Editor’s note: The names of those subjects identified only by first names were changed to ensure confidentiality.
Illustration by Maria Bilinski Shain
“Sometimes it’s very easy to look in the mirror and not see who’s there.”When Jack’s wife threw him out of the house last year, he took a hard look. He saw a man who lost his temper easily, who yelled, who talked himself into jealous rages. He saw the type of man he wouldn’t want his young daughters to marry when they grew up.
“I’m a controlling person by nature,” Jack says. His dad was a control freak, too, but he didn’t know anyone in his father’s generation who wasn’t.
Somewhere along the line, control became domination. He’s never struck Beth, he says, but he owns up to physical intimidation. At 6-feet-3, he’s about a foot taller than she is, and he’d tower over her as he yelled in her face. More importantly, he says, he’s been inflicting emotional and verbal abuse for years.
“I feel truly ashamed of this, but I put Beth in a box,” Jack says. “I tried to control what she did, where she was, who she was friends with. The only thing I didn’t do was hit her.”
(Beth declined to be interviewed for this story.)
A friend gave Jack a copy of Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, who started the first treatment program in the United States for abusive men.
“I read that book, and I was like, oh my God, I’m abusive,” Jack says. “Once I figured out what I was, I wanted to find some help.”
Searching the Internet, Jack found a batterers treatment program in Chatham County, where he lives, called PEACE (People Ending Abuse through Counseling and Education). He set up an interview and entered the program.
PEACE meets Wednesday nights in Siler City. A typical group has 14 to 15 men. The class is ongoing, with people cycling through, but in order to get credit clients must attend for 26 weeks, paying $20 per visit—$560 over six months.
Demand is high, as state law dictates that people convicted of domestic violence charges must complete such a program as a condition of probation. The department of social services also refers clients.
According to the North Carolina Council for Women, which certifies 55 abuser treatment programs across the state, about half of all participants drop out—even with the possibility of jail time hanging over their heads.
“Some of the guys would rather do the time,” says Alan Brown, a facilitator with PEACE.
“When I first started this, I thought, everyone’s a treatment candidate. You know, apple pie and rainbows, we can save anybody,” says Brown. A social worker by training, he has led weekly batterer treatment sessions off and on for 20 years.
“Over the years, looking at research, I think probably a third of the guys I see, I’m not convinced we’re going to be able to get through to.”
Reliable data are hard to come by, as subsequent abuse can often go unreported. But most studies estimate the recidivism rate for batterer intervention programs to be at least 50 percent.
Some abusers have to bottom out before they’re motivated to change, Brown says. One client told him that spending 48 hours in jail turned him around. For another, it was the moment his 6-year-old called the police.
“You see some men who you truly feel like this is a first offense, the first time they have been violent at all,” Brown says, “and you detect a sense of remorse, that they really are feeling sorry for what they did.”
In group, men often express disgust with themselves over what they’ve done. More than one describes memories of watching his father or stepfather beating his mother and thinking, I’ll never be like him.
But sometimes, Brown admits, it’s hard to tell who’s sincere. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know I can still be conned,” he says. “Some guys are very convincing.” Even the most dangerous abusers may be very likeable and say all the right things in group, or before a judge.
Part of what keeps the guys honest is the scrutiny of their peers.
“You’re talking about a lot of males who are there because of a lie—they’re abusive,” Jack says. It helps when guys call bullshit on his excuses, he says. “They might say, ‘Hey, Jack, I think you’re leaving something out.’ Or, ‘Hey look, dude, that’s bull crap.'”
About four months after he finished the program the first time, Jack started to slowly slip back into his bad habits and old excuses. He didn’t yell—except when she yelled first. He’d say things to belittle and criticize her. By the time eight months had passed, he knew deep down what was happening but didn’t want to admit it. “I even caught myself saying to her, ‘I’ve been through this program, I’m not abusive!'”
When Beth left him, he called Brown and asked to return to the program. Brown says it’s not the first time that’s happened. “Chances are they didn’t learn this behavior in 26 weeks, so it’s not likely they can reverse it in that much time. Not hitting her might be the easiest part. But maybe the verbal abuse escalates, or the control of money. Power and control is not just about physical violence.”
Jack believes he’ll always struggle with his need for control. Last week, he started Alcoholics Anonymous. He keeps a log of how he handled each day’s situations. “There’s no clicking your heels and saying, I’m done. You have to work on it every day.”
What he wants from those around him is honesty, not sympathy.
“When I told my neighbor what happened, you know what he said? ‘Jack, you’re a good person. You’d do anything for anybody. You can’t be that bad.’ I’ve even heard from some people that she probably deserved it. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. People are oblivious. They don’t want to believe this is a problem.”
For information about the PEACE program, contact Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services at 542-5445 or visit www.fvrc.org. More information about resources for victims of domestic violence is available through the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www.nccadv.org.