Fire of the Five Hearts: A Memoir of Treating Incest

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This book is about the influence of twenty years of work in the field of incest on a therapist's professional and personal life. It is comprised of individual cases, and touches upon topics including spirituality, sex between siblings, counter-transference, and incest teams. The author shares, in unadulterated prose, her experience as an incest therapist. This important, courageous work touches upon issues important to and resonant for mental health professionals treating incest and sexual abuse as well as the incest survivor or survivor's family member.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles R. Figley
Holly smith has provided a window into her world that is both distressing and inspiring. She allows us to experience what she experiences-fears, joys, disgust, and all. She is our gentle guide. She achieves the perfect balance between story-teller and educator. Simply put: Fire of the Five Heartsis a gem.
Publishers Weekly
Suffering from an attack of an anxiety-driven illness, social worker Smith visited a doctor who told her that according to Chinese medical philosophy, every person has five hearts. Relieved, Smith decided that she'd need all five, because one wasn't enough to effectively do the work that had defined her life for the past 20 years. In her quest to bring light to what she calls the gravest and most destructive atrocity to be thrust upon children, Smith writes candidly about her experience as a social worker treating incest. The chilling, journal-like narrative begins with the tale of four-year-old Isabella, who was sexually abused by her father. It was Smith's fifth day on the job, and as she interviewed the shy girl, she was overwhelmed by her maternal need to protect the child. While waiting for the arrival of Isabella's foster family, Smith bathed the child in a sink, hoping to "polish and shine her" in an effort to detract from the impurity that had been forced upon her. She proceeds to fill the book with a series of equally troubling cases, in which Smith and her colleagues serve as ex post facto saviors, collecting the battered and bruised and trying to reassemble their lives. Written reflectively, the book acknowledges the fragility of those who are called to heal the broken. Smith, who also leads training sessions for new social workers, posits there is no recipe for resilience, but certainly this book can be added to the social worker's toolkit because, along with some of the distressing accounts of horror, there is also hope. (Sept. 16) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
According to the author, one in four women experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. This shocking statistic provides the basis for this unusual but somewhat unsatisfying book, which is grounded in the author's admirable 20-year career treating victims of incest and teaching graduate-level courses (Denver Univ. Sch. of Social Work and Naropa Inst.). The book begins with the story of her entry into the field, a profession she movingly describes as a "calling." Vignettes drawn from actual case studies examine various manifestations of incest, including sibling abuse and teacher/therapist incidents. The personal anecdotes that follow are gracefully written but tend to be impressionistic and focused on gritty, disturbing details. The author's orientation toward psychotherapy is apparent, but few clinical insights into causes or treatments for such trauma are offered. Instead, her reflections are primarily self-revelatory, e.g., she asserts that such work makes her a "healthier" mother and, upon discovering a trusted subordinate's long-term, improper diversion of funds, remarks on her perceived similarity to an incest victim's parent. This emotionally honest and compassionate book about dealing with shame and its toll on professionals is recommended only for specialized collections. More general libraries should already hold Christine Courtois's Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy and Judith Lewis Herman's Father-Daughter Incest.-Antoinette Brinkman, M.L.S., Evansville, IN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781583913543
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 8/23/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Holly A. Smith is the supervisor of the Boulder County Sexual Abuse Team in Colorado. She has taught graduate-level courses on the treatment of incest and sexual abuse at the Naropa Institute and has trained at the Denver University School of Social Work.

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Table of Contents


1. Ricky Still Loves Lulu

2. Isabella

3. The Sins of the Fathers Are Visited Upon the Daughters
4. Laying Down with the Offender

5."To My Haunting Ophelia, Who Brings Me to My Knees - Tie My Hands": On Esthetics, Art, and Spontaneous Weeping

6. On Siblings and Sex

7. The Therapist with Child: Transference and Counter-transference Ad Nauseum

8. On Finding a Voice

9. Falling From Grace

10. Spank Me: On Sex and the Unthinkable

11. From Field to Administration

12. Pockets of Compassion - When Mine are Empty

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First Chapter

C H A P T E R 1

Ricky Still Loves Lulu

My preference is to take the back roads, which inevitably spill out onto Interstate 25. I find that this particular winding road is just the distance it takes to settle me in the morning. I am en route to lead a training session. I don't know exactly why I have agreed to do it. This training distresses me. Not its content in particular-rather, it distresses me because it is not mine and it lacks heart. You simply cannot train someone else's work. It's like trying to wear someone else's shoes. The imprint that is left by your toes and the ball of your foot and your heel belong only to you. It will never feel right to anyone else. People work hard to break in their shoes. It's a very personal, intimate thing to anyone else. My favorite shoes are the well-worn, soft, buttery leather ones where, because they are so thin at the sole, you feel like your foot directly meets the earth.

