anything differently. Not one single thing. You cannot go out and spread herpes to a bunch of people. No! You cannot do that! So, I would tell the client the same thing. I wouldnʼt do anything different. That gives me comfort.”

Resentment, Race, and Recognition

We have, then, three facets of the feeling of “resentment” with and within which Ivan is operating (resentment, re-sentiment, and ressentiment), each having to do with his positionality as a Black man in 21st century St. Louis, MO, and each significantly impacted by the relational context of being in therapy with me, a White woman. This reminds us that affects such as anger, fear, and resentment donʼt just function in one certain way for all people, at all times—or even the same person at different times. Affects and emotions are not stable, whole, inviolable states that we either have or donʼt have, like the flu. They have texture, context, and dynamism. Importantly, how we experience and express affects and emotions is deeply culturally and historically shaped. Therapies that isolate and target them as abstract phenomena (“anxiety,” or “depression,” or “fear”) dislodge these feelings from their lived realities and can, as in Ivanʼs case, compound a clientʼs sense of alienation and disconnect rather than foster recognition and healing.

As I write this now, Ivan is doing well. We are down to one session every three weeks. He still gets triggered and has moments of intense rage or panic, but now he can go to the grocery store and complete a shopping trip without having to leave if a woman walks too close to him, and he can ride the bus without having to sit way in the back to make sure no women are behind him. Heʼs even considering dating again. “I never would have believed it,” he told me. “When we first met, I thought ʼOh Lordy, how is this White girl going to help me?ʼ I thought, ʼGod has a pretty sick sense of humor.ʼ But you know what, Doc? Iʼve learned a lot; youʼve taught me a lot.”

Affect and emotion are highly racialized in the United States, and for some people, the honest expression of those feelings can be literally—even fatally—dangerous
Perhaps. But Ivan taught me a great deal as well. Among other things, he taught me that, even as we care for our clients, they care for us, too, and often in ways that remain invisible. But more than this, Ivanʼs caring for me by “protecting” me from potential fear (and, by extension, protecting himself from the possible consequences of that fear) led me to reflect on the fact that all emotional expression is not created equal, and not everyone has the freedom or the luxury to “get in touch with their feelings” or “use their words to say how they feel.” Affect and emotion are highly racialized in the United States, and for some people, the honest expression of those feelings can be literally—even fatally—dangerous. This understandably can evoke deeply ingrained cultural scripts about who is allowed to feel what feelings and in the presence of whom, which can affect the process and course of therapy in ways that are both subtle and profound. Clients of color, and especially Black clients, carry with them not only their personal histories but also centuries of oppression, racism, and accommodations to White privilege. Itʼs not enough for a therapist to be informed or to feel they are open-minded and treat all clients equally. Because the world is not an equal place. “Equal” is not what clients of color have grown up with and live on a daily basis. Itʼs not the world they walk into when they leave the therapy room.

So what to do? Does this mean that clients of color should only see therapists of color, and white therapists should only see white clients? No. But it does mean those of us who are White clinicians are ethically obliged to educate ourselves about racial dynamics and injustices and be prepared to discuss them from a place of respect and openness with clients of color. We need to be willing to take an honest and hard look at our own privilege and how it shapes our beliefs about health and healing. And we must recognize that the theories and interventions we have learned as “best practices” are based on White norms and do not take into account the legacies of bias and oppression that shape Black clientsʼ emotional experiences and expression. This does not make these tools useless or ineffective. But it does make them partial and in need of active interrogation and adjustment (for a collection of excellent resources on where to begin, see Race and Racism: Resources for your Practice).

I am incredibly fortunate that Ivan took a chance on me. He was traumatized and vulnerable and he took an enormous risk working with a woman, and a White woman at that. He says I taught him a lot, but what he has taught me is infinitely more valuable: he taught me to recognize how much I donʼt yet know.

References

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Resentment. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 7, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resentment.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1989). On The Genealogy of Morals. (W. Kauffman & R. J. Hollingdale, Trans.). Vintage Books. (Original work published 1887) 



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Bios
Rebecca J. Lester Rebecca J. Lester, PhD, is Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and a practicing psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, trauma, personality disorders, mood disorders and gender/sexuality issues. In 2010, Dr. Lester started Lumen Psychotherapy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers low-fee mental health services in the St. Louis area. Dr. Lester is the author of the award-winning book Jesus in Our Wombs (2005, University of California Press) the recently published Famished: Eating Disorders and Failed Care in America (2019, University of California Press), as well as numerous academic articles. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. She may be reached via her website at www.rebeccalester.com or at rjlester@wustl.edu.

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