Do you Love Me?

By Laurie Kahn
September, 2004

I had worked with Martha for many years. We visited her childhood of loss and sexual abuse together, the suicide of her brother, struggles with infertility and alcohol, the adoption of her son, and difficulties with her marriage. As Martha left my office one day she turned back and said, “I love you.”

I smiled warmly, as she started to leave. With her hand reaching for the door knob she glanced back again and said, “It wouldn’t kill you to say you loved me too.”

I thought to myself: Caring? Sure. Compassion? Definitely. Fondness? Absolutely. But love? Was that going too far? Did it push the limits of the sacred client-therapist relationship? The therapeutic relationship with clear, well-defined boundaries? I sit in the black chair with the padded arms and my clients sit in the purple tweed chair or the tan cloth chair. It’s all very predictable. Predictable is good. One of my colleagues once said they thought they bored their clients into health.

As Martha left that day, I was reminded of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, when he turns to Golde, his wife of 25 years, and asks her for the first time ever, “Do you love me?”

“Do I love you?” She replies as if he had asked a puzzling, slightly annoying and preposterous question. “I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, and milked your cow. After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?”

I have written articles for professional journals about child abuse and its impact on the constructs of love. It is a topic I have thought about for many hours. Yet, at that moment with Martha I was speechless. I believed I was walking into dangerous terrain. I wondered: Is love the blurring of professional boundaries which can spill over to a sea of emotional quicksand?

Therapists are entrusted with a relationship in which we are mandated to ensure safety. Unfortunately, stories of sexual exploitation of clients by their therapists fill the annals of our profession. Our clients come with histories of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Their caretakers have trampled their boundaries of body and spirit with no expressed regret. Love becomes an alibi. “But your father loves you,” Sophie’s mother tells her when she complains about her father’s rages and beatings. Susan asks her grandfather “Why do you touch me down there?” “Because I love you” he replies “but don’t tell your mother.” Love is riddled with danger and ambiguity.

It is my job to provide a compassionate yet safe and contained environment. Being a therapist is humbling. I make mistakes. I take responsibility when I do, and I make repairs. I am constantly engaged in the discipline of reflecting on the feelings that are evoked in me, so I do not do harm. The courage of my clients and the healing process fills me with awe.

Are we haunted by the notions of love that emerge from the betrayals of abuse? Is the combination of caring, commitment, responsibility, and awe – love?

I thought about Martha’s question with new clarity. I knew, as Golde also knew when she replies to Tevye “If this is not love, what is? I suppose I do love you.”

Tevye responds, “It doesn’t change a thing, but it’s nice to know.”

Teaching Love

By Laurie Kahn
June, 2005

I work with people with complex posttraumatic stress disorder; mostly people who have endured traumatic betrayals in their childhoods and are still struggling with the effects. The symptoms of PTSD are listed in the diagnostic manual, a kind of bible of the psychiatric field. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe startle responses and emotional numbing. However, that’s not what people talk about when they first come to therapy. They say they want to be able to love and be loved by someone, and that things aren’t going well.

Learning how to love is no trivial matter when what you have learned about love has been tarnished with the scars of abuse. As a child, if your parents or others who are entrusted to protect you hurt you; you believe that love and danger can walk hand in hand. If you witness violence between people who claim to love each other, love and violence become acceptable partners. As an adult, you then wander in the world unable to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Love is elusive and confusing. You yearn for it; wondering if you will recognize it when it appears and if you will know how to do it.

Tony came to therapy believing his behavior might be putting his marriage in jeopardy. He described his childhood. “Yelling, hitting, and humiliating each other was part of our daily family routine. My mother would call my sister a stupid bitch and then resume a friendly phone conversation. My dad would tell us that family was what mattered above all else but we treated each other so poorly. I saw my parents in the kitchen screaming, pushing, and shoving each other. I recall the fear and disgust I felt when I watched my father hit my mother. Now, I yell at my kids and my wife and I hear those horrible words come out of my mouth and it’s not who I want to be.”

Tony asked if he could bring his wife Rachael to his next counseling session hoping he could repair his relationship with her.

As the session began, Rachael listed all the horrible things Tony would say to her when he was mad. She described how it would take her days to recover after one of Tony’s blow-ups.

Tony responded, “She makes it sound like I’m a monster, she thinks she’s so perfect and the all the problems we have are just about me.”

It didn’t take twenty years of experience as a therapist to predict that this conversation was not going to go well. I asked Tony, “What do you most wish Rachael understood about you?” Tony began to shift from an aggressive posture with jaws clenched to a more pensive expression. “I wish Rachael understood how much I love her.” I blew on the spark. “What do you love about her?” Looking more vulnerable he said. “I think she’s beautiful, she’s a wonderful mother, a good person, honest, smart, and I like that she stands up to me and won’t let me get away with treating her badly.”

Rachael met Tony’s eyes. The conversation softened. They spoke of the ways they felt lucky to have each other, and the kind of family they wanted to have with their children. I congratulated them on being able to shift from anger to kindness. At the end of the session I told Tony “If you want to protect this relationship, no matter how mad you are at Rachael you may not call her a bitch.” He solemnly nodded as if this new information might be useful.

What Tony had known of love had left him maimed in his most important relationships. He had learned in his family that when you love someone you can say anything you want, without any regard for the impact it has. It was as if his family hurled hand grenades at one another, leaving self esteem and trust in the wreckage.

The next week Tony returned to my office: “I keep thinking about the story you told me,” “What story?” I wondered. “The one about love,” he said. I couldn’t recall ever talking about love. Tony, noticed my blank look, and was kind enough to continue; “You told me that there was tension between your daughter and Michael when you first started dating him. You were concerned about their relationship. As time passed you mentioned to your future father-in-law that you thought there was some progress in their relationship. Your father-in-law asked you what had given you such optimism. You told him that they were having more open conflicts and that they weren’t being so careful to always be on their best behavior. Your father-in-law paused, “That’s funny”, he said, ” I thought you were always supposed to be on your best behavior with your family. “

I did recall telling Tony that story. Michael’s family believed that the best, most loving, most thoughtful part of yourself should be reserved for your family. They believed that the relationships with your family were sacred.

With tears in his eyes, Tony looked up at me. “That’s what I want to be able teach my children.”

Cultural Competence

By Laurie Kahn
August, 2008

“Culture, context and identity can render an experience traumatic.”
– Laura Brown, Cultural Competence in Trauma Treatment: Beyond the Flashback, 2008

My husband and I go to visit our 22 year old daughter who is a human rights activist living in the West Bank. She lends us the benefit of her knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic to introduce us to the worlds she has discovered. She insists that we see the people behind the politics. She takes us past the wall that divides Israel and Palestine, to Dheisheh, a refugee camp in the West Bank where she works at the community center. My daughter pauses for a long moment and says Ibdaa, the name of the community center, means “to make something out of nothing.”

To reach Dheisheh we go through one of the many checkpoints dividing Israel and Palestine. There are more than fifty-seven checkpoints, each one with metal detectors, railings, and narrow passages that control long lines of people. It does not escape me that these checkpoints are like lines drawn in the sand with a history of tension, bloodshed and shattered dreams on both sides.

A small sense of dread and curiosity accompanies me as we approach the checkpoint. The walls are painted green and remind me of an underground subway station. An Israeli solider sits in a blast-resistant glass booth with a rifle at his side. I glimpse into his eyes to see the young face and posture of a teenager, eighteen or nineteen years old at most. As we approach the window I search my backpack and pockets for my passport, sorting through chewing gum wrappers, stubs of airline tickets, scraps of paper with names and addresses of people I am supposed to call but won’t when I reach Jerusalem. The soldier glances at our American passports and waves us through without a moment of hesitation. An American passport is like a “get home free” pass and allows easy access to both Israel and Palestine. I find the checkpoint to be mildly annoying like a bad day getting through security at the airport, yet I am uneasy as I look behind me and see the long lines of women, men and children waiting restlessly, who simply want to return their homes.

Palestinians must have a special permit to leave the camp and work in Jerusalem. As they go through the checkpoint it is not a casual wave of the hand. Long lines are part of the ritual of entry and exit for their homes. While I experience a checkpoint as annoying and inconvenient, the Palestinian woman next to me describes it as a ritual of humiliation. She says, my daughter translates, it is a daily reminder that she lives in an occupied territory where her movement is controlled and limited. The checkpoints interfere with her ability to find a job and to be with her friends and loved ones in other parts of Palestine. Panic invades her sense of well-being each time she has to stand in line to pass through a checkpoint. She experiences many of the symptoms of posttraumatic stress. For her the checkpoint is laced with fear and rage.

