Four years ago John (not his real name) and his wife were drinking beer in a small tavern down south. He’d moved there from Chicago with their children two years earlier after an ugly fight. They’d had three beers apiece, and John could feel an argument coming. They left the tavern and sat in his truck in the parking lot. “She starts screamin’ at me in the truck. Screamin’, and screamin’, and screamin’. I said, ‘Why don’t you shut the fuck up?’ I said, ‘I live out here!’ I was worried about losing face–I was doing good there.” The words snap out of him. “She wouldn’t stop. She slapped me. And I just crunched her. She screamed more.”
He got out of the truck and walked over to the baby-sitter’s house behind the tavern, where he picked up their two daughters. Then he started driving home, his wife still screaming at him. “She grabs the steering wheel and tries to turn into a semi coming toward us. I got her into a headlock, crossed with my left hand, and hit her with a knuckle punch.” He demonstrates how he held her head in the crook of one arm while he cut up hard at her face. “I think I hit her two or three times on the way home. It was the only thing I remember. My girls were crying. I think I had a flash about stopping and parking the truck, but I didn’t. We’ve got a seven-mile ride home, and this is in the mountains.”
When they made it home he filled up the bathtub with cold water and told his oldest daughter to put all the ice from the freezer in it. “I turn my wife loose for a minute, and she goes and grabs a knife. I get that away from her and get her into the bath. She doesn’t want to get undressed, so I take her top off. She’s struggling, but I just put her in the bathtub with the ice water and the shower blasting. She’s screaming, says ‘Stop the water!’ I said, ‘I’ll stop the water if you’ll stop screaming.’ She stopped screaming, but I let the water go on anyway for a little while–ten seconds. I just–I was pissed.
“She goes to bed, and I stay up all night. She wakes up the next day, and she’s got two black eyes. These are big black eyes–closed, swollen, ugly black eyes. She comes in the living room and she says, ‘We’re going to have to do something about this.’ She’s talking about my violence.” He pauses. “I’ve got a reason for saying this, I think–I said, ‘No. Not this time. Not this time. You’re lucky that’s all you got.’ I’ve gotta be honest.”
Two months later they were back in Chicago and divorced; seven months later he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But it took another year and a half for him to admit to himself that he had a serious problem with violence and that he needed help. That admission came only after he slapped a woman he’d started seeing just a few months before.
In 1968 Eric (not his real name) went camping with his wife, his young son and daughter, and a group of fairly liberal friends. One evening the friends confronted him about how little he was doing to help care for the children. His wife started crying and told him in front of everyone how hurt she was that he had never helped her much with them. He was stunned. He saw himself as relatively progressive as a husband and father. He had been reading a lot about male and female roles; he even belonged to a men’s group, which was quite unusual at the time.
Soon after they got back, he and his wife agreed that he would stay home with the children while she supported the family by teaching grade school. “The whole thing was very enlightening, because I found out my penis didn’t fall off because I started taking care of the kids,” he says, smiling. “But it was very threatening to begin to do some of these things. I got ridiculed. I compensated by trying to prove that I was better than any woman could be.”
Their marriage had always functioned on his terms, but now the balance began to shift. “Right after we went through the role reversal, she became stronger–decidedly stronger. And militant in terms of some of her own thoughts. She read lots of women’s stuff. A very bright lady.” He stops and thinks for a moment. “My anger was all around control, in a superficial way–and she was then getting out of control. She was less passive and verbalizing her feelings. I had to some way put her down. I think that’s when the physical abuse, and undoubtedly the sexual abuse, started.” In 1971 he hit her for the first time. Several years later he described the incident in an essay: “I somehow felt at the time that hitting her was good for her. I hurt her and taught her to hit back in self-defense.” He also wrote that he felt he’d been hurt as badly as she had been, because she had forced him to hit her.
He slipped into a cycle of anger and remorse. “There were explosions inside of me. You explode internally–it’s a burst of negative energy and you want to strike out. Over time the explosions build up and you may hit. Then you come around and you feel sorry, you feel bad. And then it will build up again, and then there’s another explosion.” Looking back, he says he was almost always angry for the same reason. “It was about things that were probably truthful, about her perceptions about what was going on–and my not being able to talk about it. I just got to feeling she was being bitchy, she was harping on me. But she wasn’t getting a response. She wanted me to express some feelings about her. Talk about it. Say this, say that–whatever. But I’d sit silent. That’s the way I could control the situation–until I had to explode to shut her up. That was my basic line–I had to shut her up.” His children also felt his anger, and once his son had to be taken to the hospital after Eric shoved him.
The violence escalated through the early 70s, until Eric was striking out in some way about once a week. He and his wife went to a therapist in the mid-70s, but, he says, “The violence never got brought up–she never knew anything was happening. You can hide it real well.”
Eric did not think of himself as abusive, and certainly not as violent. Nor did his friends. He was known as a nice guy–hard-working, church-going, charitable, active in the peace movement. It wasn’t until the late 70s that he finally admitted that he had a problem with violence and that it had to stop. The violence began to taper off, but change was slow and excruciating. In 1981 he nearly committed suicide. Six years later he and his wife were divorced. Now he says it has been a dozen years since he physically abused anyone.
No one seems to know yet whether batterers can be cured of the urge to be violent, but clearly they can learn to stop their violent behavior. Men who want to change face years of painful self-examination, and there are few people who will help them through.
One of the few who will is Jim Dugo, a psychologist with a private practice in Des Plaines. He’s been working with violent men for 15 years and guesses he’s gotten to know more than 200, but he understands why other professionals shun his kind of work. “It’s a legal nightmare. I’ve had colleagues who won’t work with me because I work in domestic violence. ‘George’ comes to group. George goes home and beats up ‘Sally.’ Dugo should have known that was going to happen, called up Sally, and warned her that George was going to beat her up. If you think a patient has made a specific threat toward someone and has the means to carry it out, then you have a duty to warn the person. But you’re dealing with men who are angry all the time–or have anger in them like most people. Can you as a psychologist really predict when they’re going to go and beat somebody up? Yet if George leaves the group, never mentions the fact that he intends to harm his wife, goes home and kills her or beats her up, everybody would say, ‘Dr. Dugo, he was in your group. You should have known. You should have warned.’ Even though you might have clear evidence that he never said a thing, you’re still in a legal nightmare trying to disprove.” Dugo says that’s a major reason he limits the number of men he sees. “I don’t want to carry that much liability. Once someone files a claim against you, your malpractice insurance goes wacky.”
