Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Cruelty on the Couch


LaFarge rarely interrupts, unless Armando comes to an incident particularly fraught with drama, whereupon she asks him to describe his feelings. How did he feel when his foster mother, the only person he feels really cared about him, died? All he will say is "I have no tears left." Mostly, Armando feels angry and abandoned. Yet he is not without charm, and is so candid about the details of his struggle to survive that it's difficult to keep in mind that he is potentially violent, unpredictable, and maybe even psychotic. He claims he was diagnosed with a mental-health problem, possibly a multiple-personality disorder, at age 7 and put on Mellaril. Like countless others, Armando got lost in the system.

Asked whether Armando's stories are true, LaFarge says, "It doesn't matter. He is telling his truth. He's come to believe that this is his reality. More important, the gap between what he is able to communicate and what he probably feels is huge. That's where he's a time bomb." She adds, "Armando will abuse people at the drop of a hat. When he harmed the dog, it wasn't because the dog didn't count; it was because his rage entitles him to do whatever violent thing he feels he can get away with."

LaFarge's interest in troubled or marginalized clients has been one constant in an uncommonly diverse career. "All the threads of my working life have led to the job I have now," she says. Another psychiatrist once said to her, " 'What you like doing is communicating across a barrier,' " she remembers. "That really is exactly right. Whatever the barrier, whether it's between the therapist and the substance abuser, between the living and the dying, or one species and another -- I'm drawn to that."

When Nim was living with her family, one of LaFarge's children became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized for four months. To this day, LaFarge accuses herself of being so absorbed with Nim that she neglected her daughter. But her intimate experience of the hospital wards, and the families coping with terminal illnesses, led her to a deeper investigation of the process of dying. In 1983, while teaching a class at Brown University called, simply, "Cancer," she began an experimental therapy workshop for a group of terminally ill children at the Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. She decided to capture the children's battles with cancer on video. In a series of emotionally wrenching discussions about death, the children conveyed an extraordinary depth of insight into the medical treatment they had received and their own family pathologies. One teenager took over her video, directing a documentary on her own death. The tapes were shown on 60 Minutes that year.

Five years later, LaFarge left Rhode Island and accepted a position running a street-level drug-rehabilitation clinic in downtown Newark. "We got used to hearing gunshots outside," she recalls. "My clients walked me to my car at night." While at the clinic, she ran safer-sex workshops for addicts, a radical project then as now. "To change high-risk sexual behaviors, you had to offer something, so I offered them better erections -- stiffer penises in exchange for wearing a condom," she offers by way of explanation.

Asked if any of her clients have the potential to become serial killers, Dr. LaFarge replies, "Many of them do. The scary thing is, you never know which ones."

An interest in sexual dysfunction eventually led LaFarge to the Park Avenue practice of the prominent sex therapist Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, where she became an associate in 1990. "That's where I began to have conscious feelings about the human-animal bond," she says. "Frequently, these women would come in and say, 'If I could just kick my husband out of the bed and sleep with the dog, I wouldn't have a sexual problem.' They were not talking about genital contact, they were saying that there was a level of intimacy that they were able to reach with their dogs that they could not reach with their husbands. And that's why they were not orgasmic. I must have heard this from dozens of women."

When Kaplan died in 1995, LaFarge maintained a private practice for a few years but soon realized that she wanted to work with, or at least around, animals. When she applied for a position as director of counseling services at the ASPCA in 1998, the intervention program was not in the job description. But within a year of her arrival, the agency was on the verge of a transformation under the new leadership of Dr. Larry Hawk, a veterinarian from Michigan who came to the ASPCA from Pet Smart. Hawk's goal is to modernize the $30 million agency; to that end, he is expanding the humane-law enforcement division, which investigates charges of animal cruelty, seizes injured animals, and is empowered to make arrests throughout the city and New York State. (HLE officers, as they are called, are responsible for 50 percent of the arrests of LaFarge's intervention clients.) He has opened up the ASPCA's new Center for Behavioral Therapy, has started a free program to spay and neuter pit bulls and pit-bull mixes, and is working on expanding the ASPCA's small shelter, currently home to dozens of dogs and cats -- all up for adoption. A fortyish executive with a casual, welcoming demeanor, Hawk is enthusiastic about LaFarge's innovations. "Developing programs around the link is the future for animal welfare," he says. "Whenever I am around Dr. LaFarge, I learn something new."

The intervention program is new not only to the ASPCA but to the various agencies that constitute New York's complex judicial system. The program's first client was 17-year-old Tommy Dunbar (not his real name), arrested in Brooklyn for allowing two pit bulls to starve -- one eventually cannibalized the other -- in his backyard. Ironically, he was first sent to the ASPCA to clean kennels in what LaFarge describes as "a totally ineffective community-service program." She suggested to the district attorney that the ASPCA could do more by actually offering treatment. The idea was immediately embraced. Dunbar was ordered to go through twelve one-on-one sessions with LaFarge, and the program was officially born. There are currently nineteen men and three women who either have passed through or are in treatment. Only two have dropped out of the intervention, one of whom (an alcoholic who beat his pit bull to death with a barbell) was subsequently arrested for drunk driving. The fact that he had not completed the program helped to put him in jail.

Now the city's social agencies and the judicial system are beginning to work together, cross-referencing victims and offenders. "We had to knock loudly on the doors of the domestic-violence and child-abuse justice systems," says Dr. Randall Lockwood, vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States and a psychologist who pioneered research into the human-animal bond. "But in the end, we are all dealing with the same perpetrators."

LaFarge remembers the day she got a particularly chilling call from the Homicide Division of the Domestic Violence Unit in the Bronx. A woman whose husband had attacked her with a machete refused to go to a shelter for protection because she had no place to put her dog, whom her husband, on another occasion, had dipped in bleach, poisoned, and beaten. He had also gone after her children -- one of whom had been pushed out a window and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Her husband was back on the street because she had been too frightened to file a police report. The ASPCA agreed to pick up the dog, a tiny teacup Maltese covered with red sores. Only after the owner saw her dog taken to safety was she willing to leave her apartment.

Back at the ASPCA, LaFarge greeted the little white dog, named Precious, when he arrived. The dog took an immediate liking to the therapist. "I said, 'Well, it's a shame to make him cope with a cage. I'll just take him home.' " She's caring for Precious until he can be safely returned to his owner, or placed in a permanent home. The dog practically never leaves LaFarge's side and is sometimes present during therapy sessions. "I like to see the interaction with an animal when it's appropriate," she explains.

A few months into his treatment, Armando is sitting in LaFarge's office with Arianne Santiago, who he says is his half-sister. In an earlier session, Armando had told LaFarge that he was one of a set of triplets, and that his sister had killed herself (his brother, he claims, is still alive). The therapist was unaware of any other siblings. Today, he announces that he is changing his name to Mitch T. D. Hansen, which he says is the name that his biological father gave him. Arianne, dressed in black with heavy goth makeup, nods her approval of this change while scarfing down chocolates from a bowl on LaFarge's desk.

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift