Work has always been a major part of my life, from my earliest memories I can remember the play I preferred was being a businessman or a teacher and I always saw my parents engaging in work. It seemed to me that this one concept ‘work’ is what life centered around. Indeed, you could say I have lived two lives, the one with my family and my lovers, and a second mistress called work. Now I know a lot of people probably feel this way. But I think most people work to support their private home life, or work because they love what they do. I worked because it was what I knew, and while I always wanted to make money and support my family sadly this always came second to the actual job at hand. This is what probably made me a very bad and broke business person, as I will explain later. This part of my story, I should also introduce a person who has had the biggest impact on me throughout my childhood and through my adult working life and that is my mom. My mom I believe wanted me and my two older brothers to be successful an unbreakable work ethic. Even as me and my brothers age into middle and late adulthood I truly believe we could outwork even the brightest and healthy young person. So, let me introduce you to my second mistress ‘work’.
My early years
My work life started at very young age. At an early age, I was working occasional weekends at my mom’s candy store and helping my dad during a time he owned his detailing shop. I remember once when my parents had a shop on First street in Idaho Falls Idaho I offered them to sweep and clean their shop every Saturday for a dime a week. One of my fondest memories was working in my mom’s candy store in the mall called “KarmelKorn” with her and my grandma. They would put me on a milk crate, so I could see over the counters and ring up people’s orders and take their money as grandma or mom scooped up their product. One of my very first lesson in the world of work was working with my grandma one day. One day when I was taking orders and grandma was cooking caramel corn, a rather large man looked at me and said
“I will have no damn kid take my order.”
I remember getting off my crate and tearing up in front of my grandma I told her what the man had said. She told me to go back to the man and say
“sir I am no kid, I am Curtis, now can I take your order.”
In a very surprising way the man complied, but it would only be later that I learned my grandma was standing behind me giving the man dirty looks. But it did teach me a valuable lesson of work life; you must be the one to make things happen. Also, make sure you have good co-workers who have your back. I always thought based on that early experience I should have become. However sales and business man, but I will be the first to say that I could not sell a bottle of water to a wealthy man. I truly believe that in my life of business this inability has significantly inhibited the different fields and occupations I could have had, given my education and experiences, and always prevented me from acquiring any amount of wealth.
I also must say that work is where I also experienced my first heartbreak and in many ways the cruelness of others. KarmelKorn was in a mall in Idaho Falls, and for many years across from it was a store called the “Sock Shop” and yes literally all they sold was socks. But at the age of 14-15, there was this beautiful blond 17-year-old that I am sure was probably one of my first real teen crushes that worked at the Sock Shop. I remember getting so excited when I found out she was working the nights I did and feeling disappointment when she wasn’t. We became what I would consider good friends, and I will admit probably in a very delusional ways I thought that maybe she had liked me too. That is until one night her boyfriend came to visit her. I remember after watching the two talk; he walked across the hallway pointing at me saying
“Hey babe is this the kid you said looked like a frog,”
he continued, “you know what you are right, he does.”
I have to admit I think it was that experience coupled with being told a couple of times that I never can date the kind of cute girls my older brother did, that made me a very anxious and socially awkward man around women. It probably contributed to me only dating a few women, and marrying a woman that was much stronger socially than I was. But back to the Sock Shop lady, after that, I did not have much to say or do with her. She tried a few times to apologize or ask if I was okay, but in my little teen heart, the damage was done.
Now, something you should know about being raised in working family is that everything revolves around the work. I remember spending several holidays working long hours at my mom’s stores, but for the most part, it did not work, it was family time and the opportunity to spend time together. I often think this is why I grew up uncomfortable sitting and having conversations with co-workers and colleagues. I have always much rather be engaging in some form of work over sitting by the water cooler talking, in fact, I always found it downright uncomfortable. However, while you would think that this would be an asset, it became my “Achilles Heel” when working in higher education and dealing with the highly political hierarchy of that system. I remember during one of my job reviews at one of the colleges I worked for, my supervisor told me
“you spend a lot of time working with students and you do a great job, but you do not spend enough time getting to know the administration and allowing them to get to know you.”
In my mind, all that should have mattered is the work I was doing with students because after all, that was the work they employed me to do right? But one thing that I did not learn early on is that some jobs, especially those in higher education and corporate world, one must also be skilled in what some may just call butt kissing to be successful.
When I graduated from High School, I went to Island Park to work for him for a summer in his grocery store. This was a great time, but also exhausting. I remember that I would work at my uncle’s store then go to work the graveyard shift at a local hotel. One morning my uncle got worried about me because I was nowhere to be found, but I had just fallen asleep in my truck. Now working with my Uncle Abe was probably my first true life experience in learning about human motivation. My Uncle was very much a – do as I do leader. He always outworked everyone, in a way that only made his employees want to work harder and better for him. Wendy and I had started dating a year earlier, and eventually, her parents let me stay in their camper trailer on Uncle Abe’s property, so I did not need to work graveyards at the hotel. I learned a lot of things during that summer and was able to spend a summer with a cousin who would lose her life that following winter in a car accident. I feel very fortunate for that time I spent working with her, she had such a bright personality and was evident by the nickname she gave me of “bubbles.” It was also a great lesson in the fragility of life and how even the most remarkable people can be taken away from us at any given moment.
Now after Uncle Abe’s store I worked a lot of various jobs including a pizza manager, general merchandise manager, for a short time worked as a construction laborer, grocery store attendant, bag boy, janitor, and stock boy. These experiences would lead to one of my most favorite jobs which were managing Idaho State University’s student movie theater when I was in college.
Work during the college years
Probably one of the most fun jobs I have had was managed the student movie theater at Idaho State University. It was a great time, Wendy and I were experiencing college, the development of our young family, and here was a job that provided entertainment, and an endless supply of popcorn, and the opportunity to interact with fellow students who would for at least a short time become excellent friends. Given that we were all young, all college students, and no school administrators worked at the theater it was the perfect environment for a young person to learn about human nature. Not through experience, but by listening to stories, I probably learned more about human sexuality and relationships in one night working at the theater than I did taking a whole semester-long course on the topics. But I think one of the biggest lessons I learned during this time had to do with human tolerance and understanding.
I was raised thinking that being gay was “gross,” “disgusting,” “sinful,” and “against human nature.” I was raised with a father that often made gay individuals and individuals who were at the edges of society the main characters of jokes and ridicule. However, I had an experience at that job that changed my life for the better. I got to know a fellow student very well; we became very close friends. We often engaged in what would be called locker room games and would often make sexually oriented jokes towards each other. All of this was in good fun and quite with before the days of college regulations which today would get one kicked out of a college. I remember one day I walked into the theater entrance and he was standing there waiting, he grabbed my arm and said
“Curtis, I want to introduce you to someone.”
He dragged me over to this other young man and said I want to introduce you to – now let us take a pause because I can tell you what was going through my head – he was about to say “brother,” “roommate,” “friend” right?!?! Nope –
“this is my boyfriend.”
Now let me pause for a minute and reflect on this situation. If my dad was right, I should have been turning gay right there, and then, the room should have been getting hotter, and I should now have some disease???? – But I wasn’t, in fact, it was no different than if I was introducing Wendy to him. It was strange, gays were supposed to be evil, and the downfall of society. What in the hell was going on in my world!?!? Well, I can tell you what was going on reflecting on that experience, I was going through what in science we call a paradigm shift. It is when new information presents itself, and we are forced to change what we thought we knew about something. That experience would become one of the most valuable experiences I had during my college years as it allowed me to move forward in other careers to stand up for women and LGBTQ rights in other settings.
Now eventually all good things must come to an end. The theater was never meant to be a long-term thing, and I needed to graduate and move forward. I quite the movie theater three semesters before I graduated from college to focus on school and get involved in research. While it was hard to not actually at a job where someone earns money, I did enjoy that time engaging in research teams in the psychology department. Here is where I learned my love for data, statistics, and scientific inquiry. I like to tell you about some of the early research projects I was involved assumes.
