On a recent night I had a dream.

At first I seemed to have the perspective of an omniscient observer, hanging over a room occupied by a number of people. The ones I most remember are two men seated at a table, one young, one old. Perhaps they were playing cards. Suddenly through the door burst a man carrying a long rifle, veering in his stride, laughing crazily.  I watched as he staggered toward the older man and asked him a question. He waited a moment, then, failing to receive a satisfactory response, he raised the rifle to the old man’s head and fired. The old man’s brains splurted out and he slumped forward onto the table.

Then the man with the gun ‑ he was younger, with long wavy brown hair ‑ moved on to the other man and asked the same question. Suddenly the perspective of the dream changed. I became the second, younger man. I knew I too didn’t have the answer to his question, and I was filled with fear.

Somehow I knocked the man’s gun aside and got my arm around the assailant’s neck. I pressed hard on his windpipe with my forearm. We fell away from the table and struggled, rolling on the floor. I was terrified that the crazy man would break free from my hold and kill me. I squeezed and squeezed, but I was unable to finish the job and I knew it was only a matter of time till he escaped and my life ended.

I saw a glass bottle on the floor and seized it with my free hand. I struck the crazy man in the head as forcibly as I could. Sensing at last that he was semi‑conscious I took my other arm from around his neck and, holding the bottle now with both hands, I smashed it down onto his head, again and again and again. As I watched in terror and panic the man’s head turned bright green, then bright blue. I knew he was dying.

“Don’t stare!” his skull screamed at me, and died.

I awoke, hollow‑eyed and shaking, covered in familiar cold sweat. The bed around me, even on that hot summer night, was soaked and cold. I pulled myself up on an elbow, shaking, and thought, as we therapy types will at such moments, “What does this mean?” I wanted to analyze the dream, to give it an intellectual interpretation, thereby rendering it a harmless story. But I knew as I sat there that this was not that kind of dream; I knew that this dream had bigger fish to fry.

It will come as no surprise to the perceptive reader that I came from a violent, brutalizing family. As a child I remember living in fear of my father’s anger; that one day, maybe today, he would finally explode and tear me to pieces. Having been a protective services social worker before becoming a family therapist I know that comparatively I suffered no great abuse; indeed, in many ways my family was not abnormal or even unusual; but the fear was always there, the fear and then the anger.

I carried the anger with me into adolescence, lifted weights and became a musclebound wrestler. I had my shield, my armor, and a degree of self‑control. I had some success as a wrestler but never enough; my anger was not the kind that could be easily translated into graceful athletic feats. I lost when I should have won because I was always nervous and distracted, fearing failure more than pursuing success.

It is only now, as a psychotherapist beyond middle age, that I can understand the role I played in my family, how by being quiet about the abuse and the fear, by keeping the family secret, I helped my parents to stay together, kept things from getting so terrible that the family would fall apart and be lost forever. My job was to know the secret of the terror and keep quiet about it, and thereby I achieved the illusion of great power in the family; however true, I felt I had the power to spill the secret and destroy everything. For we were a respectable second‑generation family, with children who went to college and beyond. But we knew, the whole brood of us knew, I think, that the anger and the fear doesn’t just disappear; for the power that we have in our secret is power that we know we have but that we also know that we can never use. So we are helpless, our power bound up in knots that restrain us in all the essential areas of our lives.

Over years I learned, through long hours spent in the non‑threatening company of books, to construct an intellectual armor which supplemented the physical armor of my youth. I learned to think instead of feel, and I became skilled at bracketing my feelings and “rising above” them. And so I became a good listener, a man of service, someone to be counted on to keep cool in a hot situation. Not a bad beginning stance for a psychotherapist.

But of course it is a terrible stance for an experienced psychotherapist ‑ for feelings have a way of getting in the way, of making themselves known in time, no matter how expert an enabler or intellectualizer one happens to be. And the fear, the anger, well, it no doubt ensconces itself in a ventricle somewhere, there to make itself known in sensational fashion one sunny afternoon after mowing the lawn. For psychotherapists approaching middle age and beyond, it’s long since time to think ‑ nay, feel ‑ about such things.

For powerful victims have a way of finding their way into relationships in which they feel abused and neglected, the better to replay the childhood drama in hopes that this time they will find a way out. Spouses may or may not have the patience to tolerate this endless staging and restaging of the drama, for powerful victims have a way of finding their way, by some karmic magic, into relationships with other powerful victims, and, needless to say, it gets confusing ‑ “martyr wars,” I like to call it. Maybe we learn how to feel in time to save our own families, maybe not ‑ and so the burden of fear and anger finds its way through the generations.

We might well ask ‑ might well demand, in a fervent moment ‑ who started this?  Who began this contra‑dance of abuse and fear and anger? Maybe this is where images of Satan come from, or maybe it’s a mystery.  Knowing my own father ‑ in my mind at least ‑ himself to be a powerful victim, likely damaged and abuse in his own beginnings, and having studied years in the search, this powerful victim, in the end, can come up with no‑one to blame. There is only the struggle, one day at a time, to care for oneself and the significant others of the moment in a responsible way, in a way that acknowledges the fear and anger, owns it and holds it closely and freely, and strives, sometimes fruitlessly, for vulnerability and compassion.

But I sense that there will always be that moment, upon awakening from the dream, when I wonder whether I am the hero, terminating the life of the crazed abuser, or whether I am the abuser himself. I suppose that it is in that moment, when I vaguely sense that I am both victim and abuser, that I know the fear that every powerful victim knows.