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Anna Motz debunks myths about female abusers and violent offenders in ‘If Love Could Kill’

The forensic psychologist on keeping her personal and professional lives separate, the limits of confidentiality, and why she chose to share the stories of her clients

“If Love Could Kill” recounts the clinically true stories of several women who’ve come through Anna Motz’s forensic psychology practice.David Fisher

Forensic psychologist Anna Motz allows female perpetrators of violent and extreme crimes to speak for themselves in “If Love Could Kill,” her book recounting the clinically true stories of several women who’ve come through Motz’s practice.

Motz provides psychoanalysis for the common reader; “If Love Could Kill” is written for those curious about the ability women possess to commit acts of violence and abuse against those closest to them.

The Globe caught up with her ahead of her Feb. 14 appearance at Harvard Bookstore, where she’ll be discussing her book.

Q. One of the ideas you push back on in one of the first chapters is the notion, primarily perpetuated by males, that therapists of the same gender as the patient should be the ones to treat them, which is why a lot of men didn’t treat women in some of the facilities you worked in. How did you successfully debunk and then present that conclusion to the reader?

A. The most important point is that women were ignored, neglected, and overlooked, and some of the male therapists used the fact that they thought being male would re-traumatize the women as an excuse. A woman working with women has its own issues; there can be all kinds of questions about what female therapists bring up in terms of reproduction or identification with the patient. It’s certainly not straightforward and the patients themselves need to be able to have a choice. It would be simplistic and wrong to say a woman only needs to have therapy with females.

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Q. How do you validate the psychological reasons behind why these women have committed the crimes they have without seemingly justifying their actions?

A. Understanding and seeing patterns of behavior or finding meaning in criminal activity is not the same as condoning or justifying it. Only by understanding it is it possible to reduce the risk of it recurring in the future. I don’t so much provide the women I work with with an explicit understanding; it’s about working with the women themselves, slowly and gradually, so that they’re able to articulate some of the thoughts and feelings that got stirred up in that explosive moment of violence, or the ongoing violence towards another person. By going back into their own histories and understanding the motivations for their crime, they can then begin to unravel how they came to do what they have done.

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Q. There are two chapters in the book where your personal identity and life come to a crossroads with what you’re exploring in therapy with your patients “Paula” and “Dolores.” How do you, as a professional, keep your personal feelings separate from your practice?

A. I was pregnant when I was working with Dolores and there was one session that was incredibly disturbing for me when I got in touch with some murderousness in her that seemed to be directed at my unborn baby. With Paula, she identified with Nazis and began to talk in a very excited way about watching Nazi documentaries. As a therapist, and as a woman, being very closely in tune to the pregnancy itself, those moments make it very difficult to regulate fear responses. It isn’t possible to be completely blank and robotic in these sessions, but what’s important is not to, in that moment, leave the room or berate the patient for what they’re saying, but to try to calm myself down and understand what is being played out between us to get through the session, and then to very carefully write it up. I would be lying if I said it didn’t rattle me, and I had to really use my own thought capacity to think about the dynamics that go on between patients and therapists where a patient can project all their own sphere of painful impulses and anger into the therapist, and it’s the therapist’s job to bear and process it somehow.

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Q. How do you walk that line of being a trusted source for someone who’s committed violent crimes versus being a mandated reporter and having to air out what the patient has said in a setting that’s necessary, for instance, a court setting?

A. Building up trust is a gradual process and I think sometimes it happens quite unconsciously — a patient can tell if you’re able to bear what they have to say and not judge them, because my job isn’t to judge, it’s to gain a psychological understanding. Being incredibly explicit about the limits of confidentiality are key. Making clear what my role is, and also showing with everything I say and the way I hold myself that I’m there to try and help them to understand why they’ve done what they’ve done. Only through showing the patient you really are interested in understanding what happened in these moments, will they confide.

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Q. These stories are real, but the names and details of the individuals have been changed to protect their privacy. What is your response to someone who is skeptical of the ethics of publishing a book like this and the intent behind it?

A. Many identifiable features have been changed but they’re always clinically real, none of these events haven’t happened. The reason for writing this book is very much to enable the women’s stories to be told and for those reasons to be illuminated. For any woman who has felt at times violent, even murderous, and is terrified by those thoughts and feelings, she should know that there’s a whole spectrum of female aggression, and it’s really important to go and get help from a professional or a doctor when you’re having this really frightening experience.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Anna Motz will be in conversation with Maggie Fishman on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store.


Adri Pray can be reached at adri.pray@globe.com. Follow her @adriprayy.