Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 15, 2007
I’m aghast to find I’ll be sharing an office with a man whom — for good but confidential reasons — I utterly detest.
I need your perspective on an issue that may not have a solution that I will ever find satisfying … but here goes.
I recently started working for a new employer and I have been very happy in my new work environment until last week. Last week I was introduced to a new colleague whom I will be sharing an office with. This new employee and I had a professional relationship in a job I held prior to this one. As a result of this relationship (which was therapeutic in nature and is protected by confidentiality), I am in possession of a great deal of personal information about this person that could be very damaging if it ever got out. The information I have, if known by the employer, would have certainly resulted in him not being hired. In fact, it is my belief that he should not be in any position that involves the high degree of trust and power that this position holds. This individual has been (and most likely still is) involved in illegal behavior for which he has never been formally charged or convicted. He also has some serious mental health and addiction problems that have not been resolved. This person is highly charismatic and intelligent and is able to schmooze his way through very difficult situations. He presents as very warm and interested, but his ability to manipulate others for his own pleasure and gain borders on sociopathic.
This individual does not appear to be uncomfortable with the situation and has made no attempt to approach me regarding our past relationship.
We haven’t started sharing our office space yet, but I am dreading the day I enter my office and he is sitting there. I don’t feel that I can ask for a change in office assignment without raising questions that could indirectly violate confidentiality. Simply declining to provide an explanation could cue people to the possibility that he was a past client of mine.
I fully understand that I don’t have any basis on which to breach confidentiality, yet I feel this very strong desire to raise the alarm. On a human level, I really believe that he is a horrible person who has the potential to harm our clients. I guess my question is: How do I live with the knowledge that he could do harm and I cannot do anything about it until it happens? Any thoughts that you can offer me would be greatly appreciated.
I’ve gone over and over this and, like you, I can see no justification for breaching confidentiality. So, strange as it is, I think you have to put away what you have learned about this man through the privilege of your profession and treat him as a person you have never met.
Depending on the laws that govern your profession in your area, however, and on the details of his activities to which you have been privy, you may have not only a duty of confidentiality but also a duty of disclosure. For instance, in California and some other states in the U.S., since the Tarasoff ruling, mental health professionals have a duty to warn potential victims of their clients.
For that reason, I think it would be wise to consult an attorney, in confidence, about what might trigger a duty to disclose under the laws in your area. You need not name the person or even the specific circumstances, if doing so would breach your promise of confidentiality. But you need to know where you stand legally.
Beyond that, the question is, how in hell are you going to walk into the room and sit down at your desk and smile and treat this man as if he were someone you know nothing about — knowing what you know and feeling toward him as you do?
Well, I would ask: How do we bear what we know about anyone, whether in their presence or not? How do we bear all the secrets we receive in confidence, from clients, from lovers, from strangers who tell us things that cannot be revealed?
We bear it by making a decision. Like judges, we make a ruling. We seal the testimony. That’s that. It’s done. It’s in the vault, as they used to say on “Seinfeld” — except, amoral bastards that they were, on “Seinfeld” everybody had everybody else’s combination.
But this is not “Seinfeld.” You can give the combination to no one.
That is how you begin. Your knowledge of this man and his activities is locked away. You behave as if you have just met.
But it is not easy to keep it locked away. We want to discuss. We need to discuss. So I suggest you discuss this with your own therapist, or someone else fully as bound to confidentiality by fiduciary responsibility as you yourself are to this former client. And do so before the pressure becomes too great and you inadvertently disclose. Do it as a matter of your routine, the maintenance of your psychological fitness.
Perhaps, too, it will help to think a little about just why this confidentiality is so important, to remind ourselves why it is, in essence, a matter of life and death to be able to confidentially place our problems before another. The implications of this are indeed profound. It think it is because in every criminal, sociopath and murderer, somewhere in that scorched landscape of mayhem there is a soul, quivering in a shed, aghast at what has been done. There is a tormented soul. There is confusion and sickness. There is blankness and forgetting. And there is evil. It is to this tormented soul that the ministrations of the psychotherapist are addressed in confidence. They are addressed in confidence because the crimes of the man are not the crimes of the soul. Acts cannot be undone, but the soul can be healed.
It is no small privilege and no small burden. You are charged with care of the soul.
Now, as to the man himself, the con, the manipulator, I suggest you deal with him as a fully responsible actor in the world. He gets no pass. Take note of his actions, his evasions and his schemes. Stand apart and observe. Avoid being taken in. Do not trust him with anything of value. Avoid joint assignments. Pay attention. And when his activities outside of your privileged foreknowledge become troubling on their own merits, then you can do what any responsible professional would do in such a case.
If he’s as bad as you say, it won’t be long until such an occasion arises.