Vicarious

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Content warning: Discussions of abuse and vicarious trauma

You feel it descend as the kids run off through the aisles in the supermarket. As soon as they’re out of sight you are alert and tense. Occasionally it happens while you’re distracted, so when you look up and realise they’re gone you don’t know exactly how long or which way they went, and when that happens you go straight to third gear. Short breaths, quickening movements. Whatever you were holding flung in the general direction of the shelves as you spin away into the search.

Man holding a flashlight ti shadowy figures behind a supermarket aisle. Illustration Chris Johnston

There’s a thing you do — walking as fast as you can, rushing, hyperalert, checking along and under and at the same time throwing glances towards the exit for any sign of a kid being hustled or carried out past the bag checkers — all the while trying not to look like a deranged helicopter parent. Must not helicopter.

You’re thinking about He Who Walks Behind The Rows. When as a teenager you read about Stephen King’s supernatural demon, the source of evil in a story about a cult of children killing adults, the words had a heft of their own that sunk in and stayed with you. Like a line from a song or a poem that pops up from time to time in response to the right stimuli. Decades later, you used it to name another chilling character you encountered, but he who walks among the aisles wasn’t squashed safely between the pages of a paperback. He was a real person from a real case who, with help from a single accomplice, took a child straight out of a shop past dozens of people and security guards. Although your left-brain knows you’ll never meet him he’s there with you in every supermarket, toy or department store moving along quietly out of sight; watching, waiting.

In court his breathing was loud and deep, Vader in a cardigan. He looked annoyed, his lawyer was pressing his rights and you ground your teeth but you were, as always, polite and professional. It’s not as if you’ve never had to press an argument that left ash on your tongue.

Just as you start to hyperventilate you find them three aisles away, pottering and smiling. You know they’ve done nothing wrong but you admonish them gently and, just for a second, hug them a little too tightly.

At the fringes of the legal system, there are areas of work you probably won’t read about in law school career guides. Many of these deal in trauma or poverty. They are substantial, but they aren’t celebrated or pursued by the mainstream of the profession. They generally attract neither money nor prestige, and in many cases the ‘market’ fails to provide paid jobs of any sort, irrespective of need. Social security law — incredibly complex, full of rich intellectual challenge and compelling human stories — sustains almost no dedicated lawyers aside from a handful in community legal centres and their moderately more comfortable counterparts in Centrelink. Whereas its pin-striped reflection, tax law, sustains thousands of comfortable jobs, many of which come with seven figure incomes.  

 

'To do this work is to accept its scars. This is true for the social workers, psychologists, community advocates, magistrates, youth workers and others in this space. Lawyers are not special; I write what I know.'

 

Child protection is the underpaid, scruffily-dressed cousin of family law. It attracts small clusters of lawyers around state children’s courts, a mix of the truly dedicated and those who simply landed there and never moved on. Beyond child protection there are a smattering of other lawyers grinding through an eclectic collection of trauma jurisdictions. Historic (and occasionally recent) child abuse claims, periodic inquiries and royal commissions, family violence and intervention orders, and a growing area of law in the complex management of very violent individuals, especially sex offenders, outside gaol. 

To do this work is to accept its scars. This is true for the social workers, psychologists, community advocates, magistrates, youth workers and others in this space. Lawyers are not special; I write what I know. I can concede there are more traumatic or challenging jobs while also wondering if the particular requirements of the law may have their own unique way of opening a person to damage. You descend into the story, absorb much of its detail, then turn the furious intensity of your legal skills to the task of furthering another’s advantage. Telling their story with conviction. When your conscience aligns with your work, you risk becoming overwhelmed and obsessed with the outcome as you sink deeply into the needs of your client. When there is less alignment you may — assuming you have a strong conscience — feel your sense of self undermined by cognitive dissonance.

With perverse irony, the lawyers whose actions render the greatest damage usually work at some remove from the outcomes. Collins Street’s ‘best and brightest’ don’t visit the undeveloped sites of foregone public schools or hospitals, nor meet the dying victims of toxic torts or the suicidally depressed debris scattered by a mass ‘employee offboarding’. Sometimes even government lawyers are deliberately buffered, with a degree of structural separation, from those they act against. I was once told by a lawyer from a hard-nosed unit based in Canberra, a unit that seemed to love litigation like I love the fatty bits of bacon, that they were kept away from direct exposure to the poor and disabled people on the receiving end lest, it was implied, they lost their steely resolve. 

The law of trauma and abuse doesn’t offer such genteel opportunities to pontificate on section this or subparagraph that while whistling cheerfully. The damage opens up in front of you — a haemorrhaging patient in thoracic surgery — and you need to steel yourself and go on in because that’s your job. The files alone will put hooks in you, even if all you do is read and summarise, read and summarise. When you realise just how much abuse has been absorbed by thousands of children, women, the vulnerable, how predatory and misanthropic people can be, how indifferent and irresponsible so many others — charged with protecting or educating those children — can also be, that shapes you forever.  

There are many tripwires. One woman I worked with couldn’t watch Law and Order; a show that was merely edge-of-seat can become a door into a liminal space where fiction feels interchangeable with real files. I get that one too, but I also find the prompts can be far more random — a shop, a suburb. There is a street in Melbourne where a girl was brutally assaulted and killed decades ago, and I spent some time reading about how the perpetrator was caught, many years later, through an incredibly dedicated cold case investigation. I sometimes walk past the street and her story always comes back to me. I don’t know where exactly it happened, so each house, in my mind, potentially holds this coiled history, the inexplicable horror with its long, dark tail that would have destroyed the lives of those closest to her and would still be alive in her wider family’s consciousness. 

Sometimes my worst reactions are responses to perceived institutional failures. For example, the way so much has been uncovered and learned but so many people still seem, to my no-doubt-jaded eyes, to be providing performative lip service when it’s easy while failing to truly ask for a society where we consistently strive to protect children from harm. We can scream and march if we find out a former offender lives in our community, and we can usually muster bipartisan support to condemn the well-documented institutional sexual abuse of the past.

Yet we can also deem some children unworthy of the most elemental protections by labelling them outsiders and slapping them behind razor wire. And we still seem to fret about whether child-on-child abuse, of the non-sexual kind, is really that bad or some sort of rite of passage that prepares kids for ‘the real world’. Never mind the evidence it can lead to the same long-term trauma and developmental harm as the abuse we more readily acknowledge. Never mind that we shape the so-called real world ourselves, through our decisions and the norms we allow to be embedded into each new generation as it passes through the education system.

In my mind there remains a direct intercommunicative link between these types of failures and the better acknowledged ways we failed children in the past. I hear about them and immediately feel some of the anger I felt reading files about abusers being moved around or police laughing off children’s stories and delivering them back into the hands of their perpetrators.

 

'There is a particular way this can unsettle your sense of self if you are a man who has spent time in this type of work.'

 

Whatever the prompts may be, they are ever-present for many people who’ve worked in these spaces. Turn the wrong corner or page and it arrives.

Images blur and join between memories. Priests circling like dementors, ready to steal childhoods and leave traumatised shells that wake in the night thirty years later. Juvenile gaols where guards locked themselves away in safety every night rather than deal with the gang beatings and rapes. Men sitting behind steering wheels, watching lights going out in bedrooms or waiting in quiet carparks.

There is a particular way this can unsettle your sense of self if you are a man who has spent time in this type of work. You will understand, both impressionistically and factually, that some of the most disturbing, least understood pathologies are overwhelmingly problems of men. You will see an old friend furiously reposting obfuscatory nonsense dredged up out of rabbit holes deep in the manweb and you will be angry and frustrated. You know they wouldn’t so much as humour let alone propagate that garbage if they’d worked a month in the Children’s Court.

