Fire of the
Five Hearts

Holly A. Smith
The name Fire of the Five Hearts comes from Chinese medicine. The theory is that humans have five hearts: one in the chest cavity, two in the palms of each hand, and two in the souls of the feet. One who works in the field that Smith has chosen --- that is, a social worker dealing with incest --- would have to have at least five hearts, preferably more, in order to survive the daily heart-breaking caseload. Indeed, after finishing the book, this reviewer suggests that the reader might need a spare heart or two as well.

Early on, Smith receives a call from the emergency room of the local hospital. "The mother is requesting that the child be sedated in order for there to be a colposcopic exam of the child's cervix."

    I explain to [the doctor] that in her rather brief existence, the child has been to far too many doctors to be examined for incest and sexual abuse. It is like a ritual for this mother. There have been no conclusive findings. I tell him that I think that this is more intrusive to this child's being than if she had been penetrated. I tell him that I believe that this is a debauched form of child abuse.

Silence. Smith continues,

    I defer to you on the medical end. Knowing this mother and her history, I tell you, you can liken her to a junkie shopping around for dope. In this case, her child is her ruse. I would ask you to reconsider both the issue of examining her and certainly that of sedating her. Please.

The doctor's response: "I don't envy your job."

As we read more, we don't envy her job either. For twenty years, Smith worked at the County Survival Abuse Team in Colorado, and ended up as director of the program. She was in charge of all the cases that came down the pipeline from the courts and the police.

One thing we learn from her early on is that those who work with children and their parents in this particularly unsavory business come to be somewhat off-kilter themselves. Smith suffers from panic attacks, jags of crying, the need to run away and hide, and paranoiac fantasies that someone is going to invade her office and blow her brains out.

She may go through experiences of passionate and loving intensity of the world and the people around her: the trees, the mountains, the birds, her husband, her children. But, given her day-to-day reality, there is a poison lurking about the edges. Not only does she fear for her own safety, she thinks, daily, hourly, of the safety of her own children. She has seen too much to be complacent around any but a few of her long-term friends and fellow-workers. The job never leaves her.

She tells us that she herself has been in psychotherapy for years, as long as she has been working in this field. Quis custodiet ipsos Custodes wrote Juvenal. Who will be watching the watchmen? Who is going to be taking care of those who are supposed to be taking care of us?

Very young abused children will tend to confide in (and sometimes destroy) their toys. Many show amazing perception --- far beyond their years --- of exactly what is happening to them. Their vocabulary matches that knowledge. When older, they often cut, burn and bruise themselves, "just to let the hurt out." She tells the story of a brother and sister who --- age eight and ten --- became involved in sexual by-play with each other. She suggests that, because their parents were so icy and distant, the two simply had to adopt married adult roles to survive their emotionally bereft day-to-day existence.

Sometimes children will ask her if they are responsible for what is happening to them. And at one point, when talking to a girl who has been sleeping with her teacher, the girl says that Smith is so perceptive that perhaps she had the same experience. Smith notes that she herself was once a girl who was sleeping with her teacher, and she wonders that the girl could possibly glom onto that nubbin of history out of her distant past.

§     §     §

I've read many books pounded out by psychiatrists and psychologists and MSW's with their dry prose and their brilliant insights into the psyche of their clients. This one is from another world. It isn't a let-me-tell-you-wow let-it-all-hang-out psychology clinical case history book. It has too much passion to be just that. And love: Fire of the Five Hearts reeks of passion and love, some we would expect; some that comes out of left field.

Smith gets passionately attached to her clients; surprisingly, sometimes, too, she is even able to feel love for the guilty parent or guardian. As she points out --- what is incest but love gone terribly, terribly wrong?

Because she cares perhaps too much, there is the animal exhaustion at always being on the edge --- clinically, socially, sexually. There is the constant worry about being wrong. There is the fear that one is unjust (was it wrong to tear that particular child from that not-very-good mother?) More than anything else, she requires of herself an impeccable honesty. This is Smith describing one of her workshops:

    I tell them the story of a pastor who was giving last rites to a parishioner dying of AIDS. He sat with this dying man and kept looking at his watch --- inside his head he was wishing that the man would just die, just hurry up and die. And it wasn't because he wished that the man would no longer suffer from such a dread disease; it was that he did not want to miss the eight o'clock movie that he had hoped to see all week. I remember covering my mouth when he said it. He said it was such a profane thought, coming from one of God's servants. I kissed him and I told him that it was one of the most humane thoughts that anyone had ever shared with me. I told him that I loved it.

She loves each and every one of her clients. Too, she is in love with the mountains and the trees and birds and red foxes around Boulder. She hates her job, but can't let it go. She despises what some people, for unfathomable reasons, do to their own children. She knows how to cry.

She always leaves the door to her office open when strangers arrange to meet with her there, she is constantly afraid that someone will stalk and kill her. Remember, she has taken children away from mothers, fathers from daughters, grandsons from grandmothers; she has participated in the destruction of family structures, sent people to jail. She has broken up more marriages than Don Juan.

Smith is in a business that will not leave her alone. It invades her friendships, her family, her dreams, her marriage, her nights, her days, her weekends, her soul. This is not so much an insider's account of incest and incest-treatment as it is the autobiography of a lover of the world who has somehow gotten caught in a very perverse job where people turn out to be unbelievably otherworldly.

It's ostensibly a book about protecting the violated child, but soon enough we realize that everyone here suffers some kind of violation --- the children, the mothers, the fathers, the social workers, the society. It reminds me of the words of one of my own psychotherapists: we are all abused children.

Smith is brave beyond reason. She's not only brave to spend so much time in the belly of the beast, but brave, too, in her writing --- what she so daringly reveals about herself. We all know that a succesful cop has to be half-criminal, a good lawyer has to be quasi-thief, a worthy man of the cloth should be able to think like a sinner. An empathetic, resourceful, more-than-competent incest worker must, we learn, have a touch of innocent incest in her own heart:

    My mind wanders off to my firstborn and how grossly disproportionate her tiny vagina was," [she writes.] As her elfin body took form and shape, its beauty opened like a delicate flower of spring. Such skin I had never felt. Such a distinct fragrance of infant hair, head, hands, and feet. I could not get enough of her. My face was always so close to this beautiful creature. I could sit for hours stroking her downy hair, inhaling the baby scent that nestled itself in the tiny folds of skin behind her neck. The experience was sensual and intoxicating. Had I ever drizzled kisses all over her? Had I ever let my mouth find its way to her pubis? Yes, indeed I had. I have never given it a moment of thought. I was flooded. I was in love all over again. There was never anything sexual about those kisses ... or was there?

--- Lolita Lark

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