Later I return to Jerusalem to meet my Israeli colleague for coffee. He sees the checkpoints as unfortunate, yet an essential and important source of safety and protection from suicide bombers. He confides that his parents and his uncle were killed in the Holocaust. “Threats to safety run deep in our psyches,” he explains. Many Israelis are immigrants who have experienced oppression and racial hatred. He adds that he is afraid every day for his nineteen year old daughter’s safety. She is a soldier in the Israeli army. All Israelis are required to serve for two years when they turn eighteen, he reminds me.

He asks, “How do you feel about your daughter working in the West Bank?”

I take my time to answer; this is not a simple question, and he does not ask it lightly. “Proud and afraid,” I say softly. He nods as if he understands both feelings equally.

I am struck with the different trauma narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Each is informed by the complex mixture of individual identities, religious, ethnic, and immigrant status, coupled with the historical and generational traumas that live in the very cells of their bodies.

A checkpoint: a mild annoyance, a trauma of humiliation, a hope for safety. Narratives informed by diverse political and historical realities. The different narratives more often than not are too difficult to acknowledge, creating polarization, conflict and human suffering.

As I return to my work I find I am looking through the lens of culture and diversity, placing trauma in a larger context. I am grateful for these lessons. However, in the quiet moments I long to see my daughter in the safety of our home, in her ripped blue jeans and dirty tee shirt, sitting on the oak chair at our kitchen table in the morning light, sipping tea and and sharing the details of her day.


A Response to the Budget and Social Service Crisis in Illinois

August, 2009

The issue of responsibility, individual and shared, is at the very core how a society defines itself. Will the inescapably traumatic events that befall its members become a shared moral and financial burden, or will victims be held responsible and left to fend for themselves?

– Bessel van der Kolk, Traumatic Stress, 1996

Dear Colleagues,

It is with great sadness and dismay that we are now witness to the disabling cuts to human services in Illinois. Those of us who have worked to support families and communities under duress know that the strength, integrity and generosity of a family, community, or society can be measured by how they respond to their most vulnerable members. Programs in Illinois that serve those that are easily marginalized and in need are precisely the programs that are now at risk or being compromised and in some cases eliminated.

Our friends and colleagues whose life’s work and mission are to serve those who have experienced trauma, loss and abuse are losing their jobs as a result of these cutbacks. This is demoralizing to them not only financially but also emotionally, and spiritually. Others are being asked to step up to compensate with crushing expectations that compromise the quality of the care that they are committed to provide.

We are being asked to turn our backs on people experiencing homelessness, children and adults with disabilities, people with serious mental illnesses, the uninsured, immigrants, and in general, children and women at risk.
Something has gone terribly awry.

At Womencare, we are committed to voice our outrage and concern through joining with others to keep the pressure on the legislature. We will offer more scholarships for training to therapists who have lost their jobs and to agencies that have had their training budgets cut. We will not be silent and we wish to be in community with others who also refuse to turn away when there is so much at stake.

With Care and Concern,
The Womencare Staff

A Response to the Separation of Families at the Border

June, 2018

We, the therapists and staff of Womencare Counseling and Training Center, feel it is our moral imperative to speak out for those whose voices have been silenced, namely the children and families currently separated from one another at our borders.  

As trauma-informed therapists, we know the profoundly damaging and lasting effects of these traumatic separations. They affect the neurological, psychological and physiological growth and development of the children, their parents and all those who witness these events.  We also know from human history that the deleterious effects of these traumatic events and experiences will impact not only this generation but generations to come.

Some have said that they count on these children to be resilient.  While we appreciate resilience, we also know these individuals and families will be forever changed.  The trauma inflicting action of removing children from their families frightens children and erodes their sense of trust and safety. It disrupts precisely what children require to be resilient in the face of adversity- a secure attachment to their families and communities.

We find the separations and detentions of children and families to be cruel and reprehensible, amounting to nothing less than psychological torture and a crime against humanity.  

