In Greek traditions, Medusa is the notorious stone-cold killer who was well known for turning people into statues. Her reputation became so brutal that she was often depicted as evil itself. However, like everyone who eventually comes to hurt others, Medusa had a life before she was the snake-haired statue-maker, but few seem to remember that. This is that story:

Medusa was a stunningly beautiful young woman. She was so striking, in fact, that everyone around her pursued her and longed to be her husband. Medusa had thick, gorgeous hair that men longed to see, and even be near. Suitor after suitor came and presented himself to her, transfixed by her beauty.

Medusa’s magnificence was so great that the gods themselves not only took notice of her, but also could not control their impulses to be with her. One of the gods, the ruler of the sea, Poseidon, became obsessed with Medusa. He sought her out while she was in Athena’s temple. There, in the midst of the holy place, beautiful, innocent Medusa sat praying to the goddess.

Poseidon did not attempt to hold back his urges, and sweeping in with a terrible ferocity, he raped Medusa on the altar of the temple. In an instant, he was gone. The deed was done. Medusa lay shattered on the floor of Athena’s house. “Why?” she thought. But she hardly had time to think. Athena was appalled that such a sacrilege would take place in her hallowed temple, and she swept in with almost the same speed with which Poseidon left.

Medusa, turning to the divine being with a look of desperation, did not receive the compassionate look in return for which she hoped. Instead, a fury overcame Athena. “How dare this take place in my temple!” she thought. Athena was enraged at Poseidon for defiling her sanctuary, but she could not punish a fellow immortal, so she turned with hatred and viciousness to Medusa.

Someone had to suffer for the atrocity to the goddess, and the victim was the target. With unquenchable anger, Athena blamed Medusa for her carelessness, for “enticing men,” and used her deific power to transform Medusa’s hair into snakes. As though the pain of serpent-hair were not enough to repel the sons of the world, she further cursed her in a way that ensured men would stay far away from her from that day forward. In a rage, Athena proclaimed, “He who looks on you will be turned to stone!”

And so a victim of rape, misdirected rage and hatred—and all for being nothing more than beautiful—Medusa, came to be known as she is today: the face of evil itself. The wrath and disgust for others that Medusa became known for were taught to her by the very figures she trusted.

There is no violent offender, no person who hurts another, and no villain in this world who does not have a story of how and why she or he came to be. We must learn to see Medusa. We must learn to see beyond the snakes and the curse that holds others at bay, and look into her deep, tragic history to get a fuller understanding of who she is… and we must also and equally do that with every client we encounter.

As therapists, we need to consistently evaluate our own personal judgments of others—not just in lip service, but in actual, in-depth explorations of who we are, and why we might hold the judgments that we do. Medusa had reasons for hurting others as she did, and so does everyone else. Our job as therapists is to assess, understand, and explain human behavior, without judgment or bias. The more we know about the past (others’ and our own), the more feasible that task becomes.

If we do not learn to see Medusa, we run the risk of remaining transfixed in our own sculptured, static mind-set: a place from which we will forever stand as judge, jury, and executioners in our own minds.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy