Mary Bromley’s Calling Is Helping Others

Working with victims of trauma and sexual abuse
Mary Bromley, a psychotherapist who has worked on the South Fork for more than 30 years, was one of the founders of the Retreat, an agency for victims of domestic violence. Durell Godfrey

Mary Bromley is always on call. Two phones were at the ready, her mobile phone and a landline, during a recent interview should any patients, or the police, need to reach her.

Since 1990, Ms. Bromley, a psychotherapist, has treated patients in what she likes to call her tree house, a second-floor corner office suite on Newtown Lane in East Hampton. Four stained-glass panels that hang in the windows color the view of naked cherry trees, not yet in bloom.

Her walls have heard a lot. If it takes two people to make a truth, Ms. Bromley considers it an honor to be on the receiving end.

“I know a lot of secrets,” Ms. Bromley, who is 65, said, as she sat in a brown leather chair, directly opposite two sea-green leather sofas. A fireplace and bookshelves lend quiet calm, as does a nearby box of tissues and a bowl of lozenges. “It’s a small town. I run into my patients everywhere I go.”

Though she treats a variety of issues, in particular anxiety and depression, Ms. Bromley specializes in trauma and sex crimes.

More than 30 years ago, when she first relocated from Manhattan to the South Fork, her son came home from nursery school with a pamphlet warning of strangers. She immediately sent former East Hampton Town Police Chief Thomas Scott a note: “It’s not the guy in the rain coat these kids need to worry about. It’s the guy the child knows and loves.”

Three days later, Chief Scott hired her to work full time alongside the Police Department detectives, helping to shift how local law enforcement approached victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. “Every rape case, every sex crime, and every domestic violence case they sent to me,” Ms. Bromley said.

In 1987, two years after starting her police work, the East Hampton Rotary Club invited Ms. Bromley to be a guest speaker at a lunch. During her talk, she emphasized the need for a local shelter to serve victims of the growing social problem of domestic violence.

Shortly thereafter, Ms. Bromley and a handful of other men and women joined forces to found the Retreat, the only domestic violence agency on the East End. Last month, the hotline for the Retreat, which is based in East Hampton, received 311 calls, a 13 percent increase over March of 2015, accord ing to Maggie Goldfarb, its director of development. Its shelter now has 18 beds for women and children.

Though Ms. Bromley was on the Retreat’s board of directors at first, she quickly discovered that she didn’t like to hire and fire. Still involved in helping to fund-raise, she prefers to work as a clinician. Each week, she counsels 25 patients. Some have come in every week for 20 years; some have only a handful of sessions or cycle in and out.

One of Ms. Bromley’s most high-profile patients was Katie Beers, a 9-year-old girl who, in 1992, was kidnapped by John Esposito, a family friend, and held for 17 days in an underground bunker at a house in Bay Shore. At the time of the kidnapping, she had already survived years of neglect by Marilyn Beers, her biological mother, and sexual abuse by a man married to a surrogate mother figure trusted to look after her.

Following her release, Katie came to live in Springs, where a foster family raised her. Once at the Springs School, she and Ms. Bromley starting meeting twice a week. Ms. Bromley first tried art therapy, since Katie was unable to discuss what had happened. Art therapy led to play therapy until, eventually, talk therapy prevailed. The two met every Thursday afternoon until Katie graduated from East Hampton High School and went off to college. Now 33 and the mother of two young children, she stays in regular touch with Ms. Bromley. On Tuesday, they taped a television show related to trauma and recovery.

“Without her influence, I would be nowhere near where I am today on my road to recovery,” Ms. Beers said in a conversation on Monday. “There have been a couple of points throughout my adulthood where I’ve needed her, not necessarily her guidance, but just somebody to sit there and listen.”

While Ms. Bromley works with couples, individuals, and adolescents battling more ordinary demons, some of her most “heart-opening and life-changing experiences” occurred in Katie’s company. “The therapist is enhanced by the relationship as much as the patient,” she explained. “There’s a certain reciprocity, where they learn as much from me as I do from them.”

Ms. Bromley has spent exactly half her life here and half in Manhattan, where she was born. “My parents were cheerfully negligent,” she said. “Because of that, I had the run of the city at a very young age.” Her father owned a French antiques store on 88th Street and Madison Avenue. Her mother worked as a social worker and later as a hospital administrator.

Her mother wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but proved to be a powerful role model, Ms. Bromley said. “I never had the impression that women weren’t strong and could also manage families and professional lives.” The daughter of “dedicated progressives,” Ms. Bromley has a brother four years her senior, who is a lawyer.

She attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, where she played the viola in the senior orchestra. At 17, the day after high school graduation, she boarded a plane to Berkeley, Calif., where she spent a self-directed gap year immersed in the antiwar and civil rights movements. She then enrolled at Goddard College in Vermont, where she majored in psychology. For graduate school, she started at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and later transferred to the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She also completed four years of psychoanalytic training at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health.

Ms. Bromley landed her first job at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, where she did community outreach, specifically working with adolescents. In 1977, a clinician gave a speech about child sexual abuse, which was then a “very foreign notion,” she said. Soon afterward, she and her colleagues began asking young patients a new question: “Does anyone ever touch you in any way that makes you uncomfortable?” She said they were shocked that one in four answered yes.

She next began counseling women who had been raped or assaulted, pioneering the use of rape kits for the Special Victims Unit of the New York Police Department.

At 25, she met her future husband, Kyril Bromley, nine years her senior and already the father of two young children. Mr. Bromley is a photographer, musician, and tennis coach. In 1984, partly on a whim, the couple tried living in Springs year-round, drawn to a better quality of life for their young family. Now married 36 years, they have two grown sons, writers who live in the city.

Time spent outdoors seems to cure most anything that ails the vibrant and upbeat Ms. Bromley. From May to November, she swims in the bay. She practices twice-daily meditation and stays active with regular yoga and mile-long run/walks.

“I have great training, and I have compassion, but I don’t absorb the other person’s pain,” Ms. Bromley said. “I’m not a depressed person. If you’re a depressed person or if you’re burned out or if you don’t have friends or a husband who really loves you, don’t become a therapist.”

Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, where therapists reveal little or nothing about themselves, Ms. Bromley freely shares personal stories and anecdotes, which, she said, help engender closeness. The first two sessions with her are typically devoted to taking a detailed personal inventory.

“What I tell everybody is that I need to know everything about your past — your parents, your abusive brother, the first teacher that ever scared you — because they’re all in here with us,” she said. “I need to know your landscape.”

She then helps patients examine current behaviors, navigating the present moment so that they do not to repeat the past. “You have to be very courageous and face what happened, but you don’t have to live there for too long,” she explained.

“Even if your kids are screaming and yelling and you’ve just learned that your father is dying and your neighbor’s dog is scratching at the door, you can learn to say to yourself, ‘I’m just going to do my best,’ ” Ms. Bromley said. “When people obsess about the past and worry about the future, they lose this precious moment.”

 Her most thrilling moments have come when she witnessed transformations happening in real time, on the couch opposite her. “You can shift into this moment in a second. When people are able to do that, it’s freedom.