Dugo, who also teaches graduate classes at Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Wheeling, then points out that very few people are trained to work with violent men. “You have to deal with them differently. In fact, if you treat them the way you’re trained, you’ll probably make them and their spouse worse–because you’re taught to deal with them as a system. George comes in and says, ‘The only reason I’m violent is because Sally rants and raves and throws pots and pans on the floor and swings from the ceiling on the chandelier.'” Dugo shifts his voice to the patronizingly professional. ‘Well, this is a system. Let’s get together and talk about it.’ But if you believe that hitting is a crime, then it doesn’t make any difference what Sally does. And you have to be responsible for your own behavior. So to work with them as a system and then get into marital or family therapy is usually a mistake.
“Also, these men lie notoriously or don’t realize what they’re doing, so they almost never report the extent of their violence. Most graduate students that I’ve trained will come back to me and say, ‘I’ve just interviewed George, and I don’t think he needs to be in a group. He doesn’t have a problem.’ Then I say, ‘OK. Let’s call George’s wife.’ We bring in George’s wife, and she goes on and on. And the student’s jaw drops.”
Most of the men Dugo has seen over the years have been between 25 and 45 years old, though he’s counseled some as young as 16 and as old as 65. Some of the men prefer to see him alone, but most meet with him and his partner, Valerie Bouchard, once a week in groups of six to eight. In summer he cuts back to one group; the rest of the year he keeps two going. Often the men call him in the evening or come over to his house on weekends.
Dugo likes the dynamics of a group. “It has something to do with the collection of men being together in the same place. I have brought men into a group who I’ve seen ten times, and the night they start they will tell the group violent things they’ve done that they’ve never told me. Because all of a sudden it’s OK to talk about it–there are other men there who are attorneys, doctors, architects, street cleaners, salesmen, owners of their own businesses. And they will cry, say things, do things that they will never say or do in front of women.”
The men who come to see Dugo, who also works with people with multiple personalities and women who were sexually abused as children, are referred by victim’s programs, the Cook County court system, word of mouth. “About 90 percent of the time, the men who’ve made it in my door made it in because they’d been arrested and they had to seek treatment, although I see fewer of them now. Or the woman has said ‘That’s enough, you’re out’ or ‘I’m going to divorce you.’ Then all of a sudden, when the guy realizes he’s gone from feeling like he’s had a lot of control in the relationship to almost none, he goes into a tailspin. And then they’ll come in, because they don’t want to lose the women, they don’t want to lose the marriage.” But he adds that some men, including John, who he’s been seeing for the past year, make a commitment to change on their own.
Dugo meets with each man alone one to four times before introducing him to a group. He usually also meets with the man’s wife or partner. “I have the women give me the history of the violence–which of course is usually much more detailed than the man’s.” He smiles. “In fact, you wonder if they even lived in the same house. I say to the women, ‘Without your stand, I cannot help your husband or boyfriend. If you’re going to take him back and act like this didn’t happen and there are no consequences, he’ll have no motive to change.’ But a lot of times the reason the man gets to me is that the woman has gone for some sort of help and has already begun to take a stand with him.” He laughs. “These guys don’t usually wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll call this guy Dugo.’ Still, I try to dispel any idea in these women that now that the men are in to see me ‘Don’t worry, everything will be wonderful–they’ll never be violent again.’ It’s not true. And in fact, the less she’s prepared to take a firm stand with him, the more likely it’ll continue.”
When Dugo first meets with the men, he always explains the simplest, clearest incentive to stop battering–Illinois law. “What I tell men when I see them and they try to tell me ‘I’m really not that bad and the bitch provoked me anyway’ and all this kind of stuff is, ‘I want you to understand what the law says. If you touch them in any way when you’re angry, you can be convicted. Whether you like it or not, that is the law. So never touch them when you’re angry and never prevent them from going where they want to. Then you can go into court and plead innocent to anything somebody charges you with. But not if you grabbed her arm, if you held her.’ Sometimes they hold them and shake them. ‘She was in hysterics! I had to shake her, otherwise she was going to go off the wall!'”
Dugo says that most of the men he’s seen aren’t guilty of extreme brutality. “Most of the time it is the men exercising control and terror against the women. And they’re able to do that because frequently they’re physically stronger and frequently they’re economically more powerful. And because they’re usually not the ones raising the child. So they’re in the least dependent position–except when the wife decides to leave them. Then it reverses. Then they become the scared one, and their pseudomasculine strong facade breaks apart.”
Yet he has seen men who carry around an extraordinary amount of hostility. “And their spouse is the person they feel they can safely take it out on. I’ve seen some people who are just like walking time bombs–they just explode. The vast majority of the men I see do not get in fights other than with their spouses, but I do get some whose temper has a broader range. Almost all of them, however, will describe how if they’re driving their car and someone cuts them off, they’re the kinds of guys that want to jump out and stop the other person.”
The acts of violence against their partners tend to follow a pattern. Dugo guesses that most of the men he’s seen lash out once every two to four weeks, though some may be violent only once every six months to several years. But he says he can’t be sure how frequent the violence is because the men tend not to tell him or the other men in the group every time they’re abusive. “There’s a certain amount of shame. I really encourage men: If it happened, let’s get it on the table. That’s what we’re here for.”
John, who’s 43, is tall and powerfully built, with long arms and big hands and feet. He talks quickly in a deep, knotted voice that’s hoarse from too many years of smoking, and he rarely laughs or even smiles.
Last summer he went through a box of photos taken through his childhood. “I could see just when the pain started hitting me–it’s written on my face.”
He says that when he was still in elementary school his mother suddenly changed. He didn’t know what was happening to her, he only knew that she was terrifying to be around. “She smacked us. The screaming was worse though. Unsettling. Because it just went on unabated, year after year. She wasn’t diagnosed or institutionalized or anything, so we were programmed that it was part of our life.” As he grew older he had women teachers and friends’ mothers who helped offset his mother’s anger, but he says, “Most of what I learned about physical contact and love–and not just sex–was from girls growing up. Hugging and things like that.” He pauses. “It just wasn’t there–it was there earlier perhaps. I don’t remember hugging.”
He and his younger sister and brother were all embarrassed to bring friends home and learned to cope with their mother’s behavior by staying out of the house except when they were hungry or tired. He and his siblings fought a lot, and he often hit them. He also got in fights with other boys.
Looking through the box of pictures, John also saw his father’s pain. “It looked like he was under a big load when I was younger–it just looked like he had it rough too. We had a crazy mom. He had a crazy wife.” His father worked in factory and management jobs around Chicago, and John remembers resenting his father working so hard while his mother stayed home. But he also remembers that his father could be cruel to him. “He slapped me once at Wrigley Field in front of a lot of people, which was real humiliating. When I was about nine. That wasn’t his practice, necessarily. He could get angry, but he didn’t really beat us. There were some slaps, to the point where I ducked my head and flinched a lot. But I don’t recognize any grudges against him.”
John went into the Merchant Marine straight out of high school and wound up in Vietnam for four months in 1966. When he came home he found that his mother had destroyed a letter someone had sent him because it had too much profanity in it, and she refused to tell him who had written it. “She taunted me–I got a letter and I wasn’t going to know whose it was. Now I just went around the world and I was a man and I came back to start school–but I have no worth. She invades my boundaries–I have absolutely no say in anything, even as a 19-year-old who just came back from a war. It was in the kitchen, and I held her wrists–it must have been 20 minutes. She did some crying and some hollering–not really screaming. And she was going through this martyr, look-what-I’m-going-through type of shit. I held my ground because I wanted to know who wrote the letter. I’m a man, but I come home and she’s opening my mail.” He says that with the exception of incidents involving his sister, that was the first time he was ever violent toward a woman.
He enrolled at Western Illinois University, dropped out after a year and a half, and then bounced around for a while in various jobs. He started over at Northeastern Illinois University, where he studied history, but eventually dropped out again. While he was in college, a girlfriend he’d broken up with “came by my off-campus dorm, peeking through the window, drunk, and shit like that. I don’t know. I just knew that I didn’t want her there, I didn’t want her window-peeping on me. But I hit her. I know I hit her–slapped her. I know I didn’t hit her hard.” Later he hit another girlfriend he thought was playing games with him. “I didn’t know what was going on, and I felt I was lied to about some things. I slapped her. And I felt OK about hitting her. Strangely enough I think she did too–she didn’t fucking yell about it or do anything about it.”
John was married in 1976, when he was 27, to a woman he’d been living with for almost two years. He says getting married changed their relationship. “We’d been carefree–we had an apartment and money. And all of a sudden we had a child and we bought this two-flat and furniture. I was working and she wasn’t. It’s hard to recall.”
The first time he remembers being violent with his wife was the morning he called her from his mother’s and she told him she was leaving him. “When I got there, she was coming down the stairs with a great big suitcase with clothes sticking out, packed hurriedly. Drunk as a skunk. I said, ‘Get up the stairs.’ She said no. I started dragging her up the stairs, and she was fighting me. And I smacked her. I didn’t want to let her out of the house in that neighborhood. And that’s how I went about handling it–no patience and I’m going to control the situation.” He says he thought he had a right to demand that she do what he wanted her to, though he felt bad about hitting her. “Sometimes I didn’t even really feel bad about it.” He says he still has no idea why she wanted to leave him. “I think it was booze.”
John had been jagging up and down emotionally since he was 24, but didn’t know what was wrong with him and wouldn’t go for help. “I just accepted the fact that every couple of years I’d go nuts, feel ashamed, feel the degradation.” After one such episode started, his wife packed up again and disappeared with their little girl for three months. “Looking back on it, she had a right to leave. I was getting weird. But I didn’t see my kid at all. I looked out my window one day, and there was my wife down there. She came up and wanted to stay–she missed me. We put in a couple of days–or one day. I came home a little stiff that night, and all the resentment about my kid came out. It just occurred to me, ‘You kept my fucking daughter away from me for three months.’ And to me that was like punishment. I hit her and I also punched her that night. I remember feeling ‘This is wrong, there’s something wrong with you doing this.’ But it was a real light feeling. It didn’t get underneath and grab me.” He says they then had a good year and a half together, during which their second daughter was born.
By 1984 he was back in college and driving a cab part-time. He says his wife wasn’t working and he resented that. “I remember her crying and saying it was real hard for her to find work. I felt this sorrow for her because I realized she was handicapped in a lot of ways. But I wasn’t taking care of me, so my answer was to come home after school and then go on a tear.”
One day he came home and kicked her out. “I said, ‘I think you should take the kids and get to your sister’s.’ Something was wrong. I was getting manic, and I didn’t know it.” His wife stayed at her sister’s for a while and then at a women’s shelter; eventually she got an apartment of her own. He became severely depressed, worse than he’d ever been before, and finally went for help. The doctor he saw diagnosed him as manic-depressive and put him on lithium. John says that suddenly he could look back and understand why his emotions had been whipsawing for the past 13 years.
He wanted his wife and daughters back, but she didn’t want him back. “I just kept hanging out until I got back in the house. She would stay in the bedroom with our daughters and come out once in a while if she wanted to get in bed with me or something–but there was nothing going on. And I remember realizing that it didn’t matter to me if she was with me or not. I was there for the children, I was doing the right thing. And if she didn’t love me, that was OK.” He agreed to see a therapist with his wife, and they went twice in the spring of 1986.
“In two sessions I thought I was better. And I thought we’d started to turn the corner, but I came home one day and she was drunk and jumped on me.” John says it was the first time he could remember leaving the table without finishing eating. “She started screaming loud. Kind of like my mom–high pitched, psychotic. I hit her a couple of times–slapped her. I called her sister, and she’s screaming at her sister about what an asshole I am. Screamin’, and screamin’, and screamin’. Somebody called the police, and two policewomen came and asked if I’d hit her. I said, ‘Yeah, I slapped her.’ They said, ‘We think you’d better leave.’ I said, ‘I think I’d better take my girls.’ The policewoman said, ‘Yeah, I think you’d better.’ I’d just started taking my lithium, and my self-concept was about like this”–he holds his thumb and forefinger barely apart. “I had my little one on my arm, my big one on my hand, and I go out, get in my car, and take them to my mom’s. And I realized I had to take care of these kids. Something was wrong with her, but I didn’t know what it was.”
