Lisa Grover needed help. Her marriage of 25 years had suddenly collapsed, and she felt shattered. She turned to Natick psychologist Melvin Rabin, whom she found online. Tall and athletic at 67, Rabin had a warm demeanor and an office wall covered in certificates. Grover, then 53, thought he could guide her to a safe place in her life.
Instead, over the next two years, according to Grover, Rabin walked her down a dark path that eventually led — she and state officials allege — to sex on the couch in his office, in apparent violation of state law and the ethics of the psychology profession.
Devastated by the experience, Grover reported Rabin to the state Board of Registration of Psychologists in February 2016. More than two years later, the case remains open. Rabin still holds an unrestricted license to practice psychology, continues to advertise his services, and recently appeared in an interview with a local news outlet.
The case remains unresolved even though, in May 2017, the board issued an order to show cause, indicating that it found Grover’s allegations credible and that Rabin’s alleged actions constitute “gross misconduct” and violations of professional standards.
In a response to the board’s order, Rabin denied any misconduct; he and his lawyer did not reply to the Globe’s requests for comment.
Grover remains baffled and frustrated. “The board is not doing its job of protecting the public,” she said.
Linda M. Jorgenson, a lawyer who specialized in therapist misconduct cases for decades, said the board had the authority to move faster.
“What does it say to the victim, and what does it say to the victim’s mental health, that nothing can be done?” Jorgenson said. “And what happens if the person really is a threat to future patients?”
The board, composed of seven psychologists and two members representing the public, does not comment on complaints under investigation. A spokeswoman for the state Division of Professional Licensure, which oversees the psychology board, provided a statement saying that it “takes all allegations of professional misconduct seriously. The division has an established and thorough process in place to investigate complaints made against its licensees and prosecutes disciplinary cases.”
Stuart Fisher, a Worcester psychologist and former board member, said the board takes the time to fairly hear both sides of a complaint. But he called it extremely unusual for a case to drag on for well over two years.
The “MeToo” movement has shone a light on famous men who exploited their power over women’s careers. A therapist, who can acquire a roadmap to the patient’s most tender vulnerabilities, holds a power more private but arguably more profound. Therapist-patient sex is such a severe offense that in half the states — although not Massachusetts — it is a crime, usually a felony.
Lisa Grover, a mother of three who lived for 22 years in Marion, wants to tell her story to help other women, who often wrongly blame themselves when a therapist takes advantage of them.
Growing up in Germany, Grover had been sexually abused by her father, an experience she kept secret for decades. The pain of her divorce had opened the floodgates of her childhood trauma, and in 2013 she wanted to finally deal with it.
Grover said she spent two hours in therapy with Rabin every week or two at his office near Natick Center.
Rabin offered her something she desperately needed. “I felt really safe with him and I trusted him. I never really had that with a man,” Grover said in a recent interview. “I definitely found myself very drawn to him.”
Patients often develop romantic or erotic feelings for their therapist. This reaction, known as transference, can help the patient work through problems, as long as therapy focuses on what those feelings mean for the patient, and the therapist cordons off his own needs and private life.
But as Grover tells it, Rabin started blurring the patient-therapist boundary. Once he phoned her at home, just to talk. In their sessions, he called her a “special person” and confessed that he had feelings for her, even though he was married.
“At the time I didn’t see it: I never had the father I wanted,” she said. “I’ve always looked at these older men in power — I wanted to be special to them. He encouraged that.”
By 2015, a year and a half after she started therapy, the romantic undercurrents began rippling the surface, Grover said. In several e-mails, according to the board’s order, Rabin invited her to stay for a glass of wine after therapy. They took to hugging before and after each session. The hugs got longer, their exchanges more flirtatious. Finally, Grover said, Rabin told her in a phone call that he loved her.
Her heart skipped a beat. And yet, to her surprise, Grover couldn’t say “I love you” back to him.