The very first real research project I was involved in was researched concerning attitudes towards individuals with epilepsy. It was ingenious in design. What the experimenter would do is she would have two chairs sitting side by side, and then she would randomly tell participants that they either were going to be interviewed by a person with epilepsy or an expert on the topic of epilepsy. Then the researcher told the participant to arrange the chairs however they saw fit. Afterward, the researcher would measure the distance with a ruler between the two closet legs of the chairs. Interestingly we found that individuals would place chairs closest when speaking to an expert than if they were told they were going to be with an individual with epilepsy. For the reader, this may seem trivial, but I want the reader to keep in mind that these differences did not do to individual preferences, attitudes, or belief system. So, one can’t say that individuals in the epilepsy condition were just jerks or more social reserved. No each participant regardless of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs, attitude, or personality had an equal chance of being placed either in the expert condition of the epileptic condition. This was probably my first experience in understanding that while we all may be different in personality, beliefs, and attitudes, our behaviors are still highly similar and can be highly predictable.
Religion and location. Another interesting research project I was involved in was dealing with religiosity and closed mindedness. This research, done by a graduate student, measured the level of religiosity (how much one’s religious beliefs means to an individual), closed-mindedness (unwilling to look at different perspectives beyond their own), and their geographical location. Now keep in mind this was the days before GPS and smart phones where we could have an individual complete the survey and get their location, no we had to rely on self-report mechanisms. Now before I go on to explain the results, I know there is a lot of individuals that may be reading this that does not understand how statistical testing works. But what I about to say does not mean everyone within a certain location is closed or open minded, I merely saying these are trends within a given local. But what was interesting was that the research indicated that the closer an individual lived to a religious center the more closed minded they were. Now in Southeast Idaho and Northern Utah, where the samples were drawn from, this means a significant portion of the data came from LDS (Morman) individuals. So, what the maps and statistics indicated is that the closer one lived to a Stake Center or Temple, the probability that they were closed minded increased. By the way, it seemed to be same for semi-large Catholic population in Pocatello, so seems to be not just a quality of the LDS religion. Now I left this research shortly after the results were coming out to join a research team with Dr. Linda Enloe, and what came has I do not know.
Before talking about the final research, I did I should talk about Dr. Berent and Dr. Linda Enloe, as they were a major influence on me going into research psychology. Dr. Berent was a social psychologist, and I had him as a professor for my second Introduction to Psychology course. I was captivated by the way he presented psychological findings, and he is probably a large reason that when I decided to complete my Doctorate in social psychology. Dr. Linda Enloe also had a huge impact on me; she was an experimental psychologist who focused on physiological psychology and would be considered a behaviorist by any scientific standard. I enjoyed her lectures, though they were tough, because of her passion for the topic, and soon after taking the physiological psychology class from her I decided to be on her research team. Now I did a few research projects with her but the one I remember the most was on terrorism.
In spring of 2011, Dr. Enloe presented a research idea to me and another undergraduate student. The research was to be done in conjunction with the Idaho Engineering Laboratory (INL) and was meant to investigate decision making processes during an act of terrorism by officials. The INL side of the lab was to investigate decision making of officials, and our side was to measure the public perception of official’s decision-making process. The thing I have always been proud of is using a narrative decision method that I am about to explain my idea, and I think it made Dr. Enloe proud. What we did was to get a narrative of a real airplane hijacking, and during the narrative, we would have a participant stop and answer questions. Some of the questions measured attitude, decision making competency, others measured things like holding up the attacker’s civil rights and whether the officials should start using aggressive or more lethal means to end the conflict. Now the manipulation for the experiment was that individuals either read a scenario where the terrorist organization was home grown in the United States (yes the United States has terrorist organizations that are all American), foreign grown, or unknown. Now by the end of Spring one should not be surprised at some of the findings, such as civil rights were held longer, and more lethal means were held off longer for the American terrorist group than for the foreign or unknown origins group. The reader, however, will remember that September 11 occurred that following fall. Dr. Enloe and the team thought it was a perfect opportunity to do the experiment again and see if there were any changes. Indeed, there were, what we found is regardless of the terrorist organization, individuals demanded early relinquishing of the attacker’s civil rights and early implementation of lethal and an aggressive means to an end the conflict. Now, this may not be surprising, but it showed a fundamental shift, in that our nation stopped recognizing the difference between terrorist groups and we started clumping them all into one category. Additionally, it can also explain, the slow but steady increase in violence and the sudden increase in the purchase of lethal weapons such as firearms that proceeded the 9/11 attacks.
If there was a time of my life that I could say were my “fairytale” years filled with wonder, exploration, enlightening, and growth it would have been during my undergraduate years. Those years fundamentally changed who I was as an individual and professionally. I have never regretted the decision for studying psychology, while there are always things I could have done that would have been smarter with the degree, I can say, for much as it has stimulated my intellect and has given purpose to my life, I have no regrets.
This next section is dedicated to the ever-haunting career of human services. I call human services haunting because it is a career area I never really wanted to go into, but once in I have never been able to escape fully. Even up to today, I have friends who want help with their human service ventures and ask for my assistance. Now I don’t want the reader to get the wrong impression about what I did during these years or the positive impacts it had on people I helped or on me personally. I am only saying it is something I truly never wanted to do; I was just good at it. So, for a few minutes, I will try to indulge the reader into this world.
I believe it was my senior year of college, I had taken a year off from work to focus on my education completely, but Wendy and I’s budget was getting tight, I was getting crazy not working at a job, and so we decided it is best to get some work. Knowing I should probably use my education in this adventure, I looked for jobs that required some “social science” education background. There was one at the local YWCA that was looking for a shelter assistant for their shelter. Now I made a description of the job interview in an article titled “The inconvenient truth about violence and homicide in the United States.” Here is an excerpt of the interview from that article:
The interview was at the local YWCA, in a large home that was converted into makeshift offices. My interview took place in what was probably once a large dining room, and the director who interviewed me was a large foreboding woman, who when she walked in you could feel and instantly respect her presence. We started the interview with the standard niceties such as greetings and introductions then she asked a question that at the time I did not know but would end up changing my life from that point forward. She asked, “What are domestic violence and sexual assault?” – after a long pause, I said, “Aww umm something my mom and dad said I better not ever do!!??” Well needless to say what was scheduled to be a 20-30 minute interview turned into a two and half hour educational experience on the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault. After that, for some reason, that executive director saw something in me that I did not recognize, and went ahead and hired me.
I did not know this at the time, but I would spend the next five years at that organization and work as the shelter assistant, shelter manager, victim advocate, and program manager. I would implement and design two community-based programs one on intervention for stalking and the other for the intervention of elder abuse. I would go on crisis calls, talk to individuals who had been beaten by their intimate partner, and I would hold individual’s hands in the ER as medical professionals would perform sexual assault exams. I would work with kids in the shelter who would test me often to see if I was just another guy in their family’s abuse cycle, and I would conduct groups that became so popular that the agency had to go from one night per week to three nights per week. I remember, at one point, I was holding groups in a large basement in a local church, and so many individuals showed up that it was standing room only and ended up being more like a seminar than a support group. I have shared some of the stories with different individuals in my life and shared a story in the article I referenced earlier. All in all, when I was coming to the end of the years I worked at the agency I had worked directly with over 400 victims of abuse. Now I decided to leave this agency and field due to two culminating events. The first is I was getting my Master’s degree and decided to get it in industrial and organizational psychology, and I decided to try my hand at organizational consulting – this would be my first attempt to leave social services.
However, before moving on, I would like to make a few comments about what it was like to work in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy field in those early days. It can be best explained by attending my very first professional conference in 2002. I was very excited for this conference; it was an opportunity to experience my early childhood desire to be a business person among other professional peers. I remember I spent weeks getting ready for the conference which was located only four hours away from Pocatello. I made sure that wore the nicest dress clothes that I had. I remember stepping into this large ballroom, where there had to be well over a couple of hundred other people. I remember walking by a table and a woman asking:
“Sir, could you please get us some more water.”