He called a crisis line and the man who answered told him “You fucking broke the law! That’s assault and battery!” John says “He was so adamant about it that he got through to me.” But John didn’t go back to a therapist. He says he thought “There’s nothing fucking wrong with me. It’s OK to do this. And if it isn’t OK, it won’t happen again. I can handle this situation. I don’t have to hit anybody else. Yeah. I don’t have to drink. I don’t have to go to jail.” He pauses. “I used to go to jail a lot. Mostly battery, disorderly conduct, various things. Criminal trespass when I kicked somebody’s door in once. Just ridiculous, out-of-control, asking-for-help, violent moves. Never could figure out how I got into that shit.”
He says nothing had ever scared him as much as the thought of taking care of his two girls by himself, but in the summer of 1986 he took them south, to a state where an old friend lived. “I was Mr. Mom to them for two years. I cooked and made bread. We lived in the country, we had dogs and a garden and a real nice river to swim in. It was probably the best two years I’ve had in a long time, even though I didn’t have a woman with me. We were just bonded.”
He worked as a carpenter and picked up odd jobs on the side. “My favorite work of all time was cutting firewood alone, then chopping it. There was a skill to it, and there was a quietness in the woods. I would sweat, and I would sleep like a rock. It was beautiful. Then I’d sell it, and people would like me for bringing it.”
He and his daughters called his wife every Sunday for a year and a half. Suddenly she stopped answering, and she didn’t call them. “I started to envision her naked, tied between two trees, crying,” he says. He drove up to Chicago with the children and found that she’d been drinking hard. “She was in bad, desperate shape.” They finally agreed that she would move back south with him, but one night two weeks after he arrived she didn’t come home. He found her passed out in the backseat of her car. “She was at some goddamn tavern, and this guy was leaning into the car. And I just pounded him. I wrenched him down to the ground and bashed his head. I didn’t have boots on–I had running shoes on. I kicked him. He was big, and I didn’t want him getting up.”
John started to drive her home, then stopped to get her coffee. When he came back, “she was out in traffic, trying to get hit by cars.” He walked her around a golf course for a while. “I tried to talk her down. She’s scratching and screaming.” He says he finally drove her to a hospital, where the doctors decided she might kill herself and signed her into a mental institution.
He waited in Chicago until she was released two weeks later, and then they drove back south together. Six months later, in April 1988, they got into the fight where she tried to steer his pickup into a semi and he punched her.
For a month she stayed inside the house, waiting for the bruises on her face to disappear, and then moved back to Chicago. In June, after his daughters finished school, he followed. “I drop the kids off at my mom’s, and I go off on a drunk. I went crazy with drugs and booze. That’s the only way I could numb the shit.” In July he and his wife were divorced. They’d been together 14 years.
In February 1989 John went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “I got sober. I concentrated on it. I thought, ‘OK, now I’m sober. Things are going to start looking up.'” And he was sure the violence would disappear with the alcohol.
For 13 months he stayed celibate, as he’d been urged to do at AA meetings. “When you get sober, there’s no defense against your feelings. You don’t have the tavern to cover them up. You have to feel the goddamn pain. So if you’re dealing with your own pain and then you’ve got someone else’s pain involved, it’s risky.” But in the spring of 1990 he met Ann (not her real name) at an AA meeting, and they soon moved in together. She excited him and made him happy in a way his wife never had. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to hit you.'”
They decided to move into a bigger apartment in September. He had custody of his children but had given them back to his ex-wife, who had also gotten sober and was in a relationship with a man he calls “pretty decent.” John wasn’t working at the time–he’d been picking up odd jobs as a carpenter or janitor whenever he could–but he paid the deposit on the apartment. Ann agreed to pay the first month’s rent. But right before they were supposed to move they got into an argument, and she told him she didn’t want to move in with him after all. “She owed me something like $800. Her name was on the lease. I said, ‘So how much money are you going to give me tomorrow?’ Tomorrow was Friday, payday. She said, ‘I’m not going to give you any money.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ She said, ‘I’m not going to tell you. I’m just going to tell you I’m not going to give it to you.’ All of a sudden I don’t have control. She’s getting paid tomorrow, and she’s just told me she’s not going to pay me. We go through this for half an hour. Eight times she told me the exact same thing. On the fourth or fifth I visualized myself slapping her. Somewhere around the sixth time she said it, I saw myself getting up and leaving. But I didn’t. From my view it was this: We need closure–now the closure’s going to come from me. If I was glass inside of me, it just shattered. It just cracked and shattered. My only answer at that time was to hit her. In my mind she was abandoning me, she had control, she had the money. We had a deal, and yet she was messing with me. It made me think she didn’t love me, whatever. A spiral. And I smacked her. That’s the way I was raised, you know? You get hurt, and you do what you have to do.”
He says she called the police, but by the time they arrived he was gone. She refused to live with him again, but she did encourage him to get help. He called a crisis line, and the person who answered told him about a self-help group for batterers. He started going to their meetings, but, he says, “I made the mistake of thinking that because I’d admitted that I’d done this I was better. And I wasn’t.”
Eric, who’s 55, is built like John–tall and big-boned. But he speaks slowly and amiably, often sidetracking, and he laughs often, a low, easy rumble. The women who work with him in the technical-training program he runs seem fond of him. He’s quick to praise and thank them, and listens carefully when they talk; it doesn’t seem to be a conscious effort. In fact, he’s so warm and thoughtful that it’s difficult to imagine him as a batterer.
He grew up on a farm out west. “When I looked back I could see some of the craziness I grew up in. Little things like my father never informed my mother about the will that he had–she had no inkling about it. She was his servant in a sense. He wasn’t affectionate with her, but he wasn’t violent either. A practical marriage, I’m sure. Very sure. I just recently learned from my sister that my mother was an actress through college. She did all this acting, came back and lived on the farm, and occasionally would do readings. Turned off all this talent. It was all in order to do what people do–not to live life in a way that would best express their talents. My father went away to the University of Colorado, but never finished his degree in engineering. He also joined the Navy. He came back to the farm to help out, left for a while, came back.” Shortly after his father came back for the last time, Eric’s grandfather committed suicide, a detail Eric wasn’t told until just a few years ago.
Eric doesn’t remember his parents ever being physically violent with him and doesn’t even remember that they ever spoke harshly to him. But, he says, “I really needed affection after I started school, and I did not get it. There wasn’t love. I didn’t get loved or hugged or kissed or anything that would have been real nice. They were busy working on the farm, and it was a real big job.”
He compensated in part by creating a world that was all his own. “I really was deep into nature and deep into watching the butterflies, playing in the mud, discovering seeds and how they grew, experimenting with chemistry sets. My world was just one of amazing exploration. No guidance at all–there was nobody around to say ‘Try this’ or ‘This is what this is supposed to do.'” He chuckles. “If I’d had the right chemicals I would’ve blown the place up.”
When he looks back and tries to understand where his violence came from, he doesn’t have quick answers like many of the violent men he’s known. “I was a handsome kid, and I played football and was in the band. And I think that I felt a lot of those in the extended family loved me. I think it really more strongly reflects my inadequacy as a male, my insecurity as a male–I would need to tie it into that whole male-culture stuff. Being a boy in the world and trying to figure out how you fit in: How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do? Instead of just being. I guess I didn’t know what to do about being in this male body. I didn’t feel at all successful as a male. Everybody in the world knew about sports, but I didn’t know how to talk about them. I was big enough, but I wasn’t a tough guy. I don’t think I ever felt real bright. The ethic was real strong to work and be successful, but I don’t think I was ever taught how to handle that.”
He says he was taught early on to shut off his emotions. “About three or four years old. ‘Boys aren’t supposed to cry’–that’s the typical way to discuss it.” He recently read the diary his mother kept about him from the time he was three, in which she wrote that it pleased her that even as a tiny child he didn’t whimper and was a “good sport.” She also wrote that she refused to let anyone pick him up if he was crying. “But it isn’t just Mom,” he says. “It’s Dad. It’s everybody. It’s the whole structure–it’s grade schools, it’s movies, it’s everything. ‘Don’t understand your emotions. Don’t express or verbalize your emotions.'” He pauses. “It’s OK to show anger. I don’t know what other emotion is acceptable in boys.”
All through Eric’s childhood the men in his extended family came to the farm to hunt. He can’t remember when he began to understand that hunting was an important part of being male, but even as a small boy he was making slingshots to kill birds. When he was older, he saved up his money to buy a BB gun and then an air rifle. His father eventually taught him to use his .22 and his shotgun; years later Eric discovered that his father didn’t even like to hunt. (And only years later, after his father died, did he discover that though a picture of his father in a football uniform was proudly mounted in a family scrapbook, his father couldn’t play because of a heart condition.)
Eric found that he liked the kick of hunting. “There was a tremendous feeling. While it isn’t directly related to anger, it still had a flow of adrenaline, and it was very connected with the power that comes from killing something. Even though we were going to eat it–that was the justification that men gave. Pheasant hunting.” He suddenly claps his hands together. “It’d shock you. It’d get up out of the weeds out of nowhere, where you weren’t expecting it. And then the gun comes up.” He sits for a moment, his head tipped to one side. “I’d love to do a story that associates that with a male hitting, abusing a wife. I think the flashbacks would be really interesting. The pheasant rising up and the woman saying ‘Where were you tonight?’–the same kind of thing, out of nowhere. And the adrenaline flowing and shooting the pheasant–and that feeling.”
Eric was expected to go to college after high school. He had always wanted to go to the University of Chicago, but his application was rejected. He opted for the big state university instead, but he flunked out and had to finish his degree at a small college. He was expected to go into the service after he graduated, and he joined the Navy. He was expected to become an officer, but he flunked out of officers’ training school.
In 1961 he moved to Chicago and began teaching history and sociology in the public schools. He also started dating the daughter of his uncle’s landlord. “I was a teacher, she was a teacher. One day I just said, ‘Do you think we should get married?'” He breathes out hard. “This was what you were supposed to do. There was no romance. It was practical, it was something that needed to be done.” He thinks for a moment and then says slowly, “I could’ve done worse things. She was a bright and fascinating individual to be with. Not a leader–I was always the leader. And really not very strong. I wanted someone who had her own world together. I liked her emotionality. She had a profession, but somehow in the core of her she didn’t believe it was right, it was what she wanted. And that never did click with me very well. Being with her I would explore problems–with the role reversal and with the kids. But it wasn’t a compatibility that clicked. There wasn’t a peaceful happiness. And I don’t think I ever wanted to admit that it was not a success.” He found a simple way of coping. “My life wasn’t a relationship–it was like being connected with a satellite, one-way communication. We could have an agreement, and I would just do whatever I wanted to do anyway. Come home whenever I wanted to.” And have occasional affairs.
Eric applied to the University of Chicago again, was accepted in a master’s program, and received his degree in 1967. The next year was when he and his wife traded family roles, and after that the physical abuse started–hitting, pushing, pulling hair. Ten years later they moved to Champaign so he could start working on a doctorate, and it was there that he finally began to see his violence for what it was.
He had joined a men’s group after he moved. One day a woman from a shelter asked if someone from his group would be willing to work with the batterers who came to her looking for help. In the weeks that followed, the men in the group discussed what it meant to be abusive, and Eric realized that what he was doing to his wife and children fit the definition.
He began reading everything he could find on male violence, which in the late 70s was very little. At one point he kept a detailed diary, and over the next several years he would often try to clarify his thoughts by writing them out in essays. He and some of the batterers he met through the woman from the shelter also agreed to try to help each other by getting together regularly. Many men would come to the meetings only a few times, but there were always others, from truck drivers to businessmen, to take their places.
Together he and the men in the self-help group slowly peeled away each other’s lies and denials. “No matter how we come to the awareness stage, we deny and minimize our violent behavior,” he wrote in an essay in 1980. “At first we admit only to the smallest incident of battering. Usually the admission is a story about abuse we claim not to remember. . . . ‘She said I hit her. I can’t believe I would do something like that.’ . . . We are afraid and vulnerable. We use denial and minimizing to claim that we are not heard or that she batters us too.”
As each man confessed his abuses, the others often saw themselves. They also started to see patterns in their behavior, and gradually began to understand what was behind them and take responsibility for them. “When you get to talking with men, that’s what it’s all about–discovering the patterns and breaking them if you want to break them. That makes it all change. That’s what brought change for me.”
Some patterns were quickly discovered, such as wanting to have sex after beating a partner. “It happened to me, it happened to the guys in the group. You beat her, and then you want to have sex. Sometimes it’s rape, but sometimes it’s sex. It’s because you feel guilty–you’ve got to get the feeling that you haven’t chased that other person away, you want to know that you still own them. Craziest goddamn thing, but it’s an absolute pattern.”
Subtler patterns emerged more slowly and were more difficult to comprehend. “I found hundreds of patterns. That’s why I wanted to write about it. Because it wasn’t in the books I was reading, and it’s not in the books it is in from a male point of view. Once you talk to guys, you discover the kinds of things that go on, whether it’s tying a person up–and you identify or don’t identify with it. Sometimes you don’t identify with it, and you say ‘Phew.'”
The men in the group acknowledged patterns that ranged from the way they waited for a meal to be set in front of them to the way they did or didn’t do the dishes to being racist and homophobic to identifying with the rapist in newspaper stories to needing to control when and how they had intercourse. “There’s a pattern of hard erections versus soft erections that I got to be aware of. With hard erections you are the driving force trying to reach climax–it’s done for reasons of power and control. With soft erections you’re just relaxed into this relationship, letting it flow both ways.” He found that the men usually had sex of the first sort, and that they found it difficult to change.
As he looked at himself and the patterns his group was cataloging, Eric realized that violence was about far more than simply hitting someone. “Violence is doing something to somebody that they don’t have any choice in–that’s really the basic definition. So hitting–they don’t have a choice in that. Rape, incest, even words. From information control to abusive language to physical abuse–all that is violent. People tend to think that the physical abuse is worse, and it’s true one can lose one’s life to physical abuse. But as far as I’m concerned, the origin of the other abuses and what goes on inside isn’t any different.
“The basic problem of men is that we minimize. ‘Oh, you only slapped her? No big deal.’ ‘Oh, you only called her a–? No big deal. You didn’t hurt her.’ If you heard the discussions between men–” He shakes his head. “If you say shouting isn’t as bad as battering someone, you run the risk of supporting the minimization and the denial.”
Even after months of admitting his abuses, Eric still frequently exploded inside, and occasionally the anger built up to the point where he’d hit his wife, the table, a wall. In 1979 his wife tried to commit suicide.
In 1980 he wrote, “I can remember the day I announced being so proud of stopping my battering (actually there would be several more incidents). I said something like ‘I feel so good that I have successfully decided not to batter.’ My wife replied, ‘Yes, now you can stop raping me.'” By mid-1980 he and his wife had moved into separate bedrooms, and for a year or so he stayed celibate. He began to believe it was impossible to have sexual encounters that weren’t violent in some way.
As his perceptions about violence broadened, he realized that he needed to change the way he approached nearly everything he did. “I came to the idea that I had to ‘power-down.’ Power-down to me meant that I needed to relax and not be in control all the time. To do that was real threatening–it was amazing to see how threatening internally it was to take positions or not do things that were to maintain power.”
But roiling under all the careful intellectual analysis was long-repressed, confused pain. “Why don’t people just look at violence and say, ‘This is really silly,’ and then stop it? Because they’re not looking at emotion, they’re not looking at pain. Men don’t look at pain. We look at violence and say”–his voice becomes businesslike–“‘That’s terrible. We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to get a law passed.’ I don’t think the issue has ever been: ‘Look at the pain, look at the situation, and feel what’s going on. Then the realization comes and you change it.’ It’s ‘Look at the situation and judge it, decide whether it’s good or bad.’ And that’s an intellectual thing–it isn’t emotional. But there has to be some emotional awareness before there can be any movement toward change. And when it starts happening, then the depression hits. And you hope someone’s there to help you through it.”
By 1981 Eric was drinking and smoking marijuana regularly. He was also suicidal. “I didn’t see any reason at all for living. I read anybody who had something to say about death. I think I was trying to decide, if it wasn’t fun being alive, why not die? So the existentialists, like Camus, were primary in my reading. I was trying to establish a basis for living.” He pauses and then says gently, “There isn’t really any other basis for living that I can see now other than emotional. I was beginning to realize that, but I didn’t know it because I couldn’t feel it.”
At one point he went back to the farm and went hunting. “I picked up my 12-gauge shotgun and went out to see what I would feel. It was a real ugly feeling. It was a horrible feeling to go–it just was a useless feeling to kill. I killed one bird, and it fell out of the air. And it was just an acknowledgment of the things I was going through. I gave all the guns away and destroyed the ones I thought could be used in a bad way.”
As he sank into his own pain, he began to see how much he had hurt his wife. And he was stunned to suddenly hear her anger. “We stop battering. Our verbal abuse is less frightening,” he wrote. “The capped rage and hate for all men surfaces from his partner. She shouts. She screams. She states how rotten he was to keep the threat over her life. She wants to hurt him as bad as she was hurt. Old feelings rise and the desire to hit returns. The defense comes and the voice is raised. He shouts. She hits. He feels hurt. She cries. He reaches to make reassuring contact. She flinches.”
He tried to explain his changing awareness to his children, who were then teenagers. “With my daughter the conversation was pretty much open and going back and forth. With my son–he really came out with his rage one night. It was half an hour or an hour that he talked straight, just saying how horrible it felt and how angry he was. I’d shoved him around, bossed him around, shouted at him, hit him maybe a couple of times. He had a lot to be upset about, and it was nice that he could share it. It was painful for me to hear it.”
