On Sunday night March 27, the whole world watched, but not for the first time recently live on nationwide television, as male violence, fueled by unresolved trauma history, erupted. This time it was on the stage of the Academy Awards, an event usually more celebratory than confrontational but not this year! Since that broadcast, many voices have chimed in on what it meant to have a soon-to-be Oscar winner Will Smith slap Chris Rock unexpectedly before a global audience at this glamorous Hollywood event. I can’t say I have more to offer here as a commentary, but the incident did take me back to the work I did for many years with male domestic violence offenders. It alarmed and shocked me, thinking that the questions and issues I had then about male violence, are still unanswered and unresolved today. How is that possible and what is the way forward? Are there any real signs of hope? Let’s review the questions one by one below.
WHY WORK WITH MALE OFFENDERS?
I came to this work as a woman in a unique way. In 1999, when my 19-year-old niece Maggie was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, I was driven to do avenge her death. As this man not only senselessly took Maggie’s life but also cowardly took his own, I couldn’t seek revenge by seeing him prosecuted and imprisoned unable to harm again. Even if he had lived, I knew he’d never give our family any consideration or solace by telling us how and why he could have done something so horrific. Instead in my search for revenge, I found a quote – Living well was the best revenge – and its sentiment has framed all my work going forward to honor my niece and her memory.
What’s been my “living well” as my best revenge in the last twenty or so years since Maggie’s death? First, I developed a two-day My Avenging Angel WorkshopsTM for survivors of abuse – domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse – to help these victims take the journey from victim to survivor to thriver as Maggie could not. Doing these workshops, free of charge and now virtual on ZOOM, has filled my heart and raised my spirits knowing that Maggie would love what I do and agree that the Thriver Success Stories of the women I have worked with should definitely be celebrated.
CAN VIOLENT MEN BE HELPED?
But after Maggie’s death, I was also drawn to do work that I thought might answer or at least explore these questions – Can men be helped who are driven to violence and abuse, often killing the women they say they love? If they could, wouldn’t we be saving the lives of countless women and children and preventing them from having to live with men who perpetrated violence and abuse against them?
Oddly enough, years before Maggie’s death when I represented women who had experienced domestic violence in divorce cases as their attorney, I had a similar thought. I knew that I’d successfully get my client away from her abusive husband. But what to do about the fact that this man could easily go on and abuse many more women in his lifetime without any kind of intervention? Today, almost forty years later, that question remains for me. Can we help men stop using violence and abuse against their families and loved ones?
While I didn’t know when Maggie was killed that programs existed for violent, abusive men, within a year or so after her death, I sought out and got trained to do psycho-education groups with men who had been arrested for domestic violence. I facilitated these groups for the next 15 years first in Massachusetts and then Connecticut. Many of the men in those group had trauma history, which while that didn’t excuse their behavior, it did answer in part, like Will Smith recounted in his memoir, how witnessing domestic violence as a child can influence future behavior. What I also learned was that many families are caught in a generational cycle of violence, passing down from grandfathers to fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins their life-threatening and life-changing behavior to be endured by women and children. Without intervention, the impact of such a legacy of violence would continue throughout their lifetimes.
CAN MEN WHO USE VIOLENCE CHANGE?
In the years since Maggie’s death, I had met, talked with, and learned from experts working in and doing research on the area of “batterer intervention programs.” There are programs around the world that seek to hold abusers accountable for their violence, not just contain their aggression. In most cases, the offenders, usually after they have been arrested and convicted for domestic violence in a state criminal court, are mandated into psycho-educational groups as part of their sentence or probationary period. They attend these groups for a number of weeks; in some states for as many as 52 weeks, in others 26 weeks and in some, far fewer weeks than that.
The first of these programs I worked for after Maggie’s death was then called MOVE – Men Overcoming Violence. There I was trained by the state and certified as a group facilitator, working with men who used physical, emotional, verbal, and economic or sexual abuse to control their partners. The men were either mandated to MOVE by the court after being arrested and sentenced for domestic violence or they chose to come into the program on their own. We called those men “voluntary” or “partner-mandated” clients because in some cases while they hadn’t been arrested for domestic violence, their female partners have told them either the violence and abuse stop or they, the women, would leave the relationship. In my experience, voluntary clients were more likely to be motivated to make genuine changes in their lives or at least the ones most apparent to their partners in order to save their relationship. A voluntary client might also have been encouraged to attend a program by his attorney or a child welfare worker threatening to remove the children because of his violence.
