Q&A with Matt Barnhill
(“Family Interrupted,” Forensic Files)
Last week’s post told of a small-time con artist who burrowed into the pockets of a few religious groups in an unsuspecting town — and then promptly fled, leaving those duped feeling shocked and betrayed.
To get some insight into how people on the receiving end of deceits both large and small can recover emotionally, I talked with Matt Barnhill, who has counseled people living with the aftereffects of betrayals ranging from minor theft to murder.
Forensic Files fans will remember Barnhill from his appearance on “Family Interrupted,” the episode about Bart Whitaker’s double homicide in Sugar Land, Texas.
Whitaker arranged to have one of his friends hide in the family’s house and shoot his parents, Tricia and Kent Whitaker, and younger brother, Kevin, as they returned home from a restaurant in 2003.
“My daughter was best friends with Kevin Whitaker,” says Barnhill, who knew the Whitakers from River Pointe Church, where he’s a pastor. “She was 19 at the time. Now she’s a week away from having her third child, and she has a healthy marriage and is incredibly well-adjusted. But having her friend murdered changed her life.”
Barnhill is the founder of Barnhill & Associates Counseling Center, based in Richmond, Texas. He’s still in contact with Kent Whitaker, who recovered from his gunshot wound and lives with the knowledge that his son wanted him out of the way so he could inherit the family’s financial assets.
Below are excerpts from my discussion with Barnhill:
What are the most common forms of betrayal that compel people to seek counseling?
Usually it’s related to marital infidelity. Once a woman finds out that her husband was unfaithful, everything he says is suspect — “Did he really like the eggs?”
We also have parents in their 50s and 60s who say, “My son committed adultery, and we never thought he was capable of being unfaithful.” So, even when you’re removed from the betrayal, it’s disturbing.
What about criminal betrayal?
I have a counseling client whose son committed a murder. He didn’t betray her, but he betrayed her belief in him.
Forensic Files has had a number of episodes concerning parents whose sons-in-law killed their daughters. Do people in those situations need counseling for life?
Not always. Their lives do divide into “before the crime” and “after the crime.” But after people start healing, their lives become less defined by the crime.
Are there commonalities within the various degrees and types of betrayal people experience?
Yes, it disrupts your internal radar.
There’s a vicarious trauma, a ripple effect even if it’s just the person who sits next to you at work or a guy who was in the church choir with you, even if he did something relatively minor. I talk to clients whose neighbor did something wrong – someone who was high on their trust meter and then it turns out the person stole money from the school district. And then they don’t know who they can trust anymore.
It makes people ask, “How can I feel safe again? How can I trust people in the same category as Joe?”
After the Whitaker murders, I found myself OCD’ing over whether my doors were locked, even after Bart was in jail.
We call it the trauma of betrayal. It erodes trust.
What is the “trust meter”?
Think of trust on a continuum. On the low end is the guy who’s repairing your dishwasher and you stay at home to make sure he doesn’t steal the furniture. Then there’s the repairman your friend recommended, so you might say, “Here’s the key, go inside.” On the high end you might have your child or spouse or parent, those you trust the most.
The higher the trust goes, the more you’ll feel violated by someone who betrays that trust.
The trauma of betrayal destabilizes people’s lives. Two of the most common symptoms are anger and sadness. People are super angry or super sad. Victims have high anxiety.
As a caregiver, I help them restabilize their lives.
That’s sounds like a project. How do you start?
You provide clients with a safe, loving environment where they can talk about guilt, shame, and trauma.
Whatever we don’t talk about in counseling is going to come out somewhere else – a hole in the lining of the digestive system or sleep disturbance or lack of appetite. “Secrets make us sick” is a saying here. Depending on how profound the trauma is, we may refer clients to a psychiatrist for medication. Sometimes they need something just to get a good night’s sleep.
I try to educate people about what’s happening to them and what triggers the anxiety related to the trauma. For some people, watching the 6 o’clock news might be a trigger. When you have several triggers at the same time, it’s called flooding.
I ask clients what they would find soothing — listening to music, reading inspirational literature, going to the symphony, sitting on a porch with friends. They come up with a list and I ask which of those things they can do today tomorrow, next week, or their whole lives. Someone might say, “I have to get on the treadmill” or “start eating healthy now.”
Do you counsel both people of faith and those who aren’t religious?
Oh, yes, you find a lot of irreligious people here. We get referrals from doctors and other people not from the faith-based community.
Churches tend to have more people who are traumatized because most people believe church is soothing. My opinion is that if a church is able to help people, it will attract people who are traumatized. A church can be warm and comforting. So can a bar where everybody knows your name.
Getting back to the Whitaker tragedy, do you know how Kent Whitaker is doing today, 13 years after the crime?
Kent wrote a book called Murdered by Family. He talks about his own healing. He’s remarried to a woman who also has a powerful tale of betrayal and together they help people who are traumatized.♣
Next: A look at another Lone Star State case, the murder of San Antonio educator Diane Tilly detailed in Forensic Files’ “Transaction Failed.”