You see, out of all those people, I along with one other man, were the only males that attended that conference. The woman, therefore, mistook me for one of the hotel employees. She must have thought me rude when I told her I saw a cooler of water that I am sure she could fill the pitcher herself. The reason I am telling this story is to emphasize the point that I had entered a female dominated field. I have always found it interesting listening to the arguments for work equality today because the negative experiences women talk about trying to break into male-dominated fields were the same struggles I had being a male in a female dominated field where many of the directors and executive level positions were filled by women. Now over the years, things have been getting better, now walking into conferences on domestic violence and sexual assault it is common place to find several men and the last conference I had attended had over 50% men, mostly law enforcement. I like remembering this story because it is a good model of how a field can improve, once the gender barriers become less salient.
I have not said much about my business adventures thus far. I can tell the reader that I make a poor business owner and sales person, and this made me incredibly poor at owning my own business. I should at this point also thank Wendy for sticking with me during my hair brained years of trying my business adventures. But the other reason I left the field of victim assistance, is I did not have a personality quality that successful providers in the field have. That is, I am a very emotional person, anyone who knows me knows this to be true. However, for some of you reading this article, it may be a surprise because I try my hardest to control my emotional behaviors. But being highly emotional means that every case of abuse hit me particularly hard, and I would take all of them with me and not be able to let go. For my future human service providers, please make sure you can separate your personal life and emotions from your professional life and have an open and honest social network of support. I would also like to say to all my human service friends and law enforcement friends that deal with these issues daily you have my complete admiration. But one event would have irreversible consequences for me.
One night I was called out to do crisis intervention, however, later I would find out I was called too early because law enforcement had not secured the scene completely before my arrival. I arrived at a stabbing were a husband and wife along with a friend who tried to intervene stabbed each other several times (more than 10) in front of the couple’s five children. This event took place inside and outside the home, and blood stained the ground from the house out to the middle of the road. When I arrived, I think the officers recognized I arrived too early, so they asked me to wait in my car. After about 15 minutes they asked me to meet them at the police station where I would sit with the couple’s children, while police interviewed witnesses. Now this to me was a very odd and surreal situation, we were placed in what I think was a small break room, but the room was not much bigger than a large walk-in closet or a large bathroom. There was not much room to move around, and the lights were very bright, and I can remember how warm and suffocating it felt in that room. The other strange aspect of this situation is a few of the children were stained with their parent’s blood, and I have always thought they should have been taken to the hospital rather than the police station. But there they were, all with very straight and stern faces.
The event that would eventually lead me to leave the field is when this beautiful little girl who was around the age of three or four, with the cutest brown eyes, and the sweetest smile came up to me and asked:
“can you fix my teddy bear.”
Now something I should have known from being a parent and working with children at the shelter is never to make a promising one cannot keep, but for some reason I replied:
“yes, what is wrong with him?”,
the little girl replied, “he has blood on him.”
Now in this room, there was a sink with a paper towel dispenser, so I tried with a little water to scrub the blood off her teddy bear. Sadly, it would not come out, no matter how hard I scrubbed that red spot just stayed. I remember telling the little girl
“so I think your teddy bear needs more work, so I am going to keep him on counter,”
I remember the little girl’s reply, “but I will miss him.”
Now after that night I never worked with that family again, whether it was an agency decision or not I saw that little girl or heard much about what happened with the case. I do know for the next several months I would have nightly nightmares about that situation and it constantly followed me around. I can remember always think about how much I failed that little girl, she only wanted one thing in the world at that moment, and that was the comfort of her teddy bear. I could not deliver that one thing would constantly go through my mind. Now anyone who knows me knows I fail a LOT, sports, games, tests, etc., but this failure was the one that I believe truly broke me. In fact, it broke me in fundamental ways, I would never relate to anyone after that the same, I would never have a day where I would go without a doubt, and my emotions have continued to torment me since. Indeed, even today I randomly wake up in cold sweat reliving that event in my mind.
As a Psychologist, I have always found this event interesting and the impact that it has had on me. Many of the symptoms I have experienced are those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which an individual continues to have a stress and anxiety reaction to trauma even after it is gone. The logic behind the disorder is that individuals who experience violence traumatic events should experience PTSD the most. Studies from 9/11 and those of military personnel since have shown that individuals who are not directly involved in trauma but could have done something are more likely to have symptoms of PTSD than those who are directly traumatized. Now this is not to say that individuals who experience direct trauma do not get PTSD, I am merely saying the probability of having PTSD symptoms increase when (a) you are not directly involved, but (b) you feel you could have done something. For examples, the highest rates of PTSD recorded after 9/11 were among individuals who lived between 50 to 100 miles of the epicenter of the event. The reason is, these individuals were close enough to do something, but could only watch in horrific helplessness. I believe that this was the situation I found myself in, I did not create nor was I directly involved in the violence of that night, but the inability to help that little girl had a huge impact on me and followed me up to today.
I left victim services shortly after that because I believed I was no longer effective and I had the hardest time even waking up on days I needed to work. For the following year, after leaving victim services, I would complete my Master’s degree and fail at what would be my last self-employed business venture: organizational consulting. Now don’t get me wrong, I was very busy during this time, I did a lot of presentations, did a lot of organizational assessments, and provided a lot of good services, I just did not make any money doing it. In fact, I can’t even call it a “non-profit” because I lost money doing it. Thinking back, I probably should have had business managers and a sales person, because I am neither. Now I did have a lot of cool experiences during this time, I presented at some fairly large regional conferences, and did presentations for the local university. Indeed, doing these presentations brought me back to something I always wanted to be when I was in college, and that was a professor. I had used the time at the YWCA and the time was doing consulting to hone my presentation skills, which would be valuable in my later career as a professor. But my love for teaching and being a professor started when I was in college, I remember Wendy and Taylor would go on weekend trips usually to visit her parents so that I could study. I remember that I would study by imagining I was in a large lecture hall filled with students, and I would start lecturing the content of my notes and textbooks. I am sure if my neighbors heard me they probably thought I was going crazy. But it was during my consulting years when I had the opportunity to develop presentations and deliver them that I started being skilled as a presenter. I remember I would watch great speeches and try to mimic their mannerisms, and while I do not believe I ever became as skilled as the great speakers, it improved from the time I use to faint before giving a presentation. I remember that giving presentation use to give me great anxiety, so my coping mechanism was to blast Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” before presenting which would take most the anxiety away and provide a much-needed boost in motivation. I did this clear up to the second year I started teaching.
Eventually, due to losing so much money, and the fact that Wendy had to start financing my business venture I decided I probably should get a job. And once again human services came knocking on my door. My next work adventure would be working for a women’s correction facility. I have to admit this time was one of the most interesting and would provide lecture material for years to come when I started teaching. At the prison I was hired to first work in what was called the “therapeutic community unit,” this unit would be closed down before I left and be converted to what I believe was either a low risk or medium risk unit, I cannot recall at this moment. But unlike most units which consisted of several individually divided cells that joined into one common area, this unit had no individual cells, it was designed more like a summer camp dormitory, with an open floor plan, with a six-foot wall with open entrances that divided the common area from where the women slept. The idea behind this layout was to encourage the women to live in an open area with others and call each other on both their bad and good behaviors. This is because we have found that one of the biggest predictors on incarceration is having an “anti-snitching” attitude. By encouraging the women to call each other on their behaviors, this would at least theoretical reduce this attitude. Additionally, it helped the women understand their addictive behaviors and the damage that addictive behaviors can have on others. Now, this program was very successful, by the end, a woman reported being able to think clearer and was committed to not coming back. When they got out, they were more likely to get a job and start building a life. However, the program had one important flaw, the environment of the therapeutic community was highly structured, and you were surrounded by people who would call you on your behaviors both bad and good. The real world is not like that, so, unfortunately, life for many of these women became tough and often would lead to behaviors that would get them in trouble again.
