An inside look at a domestic-offenders program
The heavy odor of tobacco smoke follows 10 men walking silently into a small, windowless classroom in the Community Corrections Center in downtown Burlington. It's a drab, claustrophobic place no larger than a police interrogation room, and no more cheerful. None of these men is here by choice. All were convicted of assaulting a woman, probably a wife or girlfriend. Their sentences require that they show up here once a week for the next 27 weeks, homework in hand, and try to unlearn their misogynistic attitudes and violent behavior. Should any man miss more than three sessions, the Department of Correc-tions will find him another, more confining, place to rethink his behavior.
I've been invited to observe a typical two-hour session of the Domestic Abuse Education Project, a court-ordered program run by Spectrum Youth and Family Services of Burling-ton. DAEP runs seven of these 10-man groups a week in Chittenden County alone, with additional groups in Addison and Franklin counties. And as Vermont's domestic-abuse experts point out, these batterers are just the tip of the iceberg -- the ones who got caught.
As the men take their seats in a semicircle, a few eye me warily. I study their faces and body language for clues to their behavior. They range in age from late teens to mid-fifties. About half are wearing ball caps and T-shirts. Reflective of Burlington's demographic, most of the men are white, though several are black or Latino. A few of the batterers look like they could have been chosen by a Hollywood casting director, right down to their gravelly voices, missing front teeth and "wife-beater" tank tops. But others are too baby-faced to convincingly fit the part.
Of course, it's impossible to generalize about what kind of men strike women. There is an overrepresentation of working-class men in these sessions -- not because blue-collar males are more likely than others to be abusers, but because of the vagaries of the criminal justice system. Simply put, a wealthier offender can afford private counseling to satisfy the terms of his sentence.
I try keeping my preconceived notions in check, but it's not easy. After all, these are the men society has taught me to abhor. In the cultural lexicon of literature, television and film, wife-beaters and child abusers are the archetypal villains -- men who come home drunk and surly, fly into a sudden rage if their dinner is cold or beer is warm, then lash out with a swift backhand. I catch myself scanning the men's hands to see which ones are wearing a ring that would leave behind a bruise.
Mary Lynne and John, the group's co-facilitators, met me a half-hour before the group arrived to discuss their lesson plan. The class works on a rolling enrollment, which means that new batterers continually join the group as others finish it. To ensure that each man receives all the required instruction, the curriculum covers a rotating list of topics on the "Power and Control Wheel," a commonly used model for understanding domestic violence. Radiating like spokes on the wheel are the various tactics that abusive men use to control women: intimidation, emotional and economic abuse, coercion and threats, manipulation of children, isolation, and so forth. John scribbles the evening's discussion topic on a white board: "Using male privilege."
"We don't see these men as evil or monsters," Mary Lynne had explained earlier. But neither does she absolve their behavior as symptoms of a mental illness or some wider societal defect. The excuses that were once accepted for why men get violent with women -- "I was drunk," "My own father beat us," "She was asking for it" -- don't hold water here. Mary Lynne makes it very clear: There are no victims in this room. The only victims are the women and children these men assaulted. It's in observance of their identities and safety that the batterers aren't named in this story. The program's co-facilitators are similarly protected.
In fact, DAEP doesn't offer batterers any confidentiality or the warm-and-fuzzy security of, say, a drug rehab program. There is such a thing as a "relapse" when it comes to domestic violence. If any man says or does something that suggests he's hit a woman or child again, that information is passed along to his probation officer or the police. The first rule in this class is that each man must take responsibility for his own actions. "We don't believe men pop or snap or lose control," Mary Lynne explains. "Violence is a choice, just like nonviolence is a choice. Ultimately, it's up to them to decide if they'll be the men they could be."
After the homework and weekly $30 dues are collected, each man introduces himself to the group, tells everyone what crime he committed, and whether any children were present at the time. For instance: "My name is Bill, I pulled my wife's hair and slapped her. Second-degree aggravated assault. No children present." Or, "I'm Ted. I violated a restraining order by entering my ex-girlfriend's apartment. Her son was home." A new arrival tells the group that he pinned his wife to the floor. Later, I learn that he has been through the program before. Mary Lynne reminds him to use the woman's names when talking about his crime. It keeps the focus on the victim.
John leads the first half of the discussion by asking the men to describe actions by their partners that will trigger a violent response. The goal, he explained earlier, isn't just to identify those triggers, but also to examine the men's language in order to understand their underlying attitudes. Modify those attitudes, he says, and you can modify their behavior. Or so the theory goes.
John has plenty of experience leading these classes -- he's been doing this for five years -- but tonight's discussion progresses slowly. The men's nonverbal language suggests that most of them aren't thrilled about "sharing" their emotions. They slouch in their chairs, legs crossed, arms folded defiantly across their chests. Occasionally, a few roll their eyes. One man nods off for a few minutes.
