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Mary Jo Barrett

Helping People Heal from Abuse

By Susan Josephs

As a child, Mary Jo Barrett used to sit in synagogue "looking at all the people and wondering if they were happy." In school, she "was everyone’s confidante. I was always interested in relationships," she says.

A groundbreaking therapist and expert on family violence and sexual abuse, Barrett, 53, says she has never wanted to do anything else. "I truly believe this is what I was put on Earth to do," she says. "As a Jew, I understand oppression and survival. Plus, I’ve always had this tendency to think contextually, meaning I don’t see things in a simple, linear way."

Fueled by her belief that violence and abuse stem from multiple factors—social, political, familial, biological—and that people are inherently good and can change, Barrett has spent the past several decades working as a family therapist, teaching at schools like the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, co-authoring two books about incest and writing articles on other difficult subjects. "I wrote about sexual abuse at a time when no one was talking about it," she recalls. "I haven’t always been popular."

Based on her years of experience working with both perpetrators and victims of violence in the Chicago area, Barrett co-created a pioneering, solution-based approach to therapy called the Collaborative Stage Model. Today, other therapists, nationally and internationally, put her model to practical use. In 1990, Barrett co-founded The Center for Contextual Change, a nationally acclaimed institute for psychotherapy serving Metropolitan Chicago. Currently, she is The Center’s executive director.

"Everybody’s life is like a jigsaw puzzle," she says of her therapeutic philosophy. "So if you’re going to help people, you have to look at all the pieces that make up their lives."

Barrett also remains active in JCARES, a Chicago-based coalition of organizations dedicated to stopping abuse and violence in the Jewish community. "When I first started in the field, I too believed that Jews were less violent," she admits. "Today we know that we have vulnerabilities like everyone else."

Born in Indiana, Barrett credits her Jewish upbringing for "infusing everything I do today." She belonged to NFTY, the official youth group of the Reform Movement, attended Jewish summer camp and developed a passion for Israeli folk dancing, which she taught as a college student to supplement her income. "My view of how change happens and how to create peace on this earth definitely comes from the Jewish ideals of shalom bayit and tikkun olam," she says.

In college, Barrett met one of her most important mentors, Margaret Morrison, a nurse practitioner from Canada who started a telephone hotline for child abuse prevention in the Chicago area. Barrett had chosen to volunteer for the hotline as part of a project for a community psychology class. "This woman was filled with hope that child abuse could be stopped and when I met her, it felt like a bashert kind of thing," says Barrett. "She really inspired me to do this work."

Now that her three children, ages 16, 20 and 23, are older, Barrett hopes to do more teaching and training internationally. She would also love to see more men enter her female-dominated profession and for her colleagues to receive the pay they deserve. "I have more training than most attorneys and make a third of the money they do," she says.

When she’s not working, Barrett focuses on maintaining a healthy, loving relationship with her husband and children and devotes herself to exercise, prayer and meditation. "I have to take good care of myself to do this work," she says. "I help people who commit and have been injured by violence to access their higher selves, to help them create a meaningful vision of their lives. For me, this work is sacred."

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