After working in the therapeutic community, I was transferred and started working with individuals who were in prison for long-term and minimum security as a clinician. It was during this time that I had the opportunity to work with female serial killers and rapists and to learn what lead them to their crimes and how they think. During this time, I would work with a 65-year-old woman who slit a five-year-old girl’s throat in the open at a local community park. A Woman who sexually molested her daughter over a five-year period, and a woman who burned down her house with her husband and child in it on more than one occasion, and many more women who had done horrific acts. However, the cases that always made me sad were the women that were in prison for having a momentary lapse of judgment, such as women who were in prison for vehicle manslaughter, not due to drugs or deviant behavior. One woman that I remember was in prison for a five-year sentence, was a well-to-do middle-class, well-educated woman, she had a good life, and a healthy family. One day on her way to work she missed a light turning red and ended up hitting a person who entered the crosswalk. For this, she received five years in prison. Now I find her story tragic because she entered the system without a criminal mind. But after being acculturated into the criminal lifestyle through her interaction with her cell mates she became the leader of one of the “family” gangs in the prisons, and it came out that her plans after leaving were to move in with some criminal elements in the community and leave her family. There were several cases like this in the prison system, and I always found them sad, because they seemed to take a tragedy and create even more of a tragedy and risk to a community.
One case that I can remember dealt with a mother who was in prison for molesting her daughter. She was almost a textbook example of a female serial rapist. For me, she is a great example of social influence and the destructive power of methamphetamines. Her road to becoming a serial rapist was a slippery one, which first started by getting addicted to meth, then when her dealer asked to have sex with her then eight-year-old daughter to pay for her meth addiction, the problem started to escalate. After some time, the dealer upped the price to having the mom have sex with the daughter as the dealer watched. Eventually, it took neither the meth or the dealer for her to want to victimize her daughter and eventually her daughter’s friends. Her case has always reminded me of not only the destructive forces of meth but also what happen when one blindly follows the commands of a perceived authority figure. It reminds me in this sense of the classical Milgram’s obedience studies in which participants would incrementally deliver painful shocks just by the commands of perceived authority. In this situation, we found that two-thirds of people would deliver up to 450 volts and continue to deliver them without prompting. In this woman’s case while the meth strongly enforced the authority-obedience relationship, the same principles of human obedience apply, starting with small requests such as a picture of her daughter nude and ending with big request her having sex with her daughter, is a classical obedience to authority situation. Indeed, I have always found it useful to use the Milgram’s research to explain many both offending and victim behaviors. For example, there has never truly been a violent incident that did not include some incremental build up that leads to the incident. While some may look like very random acts such as a mass shooting or a stranger murder or rape, for the offender even these seemingly random and sudden acts of violence had a slow and steady build up. Like the situations on Milgram’s shock box that started with 15 volts and ended with 450 volts in 15-volt increments. I have always believed if we were to spend more time paying attention to the people sitting next to us in a caring and compassionate manner, many of the problems we face in our world would be eliminated because we recognize the switches being pushed.
Another incident that I well remember when working in prison was when I interviewed my first serial killer. Now, anyone who has spent time working in a prison or jail system, you know well that offenders will test you to see how far they can get. I can tell you this was not one of those situations; this was a display of an individual letting me know her real thoughts. This situation would also be a very humbling event that would calm my ego for years to come. When I began working at the prison, I started with a false sense of security, one that the prison correctional officers often warned me against. I would do things like leave my office door unlocked and would not have a clear line of exits from group rooms that I was holding group sessions in; I would often find myself in my supervisor’s office for these mistakes. Probably the biggest mistake that this false sense of safety brought me was how I designed my office. My office had one door that leads to the unit hallway and three brick walls, meaning this was the only exit. I set my office up to so the offender sat between me and the exit door. This as you probably guessed was not a wise choice. I remember when I got to this unit that housed low risk but long-term offenders, I was interviewing intimates and getting to know them and their situation. One woman who was defined as a serial killer because she had killed more than two individuals, in separate incidences, after a cooling period in-between. Now she had been sentenced to life in prison without parole, and she had no more appeals, so she was very open about describing her crimes and did it much in the same way a person would read their resume and explain some job function and procedure. After what I would describe as a very open first discussion with this person she got up from my desk and as she was about to leave she turned around, picked up a pencil off my desk and said:
“Mr. Peterson, I like you, but if you want to understand me, you should know that I could take this pencil and shove it in your ear and walk away and think nothing of it” [she said this as she made the movement gesture of a pencil going into one’s ear]
Now I mentioned earlier that inmates would often test someone to see what they could get out of them. Why I think this was not one of those situations, is after this she never made any requests of me, and never expected anything of me. Indeed, after that, we continued with our clinician – inmate relationship with no further incident. However, it was a very humbling event in my life and increased my situational awareness. I think after that I was never called into someone’s office due to safety concerns.
While working in prison was filled with many learning events, and I did get satisfaction from the work I did there, I wanted more. So, I decided to try my hand at becoming a director of a community agency. My thought was this would get me out of doing direct service providing to more program development and management. So, I left the women’s prison to become a director of a regional child abuse prevention agency. But before leaving my experience of working with female offenders, I would like to express one of the most important things I learned while working in this setting. I think to make most of us feel safe and secure; we like to think that the world is full of good people and bad people and that there is something fundamentally different about someone who commits crimes and those who do not. Indeed, we can see this idea in most crime shows on TV and in our portrayal of the evil villain in comic books and movies. We also like to think that good person who does bad things are because they had some event that transformed them into an evil person, a theme portrayed in the popular movie series “Star Wars” where the once hero Annikan Skywalker is transformed into the evil Darth Vader through a series of traumatic experiences. However, studies such as the Milgram’s obedience studies, Zimbardo’s Stanford prison studies, and a series of replications has shown that every one of us has the propensity to act in evil ways if the situational conditions are right. While I will concede that there is about 3.5% of our population who can be considered purely evil because they lack consciousness and theory of mind, which motivates them to treat others as objects to be consumed. We call these individuals psychopaths. I learned quickly in the prison system the propensity to do wrong is much more complicated and is much more tied to a person’s situation rather than have a criminal or evil personality. Indeed, many of the women I worked with made wonderful mothers, were faithful in their relationships, held jobs, and did many of the things that we expect of a good citizen within a society. However, due to life situational factors, and a series of unfortunate but situationally motivated decisions these individuals ended up committing crimes or what we think of as act of evil. As we know from media reports, that even people of faith can act in counter ways to their faith. I remember working with a lady on death row who was highly religious. Indeed, if I had questions about the Bible, I would go to her because she could tell you the page number and exact verse to know the answer. Before being arrested she was very active in her church, doing a fundraiser, heading the woman’s association, and working in the church’s Bible studies. In prison, she prayed faithfully and never missed a Sunday sermon. Here was this woman of God, who had given much of her life to serving, was now sitting on death row for brutally murdering her husband and children. I bring this up because I believe it is important to understand that we as people do not live in a black and white world, we live in a gray world, and we are all much more complicated than what we present on the surface.
Being a director
I am only going to make a few remarks about the years I spent being a director of child abuse prevention agency, only because of this time we of great complication. Latasha would come to be a part of our family, I would for the first few years drive an hour to get to work and then an hour back, and Wendy and I would see that we were ready for our marriage to end. Because life was so complicated during this time, I will fully admit it was ripe with person mistakes and professional mishaps that instead of informing the reader would only distract from the overall understanding of what this article is about. I want to spend this time instead to just focus on some specific events that helped mold me into who I am today.