But soon, the men are shouting out words that trigger their violent outbursts, and John jots them on the board. The men accuse their partners of "nagging," "griping," "bitching" and "pissing and moaning" to them. Next, John asks them to list topics their partners complain about. Money tops the list, but there are plenty of other bones of contention, such as who decides what TV program to watch, or who always replaces the toilet-paper roll. One man says that his wife constantly gripes about her chronic medical condition. John prods another man who hasn't spoken yet to talk about what his girlfriend complains about. "My son," he says quietly.
"I've got a lot of female friends she bitches about," says another twentysomething man in a Yankees cap. "What I usually tell her is, 'Stop fucking with me!'" Mary Lynne points out to the group how easily the words trip off his tongue.
"Tonight's all about, 'What can I do differently?'" John says. Next, he asks the men to list some gentler ways of addressing their partners' concerns. The men call out things like, "Respect her point of view," "Be helpful" and "See her concerns as genuine and legitimate." One older man in the corner chimes in, "Know that she is worthy of my love, respect and attention." Another suggests, "It's about owning up, knowing that what you did wasn't right, but admitting you did it anyways."
It's hard to know what to make of the process. On the surface, the men are saying all the right things, but I'm skeptical. As DAEP Program Director Mark Larson explains, most batterers don't lack social skills -- far from it. In fact, most are very adept at manipulating people and situations, including this one. It's obvious that some of these men are just parroting the "program speak" they know their facilitators want to hear. Larson, who is also a state legislator, observes, "This is a population that's very resistant to change. They almost always point the finger at someone else."
After an hour, the group takes a short break. The men immediately head out of the building for a soda and a smoke. After they leave the room, I ask Mary Lynne, who's been doing this work for four years, if she's ever uncomfortable around the batterers. Surprisingly, she says no. She's heard them talk about some disturbing behavior without a hint of remorse. But in general, she notes, batterers are not randomly violent people. They have very specific targets for their aggression.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I love this work," she says. "These are our husbands and brothers and fathers and uncles and neighbors. They're out there. They exist."
After the break, Mary Lynne takes over the discussion. Ultimately, her goal for the evening is to get the men to find nonviolent ways of expressing their frustrations to their partners. To do this, she asks two men to role-play a nonviolent situation. "Doug," a heavyset, twentysomething man, says that he frequently argues with his girlfriend about whose turn it is to pay the rent. Since Doug admits that he doesn't "allow" his girlfriend to work, it's usually his responsibility. The two men pull their chairs into the center of the room. Doug's partner in the skit, "Stu," is an older man with a beard.
"If you're really good, I'll give you an Emmy," Stu jokes.
"C'mon, let's be supportive," warns Mary Lynne.
Doug and Stu improvise their way through a domestic squabble. Stu does his best to reenact the part of the girlfriend in a realistic way, but Doug's responses are far too polite and reasonable to be realistic, considering his past violent behavior. After the "couple" has reached an amicable solution to their "dispute," Mary Lynne calls time out.
"So, how'd it feel?" she asks Doug.
"Well, I guess it's a whole lot better than yelling at her to go pay the fucking rent," Doug says. It's the first authentic sentence he's uttered the entire time.
"Remember, these are baby steps. You're not going to be Mother Theresa overnight," Mary Lynne says. "You've practiced this behavior for 20 years. What we're asking you to do is something differently. Do you think you can do that?"
Doug pauses for a long time. "Eventually," he mutters unconvincingly.
DAEP's supporters admit that it's not easy to gauge the program's success. For one thing, very little research has been done on projects like these, in part because there's not much money to do it. Not surprisingly, most private donors and foundations aren't interested in funding research on the habits of wife-beaters. And DAEP has a strict policy that it won't compete for grant money with women's groups that combat domestic violence.
Larson can say, however, that the batterers who complete this program have a lower occurrence of repeat offenses, and those who do assault again tend to be less violent. But measuring other behaviors that may not rise to the criminal offense -- coercion, physical or sexual threats, emotional intimidation -- is far more difficult, and re-arrest rates are a "soft" indicator of how these men do overall. Needless to say, DAEP gets very little feedback from the batterers' victims or the batterers themselves once they've completed the program. "This is not a population looking to linger once it's over," Larson says.
You never know where they'll turn up, either. Two nights later, I spot a tall, smartly dressed man in his early twenties arguing with his girlfriend on Main Street in downtown Burlington. They're across the street, but his words are audible for blocks around. Sensing an imminent assault, I consider dialing 911 but watch closely, hoping the situation will resolve itself peacefully.
"Sit down!" he shouts at her. "I said, sit the fuck down!" When she doesn't obey, he raises a fist as if to strike. She flinches and sits down. No fist is thrown, but the violent dynamic is clearly established. Their public display is but a small window on what goes on behind closed doors.