By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, Private practice, San Leandro, CA
Scheherazade is a character in a fable that can inform the work of therapy with juveniles who sexually offended (JwSO), what factors may contribute to change, but provides also a cautionary tale. This blog, like the fable, which is a series of stories, is told in a series of parts, each hoping to interest the reader to read more. This is the first part of a three-part blog. Each blog will provide useful information and when taken as a whole may provide some useful ideas.
Scheherazade was the central figure and storyteller in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" from classic Persian literature (Burton, 1885). The myth described a heroic figure who transformed a king who had done monstrous deeds by the use of care and conversation alone. In the story, a King's wife was unfaithful to him, which devastated him. The King, in response to the hurt he experienced, sought to address it by truly monstrous behavior. Every day he would marry a new virgin and then have her beheaded. He had killed a thousand women by the time that he met Scheherazade, a beautiful and learned woman who had mastered philosophy, science, the arts, and poetry. She had committed to memory 1000 stories regarding past kingdoms and adventures. Against her father's wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to marry the King, as a way to save not only the Kingdom but, even more amazingly, also the King. As a farewell favor, she asked the King if she could read him her final story before she herself was put to death. The King agreed, and listened to her story with awe regarding her grace and beauty. The story was halfway through when dawn was breaking, and she said there was no time to finish the story. So the king spared her for one day, and she not only finished the story but began a second, even more exciting tale the next day. Again, she was not able to finish the story before dawn, and again the King let her live for another day, and so this continued. At the end of a thousand and one nights, Scheherazade said she had no more tales to tell. In the process, though, the King had fallen in love with her, allowed her to live, had three sons, and was made wiser and kinder by her example of care, bravery, and the stories she told, and he made her his queen.
The Lesson for JwSO Therapists:
The JwSO therapist works with a teen who victimized others, often children and other adolescents. The therapist has to have faith, which to others may seem unreasonable, that the youth who has done harm to others can be transformed by care and conversation alone, or at least not recidivate. Like Scheherazade, the JwSO therapist asserts a radical idea, that not only the youth, but the "kingdom" will be safer and better because of these efforts.
The JwSO therapist, like Scheherazade, is confronted with a clear "evil" in the "Kingdom," that is an act of sexual aggression or related crimes done primarily to minors. The King's evil deed in Scheherazade presumably had a sexual component to it, in addition to murder. The JwSO youth, like the King, also had the possibility of continuing the harmful acts. The King's behavior was a reaction to his feelings of betrayal and hurt and mirrors the situation many JWSOs whose harmful acting-out behavior is also related to some trauma or life disruption.
It can be assumed that the reaction of the kingdom to the King's evil deeds was one of horror but also fear of future ongoing evil deeds. Likewise, a community's responses to a JwSO youth's crime are similar, at least in part. Sexual violence not only violates laws but is a violation of social norms, more so when the victim is a child.
Scheherazade's offer to marry the King is the opposite of what would be conventionally expected, which makes the fable so intriguing that the solution to evil deeds is caring and conversation. She offers presumably her love, and her life itself with the almost certain expectation at least from others that she will be killed. Scheherazade's idea that she can stop the evil and change the evildoer met with profound disbelief on the part of others, particularly her father. What a fantastic idea that this would be possible. Similarly, the JwSO therapist is often challenging conventional expectations that by conversation alone they can protect public safety, prevent future sexual recidivism, and assist with the transformation of this youth into a more prosocial person.
The second part of this blog will be published shortly will look at how Scheherazade transformed the King using the lens of present psychotherapeutic practices and how this parallels work with JwSO.