He also tried to explain his problems to friends. “People would totally deny it. They’d say, ‘Oh no, that’s not true.’ They knew me as this image I’d painted–they didn’t know me living with me. I was ‘so kind, so helpful.’ I was always helping people, always involved in the community. Politically open, liberal, generous. I’d certainly followed the rules to get to be this good, nice person. Some guys don’t do that, and it’s more credible when you learn they’re violent. Because it’s ‘The bastard. I remember the time he bashed in the windows of his wife’s car.’ In my case it was real shocking to people, and I thought it was amazing that they didn’t even want to listen. I learned that while the men’s group was really good, you couldn’t trust your friends to help you deal with really severe problems.”
In 1981 Eric gave up on finishing his dissertation, and he and his family moved back to Chicago. He says that by then he had stopped all the physical abuse–the hitting, pushing, restraining. He had also stopped the indirect physical abuse–hitting the table, throwing whatever was handy. But he was still struggling with the verbal abuse.
Most of his energy continued to go toward reshaping himself. He went on reading everything he could find, attended conferences on male violence, and started another batterers’ self-help group. He went to numerous meetings every week, and over the years has talked to hundreds of violent men. Though he didn’t much like psychologists, because he found them judgmental and unwilling to acknowledge their own violence, he went to see a therapist a couple of times. “I was in a bad way, but he wouldn’t let me come back, because the medical system wouldn’t pay for me and he didn’t assess me as being bad enough to qualify. But he gave me a lot of help in just a couple of sessions.”
Slowly Eric crawled out of his depression. “The internal explosions–the feelings inside, the anger–became farther and farther apart. It went from minutes to hours to days to weeks where I didn’t feel I was at one stage or another in that cycle of violence. Then the explosions were so far apart, and the intensity wasn’t there. So it ended. And it was wonderful to see it end.”
But he still felt anxious and guilty, and he realized that nothing he could do would make his relationship with his wife something that would let him be happy and at peace. In early 1985 he left his wife, taking only five or six boxes with him. He didn’t have much money, so he fixed a roof on a house in exchange for a room. Then he paid $50 a month to live in a west-side flophouse, then found a small apartment. In 1987 he and his wife finally divorced.
Eric says he doesn’t think his philosophy has changed much since the mid-80s. “I think what’s changed is my capacity for my body to respond to being in the world. To feel things that are going on, and to know that I’m making decisions that affect my life–and that it’s fun to do these kinds of things. I think getting divorced was something–I felt so guilty and so trapped. I’d got myself into a situation where it wasn’t fun for me anymore, and I don’t think it had been fun for a long time. I started going to a lot of movies at the Art Institute and riding a bicycle all of the time–didn’t need to have a car. I took a bicycle trip in the fall of 1985 and went completely around the lake–and I had wonderful dreams, which I recorded. And was just with myself. This is in my late 40s, a time when most normal professionals are acting quite a bit different. And I loved it. It was fun to be me, and I didn’t need to get approval and all that stuff.” Then he says softly, as if it’s still something of a surprise, “I never knew what it was like to live in peace. It’s a different world.”
“I’m seeing those men who are motivated through fear to get help,” says Jim Dugo. “Lawrence Kohlberg has a theory on the stages of moral development, and the second stage is fear: ‘If I do something wrong, I’ll get punished for it. So I’m not going to do something wrong.’ My hope is to get them to ‘I don’t want to do something wrong because it hurts somebody else.’ Then to ‘I don’t want to do something wrong because it hurts somebody else and I don’t think we could operate in the world as a society unless we were willing to adhere to basic principles.’ Most men who initially come in for treatment are ashamed underneath that they did this and don’t want other people to know. But that’s not the same thing as saying to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t do this because it harms someone else, and I don’t want to go through life harming people, and it’s wrong, and I can see what a toll it’s taken on this other person, and I can see what would happen to our society if everybody operated that way.'”
Dugo says the men who come to him are genuinely blind to the pain they have caused their wives or partners. “Because 90 percent of these men actually view themselves as victims. They think that the woman has pushed them to this and hurt them. They’ve become so aware that something’s done to them. For instance, typically they’ll say, ‘Yes, I pushed my wife and threw her down on the bed–because she did blah, blah, blah.’ And then they’ll proceed to tell me what she did that provoked them to do that–and will entirely miss the fact that what they did will have had a tremendous impact on her. To be able to successfully work with these men, you have to be able to help them understand how a woman feels, what it’s like to be intimidated and live in fear.”
He knows women hit men–in fact, one national survey found that women hit men more often than men hit them. But Dugo says that 90 percent of the time women hit to defend themselves, and that they generally do a good deal less damage. “I’ve had women who’ve come in and will say that they pulled his hair, or pushed him in the shoulder, or slapped him–and they made the first move. That’s not very often, but it does happen.” Yet he refuses to let men excuse their own behavior because of what their wives or partners do. “What I say is, ‘I don’t care who started it. I don’t care who stopped it. I’m only interested in whether you can adhere to the law yourself. And I’m interested in you stopping being violent.’ Otherwise you get into the chicken and egg. ‘Well I wouldn’t have slapped her if she hadn’t slapped me.’ ‘Well I wouldn’t have slapped him if he hadn’t called me a bitch in the morning.’ “Well I wouldn’t have called her a bitch if when her mother came last week she hadn’t ignored me.’ You get into that and you’re back to Adam and Eve.”
Most of the men are also unaware of the effect violence toward their partners has on their children. That violence, Dugo says, “certainly transmits the notion that violence is OK. Transmits the notion that it’s a mechanism to be used when you want to get your way. I had a discussion with a group a few years ago, and they got into talking about whether they were passing this problem on to their own boys–they saw it as to their boys, not to their girls. Though obviously they could be transmitting to the girls that it’s OK that men do this to women: even though you might hate it, you just accept it. That’s what I think happens. And to the boys it becomes a response to frustration.” He says the men who realize they’re passing the problem on to the next generation have a strong incentive to break the pattern.
Yet the abuse of the children is not always indirect. Though many of the men Dugo has seen are horrified at the thought of beating a child, one study shows that half of the men who abuse their wives also abuse their children; other research shows that women who are battered are far more likely to abuse their children than women who aren’t battered.