“I realized I knew so little about him,” she said.
‘An imbalanced situation’
Grover’s hesitancy goes to the heart of why therapists are forbidden from having romantic or sexual relationships with patients.
“The treatment is an imbalanced situation,” said Andrea Celenza, a psychoanalyst who studies therapist-patient sexual misconduct. “The patient doesn’t know the therapist and the therapist knows an enormous amount about the patient. Why would there be a healthy love in that unequal situation?”
When therapists feel they are falling in love with a patient, professional ethics require them to consult with another professional, perhaps enter therapy, or — if they can’t manage their feelings — terminate treatment and refer the patient to someone else, said Celenza, who was speaking generally and had no knowledge of the Rabin case.
Flirtatious e-mails, prolonged hugs, and declarations of love are unethical boundary violations on their own.
But, according to Grover and the board’s order, Rabin took it much further — step by step. Lips touching briefly during a hug one week, a closed-mouth kiss the next. And, starting in August 2015, sex on his office couch.
At first, Grover said, she felt euphoric, but it didn’t last long. The intense emotional connection she craved was unraveling. Rabin seemed colder, uninterested, even mean.
“He never wanted to meet outside the office, never called to see how I was or ask what my life was like when I wasn’t with him,” she said.
Instead, six times over the course of five months, Grover said, she followed this routine: Make an appointment. Drive to Rabin’s office and mount the stairs to his small waiting room. Wait for him to open his office door. Have a brief conversation followed by sex on his couch. And as soon as two hours were up, be sent out the door. She felt miserable, and yet unable to stop seeing him.
Professional societies and state disciplinary boards nationwide prohibit medical professionals from having sex with patients, and limit contact with former patients. Ethical rules for psychiatrists forbid them from having sex with a former patient, ever; psychologists’ rules require a wait of at least two years after therapy has concluded.
Massachusetts law specifies that, in cases of psychologist-patient sex, the patient’s “consent” cannot be used as a defense against professional misconduct allegations. No matter how the patient behaves, it’s the therapist’s responsibility to maintain healthy boundaries.
Celenza, the psychoanalyst, said that 9 percent to 12 percent of mental health therapists admitted in surveys to having had sexual contact with a patient. They fall into two broad categories, she said: predators who want to dominate and control, and impaired or needy practitioners whose personal weaknesses led them to act inappropriately.
Jan Wohlberg, a founder of the Therapy Exploitation Link Line, or TELL, an online resource and support network, believes therapist sexual misconduct is “compulsive behavior,” bound to be repeated.
Emboldened by a friend
As Grover’s misery deepened, she confessed what was going on to her longtime friend, Dr. Wendy Stern. A physician, Stern told her point-blank: “He does not love you. I don’t even know if he likes you.”
Stern had long worried about the way Grover spoke of Rabin. Now she was enraged to hear her worst fears confirmed. “She has another demon to battle when her plate was already full,” Stern said in an interview.
Fortified by Stern’s words and support from TELL, Grover moved quickly. She found a lawyer and began working with him on her misconduct complaint to the psychology board and a malpractice suit against Rabin. (That suit was settled a year later for an undisclosed sum.)
In January 2016, Grover sent Rabin an e-mail saying that she had found a new therapist and asking him not to contact her again. Instead, he barraged her with e-mails, texts, and phone calls — most of which she forced herself to ignore. She shared some of those communications with the Globe.
Today, at age 57, Grover lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she works part time as an occupational therapist. She is making progress with her new psychotherapist, travels back to Massachusetts often to visit her adult children, and practices meditation and yoga. She also volunteers with TELL, advising and supporting people abused by a therapist.
As for Rabin, who is 72, his license to practice will expire on June 30 unless he renews it. Grover speculates that he manipulated the board’s process to delay the loss of his license until he was ready to retire.
“It’s hard for me to understand,” Grover said, “how you can give that much power to the abuser.”Felice J. Freyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.