Friday, September 22, 2023

The Story of Scheherazade: A Fable for JwSO Therapists of Transformation through Care and Conversation (part 3 of 3)

 By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, Private practice, San Leandro, CA

(Editor’s Note: Please click on the links for part 1 and part 2)

This is the third part of a three-part blog about the Fable of Scheherazade, the central figure and storyteller in "The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night" from classic Persian literature (Burton, 1885). The second part identified four therapeutic factors in the fable that parallel the work of JwSO therapists. This third part identifies additional factors and also cautions regarding overidentification with mythic heroism.

Relapse Awareness: For a thousand nights, Scheherazade faced the possibility that the King would "relapse" and not only kill her but continue killing other women. Presumably, this possibility would not be absent from her consciousness for a day. Likewise, the JwSO adolescent, especially those treated in the community, also has the possibility every day of committing some act of sexual aggression. JwSO therapy every week is done with awareness that the harmful behavior may recur and the importance of taking appropriate measures to prevent it.

Curriculum and Fidelity: Scheherazade had a series of stories, which is a lesson plan or curriculum to last a thousand nights, which was presumably implemented with fidelity. The fable notes that she had committed to memory 1000 stories regarding past kingdoms and adventures. Baglivio and colleagues (Baglivio, Wolff, Jackowski, et al., 2018) identified factors contributing to successful outcomes for residential and secure JwSO programs. Some of the factors promoting therapeutic outcomes included whether there was a structured, manualized curriculum administered with fidelity. This would contrast with an unstructured open-ended therapy relationship or a curriculum that was not faithfully implemented. A parallel between the story of Scheherazade and the work of effective JwSO therapists is a structured and faithfully implemented therapeutic curriculum. In working with this population while having a prosocial therapeutic relationship is necessary it is not sufficient. It also involves teaching knowledge, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, and practicing new behaviors both in therapy and outside, and critically reviewing results. Deficits in knowledge and skill areas may contribute to problematic sexual behaviors. In this respect, therapy is like learning Spanish. You have to learn information and practice skills, not just have a positive relationship with the teacher.

Termination and Self-Regulation: At some point, the JwSO therapist, like Scheherazade, expresses the faith that the youth can lead a prosocial life without a lifetime label or controls by terminating therapy. Scheherazade, at the end of 1000 nights of storytelling, told the King she had no more stories to tell. The implicit message was that the support of the storytelling or therapy she was doing was not now necessary because of the skills and transformation of the King. While starting therapy was a profound act of optimism, also stopping and saying it is no longer needed, also represents an optimistic act but one that is realistic based on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Presumably, Scheherazade saw termination of therapy as a necessary part of the prosocial transformation of the King. Termination of the youth in therapy gives the message to the youth, the family, the courts, and the community that the youth is ready to construct their prosocial life. Taking responsibility for a prosocial life can be viewed as the last necessary step in treatment and that additional controls or management like sex offender registry or prolonged probation may not only be not helpful but counterproductive.


Lessons from this fable may be that there are commonalities across centuries and cultures regarding how people view the possibility of prosocial transformations of someone who has harmed others. The myth of Scheherazade was created in the ninth century with the premise that you could transform someone who had done harm to others by a conversation, relationship, and combination of skills. In that fable, the caring conversation not only promoted the prosocial transformation of the King but also impacted the Kingdom and promoted public safety and fear of ongoing evil. This is similar to the goal of the JwSO therapist who intends to promote the prosocial development of the youth and also public safety.

Most myths not only are parables to teach moral lessons about dealing with life challenges but maybe cautionary tales. Over-identification with the idea of acting heroically could lead to unwise optimism that would result in greater harm. The therapist can become so identified with heroic goals that they may ignore the dangers and negative possibilities. Joseph Wheelwright (1971), a Jungian analyst and teacher in the Bay Area, talked about how therapists should be cautious about "channeling" mythic images, such as the White Knight riding in to save others. The therapist who over-identifies with the hero's quest, and ignores realities, may end up like Don Quixote, in folly and misadventure, and worse, tragedy.


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