A Chinese doctor once told me that we have five hearts: one in our chest, one in the palm of each hand, and one on the sole of each foot. My malady was called "Fire of the Five Hearts"-too much heat. I am pleased to know that I have five hearts. I want to cry. I will need five hearts to do this work. One is certainly not enough.

My life's calling is to find incest and heal it. No small endeavor. Somehow, somewhere over the years I have honed my senses. I can feel incest in a very deep place in my belly. I can smell it. I can see how people wear it in their bodies. Healing it, however, is a totally different matter.

For the next three days I will be training brand-new caseworkers on how to interview sexually abused children. I will be cooped up in a lavish old hotel in Denver, training in the penthouse, which was converted into a training room. At least I can see the sky. This hotel was the first Playboy Club in Denver; and I am in the penthouse, training on incest. I do not believe in coincidence. This must be the same feeling a family gets when they find out that their home has been built over a cemetery and the spirits have inhabited their dwelling.

This road has become familiar. Its aged, weathered barns lean precariously to the right. The sumptuous, velvety meadows are burgeoning with spring's delights. Over the last 20 years, I find that my eyes are drawn to scenes that are filled with beauty, color, and intrigue. Scenes that are untouched, unassimilated, and slightly wild. Keeping those pictures in my mind's eye will soothe me, particularly before I settle into a training such as this. This road, and what my eyes feast on, has become a ritual, a visual mantra-if I repeat it enough, look at it long enough, it becomes my tranquility. It is my method of calming my system, readying me for my work, which for 20 years has consumed my life.

As I get closer to the overpass, I notice that the sky is a deep rich rose, with a hint of violet. I know this overpass well. It is one of my landmarks-this one lets me know that I have a good hour of driving left. My car is the place where I can actually hear my thoughts. It is one of the only places I am able to think, where I am able to roll around my thoughts about incest and love and myself, and how this work has transformed me. I have had amazing epiphanies in my car. At times, I arrive at my destination having no idea how I got there.

As my windshield dips under the overpass, I read the graffiti on the bridge. It reads RICKY LOVES LULU. I press gently on the brakes as it hits me again, and then one more time before it registers, RICKY LOVES LULU. My heart starts to skip around in my chest, and I immediately think this is a sign. The universe is signaling to me. My Italian mother has always conveyed her superstitions to me. She has many old wives' tales about death. Maybe they're the beliefs told to her as a child. I am thinking that this is one of those signs where God is telling you something, like the heads-up pennies and kissing the dead-if you find a penny heads up, you make a wish, and if you kiss the dead in your dreams, then you are the next to die. I kiss the dead in my dreams all the time.

I think of a Ricky in my life, and my first experience of love, when I was fifteen. I wonder where he is and whom he loves. My mind starts to open. I think of my Lily, my oldest child. Lily is ten, and I often playfully call her "Lulu." I wonder why these two names are up here, Ricky and Lulu. I wonder if she will have sweet, pristine, unadulterated, warm love, like the love I had with Ricky. Those nights when we cut through the bushes on Planting Field Road, stealthily crept up High Hollow, and found our secret nest on Laurel Lane. We kissed until our lips were sore and our mouths ached. When we got under the street lamp, Ricky looked like a clown. His soft pink lips were swollen and glistening. His scent was all over my hair and my face. It was a brisk fall night. You could see your breath in the air. He smelled of corduroy and some sweet body soap.

I am thinking about incest, and love, and these children who don't have a choice with regard to who kisses them first, who touches their sweetness, who makes their bodies hum, whom they lie with in the bushes, and whose scent is left on their bodies. They have no voice in this matter of love. They are launched over their innocence at light's speed. They are touched and fondled by all the wrong people. Once that touch occurs, they are changed forever, their sense of love and intimacy twisted into some perverse knot.

