“Nope, she’s a murderer.”

crime scene tape

I’m a lover of true crime.

“And the award for ‘Greatest Understatement in a Personal Narrative goes to . . .”

I have been one since I was a little pre-tween, sneaking into the kitchen to watch early episodes of CSI: on my family’s meager television set. Now, with a world of podcasts thrilling my ears to the sounds of secrets, screams, and murders most foul, I all but live in a world constantly reinforcing this cathartic hobby. Is it a hobby? We’ll say it is. My hobby is ‘staying sexy and not getting murdered.’

But as a true crime lover, a Murderino if you will, does my macabre interest also spell the end of my faith in humanity??

Okay, why the dramatics? Here’s what happened:

As a Behavior Analyst, I supervise behavior interventions for people with special needs and the therapists who run those programs. Today, my behaviorist underling and I went on a walk with our 10-year-old male client and his mother to Target. En route, our client (we’ll call him Tituss B.) began to have a meltdown. IN. THE. MIDDLE. OF. THE. STREET. He fell to the ground, started biting his hand, kicking his legs toward his mother, therapist, and myself, while he screamed FOR ALL THE WORLD TO HEAR, “No don’t touch me! Let me go!” Oh, and threw leaves at us (for good measure, I suppose). We were SO CLOSE, almost to the block where Target was, I could smell my money evaporating already.

The therapist and I went into “Safety before Sweetness” mode, bolstering him under our arms and carrying him across the street. Well, trying to. Little booger kicked his legs out in attempts to trip us as we walked along. Still screaming, by the way. And at that moment, a middle-aged woman driving toward us asked from the driver’s seat of her minivan, “If you want me to give you a ride, I can take you wherever you want, and you don’t have to worry about struggling with him.”

As the Supervisor—and the MOST legally liable person there—I immediately thanked the woman and rushed the entire party across the street as quickly as I could.

“Aww, that was sweet of her,” my therapist underling said, wiping sweat off his brow, clearly wishing I’d taken up the woman on her offer so we wouldn’t have to endure Tituss’ tantrum.

“Oh my gosh no, murderer in a minivan, tale as old as time.”

“What??” he asked, “but she’s just one woman, and we’re four people!”

“Yeah but she sees we care about Tituss and could easily control us by threatening to kill him!”

He looked at me like I’d pushed the Pope under a tractor.

In that moment I wondered, “Wait . . . was I overreacting??”

Most people who know me might say, “Probably most definitely.” But that’s what immediately came to mind! Murderous people and their murderous cars! I mean, haven’t we heard that story a million times?! Starts with “T,” ends with “ed Bundy?”

Or.

Had I been jaded by all the stories of murderers and unsuspecting victims? Had warnings about accepting rides from strangers gone WAY too far, and projected onto a situation that was simply altruistic?

Let’s think. What’s the likelihood that this woman IS a serial killer who wanted to kill the four of us? Two of the adults had clearly visible, official-ish looking badges. The mother was of average height and weight, and this 10-year-old boy was clearly in distress. And violently acting out. Would a serial killer take on such a risky situation, the definition of unpredictable, uncontrollable? Thinking back, I can’t imagine she would! If she were alone, that is . . .

Who knows. Has all this true crime made me see monsters under my bed, or was I simply more observant and in tune with a (more) potentially dangerous situation? In some ways, I’m glad I’ll never know the answer.

Denial River

Nile

I have VERY strong feelings about denial—and no, I don’t mean the river in Egypt (lol, puns).

In as ~gentle~ of a way that I can, I try explaining to my clients’ families that denial only serves as a temporary band-aid, a fake escape from whatever might be unveiling before them. Parents and families with kids who have special needs may be in denial about their kids’ capabilities at present, their kids’ capabilities in the future, MY capabilities about what I can do about their kids’ capabilities in the future, and other such concerns.

I love Olivia Pope’s wardrobe, but no, I’m not that kind of “fixer.” Oh, but can I get her white coat though??

At my core, however, I’m afraid of denial.  It’s a tempting lull into a false reality where we can convince ourselves of anything! We can convince ourselves that what matters to us or our children no longer does. We can convince ourselves that the world has stopped to allow us to wallow in some discomfort.

Every day, I walk into situations full of denial. Families resist and refuse to make changes in their home environment because their kids should just know what the rules are. They convince themselves it’s their kid who’s the problem, denying their own roles in shaping future behavior. It’s denial that continues spurring this whole anti-vaccination nonsense!

“Jackie, do you believe this whole vaccination conspiracy theory thing?”

“Omg that’s just ridiculous. I can’t believe there are people out there who believe it.”

“THANK YOU! It’s so refreshing to hear a behaviorist say that vaccines cause autism.”

“Wait, wait oh no, wait WHAT??”

“This anti-vaccine conspiracy theory is crazy.”

“Wait, oh no, vaccines DON’T cause autism. Ohemgee, um, your kid’s not vaccinated? HE COULD DIE OF MEASLES!”

“But you work with autistic kids, you know. Kids could get autism.”

“THEY COULD DIE OF MEASLES AND BE DEAD, THOUGH.”

I’m constantly asked by new clients’ parents if I have any kids myself. UGH I hate that question! If I DID have my own kids, they’d be completely different! They wouldn’t mirror what’s going on with their kids, so as a comparison sample, they’d be shaky at best. But because I DON’T have my own kids (they laugh and say, no, my cats don’t count, whatever), I’m seen as some twentysomething Millennial who thinks she can just come in to their house and tell them what to do.

But I am, though.

I AM a twentysomething, a Millennial who came of age in the 2000s, who studied herself into the wee hours of many mornings, who earned the degrees and completed the trainings that mean, yes, I can tell them what to do. Because I study behavior. Because I’m not in denial about what behavior patterns look like, what they can predict and tell us about future behavior patterns.

Does this make it hard to do my job sometimes? Duh. Parents don’t like being told how to parent—go figure. But I’ve had to check myself on the resistance these parents initially show me.

I’ve been asked by many professors and other clients, how do I address parents’ denial? There’s no set way, but the first thing any behaviorist must understand is that the denial is a symptom of underlying emotional conflicts. The parents didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to make myself think that my 13-year-old child, who can’t use more than 10 words to communicate, will graduate from medical school!”

Behaviorists can get sticks up our butts when it comes to the emotional conflicts underlying many families’ issues. We ourselves can get into our own denial, thinking that the world turns in the same logical, behavioral equations as the ones we use in intervention plans. That’s something I’ve tried imparting to the therapists on my teams—the training and mindset that enable us to see patterns in people’s behavior is trained. It’s not innate, and it CERTAINLY isn’t as simple when one’s own child is thrown in the mix.

Professionals in our field need to remember that denial is simply a coping mechanism against the harsh realities of what their lives and their loved ones’ lives suddenly become. Denial is absolutely dangerous to a child and family’s progress, but the onus also lies with us professionals. When we create such binary worlds for these families, with stark and sharp realities harsh and cold, families’ defaults will be a retreat into something that doesn’t hurt to the touch. And then professionals complain that families won’t meet them halfway—but have WE met the family halfway? Or did we draw a black-and-white picture, a stoic portrait of a devoid future because, well, it’s easier for us that way?