We thank the organizations on the ground, fighting for these children and families, and encourage people searching for ways to help to check them out. A few of the many options:

Together Rising
Southern Poverty Law Center

Laurie, Ellen, Monica, Beth, Alissa, Jen, Judith, Sara, Rachel, Gabby and Amy

Men and Gender

By Laurie Kahn

Boys are abusers; girls are victims. Men are lawyers; women keep house. Men love sports; women like to shop. The women’s movement has long challenged these gender stereotypes. As a young feminist, I gathered with other women in musty basements and apartments in ‘consciousness raising groups’ that drew links between the personal and the political. We were outraged by the political and social limitations placed on women. We challenged the societal norms that restricted our choice of partners, professions and lifestyle. It was a time of our awakening and political activity. I helped organize one of the first rape crisis programs in Chicago. I worked with mothers on welfare to organize day care programs. We began to believe we could move mountains.

My feminist ire was always provoked when my concern about the rights and oppression of women was met with the comment, “You know males are oppressed too.” I would think to myself, I don’t remember when men had to fight for the right to vote. I don’t think men avoid walking the streets alone for fear of being raped.

Now I feel differently, even embarrassed, about my dismissal of the devastating impact gender roles can have on males. Maybe it came from the maturing of my feminist perspective, or maybe from knowing male friends and a partner who dared to move away from the dictates of societal expectations (My favorite is the dramatic increase in males who change diapers). Or maybe it was the sobering experience of listening intently to boys and men who dared to speak of being molested by a priest. My male clients have taught me much about what it means for a young boy to be abused. Research has consistently shown that the prevalence of sexual abuse of females is appallingly high, and that girls are predominantly abused by family members in the “safety” of their homes. The victimization of girls and women is fodder for music, poems, cinema and literature. We are intrigued, moved and outraged by the abuse of females.

The research on the sexual abuse of males is confusing. Figures vary widely, with one study showing that 4% of boys are abused, while another claims 76%. We do have evidence that boys are abused more often by people other than family members. We also have documentation of the shocking fact that pedophiles who target boys average 150 victims each. Even though the clergy and celebrity scandals involving the sexual abuse of boys have received tremendous media attention, stories of boys’ mistreatment remains mostly unspoken and suspect. To be a victim is incongruous with the role that we are taught is acceptable for boys. Except for when a male is shot by a cowboy or gang member, films do not portray men or boys as victims. Our culture vacillates between denial of the sexual abuse of males and public recognition of a serious social problem.

Recently I was asked to be on a radio show to comment on the Mary Kay LeTourneau case. She was the elementary school teacher who had sex with her male student. Ms. LeTourneau described a “romance” that began when the boy was twelve years old, and a controversy ensued. In newspapers and chat rooms, many declared that this was true love and argued that the charges of child rape against her should be dropped. Her sexual contact with this young boy led to her pregnancy, a seven year jail sentence and, most recently, marriage. When I was asked if this could have been true love, I responded, “Love can not be an alibi covering responsibility for abuse. Many children are sexually abused by those who ‘love’ them. If it is your father, teacher or beloved priest, there is a power differential. It is a betrayal of trust, and unequivocally abuse. I think the confusion with this case is that the gender roles are switched from what we are accustomed to.”

This case challenges two cultural myths. One, that boys are not victims, and two, that women cannot sexually abuse boys. If the story had been about a thirty-five-year-old male teacher having sexual contact with his twelve-year-old female student, the relationship would be seen clearly as sexual abuse. But change genders, and controversy flares. Sex with an older woman in male culture is often described as a rite of passage. If a boy tells about sexual contact with an older woman, he is more likely to be congratulated by his peers than comforted. This does not prevent the damage that the contact can cause, but it does make it more likely that the boy will never speak to his confusion or acknowledge his distress.

“Might Mary Kay and her new husband, now 22, have a good life?” I was asked at the end of the interview. I do not know. I agree, however, with Anna Salter, an expert on perpetrators of abuse, when she says that child sexual abuse is like being bitten by a rattlesnake: some recover completely, and some don’t, but it is not good for anybody.

The sexual abuse of boys is under-reported, under-recognized and under-treated. Boys often minimize the impact, dismissing the abuse as no big deal, and they are less likely than girls to seek help. Boys who are victims of sexual abuse worry that their abuse will prove them unmanly. Their shame is pervasive. A young man who did have the courage to seek help told me, “My heroes were Superman and James Bond. They protected the weak. They were never prey.”

