Getting past the shame people try to pile on you, writes Paul Hanley in LifeTimes magazine, can be as easy as looking at yourself through the eyes of people you meet at Fearless Groups.
By Paul Hanley . . . When I attended court-ordered therapy for a sexually-based offense, I wasn’t interested in making friends. I’m a survivor of long-term childhood sexual abuse, and I didn’t want to be hurt again by dangerous people. I thought I was different than the other group members, that I was better than “them.”
Flash forward twenty-two years, to 2017. I was invited to speak about my book Roller Coaster to Hell and Back at a “Fearless” meeting. Fearless Groups are a mix of the 12-step structure familiar to many and Circles of Support, which have proven very helpful in allowing former offenders of all sorts to successfully reintegrate into society. Brenda Jones, executive director of NARSOL, introduced Fearless Groups in 2016, though some groups have been around longer.
Here I was again, dealing with “them.” This time, though, I didn’t judge. By now, I knew that all people have a core of precious humanity in their hearts, no matter their past. Still, I was afraid to give the talk. I never dreamed that soon after my presentation I would join the Fearless group, knowing that “they” are now my brothers and sisters.
I soon learned I was not the only one who felt this way. Terri has been attending Fearless groups almost from their beginning.
“When you have a loved one convicted of any crime and sentenced to years away from you, it is devastating,” Terri told me, “But when it is a sexual offense, you lose so many people in your life—even other family members—because those are the crimes nobody wants to address. Your only hope for people to talk to who can understand all of what you’re dealing with is in a group of people feeling and dealing with the same issues.”
“Along with the support and friendship is a great deal of education,” Terri continued. “We regularly have guest speakers who have direct knowledge of what our loved ones face while incarcerated as well as the difficulties faced when released. The Fearless group is invaluable to me and I see so many others benefiting from the group.”
Our Fearless meetings start with a reading of the “courtesies,” which are the rules we follow to keep the meetings safe for everyone. Then comes a presentation by a speaker. A member named Vicky, who had been attending Fearless meetings for about six months, said she is excited that she has already heard from many speakers who are experts in their respective areas of criminal justice.
“We have heard from public defenders, probation officials, and former inmates, all of whom have provided insight into navigating life on the registry,” Vicky told me.
After the presentation, members can share about themselves and their situation to the extent they feel comfortable. One of the founders of our Fearless group explained, “I learned about the Fearless groups when I lived in another state. I felt very alone with a son in prison, and learning about the registry and terms of release was overwhelming. It was at the Fearless meeting that I met the most wonderful and supportive people. I found that we were all in this together, and we were able to share our feelings and learn from each other. I remember crying on the way home after my first meeting because I felt as though I finally had a safe place to talk with others facing the same hurdles and challenges.”
I have grown tremendously attending and speaking at Fearless groups. At one time, I didn’t see past the shame people piled on me for “letting” myself get sexually abused, and then abusing someone else. Only when I looked for my value in my own eyes did I see past the shame to the real, precious human inside me.
The power of mirror work comes from seeing the goodness and beauty in yourself. The strength. The creativity. The wonder. From seeing a fantastic person in the mirror to acting like a fantastic person is a very small step.
Talking to people at Fearless meetings can be like looking in a mirror that shows you your true, good self. With time, your PO, coworkers, and others critical to your success can’t help but see what your fellow Fearless members see radiating from you, because you are acting like the wonderful person you are.
A Fearless group could be the start of the most powerful support network you will ever have. You can make friends with people who are going through what you are, and you can help each other succeed.
NARSOL encourages individuals and organizations to launch local, independent Fearless groups. For more information about starting a Fearless group in your area, visit NARSOL’s Fearless page at and contact NARSOL at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adapted from a longer article that originally appeared in LifeTimes magazine, Spring 2019. Used with permission.