This interview consists of excerpts from a conversation between Peggy Sax, Tim Donovan (Alice Springs, Australia) and Dale Johns (California Gully, Victoria, Australia) from the October 17, 2021 Collab Salon. Tim and Dale speak about the narrative approach to therapeutic conversations focusing on Dale’s experiences of childhood sexual violence.
A Conversation with Tim & Dale: Reclaiming Lives from Sexual Violence: Understanding Shame
1What's brought you to this therapeutic alliance between you both? How long have you worked together?
Dale: I met Tim through going to a sexual assault agency. I was sexually abused as an 11-year old by a local Catholic priest. So 42 years later, I went through a court process and met Tim in the middle of that, which has changed my life.
Tim: Our work started one-on-one with the idea around sexual abuse of the silencing nature of it. I was always curious about whose shame was it? Challenging that idea, our conversations quickly became political. Three and a half years, Dale and I were in the counseling room, and now I guess seven years later, we’re publishing a book.
For further interest:
2When we were preparing for this conversation, you had mentioned that you'd come up with the metaphor of 'walking alongside.' Do you want to share a little more about how you came to that, and what that means to the two of you?
Dale: That’s something I’d done in my career, I was in pastoral care, which I did for 20 years or so. I always tried to walk beside people, and I cared because of what I’ve been through as a child. It just opened the way for me to have that solid support, the conversations, the questions and understanding of shame. I was able to talk about it and it just opened the way for me to break the silence.
3The picture I'm getting is that because of this sense of feeling supported by Tim, you were able to move toward the shame in a different kind of way, and do you mind sharing some of what you each discovered there in that walk because that can be very difficult territory?
Tim: We discovered later that the abuse will always be imprinted with who you are yet not totalizing of who you are. And, then from that, we’re able to acknowledge and make more resonant Dale’s values and where those values came from.
Dale: Tim asked me, how am I different to the perpetrator? And I thought, why would he be asking me that? And that day, I started to think about that, to see the differences between the perpetrator and myself, and I realized why Tim had asked me that question. I started to see my innocence. There was just so much that happened from that one question, which was amazing. I guess I realized that it wasn’t my shame that I’d been controlled by. So that was really lovely to understand that I was innocent in all of that. And I guess that brought me to be able to talk about it and that as well. So it broke the silence as well.
4In our earlier conversations and from reading your book manuscript, you also talk about fighting for justice with freedom. So can you take us on that journey a bit?
Dale: I guess that all started from seeing practitioners and psychiatrists that didn’t treat me well. And particularly through the judicial process, that was extremely horrendous for me the way I was treated and not believed. I thought at that time, isn’t it dreadful if most survivors go through this sort of thing when they go through the judicial process? I didn’t want other survivors to be going through this. So I think in the process of working with Tim, we came to that point of where I want to fight for other people. I was seeking justice all the way along, but I think that picture of justice on the book cover is fighting for justice like the fist-fighting into the balloon, but it keeps bouncing back. With the Catholic church, I can’t get that justice. So the fight is still on for justice, and I’m hoping the book will help with that, but it’s been a process and it’s one where Tim and I are both fighting for that justice now.
5How and when did you decide that it made sense to write a book together about this experience?
Dale: I guess you typed the document using the whiteboard. We share the note-taking through sessions, then Tim would always take a photo of the whiteboard and send it to me via email and a new set of questions for next time. I’ve still got it all on the computer. How fantastic that was for me to have things that I hadn’t even uttered to myself written down on the whiteboard. You know, that’s incredible really. That information that came out was there in front of me, it was outside of me. And it is painful information, but it’s freeing as well. It wasn’t just stuck inside of me anymore. And that’s a big part of how the book started that it was so well documented.
6Tim, what has this been like for you to start out with not really having a background in sexual assault, and then through your connection with Dale to be drawn into this work and this relationship, this therapeutic alliance, and this book project, and a workshop like this, what are some of the effects on you?
Tim: Yeah, I guess freeing. Being new to sexual assault enabled me to become really curious about what Dale was experiencing.
I think narrative therapy affirmed my ideas about how to work and that works for me philosophically. I felt joined with Dale while I was having conversations with people within the workplace where it was quite foreign to be curious, and to join with the stories of the people that were walking alongside. So I think the effects have been acknowledging of how I’ve preferred to work.
7And for you Dale, to hear Tim say this has helped him work more in his preferred ways or everything he just said, is there anything there that surprised you or that felt new to you?
Dale: No. Tim’s been very good at sharing how he has felt through the process. And yeah, it’s a really personal relationship that we have now where we understand each other, and Tim’s been great at sharing what my journey has done for him and I’m the same towards him. So that’s great. Thank you, Tim.
For further interest:
Dale and Tim are co- authors of the soon-to-be-published book ‘Reclaiming lives from sexual violence: Understanding shame. At 12 years of age, Dale was violently sexually abused by a Catholic priest for a period of two years. Tim supported him and helped him understand that the guilt and shame he had carried for 40 years was not his. Through this understanding Dale was able to climb out of the black hole he was in, and no longer live in silence. Tim is a mental health social worker currently working as a school counsellor for a secondary college in Alice Springs. He wrote ‘Reclaiming lives from sexual violence’ in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work (2018). The stories Tim hears in his work with clients who experienced sexual abuse often represent a political act against acts of oppression.