Male survivors sit in my office telling me of incidents of sexual abuse that they have never before spoken about, their hearts broken by the betrayals of a trusted adult. Their distress is compounded by shame and doubts about their manhood. Normal “masculinity” has become a straitjacket that does not allow them to acknowledge their pain and vulnerability.
I was unaware, as I sat in the circles of my consciousness raising groups, that boys were being abused by their clergy, coaches and family friends. I did not know that sexism in our society made it more difficult for boys to seek help and get the compassion they deserved. I did not know that my definition of victimization had to be inclusive of everyone who is betrayed and robbed of their childhood and their dignity. I did not know that when abuse goes underground it can perpetuate a legacy of violence. I did not know that the emotional scars of boys can be as devastating as their sisters’.

Now I know.


Response to the Kavanaugh Confirmation… The Trauma After the Trauma

October 9, 2018

Memo to my people:

What do I say to you, when I am fuming?   I want to march in the streets. I want to scream.  Women are scorned for our anger.  The more we are discounted, the more our anger escalates.  I want to say something soothing and reassuring now, but that is not what I have to offer.

Christine Blasey Ford bravely, and reluctantly, recounted her sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, when they were in high school.  We watched her testimony.  Droves of people, outside of the walls of the Senate chamber, supported and believed her.  Many thanked her for her courage.  Some were able to come forth and say they experienced the culture of rape and sexual assault, and validate that it is real and dangerous.  Others said they too know the places she traveled because they were there, too.  They saw and heard, if not these men, then other men like them, laughing.  We became compassionate witnesses.  We all wanted to say I am sorry this happened to you, to us.

There was a swell of women’s voices, and men’s voices too, who understand the lasting impact of sexual assault and its power to continue to damage lives, to intrude uninvited in our most important relationships. That mattered.

But I am shaken, maybe naively (though as a trauma therapist naiveté is not my standard fare) by the outcome.  I have long taught therapists and survivors about the significance of what happens after a survivor discloses.  If they are believed and are met with an empathic and protective response, the prognosis for recovery is promising.  If they are not believed, or blamed for the assault, we call this the trauma after the trauma.  The process of healing is more fraught and the survivors’ well-being is then more precarious.

I think an overwhelming majority of people believe Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, even the people who claim to doubt. Yet there was no accountability.  The man she accused of sexual assault was honored, promoted to a seat on the Supreme Court where he will decide cases that affect women and girls for many years to come.

We collectively witnessed the hearings and the decision that followed, and we too were distressed. We too experienced the trauma after the trauma.

What I want to say to my clients, my students, and to the all the survivors we cherish is: You have the right to be disturbed, and to take time to heal. We need to create circles with our friends, neighbors or trusted colleagues where we can continue to make meaning of what happened to us this week.  We need to shiver, rage, and weep together.  Then, or after a while, we can find a path to healing that empowers us, helps us inform others about sexual assault, and makes us even more determined not to be silenced.

Laurie Kahn

Director, Womencare Counseling and Training Center

Book Cover Image

Baffled By Love: Stories of the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma Inflicted by Loved Ones

“Love is why they come to therapy.  Love is what they want, and love is what they say is not going well for them.”

-Laurie Kahn, Baffled by Love

As a therapist and as a writer, Laurie Kahn is aware of the power of words to give voice, and to heal.  The experience of those injured or betrayed as children is often wordless.  These are stories of people who were injured by someone they loved.  Their abusers—a father, stepfather, priest, coach, babysitter, aunt, neighbor—are people who once inhabited their daily lives.  Baffled by Love is about the healing power of sharing, exploring and finding words for one’s self.  Laurie Kahn offers glimpses of her own rocky history interwoven with stores of her clients—creating a textured tale of all too human search for the “good” kind of love.

“Laurie Kahn bravely challenges the paralyzing taboos around love and psychotherapy.  Her extraordinary achievement rests on wise insights, tender honesty, eloquent prose, and, perhaps most of all, the well-timed telling of her own compelling struggles with betrayal and love.”   –Jennifer Freyd , PhD, author of award-winning Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse

Learn more about Laurie Kahn and her book, Baffled by Love, by visiting her author website.

Baffled by Love can be purchased at: