Make no mistake. There is no excuse, ever, for anyone--male or female--to abuse another human being. It's also true that most men don't act abusively. Still, too many men do, and their behavior has a ripple effect--violence in the home is directly connected to violence in the world. That understanding guides the work of a growing number of men's centers and initiatives around the U.S. and the world, including Voice Male's publisher, the Men's Resource Center for Change (MRC). It explains why this growing coalition believes domestic abuse is a men's issue, a fathers' issue, a coaches' and teachers' issue. Men have a lot to gain from taking the issue on.
Every week in pockets around the U.S., programs like the MRC's Moving Forward run groups for men who've acted abusively. These groups, often co-led by a man and a woman, teach practical strategies the men can employ as an alternative to lashing out. Participants come mandated by the court or "voluntarily"--some of the latter have been urged to enroll by an at-her-wits'-end partner, a therapist, a relative or friend.
It is demanding work, and progress is slow. How could it be otherwise--undoing 30 or 40 years of ingrained behaviors in 30 or 40 weeks? But the rewards are priceless.
I remember a man in one of the groups I led I'll call "Jimmy" who, besides being emotionally abusive to his wife, was also physically abusing his teenage son. One night, in the group, Jimmy had a memory come back to him, strong and clear.
"I was seven and a bigger kid would terrorize me after school, choking me," he shared. "My dad used to pick me up but usually he'd arrive after the bully had left. I was too ashamed to tell him what was happening, afraid of what he'd say. One day he came early and witnessed the bully grabbing me around the neck. When he let me go, instead of comforting me, my father glared and said, 'Go back and hit him! Knock him down. Let him have it!' Even though he was bigger, I was full of adrenaline and fear, so I knocked the bully down and got on top of him and whaled away. My dad yelled to me--and I'll never forget it--'Push his face in the ground. Make him eat dirt!'"
At that moment, Jimmy began to shake and the tears came. All eyes in the group were on him. When his sobbing had subsided, he looked up and said, "That was what I was taught. That's why I think it's okay to beat the crap out of my son." And then he said quietly, "Why did it take 37 years before I realized how screwed up my thinking has been?"
Of the hundreds of men who have come through our program, most do stop their physical violence. Some come to understand the damage their emotional and verbal abuse causes and learn to curb it. Sadly, some take little away from the tool kit of strategies we offer. Over the years, former members have written us letters of appreciation. Some have been ordered back or have voluntarily returned to the program. In a few instances, they have written stories for Voice Male.
In the Spring 2005 issue, Jake Asbin, a man serving a 12-month jail sentence on a domestic assault and battery charge, wrote remorsefully about abusing his wife of 12 years and his "stupidity" in throwing "away a comfortable...happy lifestyle." He asked: "How could I resort to being violent instead of knowing how to communicate my anger? How did I allow my anger to consume me? Why did I hurt the one person who mattered so much to me?"
"I guess I'm seeking redemption," he continued. "I hope so--I have quite a lot to atone for...I have learned and appreciated the [Moving Forward group] the most...I guess every man dreams of a second chance. I hope I will get that chance someday, when I finally forgive myself. Until that happens, however, I must always take full responsibility for what I did." [Web editor's note: click here to read Jake's story.]
In November, hundreds of people who work with men acting abusively in programs around the United States and abroad will convene in Detroit for a major batterers' intervention conference. What they have come to understand is that the road back from abuse and toward accountability is arduous, long and winding. But those who have walked it for decades now know that it's a journey worth taking.
Rob Okun is executive director of the Men's Resource Center for Change and the editor of Voice Male. A version of this column originally appeared in the September issue of The Women's Times.