WHY ARE THESE MEN SO ANGRY?
One thing I was taught early on as a group facilitator was not to view domestic abuse as just an “anger problem.” Sure, anger management tools are included in the group work, but a much wider range of issues are addressed relating to violence and abuse, power and control (now called “coercive control“), and gender. Our focus was that abusive behavior was not the problem in the relationship but a problem for the abuser. First, our goal in the program was to have the abuser stop the violence and take full responsibility for his behaviors. Then we would also help the men to:
- identify abusive behaviors and the warning signs that lead up to them,
- practice strategies for choosing alternatives to violence and abuse,
- recognize the effects of violence on family members,
- deepen their understanding of the consequences of their abusive behavior,
- develop respect for their partners and children, and,
- explore how men are “socialized” that can lead to a need to abuse and control others.
DO THESE PROGRAMS REALLY WORK?
With fifteen years of experience in these programs, I’d answer the question do the programs work by saying it depends on how you define the word ”work.”
For most men, changing their violence and abusive behavior is a long-term process. But progress can be measured at first in some small steps. For example, for those who moved from denying they have a problem to contemplating taking responsibility for their behavior, that would be step forward in the right direction. Then if they weren’t ready to make real behavioral changes, even realizing they had a choice to do something else rather than be violent could also be considered a leap forward. But changing lifetime patterns of behaviors, emotions and beliefs requires concentration, persistence, and a will to change. That kind of change can only take place if a violent and abusive man is willing to put in the work over a number of years or even a lifetime to sustain consistent, and trustworthy changes in his behavior.
WHY JUST MEN?
Over the years, I also facilitated groups for women who were arrested for domestic violence and while some admitted to acting aggressively with their male partners usually in self-defense, most were victims of domestic violence and didn’t realize it. They weren’t aware of or had missed the warning signs of abuse in their relationships and often blamed themselves for their partners violence and abuse. They’d talk about how they could have done something different – like placate him more perhaps – and then neither one of them would have been arrested for domestic violence. Besides programs for women, others also offer groups for LGBT domestic violence offenders, sometimes in groups designated for LGBT offenders or included in the general groups.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
While I found working with male offenders rewarding, stimulating and endlessly fascinating, it was also, at times, very frustrating. I often didn’t see change come easily for the men and few had role models growing up for what a healthy, happy relationship looked like.
I did work with several facilitators who were formerly abusive men that had made significant changes in their lives so the guys in the group were curious to know how they did it. But what the guys didn’t like to hear from these “mentors” was that for significant change to happen, they would need to work hard long even after they completed the weekly groups. Also, when the men told the guys in the group that the tools we were teaching them to use, did work, they didn’t believe them. They felt those tools which included using “I” statements, doing more active listening with your partner and taking time outs when they could feel their anger escalating, wouldn’t work for them or it was too hard for them to even try. A tougher lesson for many of the men in group was to learn how to have empathy for others – standing in someone else’s shoes to understand how your behavior has impacted another person negatively and made them feel bad.
Finally, many of these men would talk – as Will Smith did in his memoir – simply titled Will – about being a child witness to domestic violence. Some watched their mothers being beaten or killed in front of them or were victims of child abuse themselves. When they told stories of this past trauma in the group, the pain in their voices came through so clearly. I always hoped and encouraged them to get the kind of help they needed beyond these groups to deal with their trauma histories and more. But then there were times over the years when a guy who had completed the group in the past would drop in and tell us how he had made and sustained some real change in his life. He would talk about how the program had helped him and made his life so much better and happier. Those were the times when I would feel much more hopeful that ending violence against women has, at least, a fighting chance.
Today, I still hope for more and better days like that in the future, but it remains a wait-and-see game. Not sure that our current world is willing to answer the questions and resolve the issues raised here about men’s violence. Until we do, it won’t be safe or truly possible for all men, women and children to live together in peace and freedom and find the life of their dreams. We certainly wish that for all of us, as we do for Will Smith, his acting career and his family going forward, but until we act individually and as a society, things will remain as unresolved as before. Do we really want to live in world like that and leave it for our children and grandchildren to fix?
Help is available. Sometimes all we have to do is ask for it.