Of course it’s not all men and yet, even as your friend loudly wades into some discussion insisting on their own impeccable credentials, you recall encounters with loud, black-shirted men’s rights activists making the same arguments in court. Every single one of them indignant and unfairly put upon. Every single one a violent, abusive and unbalanced individual individual with an exasperating inability to see themselves from the outside, recognise the lines they’d well and truly crossed and accept boundaries and help. Every single one of them there because their actions had harmed those they purported to love and, in the process (as they were likely to tell you without any admission of culpability), destroyed what may have been the best thing they had. 

The vast majority of really serious family violence cases you handled or saw involved men abusing women. ‘Really serious’ are the ones where implacably angry perpetrators hold court orders in open contempt, or crawl along in cars following victims from home to shops to school, or beat them to within an inch of their lives. The cases where at every moment you worry, really worry, that they might become another headline. The gender skew is even less debatable when it comes to sexual assault, whether of women or children. It isn’t even controversial to observe that sexual assault is — overwhelmingly — a problem of men.

Even if you dear male reader, or I, or any one of my male colleagues from the times I worked in these fields are not a risk in this regard, not prone to powerful abusive impulses let alone ‘unable' (or unwilling, or unwilling to do the work to be able) to control them, you may find it hard to avoid wondering what fuels this darkness. Wondering in a way that ever-so-slightly twists the wires that hold you together.

 

'That they are not dissuaded by the lack of material rewards or professional recognition is not to the point. It is to their credit, but not that of a system that grinds on treating the most valuable work, whether in law or across society generally, as if it is the most expendable.'

 

Despite the inevitable damage, every day people turn up and do this work. Police interview victims, social workers try to help people who’ve hurt their loved ones, trauma counsellors listen and empathise and give something of themselves to guide people away from the edge of an abyss. And lawyers turn up in places like the Children’s Court, acting for frightened, confused or angry children and parents, or for social workers, doing their best with what they have, who sometimes feel the same emotions as those they work with.

Measured by the standards of their own profession, the work is thankless — not only at the bottom of the pay scale but almost never accorded recognition for its value or difficulty. Not one of the good, even great lawyers I’ve known who worked in that court made silk. Every year, the self-perpetuating system of legal honours awards its highest quality mark to people whose lives have been dedicated to defending power and privilege, many of whom would fall apart like Bloomberg’s presidential campaign if they spent a week running emergency contests about where an abused child will sleep that night. A few good Children’s Court lawyers manage to become magistrates, many reach a point where they have to move on, for their sanity or the mortgage, but others build an entire life taking on those cases and the load that comes with them. That they are not dissuaded by the lack of material rewards or professional recognition is not to the point. It is to their credit, but not that of a system that grinds on treating the most valuable work, whether in law or across society generally, as if it is the most expendable.   

No doubt it gets easier as time goes on (as it did for me, over several excursions into different aspects of this law) but even for the lifers ‘it’ must always be there. Even real, substantive fears like running into the wrong person in the wrong place. Like the existential horror that paralysed one of my former managers when, out walking with her small child, she realised she was standing close to someone violent she’d encountered in court. She walked away, unrecognised, but not without sustaining a small tear in the fragile barrier between her work and private lives.

The personal impact of this work is now getting attention. There’s an invitation in my inbox to a professional development lecture about managing vicarious trauma, and recently a former prosecutor was awarded substantial damages for posttraumatic stress disorder from prolonged exposure to sexual abuse files. The result may be an increased focus on ameliorating the direct impact of the trauma exposure — perhaps by creating a more balanced mix of work, where possible, or by offering counselling.

What may prove difficult to quantify is the impact that would come from better funding and recognition.

The lawyers I know who do this work rarely complain about their marginal status within their profession (many hold its worst pretentions and conceits in contempt). But humans are social animals, and nobody revels in third tier status (or pay, for that matter). When it comes to building resilience, it can’t be helpful that we tell these people, through the signifiers that have value in our society, that what they do is not important.     