And I am about to spend three days teaching clinicians how to interview these children. How to unveil their deepest ache, their deepest secret. I feel we have no right to delve, and I feel we have all the right. I want to turn back and find the overpass and dream about RICKY LOVES LULU. I am overcome with reverie and sadness. How do I bring this love back? How do I teach people to pry open the souls of these children who have been violated beyond words? I want to disappear, and yet somehow, I've made this my calling. With incest, you can't just sit down with a child and get him or her to tell all without knowing some of these things-without feeling the pain of no choice, and the loss of the innocent, childlike understanding of love. When these children tell, they turn in their love.

I can see the overpass in my mind, and I think about the first time I felt Ricky's boy-skin against my body. I have been so changed by my work in incest. Sometimes I have no sense of what love is anymore. I am drawn to love only in secret. I don't remember what is sweet and pure anymore.

A May morning, and my window is rolled down. I can smell the color green. It is moist and rich, and the mares have bellies full of babes. I see a fine new foal leaning into her mama's side. Her noodley legs make her look loopy. She is sleek and fresh and breathtakingly beautiful. My eyes drink in the sights.

I try to focus on my training. I need to do a better job today of "transitioning to the target event." On "doing the do," so to speak. I need to bridge the gap between building rapport using the child's words and jumping into the incest. These folks, these baby caseworkers, have a difficult time with ejaculation, penetration, and describing the consistency and the color of cum. Should I do the cottage cheese/pee-hole/groan narrative? I am saturated with all this sex stuff. There is no pleasant way to teach this, to soften it, to pretty it up.

These folks will dissect this approach. They will question the hows and the whys. They will focus on open-ended, nonleading questions. They will debate the dialectic of defense attorneys. They will ponder the importance of establishing spatiality and temporality, of receptive versus expressive language. What about sequencing? What about logical progression? This is all the technical language of interviewing, all the logistics that lack the heart and soul of exploring incest.

Interviewing children who have been incested is a complicated jigsaw to be pieced together. It is an intimate, interpersonal dance that is at some level unteachable. Either you have it or you don't, and all the technical training in the world won't birth this process. It is part intuitive. It's more about reading your own body and your own mind than it is about language and questioning. It is about sitting in a room with a child, sliding into some comfort, and talking about nothing and talking about everything. You are molding Play-Doh pies with berries rolled up inside and you are gingerly slicing that pie so that the berries stay intact, all the while trying to touch into this little person. You are the conduit-the vehicle for the secret to be eked out, slowly and in snippets. Sometimes during these trainings, I notice that there is one set of twinkling eyes in the room. And I can see that this person might have it, might have the fever for this work. While I might not be able to really teach the interviewing piece, perhaps I have succeeded in infecting someone with the passion of incest work. To those who get this passion, I can leave a small bag of tools. The rest is theirs, to do with what they wish. I have often asked my trainees if someone would be willing to volunteer to the group, in steamy detail, the description of his or her first sexual encounter" "I was touched here . . . I felt this . . . I did that . . . " There is silence. There is indignation. There is heat. Faces are flushed. There is always a little bit of hissing. Not a soul volunteers. "So," I say, "this is exactly what we are asking these children to do, with a total stranger. Why can't we?"

There is always, without exception, some speculation as to how I got into this work. Folks always assume that I am (or was) a survivor of incest. I have been waiting for twenty years, and that revelation has yet to come. I find myself answering the question in this way: Many years ago, I was rejected from the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado due to my abysmally low GRE scores. I saw an ad in the paper for an investigator/therapist for the Sexual Abuse Team, and I inquired. I would stay a year and then try my shot at my doctoral degree. And here I am, twenty years later. I talk about putting your nose into things for a reason and getting hooked. There is something about incest work that is totally riveting, totally captivating. It is like being on a lifelong archaeological dig, somewhere in the middle of your soul. I have been looking high and low for some fabulously obscure, intangible essence, and perhaps until I find it, I will not be freed from this quest.

A very dear supervisee of mine once told me that she believed she had taken the job because, in a past life, she had been a perpetrator of incest, and she was here to serve out her karmic penance. Oftentimes on my drive, I feel paralyzed. I wonder if it is really the fear that someday, in the midst of one of my trainings, I am going to have some great dawning, right there, right smack in the middle of the room. I am going to remember having sex with my father, or my uncle, or my brother. And I am going to have a breakdown right in front of all those people I don't even know. I imagine I would lose my speech and just walk out of the room. When I think about this happening, my hands sweat. My heart starts to race. I feel dizzy, and I feel like I am going to die. And I imagine that this is what the children feel when we ask them to speak.