My time as a director of child abuse agencies was productive in the sense that it helped me develop several skills needed to be successful doing program management including project planning, honing granting write skills, budgeting, and human resources. But I hope you are not reading this because you’re interested in the skills section of my resume. No, what I would learn more life importance during this time was the division between evil and good. I think we all been raised to think evil is this something external, whether it be the dragon in the cave or the family across the tracks. I think in general that even when we as individuals do something bad, we probably often justify it with good intentions. However, working in the field of trying to prevent child sexual abuse has brought home to me that evil and good truly exists within all of us. They are not external things like “God” or “Devil,” both inhabit the same being. This is also very logical in nature because how does one know good if he or she never experiences bad.
Now I am not going to say there are not purely evil people. There are individuals that for one reason of another have lost their complete empathy and ability to see others as unique human being but rather see others as mere objects to be consumed. Yes, there are these individuals, but they only make up a small percentage of the population. Unfortunately, we use the model of these very few individuals to try and understand the broader evil that exists in the world. A good example of this is I often see Facebook posts that say “All pedophiles should get the death penalty.” Now I am not going to say I agree with this statement or not, but what I would say is if we killed all pedophiles that offended on children, we actually would only reduce sexual crimes against children by 5%. Yes you are reading that correctly, it doesn’t solve the problem on the larger scale, does it? I think people like the idea of the pedophilic monster is that it brings about a sense of security. That is because when we look at who sexually abuses children, they are individuals just like your relatives, neighbors, workmates, friends, church goers, and community members we interact with on a daily basis. Meaning, that it is often done by what we would define as good people, but sadly their evil side got the best of them. Indeed, most the men I worked with during these years were very much sexually attracted to women their age, but for one reason or another – usually a combination of both situational and psychosocial factors – they sexually offended a child. Now does this excuse their behavior? Sometimes yes, we have recent examples where sexual assaulting behaviors will be excused by broader culture, but should it? No, we still have a child who is suffering, and we have an adult who was hugely biologically rewarded for the behavior he or she engaged in. Should the person who offended not be punished? Here enter the complications that I think people do not understand that child protection workers, law enforcement, and the legal system has to face on a daily basis.
Since most of the abuse occurs not by the evil stranger demon but by someone a person knows and connected with in more than just one manner, removing the person and throwing them on an island to fight for their survival as alligators hunt them, may do more harm than good. Let me give you a common example. A father molests his daughter, mom has been a stay at home mom, and there are four other children in the home. Father is caught, we do all the investigating, and sure enough father has been offending on a child. The knee-jerk reaction would be to throw the SOB in prison and be done with it. However, I want you to consider the situation even deeper, by removing the father, we are now removing the only source of economic support for a mother and her five children. Finding him is not going to help because in prison he will make only between .25 to maybe 1.50 an hour. And sorry this country is so anti-welfare don’t tell me society would help pick the family up and support them! And please be careful thinking family will jump in and help, in all the years I did this work family were not very helpful at all, mainly because they saw those individuals now as a stain on their family name. So now by sending our demon to alligator island, we have now created a family in poverty, with a mother who may not have any working skills who now has five children to care for. Is the situation a bit more complicated now? One could say remove the children, to that I would say have you seen our broken foster care and adoption system? Now my point of writing this is not now to give some great solution; I am hoping one of my students will do that someday, as my generation and generations past have greatly failed in trying to solve these dilemmas. But rather to point out the complexity of good and evil as it exists in the world. Until we step back and stop thinking that only “others” commit evil, we will always be blind to it. I would also ask until a person truly understands the dynamics and issues that are faced in these situations, please give the social workers, law enforcement, and legal system trying to deal with these issues daily a break.
Now one area that did give me hope was in primary prevention, in which we try to do things to prevent abuse from ever occurring at all. This is where we do have hope, in that there are countries that through things family leave programs and support for young families have reduced their child abuse rates, even sexual abuse, almost to zero. At times our country has funded programs such as nurse visitation programs for young mothers that greatly reduced incidences of abuse among children within those particular communities. I would say that it comes down to one aspect of human nature that has made these programs successful, and that is the better social connection and social support we have within a community the healthier and better off the individuals in that community are overall. We are not solitary animals, as much as humans like to believe in our uniqueness and individuality and hence maintain each is responsible for a given behavior, it takes a community to raise a sinner or a saint. Until we realize that our behaviors are not independent of the person sitting next to us, we will never be able to tackle the tough problems of living in a complex society. Now, this does not excuse personal responsibility because if we are paying attention to the behaviors and others around us, we also have a unique insight into our behaviors, which with it brings, even more, responsibility for taking personal responsibility for one’s self.
I will be the first to admit in all the wrong things I have done in this life, and there are many. I always protected my ego through justifying my misdeeds. It was not until I understood the behaviors, actions, and intentions of other individuals within these situations that I was able to take the proper amount of responsibility for what I had done and try to prevent them from occurring in the future. Responsibility and human action always remind me of Phillip Zimbardo’s analogy of human behavior. He always said if you want to understand human behavior truly, you have to understand it much like a play. You first need to know the actors and their role, who is the main actor and supporting cast. You must know the audience and those judging the behavior. You should know the stage and the context for which the behavior is occurring, and finally one must know the play script that brought the group of actors to the current situation. Unfortunately, as he often has said, we only pay attention to the main actor and assume his or her actions are independent of everything that is occurring on the stage. This, unfortunately, leaves the story empty and without meaning.
I mentioned at the beginning of this section that these years were very difficult and led to personal and problematic issues. Eventually, I would leave being a director when Wendy received the opportunity to take a job in Yuma Arizona. Moving to Arizona would finish the final chapter on Wendy and my marriage and set the stage for me to finally be able to live my childhood and college dream of being a professor. As I explain the next two work phases of my life I would like to remind the reader of the person things that went on during much of this time. Including developing a new relationship with Taylor, dating a lot of women, meeting Ann, my daughter becoming a mother, my father and grandmother passed away, and moving to Montana and leads up to my current situation. All these things occurred within the context of a very busy professional life. I will be the first to admit when I lived in Arizona I used my work life to avoid dealing with my grandmother and father’s death, the breaking up of my family, and worrying about Latasha. But what came out of it is one of the greatest joys I have had in my life – outside of my family – and that was the opportunity to teach psychology.
My first teaching gig
When I moved to Yuma the first real job I had was teaching for Arizona Western College. I was hired purely out of luck; an instructor informed that they would not be able to teach a course for the spring semester. At this time I believe it was a Wednesday before the semester started. When the chair of the department was informed my resume for an adjunct position happened to be sitting on her desk. I remember that it was Sunday before classes started and it was that afternoon before I was okayed to teach the class. This first class not only was intimidating in the sense that it was the first actual class where I was the instructor. I had in the past on many occasions went to college classes to give presentations, but this was my class. However, this class was also a televised class to three other locations within the Yuma County area. So not only did I need to be an instructor for a class, but I felt it was always also a TV show. I have to be completely honest; I do not remember much of that class other than getting used to what I refer to as the “student stair.” This is a stair that a lot of students give, that one cannot tell if they have totally spaced off or if they are really on the topic. I have tried to see if there are any distinguishing factors over the years but eventually gave up. What this first class did do for me was open up the opportunity to teach and it also I believe played a factor into getting hired full-time later that semester to coordinate the college’s violence prevention program. I can also say that I must have done good enough teaching that first time because the college invited me back and gave me three classes instead of one that following Fall semester. Now clear to the time that I would leave in the summer of 2014 for Helena Montana, it easy to get confused about what I did. I was during the majority of this time an associate faculty for Arizona Western College, the violence prevention coordinator full-time for the same college, faculty member for University Phoenix at their local Yuma campus, and faculty member at the University of Phoenix at their San Diego campus. My least busy week was full-time hours during the summer as the violence prevention coordinator and teaching two classes. My busiest time would be during the fall when I worked more than full-time hours as prevention coordinator. In addition to these full-time hours, I would teach up to as many as ten class over the course of the 16 week semester of Arizona Western College (University of Phoenix courses were five-week courses so in any given week I would be teaching six classes and working full-time). When I left Yuma with three years of being able to teach college classes, I had taught the credit hours of a full-time professor with five years of experience. Now I am not telling you all this to complain, no I am telling you all this because I LOVED every minute of it! There were times that I would fall asleep in the parking lot and wake up the next morning and go to work in same clothes. There were other times that my body was so physically exhausted I could not get out of my car to get inside my home. However, mentally I was energized and already thinking of what I was going to do the next day, what presentation or student activity, what lecture I was going to give, how was I going to help students learn about and solve some psychotically issue. It was all so exciting and surreal to me, professionally and work-wise, it was a dream that I had dreamt about since I was a little boy. But eventually, all good things must come to an end. I knew that I would need to get some full-time teaching experience if I were to stay as a college educator, and the funding for the prevention program was coming to an end. So in spring of 2014, I would start to apply for full-time positions which would lead me to Helena Montana.