 

 

Martin PikeMartin Pike is a lawyer and writer who lives in Melbourne

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Martin Pike, vicarious trauma, FVDV, child abuse, law

 

 

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Existing comments

A very powerful and sublime read. Well stated and compassionate. Send to the PM.
Trace | 26 May 2020


“and in many cases the ‘market’ fails to provide paid jobs of any sort, irrespective of need.” ‘Our’ market is for normal people, to whom a farmer can plan to sell an apple but not a toadstool, even if toadstools and apples grow together like tares and wheat. There is another market, though, a system of order but not of law, where no toadstools exist in any great number, because you can make them buy the bullet which, vicariously, they will use. Child protection law, as far as The Market is concerned, is a public good. Like lighthouses and snooping on jihadists, the passenger effect means there is no market to determine the pay and benefits of their operatives, just the fiat of a community which can be exhorted to think about what it should pay to the cleaners who keep its premises liveable.
roy chen yee | 26 May 2020


Yes I acted in crime mostly local and district court and Children's court care and protection these areas are not profitable but bring both joyband sorrow to lawyers and clients
terence duff | 26 May 2020


No words adequate. Heartfelt thanks for doing what you do.
Reg Tydell | 26 May 2020


Fantastic selfless insight! Good to see that there are some pockets of altruism and a true understanding of professionalism still extant in some parts of what was once one of the great learned professions seduced like the others, Medicine, Education and Divinity, by concern for self rather than others. The easily extinguished embers have been glowing away in humanity from time immemorial until the fuel was added and caused a raging inferno. The fuel had three major accelerant components, radical feminism, the world wide web and the 1960s sexual revolution. Humanity has become an addicted arsonist with little imperative to extinguish the flames.
john frawley | 26 May 2020


Thank you both for your work and the way you put it into words for us. I wish even these protections and laws existed when I was younger. Why some men are so angry and violent towards those they purport to love is an unfathomable mystery. With terrible consequences for women and children in particular. Thank you again for your goodness and courage in doing this work.
Margaret | 26 May 2020


Wow! I didn't realise how traumatic and unrecognised protecting the vulnerable is. You have opened my eyes to a truly devastating situation. To extend what another commentor said, this should be sent to all politicians.
Richard | 27 May 2020


How John Frawley regards your terrific piece as fantastic, selfless and insightful, while attributing blame for the work you do at the unfashionable end of the market to radical feminism beats me. Surely radical feminism is the consequence of what hegemonic patriarchy has visited upon women globally over the centuries, and in respect of which persons like you are left to sift through the shards?
Michael Furtado | 27 May 2020


Thank you all for the feedback. I should be clear, while I have worked in these fields a fair bit I am not currently doing so. Those of my former colleagues doing so long term deserve the best of your praise. But I'm very grateful for your comments. And as Terrance notes the work can bring joy (or at least satisfaction) as well, it is a privilege to do work that can make a difference and I'm grateful I got the opportunity.
Martin Pike | 27 May 2020


Martin Pike reminds us with impressive persuasiveness and conviction that no profession is exempt from the obligations and exercise of an informed and compassionate social conscience. Among the "others" who along with "social workers, psychologists, community advocates, magistrates, youth workers" exposed daily to raw experience of trauma and poverty who admirably "accept its scars", I would include also as worthy of explicit mention the many priests and religious themselves innocent of child abuse but enveloped in its scandalous penumbra because of the heinous actions of a minority of offending confreres.
John RD | 27 May 2020