My job is to understand the intricacies of incest and to try and impart those intricacies to those with whom I work. And I really don't know if that can be done, simply because it is so uniquely personal, almost spiritual. I can't teach my process; I can only be it.

* * * * * * *

Another training, another visual mantra. I have bypassed the mare this morning because my mind is too full. I am anxiously awaiting RICKY LOVES LULU. They will lift me. They will carry me off into some sensual reverie of some love from some other time. As I approach, I am confused because the overpass has no writing on it. I wonder if I got so deep in my mind that I missed it. I get to the next landmark and am further confused. I turn myself around and am absolutely speechless. The proclamation has been wiped clean! Someone washed off RICKY LOVES LULU! I am appalled! I am indignant! Who would have done such a thing? What does this mean? It is a sign! They are done. They are finished. Maybe they never really loved each other. They were not who I thought they were. These bold, ballsy braggarts, telling all of I-25 of their love.

I wonder if my Ricky ever loved me, and if I ever really loved him. What was it that was between us? Was it simply that we grew up in our love together, preparing each other for a deeper, more grown-up type of love?

I think of the fathers and the daughters they secretly touch. I know that the fathers want to be the first to do to their children what they know others will do to them later. They need to be the first because they can't bear the thought of these ever-so-precious, exquisite bodies being received by another's mouth, tongue, or penis. They are so hungry, so ravenous for love, acceptance, and an intimacy so deep. Who are these fathers? Who are these mothers? These brothers? These sisters? These uncles? Who are these people who sexualize their love, their rage, their control, and their emptiness? Has their trust been spirited away by another at some young age, without them even knowing it? I think of ownership of children and the objectification of children. Once a parent- child bond is sexually violated, there is no RICKY LOVES LULU. There is no love possible as we know it. Love as we know it has been redefined. It has new rules. And it takes only one moment of someone not thinking, not imagining the consequences, to step over the threshold and put one's needs, one's grown-up de- sire before that of their child-to extinguish love, to erase any RICKY LOVES LULU.

My calling is incest. To unravel it. To understand it. And, I hope, to heal it. I have dedicated my life to this demon.

* * * * * * *

June, before dawn, and the day already feels warm. This is my last training for the summer. I am meeting a colleague for breakfast. My eyes feast upon the meadow. I can see the foal, leggy and lean, prancing around with a white-speckled friend. In the summer, children's legs, like foals' legs, grow right before your eyes. A red-tailed fox scoots across the road. She is in a hurry this morning, on some mission, not to be deterred. Her tail looks like a million plumes, bushy and red.

I am hoping that my incest training will be alive today. I feel lethargic and blue. It is a stunning day, yet I cannot muster myself. These are the days when I am so done, so completely finished with finding and healing incest. These are the days when I can't imagine continuing this work. I am depleted and empty. I have nothing left to give. Sometimes I wonder if the work will be the death of me. My mother used to yell at us kids, saying that we would be the death of her. I have some sense of her meaning. Even though she loved us madly, we took everything from her.

As I approach the overpass, the sky is growing lighter. I am distracted, but I slow down, hoping there had been some cruel mistake. I brake completely, without even looking in my rearview mirror. It is early in the morning, and the interstate is empty. I pull over to the side of the highway. My heart is beating so fast that I can hardly breathe. I feel as if my eyes need to focus. I am stunned! Absolutely and completely astonished! I read the writing on the bridge ever so slowly . . . RICKY STILL LOVES LULU. As I am reading this to myself, out loud, I can see a young man dangling over the bridge finishing the U of Lulu, with one final upward sweep. It is still a bit hard to make out his figure. Up bobs a girl, with a long brown ponytail. I am transfixed. I feel like I am peeping through someone's window. I am the voyeur. Quickly, he grabs her face and kisses her mouth. She receives his kiss with a giggle, breaks away from him, and they duck out of sight. I sit in my car as if I have been sitting in a drive-in. I stare at the bridge as if it were a huge screen. I am waiting for more. But it is done.

I don't know what to say to myself. I can't believe what I have just seen. And yet-there are no coincidences. I feel I was supposed to be there at that very moment. I was supposed to witness the message, the sign. It was for me. It was for everybody. The gods placed me there, along with the fox, and the foal, and the sky opening up its light. They placed me there just like they placed me twenty years ago. They gave me this calling. They wanted to see what I would do with it. There are no mistakes. There are no coincidences. And Ricky still loves Lulu.

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