Now I mentioned earlier in this paper when I talked about intimate love with Ann, that this time would be one of those regrettable crossroads. You see I always had the choice; I could pursue my dream of teaching OR I could go to Ann back east. At the time I justified choosing to teach because that would lead us to eventually having a more financially stable and better off in the end. What I didn’t think of, is this would lead to even more long distance strain and Ann feeling I chose my career over being with her. While hindsight is always 20/20, I do regret not going to her, because then I would have her love today, and would have avoided what became my personal hell living in Helena Montana. But in the words of Soren Kierkegaard:
“Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forwards.”
Now that I have laid out the complexity of my higher education employment experience, I would like to take a few minutes and talk about what I learned and experienced specifically as violence prevention coordinator and then as a professor.
Violence prevention and college life
I have to admit when I was hired as the violence prevention coordinator at Arizona Western College I was both excited and apprehensive. Excited because I would be able to get a place of my own and live independently, apprehensive because I felt the doors of human services knocking once again. What probably got rid of my apprehension was when the college gave me the freedom to design a violence prevention program without any restraints. In other words, I was able to design a program from the bottom up and not be restrained by bad thinking that had plagued the field from moving forward in implementing effective prevention programs in a given community. This work would also connect me with individuals who would become life long friends.
I have not talked much about friendships throughout this article. Probably because most people in my life have always been fleeting. I would say that I have only actually maintained one good friendship with a childhood friend, named Randy Dalton. However, all my friends who have stayed with me and have continued to care for me were individuals I met when I was working at Arizona Western College and three from when I worked at Helena College. One person that would end up having a large impact on me worked with me as a program specialist during the years I ran the violence prevention program, his name was Jose Amparo.
When Jose started working for the program he was just completing his Master’s degree in counseling. He had an amazing apprehension of counseling and human service concept, but probably what amazed me most about Jose was his ability to connect with individuals on a personal level. I believe this is one of the qualities that makes Jose an amazing individual personally, and a great therapist professionally. There are two things that I have always missed about being close to Jose, one is our conversations, and the second is going to his family gatherings. Our conversations were amazing; we were able to talk about anything dealing with psychology, human services, and therapy. We talk about existentialism and behaviorism within the same context. Related human relationships with different psychological and social processes, and discuss frameworks for how these are constructed. My last conversation with Jose was regarding how faith can inform the counseling and family process by providing it as a connecting mechanism between the different dynamics that make a stable and healthy family. I will never forget those conversations and will always cherish the time we spent together. The other thing that Jose did for me was to provide me with a renewed sense of family.
By the time I was working at Arizona Western College, I had seen my older brother divorce, my parent’s divorce, and went through my divorce. And although objectively there was much more to family than I gave it credit, I had a very low opinion of the utility of the whole institution due to my subjective experiences. It was the time that I spent with Jose at his family gathering that would renew and strength my belief in the meaning of family. Now one thing you should know is that I do not and have never been able to speak Spanish. When I was in high school after giving a good three-week attempt at trying the teacher allowed me to use my Spanish class as a study hour because he even found the endeavor as hopeless. I did have several girlfriends at the time who tried to teach me, and a few even tried only to speak it when we were engaging in certain activities to give extra encouragement to learn the language. But even these attempts failed. Now the reason I am telling this is Jose’s family was from Mexico, and they spoke prominently Spanish at family gatherings. I think this is partly what made going to his family events so special. They all treated me very well, and I was never uncomfortable visiting and spending time with him and his family. But not understanding a lot of what was being said allowed me to feel and see the love and joy they had from being together. The way in which everyone worked together to make a beautiful evening and how his wife and mother would spend the entire day cooking and preparing for their family. It was all an amazing sight for me, and it was a much-needed experience for someone who had became disillusioned by the idea of families. Oh and the food, mmmm the food !!!
Now I could go on about all the friends I made during these years that I am still in contact with. However, the thing I really would like the reader to know is it was these years that I stopped seeing people for what their utility was, and started appreciating them for the individuals they were. I think this fundamentally would change the way I developed relationships and friendships. Unfortunately, that attitude was very much due to the culture that is in Yuma. When I would return to the Northwest and Montana, I would be influenced by the prevailing notion that a friend is based on what a person could do for me now, and not the value they add to one’s life. Now this is important this is not true with all friendships in the northwest, but it does seem to be a cultural influence.
For a few minutes, I do want to talk about the violence prevention movements and why it became so successful at this college. One I think the timing and the people involved were just right. We had the perfect students and staff to make a successful program. Second is that we used the actual science of intimate partner relationship and violence to guide the design of the program. Now please do not take this as an attack on feminism which has had some positive influences on the field of violence prevention and gender equality. We have the feminist movement to thank for bring attention to violence against women and children, the development of advocacy programs, and shelter programs. This is an amazing legacy, however, the way knowledge works are that when new information comes to light, we must change the way we view something – if we are an intelligent and wise person. The problem with the feminist theory of violence is that it based on the notion that gender creates the condition for violence, wherein a male dominated society men can take advantage of weaker members of that society such as women, children, and later minorities. In this model men, therefore, when sensing a loss of their power will enter into abusive methods to keep the woman or child into submission, through what came to be known as the power and control wheel.
Now there are many useful parts to feminist theory, when one gender is given more privilege in a society it is indeed easier for that gender to take advantage of others. And indeed, the methods of abuse as described in the power and control wheel, are used to abuse a partner. The problem with the model is it over-simplifies this dynamic to make one assumed that all men are in the category of an abuser and all women and children are in the category of victim. What this creates is a condition in which women can feel helpless and only expect to be abused, and men to feel powerless because no matter what they do they will always be viewed as the ugly other. I had noticed this dynamic since the early days working in the victim services field. Sadly in the early days when a man was being abused, it was interpreted as a woman engaging in self-defense. So under this early conceptualization of violence, both men and women always lost. Fortunately over the years as universities started to investigate interpersonal violence they have found that it is much more complicated than simple culturally determined gender roles. Indeed, if one clump all the form of abuse in the power and control wheel, and measure it as one construct there is no difference in the level of abuse between men and women. Meaning if we combine psychological, economic, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse into one pot there are no gender differences. We only get gender differences when we start looking at the physical and sexual abuse which is also complicated by the male size. That is if we are looking at physically abusive behaviors such as slapping, kicking, and hitting, women are more physically abusive by three to one. However, when men get physical, they tend to do more damage and more harm, resulting in both legal and medical intervention. The only real category where men outpace women by a number of abusive behaviors is in the area of sexual abuse, where men abuse both other men and women at an astonishingly higher rate. So, for now, let me get off my soap box about gender and get back to the prevention program.
Based on these solid findings I made the decision that when talking about intimate partner violence and stalking, we would take the gender component out and replace it with talking about the toxicity of a relationship that leads to the power and control dynamics. By doing this, we took the discussion away from differences between women and men and focused it on this third entity of a toxic relationship where we could have a good conversation about abuse without alienating anyone based on their gender. This was incredibly successful, within the first semester the student lead component of the program went from two students to a 146, with an astonishing 50% being young men. These young men were not forced by their sports coach or promised extra credit but were there because they felt they had a place in a movement that had always alienated them.