This is a highly valuable article - thanks for your courage in naming what has been often unnamed. It's interesting that you make reference to TV shows in which actors endeavour to portray the challenges of lawyers (dramas which can feel distressing and triggering to real lawyers) - in my research into actor wellbeing, these actors also may find themselves experiencing vicarious trauma. I have found that they have not learned how to both feel empathetic in the role and yet not be overwhelmed or injured by the role. As you say "When your conscience aligns with your work, you risk becoming overwhelmed and obsessed with the outcome as you sink deeply into the needs of your client. When there is less alignment you may — assuming you have a strong conscience — feel your sense of self undermined by cognitive dissonance." So, maybe there are some common experiences in vicarious traumatisation and debriefing from roles (whether lawyer or actor) that could be explored in such a dialogue between these two professions - I'm finding great support in the Law Well-being Network in Australia as I move between these two professions to engage with these powerful challenges that have real world outcomes. So, thanks for this important contribution to both discussion and hopefully remedial action.
Dr Mark Seton, PhD | 27 May 2020


Michael F. I suspect you and I have a different idea of what radical feminism is. To me it is a movement dedicated to the destruction of all cooperative interaction between the sexes, of marriage of man and woman and of family as the stabilising unit in our society. As the epitome of self-interest, it is radically different from the feminism that seeks equality for women in work, administration, politics, opportunity, education , etc, the type my wife, daughter and grand daughters belong to.
john frawley | 27 May 2020


Well said, and eloquently analysed. Working in the zone can take its toll. The phone never stops ringing. The clients are usually dealing with a world turned upside down. Being a light to them takes patience, listening skills, a keen eye and some experience of what they are going through. It is empathy that puts you at risk of vicarious trauma, yet empathy is indispensible. If you have strength and wisdom you are bound to share both, if life has any meaning. A good sense of humour and a wide perspective can help. Will keep your article for our Community Legal Service and the interminable policies and procedures that accompany the sector.
Laurie McMahon | 27 May 2020


Michael Furtado: “Surely radical feminism is the consequence of what hegemonic patriarchy has visited upon women globally over the centuries….” The situation gets curioser and curioser. The modern day patriarchal hegemon cuts off his children’s noses to spite his ex-wife’s face when he weasels out of adequate post-divorce child support while the modern day radical feminist does more or less the same thing by taking a ‘reproductive health’ specialist’s knife to the child’s face to spite the man’s. I’m sure the Geneva Convention bans the waging of war by under-age proxy.
roy chen yee | 27 May 2020


Michael Furtado, dialectical framing of "radical feminism" and "hegemonic patriarchy" reflects an exclusively ideological mindset and approach that reduces female-male relationship to a contest for power - hardly a model conducive to the mutual respect and support, as well as collaborative effort, necessary for addressing the abuse and its traumatising effects that Martin Pike and others admirably seek to counter.
John RD | 28 May 2020


Dr Mark Seton’s article is the first new thing I’ve read in ES for a long while. It’s brilliant. There’s an Arts and Culture section if you want to tell us more.
roy chen yee | 29 May 2020


When the rat of justification crept into this commentary I made my prior remark. And a compliment to his equanimity that Martin Pike ignored the 'Yes; but' excuses that followed. These he encountered, I'm sure, on a daily and evidently unavoidable basis. That there are people who trawl this magnificent e-site to exonerate transgressive priests as well as other men who have abused and even murdered women and children by pointing to the number who aren't guilty is surely beside the point of confronting this harrowing account. That some should however do so by equating the murderous behaviour of such men with a minority of women duped into regarding abortion on demand as a woman's right, when history demonstrates that the clinically sterile act of termination is invariably carried out by a man, while women, and not just babies, are the real victims of this crime, wouldn't tax the analytical skills of a Sherlock Holmes or even a Father Brown. But before I'm swamped by howls of protest, let me also raise an accusative finger on behalf of the many female victims condemned to death by the repeated failure of our Catholic Church to invoke the principle of double effect.
Michael Furtado | 29 May 2020


Who allows their children to RUN in a supermarket or any other public building? I’m a retired nurse and I saw more than one elderly person die as a result of a fall after being knocked over by a running child. I’m now disabled myself and was knocked to the floor in Aldi recently by one of three kids playing hide and seek in the aisles. I can’t get up by myself any more, so two men thankfully came to my rescue. The mother made no attempt to apologise or pull her kids into line. I know this wasn’t what the article was about but I just want you to think of your grandmother or other elderly relative or friend before you allow your children to run around in public buildings or even on footpaths.
Joy | 29 May 2020