Probably one of the best experiences I had taking this approach was in the final year of the program, we had a focused on couples, where we gave them the signs that their relationship was becoming toxic, and then provided them strategies to work through these signs. One of those strategies was to come to my office and talk through their issues. Now I never expected that mechanism to work, because couples have an extraordinarily hard time telling strangers that their relationship has issues. But it did, in fact, every Monday morning, I would have a couple students with their partner waiting at my office when I arrived. During the weekend, they recognized a warning sign, put in some short-term coping skill, and came and saw me that Monday morning. If those incidents had escalated into physical abuse, we would have had on average 4-5 more victims and offenders per weekend during that period, and maybe much more that used other techniques to reduce their relationship’s toxicity. Now, we made a lot of great strides working on preventing intimate partner abuse, we increased awareness, increased the number of students willing to come forward and ask for help, and students seemed to take the message meaningfully. One area that I wish we could have had more of an effect on was in the area of sexual abuse.
Unless you have not watched any news at all in the past seven years, you may recognize that sexual assault on college campuses are a serious matter. Serious enough it forced the Obama Administration to use the Office for Civil Rights to enforce sexual assault investigation on campuses or risk losing federal funding. However, while I think that the intention was good, by using a civil rights protection act known as Title IX, that certain women were treated equally at universities I always felt that it diminished the actual act of sexual assault. Please do not take this wrong, denying someone something based purely on their gender is wrong and needs correcting and sexual harassment based on this same principle is wrong as well. Placing sexual assault in the same category as sexual harassment and civil issues, I think diminishes devastating effects a sexual assault can have on an individual. Additionally, it creates a whole new group of victims in that it makes individuals who are taken advantage of just based on their gender as sexual assault victims, creating much more pain and anguish than necessary. However, Title IX was and is the only administrative tool that can be used to hold individuals accountable for sexual abuse on campuses other than law enforcement. The problem with this approach is that it ends up creating more fear, students are now fearful of engaging in normal courting behaviors, and to engage each other in any sexual way – even in healthy ways – in fear of being kicked out of school. Unfortunately, if history teaches us anything, this just develops a whole new level of deviant and maladaptive behaviors.
So I have always found the problem of sexual assault on college campuses a perplexing and difficult one. Good intending policies have created different problems and in many more cases more problems than it solved, human sexuality is a complex topic among developing young adults who most have not been well educated by either their parents or education system about what healthy sexuality looks like, and these environments are a perfect storm for which offending sexual behaviors can exist. Although we did try to have conversations about healthy sexuality, I always felt the program became more of a don’t do this if you if you want to graduate from college warning PSA. Sadly what is lacking in these policies and many of the programs is that we have gotten really good at telling people what not to do, but neglected to tell them what to do to have a healthy sexual life.
Despite my frustration with not attacking the issue of sexual assault better during my years at Arizona Western College, I am proud of the things we did accomplish. Most of all I hope the students we had the opportunity to contact and be involved with, can use what we did at the college to live in a loving relationship that is absent of abuse. As I mentioned earlier, I had a lot going on during this time – kids, divorce, living on my own, new intimate relationships, and family issues – and all of these were a constant source of stress and always were bothering me while I was working. But there was one time where all of these problems and stresses always went away, and that was when I was in front of a class teaching.
Being Professor Peterson
If there is a more peaceful time for me, it is when I am in front of a class teaching. For some reason when I am at that moment and that time, every problem that I have goes away, and it is all about me, my student, and the subject of psychology. Now I will admit there are parts of teaching that I did not enjoy, the main one being testing and grading. I always felt that it got in the way of what we were doing in the class, and I always wished I could just trust my students when they said they were learning. But I realize that it is an important aspect of college life both self-esteem wise and system wise. I am not going to say that I was perceived well by all my students either some found me flaky – which I will admit I am a good example of the absent-minded professor – and some just wanted to come to class get the information for a test, take the test, and leave the class. And others just wanted me to teach the textbook, so they didn’t even need to attend the class at all. For the most part, though, my students reported enjoying my courses, and some have said that they were really good. Regardless of the student experience, I had a great amount of fun being a professor, I enjoyed talking about psychology and loved seeing my students grow and make use of what they were learning in my classes.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to teach many different courses, at all the colleges I taught I had the opportunity to teaching Introduction to Psychology. At Arizona Western College I had the chance also to teach social psychology, human sexuality, and research methods. And at Helena College, I taught social psychology, learning theory, cognition, gender and race, developmental psychology, the psychology of aging, criminology, and introduction to social work. The place for which I was able to teach the most variety of topics was teaching for University of Phoenix’s ground campuses in Yuma, San Diego, and El Centro. These courses were different than what most people have pictured for a largely online university in that these were delivered in a traditional in-person classroom, for five-week intervals meeting one night per week from 6 pm to 10 pm. I taught dozens of subjects for University of Phoenix all in the area of human services, psychology, sociology, and criminal justice. I had great fun teaching them, and I am thankful for those experiences driving three hours to a San Diego location to spending the evening with some amazing students in Yuma. One thing that I prided myself on when teaching, is despite teaching such a wide variety of topics I never used a “canned” class or taught only based on textbook content. I developed my lectures and made sure they went beyond textbook information and expanded on the concepts being learned. Indeed, I rarely used textbook PowerPoints as I always felt they were dry and didn’t explain anything. I hope by doing this, it gave my students a better classroom experience and engaged the learning process better. The other nice part of not using the textbook to develop my lectures and learning activities, it expanded my knowledge of many topics greatly. Because I believe my students paid for an expert in the course content, I always worked hard to make sure I knew the content well and had mastered it before I expected my students too.
I had a couple of favorite topics that I enjoyed lecturing on. While my favorite topic was always talking about the scientific process, research methods, and statistical analysis; the topics I got the most joy out of because they were highly engaging with my students were child development, history of psychology, sensations and perceptions, and learning. I also always enjoyed a special lecture I gave around Halloween, entitled “Good VS Evil” where we would explore the psychology of what produce evil and criminal behavior in society.
One topic that many students were always excited about this was abnormal psychology; I was never too keen on teaching abnormal psychology and mental illness. I wanted my students to learn about psychology as it applied to them, and honestly, I have always felt that abnormal psychology has only been loosely associated with the actual science of human behavior. Their methods of investigation always seemed only to want to confirm the author’s preconception of a psychological issue. Also, given that most medications for mental illness do no better than a placebo and that counseling and therapy are no more effective than doing anything at all, I have always felt the field does more harm than good and creates self-fulfilling prophecy rather than treating a disorder.
Now, this, of course, is for the majority of disorders, when we start looking at truly organic disorders such as schizophrenia and autism science and practice do a little bit of a better job. Even though the field is so fragmented they still do not agree on the best modality of treatment arguing everyone is different and needs something different. Which I have always found odd, because if I had cancer or a heart disease I would not care how different I am, I would want the treatment that works most frequently and has the most efficacy. I think the excuse that everyone needs something different for these more organic based disorders just shows the poor state of the science of these disorders, and the narrow-mindedness of their practitioners, to truly effectively find treatments. It is for this reason that I never really truly liked teaching on the topic of abnormal psychology, mainly because many students saw the information in these sections as containing actual medical facts, which is a very gross misinterpretation of what we know about psychological disorders and their treatment. I think much of this frustration was amplified by working with a psychiatrist when I taught at Helena College. He had a habit of whenever hearing counter information about his knowledge by saying things such as “who has the MD” (as if having an MD gave you some magical knowledge and made it less valid than anyone else). Additionally, he would ignore articles that were counter to the established knowledge of the field, in which he was indoctrinated in. This I believe was always a great example of confirmation bias, where a person only looks at information that confirms their established belief and would refuse even to recognize countering information. I truly believe that if psychology is truly going to survive, the practice components of psychology which include the clinical and counseling arena needs to be separated from the scientific field. Unfortunately, until there is a true separation between the practice and the science, starting at the college undergraduate level, psychology will always be seen as more of a joke than an actual serious science. Okay enough on the topic that I always had difficulty with, but I think is important to get more of a scientific understanding of so we can truly help people who are suffering.
Probably one of my more amusing experiences teachings was the first semester I taught developmental psychology when Erin was born. This course was supposed to cover the physical, social and psychological development of an individual from conception to old age. But I think this semester due to being so excited about being a grandfather, we hit mid-semester, and I had not even finished the topic of infancy yet. I think having the ability to go home and see my beautiful little granddaughter develop, kept me interested in the topic of infancy, so I was always digging up new articles and information on infancy and never really wanted to leave the topic.
Another experience I had when teaching I believe is a good example of how we are naturally driven to categorize people to relieve our insecurity and provide a sense of order to our world. During one particular semester, I became involved in the LGBTQ anti-bullying movement that was happening across United States campuses. During this time, I made every effort to keep my attitudes and presentation of myself sex and sexual neutral. Interestingly, it was during this same semester when I was careful about the expression of my sexuality and gender; it was during this time I had a girlfriend for each day of the week. Indeed, I identified in my contacts as “Monday girl,” “Tuesday girl,” and so on. My friend Jose would always joke that I always had a different girl pick me up from his house or visit me. I have always wondered if taking sexuality and gender effortful out of the relationship equation if it set up a situation for this to have occurred. But the effort to try and leave gender and sexuality out of my talk, also lead to a very interesting occurrences with one of my Introduction to Psychology courses. It was finals, and in this one particular class, I noticed that when the students would finish their final, they would hand it in and sit back down in their chair. Now if you ever been in the college students, you will know that when a student finishes their final, they make a mad dash for the door. This made this situation highly abnormal. After the last final was handed in one of the students raised their hand and asked:
“Professor Peterson, can we ask a question,”
In a very curious manner, I replied “yes,”
The student asked “we have all been wondering, are you gay?”,
Now probably in a very unsatisfying way, I replied with “I do not think answering that question either yes or no is important in our relationship as student and professor.”
Now at this time, I did not realize that this event would result in my dissertation research on identity and loneliness, but at the time, it was a good example of how people have the need to place individuals in categories to make their world more understandable and predictable. I could tell that day, the anxiety of needing to know which category I was in, for my students. Gender and sexuality are a key way for individuals to categorize and therefore when presented with someone who does not provide a clear category it raises a lot of dissonance and anxiety.
I truly believe that this is what creates the isolation, loneliness, depression, and other social problems associated with having a differing sexual orientation, or a non-conforming gender identity. I think in people’s effort to have control and understanding over their world who are unable to categorize an individual successfully based on their sexual and gender identity, this motivates the individual – either consciously or unconsciously – to push away and reject these individuals. We can even see this with well intending people who have advocated for ‘safe places’ for LGBTQ individuals and in some places ‘safe zones’ for individuals suffering from mental illness. Now I think those who advocate for safe zones and places, feel they have the true intentions; it is of my opinion is another example of pushing these individuals into a definable category, in this case, it is within a physical space. Another consequence of such actions has equated being different with being a victim. That is because the general population is seen by these people as a threat to individuals who are different, they must act and behave as if they are weaker and are victims, and therefore we must establish ‘safe place’ for them because they are not strong enough to handle the world on their own. This sadly makes it so individuals (1) do not need to integrate these individuals into a workable mental model because they can be now categorized within the mental model of “others” which we can equate with individuals who are less than and must need some social control to deal with. For the LGBTQ or individual who does not conform to normal social categories, these social controls, provide even a higher sense of victimization, guilt, feeling different, and not feeling like they have a true place in their social world. Now I want to stop and emphasize not all LGBTQ individuals and other marginalized groups end up being victims or suffer a life of continued hurt. But what I would like to point out is individuals who do not end victimized is because they find a group of others that share their beliefs, values, and ideas, which provides a sense of identity and place, which provides a social structure to be strong against prevailing norms of a given society. The reason I bring this up is that what all these policies that encourage us to minimize and protect marginalized individuals are two-fold.
First, for the individual, it creates a sense of victimization which leads to a sense of hopelessness. A feeling that nothing will ever change, and that standing up for one’s self is a useless endeavor. Second is that we grow and develop out of suffering and conflict. We become better people and have a better understanding of the world and create change when we are faced with suffering and overcome that suffering. A great example of this was the integration of schools in the south. The early individuals were never provided with safe places, and the offenders of these individuals never faced being kicked out of school for expressing their negative and abusive views. No, these brave individuals went to school with a large community of individuals screaming at them, making violent gestures, and were very abusive. Despite this, these young people showed up every day to these newly integrated schools. They did not become victims they became heroes. They did not become weaker they became stronger. They created the condition in which society was forced to change their cognitive category of race and racial issues. While the United States still struggles with racial issues, the successes we have seen are because racial groups had to suffer, both the racist populations and the minority individuals. It is only when both sides of a category are forced to suffer that true social change can occur. The current condition. Now again I do not deny there are great leaders of the LGBTQ and other marginalized groups that have not faced suffering and pain, and that these individuals have become the voice of these groups. I do not want to blame a given group for this current situation, as there are first many successes that have occurred over the last ten years in the equality movement, but I think we also have to be understanding of those groups that are being forced to change the way they see the world. This can cause enormous suffering and therefore enormous resistance. However, we do not often see individuals who fight against LGBTQ or marginalized individuals rights and equality as suffering or in pain. From a psychological perspective they are, they do experience pain and hurt, because the world they knew their entire life in crumbling and can be very threatening to these individuals. I believe this is the key reason why individuals fighting for LGBTQ rights have turned to the courts and lawmakers because they have found that social action and messaging is not effective. But I think the problem is, that they are viewed as ‘ignorant,’ ‘uneducated,’ or ‘bigoted,’ when in reality they are faced with very challenging information, that counters their established cognitive categories. This creates what psychologist call cognitive dissonance. This is the stress reaction we experience when our beliefs are not congruent with information we are provided or with actions of our self or others. The easiest way to relieve this dissonance is through ignoring or denying counter information. This is the easiest because in general individuals are ‘cognitive lazy’ meaning to put in the effort to change our views would mean needing to engage in deep cognitive thinking, which is exhausting. So instead, when an individual hears information counter to their beliefs, instead of putting in the cognitive efforts, we instead deny the information as true and look for information that supports our current belief. Sadly, this is one of the problems of the information age of the internet. While developers hoped that the internet would result in the free exchange of information leading to a more informed society, instead the internet has come the mimic the already established social orders. So instead of looking at counter information, people tend to login and find sites that confirm our beliefs and attitudes. So instead of enlightenment, the internet has resulted in a device that only supports one’s cognitive ideals and biases. Bottom line I think to end this conversation is that until we face our social problems in a non-victim manner, we will more and more become a nation of victims, not only on the marginalized side of our population but also within the mainstream of American society.
I think to end this section I should conclude with my personal experiences of being a professor. If you were to ask where I feel most comfortable, I would tell you that it would be during the time I am lecturing and interacting with students. For some reason when I am engaged in this activity it is the only time that life’s struggles are not constantly nagging me. Indeed, it is the only time I feel comfortable and feel I have a place of belonging. I think that this is because this has been the only place I have had a defined place in this world for many years. It is a place I belong, dealing with something I know a lot about and enjoy, which is the study of psychology. It is also an opportunity to share and encourage others to become better and think more critically. Other than being called “dad” one of the great joys of my life has been being called “professor” or “teacher.”
The major question of the day as I write this in the transition into the last half of my life, is what now? I am currently completing my dissertation and working part-time. But I am not sure at this point how I will finish out the last half of my life, I guess we will both have to stay tuned!