Thanks mate for you powerful ,pertinent and insightful tribute to the lawyers (and others)who practise in these areas . You speak it well through the lived experience . An "unfashionable" area of practice,and yet one in which liftimes are fashioned . Among many others,Images of grandparents pleading for custody and care of their recently born grandchildren ,offspring of their drug addicted children come to mind . Sadly so often not reprsented . What a difference an institionual sentence or a bond( often enhanced by competent representation) can make to a life outcome . However far more community support of families is needed.It makes for hard economic sense, Indeed as Trace suggest send to the Premiers and chief magistrates! thanks john
john | 29 May 2020


Thank you. I am educated though of low socio economic status. I am grateful that I and my children never had the need of your work and care; though often skirted on the edge I suspect. Thank you and I pray for the day when the need for this work will be less; in the meantime I honour all of you who do it, though at times it may seem hard to believe, I know that the world is a better place for all the work you all do. Thank you for the courage you muster each day to show up where you are needed, in both your personal and professional life. Much appreciation.
Barbara | 29 May 2020


Powerful and true. As a former school chaplain and married to a retired forensic psychologist, I have lived this for many years. My trauma makes it impossible for me to view any violence to person or creature, nor can I cope with conversations about it. As an Anglican priest now I continue to despair over the depth of so many people's careless and deliberate inhumanity and humaneness. It's hard not to despair.
Marilyn Obersby | 30 May 2020


“let me also raise an accusative finger on behalf of the many female victims condemned to death by the repeated failure of our Catholic Church to invoke the principle of double effect.” Michael Furtado, are you talking about the counselling of women not to leave an abusive relationship, or the refusal of the church to permit remarriage after an unannulled divorce, or some other thing? And what about ‘double effect’? While this quote from the Internet isn’t a scholarly citation, it’ll do: “The doctrine of double effect. This doctrine says that if doing something morally good has a morally bad side-effect it's ethically OK to do it providing the bad side-effect wasn't intended. This is true even if you foresaw that the bad effect would probably happen.” So, we don’t want people to die but reopening the economy will benefit millions while deaths, if any, will be a few thousand at most. Double-effect is not an intrinsic absolute. It’s prudential, meaning that sometimes we can hold our noses and wear it and sometimes we mustn’t.
roy chen yee | 30 May 2020


There a sense in which the title of this article addresses another question. The modern use of the word 'vicarious' suggests an experience of imagining the feelings of another; in other words, of life lived in the fast lane by those who prefer to amble along in the slow. There's a lesson in this not just for lawyers but for Christians who, while siding with the underdog, also have a duty of care to the egregiously wicked. I think here of the nuns who spirit away child molesters after their release in the face of mobs baying for vengeance and alarm-shackling. The pastoral imperative is hardly an easy one but forgiveness in the face of an almost puritanical separation of vice from virtue is a very hard thing to do in a world in which the bifurcations between good and evil are often too easily and absolutely drawn. Perchance Martin would like to comment on this, given the richness of his experience and the eloquence with which he expresses himself. After all, when it comes to discussing matters such as this, 'what dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's own self!' (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Michael Furtado | 31 May 2020


Thanks for asking, Roy, and also for reminding me about what I already knew. My allusion was to the thousands - possibly millions of women in a more 'gynaecologically primitive' era - who were condemned to death by the ignorance of some Catholics and their pastors, especially in majoritarian Catholic countries, in which misinformed attitudes, described by some as 'clerical' rather than authentically Catholic, overruled good medical ethics practice, and where women at risk of death through childbirth were denied termination. This happened in Ireland within the last decade and, tragically, has not only misrepresented Church teaching but also led to the kind of abortion law reform that wrongly denies the right to life of the unborn child. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/world/europe/savita-halappanavar-ireland-abortion.html
Michael Furtado | 02 June 2020


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