Generally Dugo sees a gradual shift over time in a man’s ability to be aware of the pain he causes his partner and in his ability to empathize with her. “George will come in and say, ‘Well I got into it this weekend with my wife.’ ‘Well, what happened?’ ‘I got angry. I punched the wall–but I didn’t touch her and I didn’t hit her, so I handled it better.’ And you’ll see one of the men say, ‘How do you think punching the wall affected her? If I was her, I’d be pretty scared even though you didn’t hit me–because I could be that wall. You probably really frightened her.’ The prior week, for whatever reason, they wouldn’t have said that.” He’s seen men make that shift in as little as six months, though he says it usually takes a year or two. And it will probably take even longer for them to make real progress in learning to deal with their anger constructively.
Most of the men seem to stop the blatant physical violence against their partners relatively quickly, though their definition of physical violence can be slippery. “Physical is a funny word, because many men will not assume that it’s physical if they grabbed her arm or held her arm or stood in front of the doorway or pushed her. That’s not violent because he didn’t sock her. And after all ‘She came right up in my face and practically spit in my face–and I pushed her away. And why wouldn’t I push her away? I mean, that’s protecting myself!’ I discovered that many, many men tend not to view something as physically abusive that the woman or the law would define that way. The perfect example is someone I saw not too long ago. The husband grabbed his wife’s arm, and she was very upset and said her arm hurt for three or four days after. And he says, ‘Oh, come on. I just wanted to hold her arm down. I didn’t hold it very tight.’ You get those kinds of stories all the time.”
The other abuses are far more difficult to stop. “It’s the verbal stuff that usually continues. And the controlling, somewhat posturing, threatening stance. But my experience is that if you can get them to stop the physical abuse, eventually, down the road, you can get them to deal with the verbal.” He adds that most of the relationships of the men who stick it out in the group seem to survive.
The definition of violence is quite broad in the 1986 Illinois Domestic Violence Act, which prohibits “physical abuse, harassment . . . interference with personal liberty or willful deprivation.” A woman may go to court and obtain an order of protection to stop a man from being abusive in any of the above ways, and a violation of the order is a criminal offense. Yet people still tend to assume the courts and police will only respond when women are badly beaten–probably because for years that was the case. And many people still don’t believe other abuses are a serious problem.
But Dugo, whose definition of what’s violent is broader than the Illinois law, points out that these other abuses can be just as intimidating and damaging as battery. “For instance, I haven’t hit you for three months, but when I get pissed off I bang my hand on the table. Well, that’s a very clear signal to the wife that she’s crossing some boundary–and if she doesn’t do what he wants, he’s going to use physical power. Even though the man would say, ‘I never intend to touch her again when I’m angry.’ I’ve seen men who when they’re angry with their wives go clean their gun. All the woman has to do is see the gun there and there’s an implied threat. I mean, all I have to do is punch you once and put you in the hospital with a broken jaw, and every time I clenched my fist for the next ten years you’d remember that.”
“I’m glad I hit my girlfriend, as weird as that sounds,” says John. “Because that got me to the point where I could go for help. Because I need it. And I think it was a blessing in disguise that this was the woman I hit, that had enough fucking sense to stand up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get some help.’ She meant enough to me that I couldn’t just brush it off. Something broke through my denial.”
Ann wouldn’t live with him, but they still saw each other and regularly stayed at each other’s apartments. Their relationship jerked up and down; they would get together for a couple of months, then quarrel and break up. But they kept getting back together. “There’s some kind of challenge thing, power struggle between us. Which is why right now it’d be very hard for me to go out with a normal girl. Because, like, what would I do for action? I’d have to gear down.”
Yet he was often painfully unsure where he stood. “She comes home one day with a guy that I know, a friend of hers, catching a ride. All of a sudden I’m just shaking and I’m insecure. Jealous. Fear that she–fear of abandonment–she’d get up and go out, escape with friends, whatever. I’m in a state of neediness and control, and I ask, ‘What time are you going to be back?’ That would happen early on because I had nothing inside of me. How am I going to spend a whole Saturday by myself?”
He understood that she too had problems and tried to make allowances for them. He says he knew she drank, that her stepfather had sexually abused her, that she had a lot of her own fears. “She has this strong and tough-ass attitude. She despises needing, and she doesn’t like to show her needs. The one time she said she needed me, she was drinking. One time. I teased her about it when we were making out and stuff. And she started hitting me on the chest. She didn’t want to hear that she needed somebody else.”
In December 1990 he hit her again. He says she’d humiliated him by snapping at him in a store in front of other people. “We get in the car and head for home, and I say, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but the way I see it, you’ve got about 70 percent of the power and I’ve got 30. You ain’t gettin’ that other 30. I’m going to make decisions here–and if you can’t deal with it, I’ll drive you home right now and I won’t call.’ She sat in the car and wouldn’t say anything. Up we went, and we got into it. I remember sitting on my bed, and she slapped the shit out of me. I said to myself, ‘Don’t hit her, don’t hit her.’ But when she slapped me, I visualized myself throwing a punch, a left-handed jab. I visualized it twice, and I said, ‘Oh, man’–because I’d already started this treatment stuff. And then she said, ‘Well, it was nice knowin’ ya.’ She barely got the words out and my hand was in her head. I just hit her in the forehead. I mean, it was like there was no control. And it was not for getting slapped–it was for the wound, the spiritual wound.
“I pushed her against the wall and said, ‘I don’t want to see no cops, because you hit me first.’ She opens the kitchen door, and I kicked her in the butt. I mean, I didn’t kick her hard, I just kicked her as a humiliating thing. She turns around and wants to come back at me, and we go at it again. She calls me a name, and I call her a name.”
Ann filed charges against him the next day. When he got his summons, he went to file countercharges. “I said, ‘She hit me. I don’t want to hit her anymore, but I want to sign this thing so she has to go in front of a judge and deal with it too.’ I wanted to do the humiliation of being six foot four and going in front of the police or the court just to say, ‘Hey, it’s wrong.’ My girlfriend is under the impression that because I’m bigger than her, my hits hurt worse and therefore hers are more acceptable.” But he says the state’s attorney’s office refused to accept his complaint until he’d been to court on her charges.
They didn’t talk to each other for three weeks. Then a couple of days before they were due in court she called him. “I picked her up in the morning, and we stopped by the house. I started kissing her, and it was like we were on fire. Sometimes people are sick or weird or jealous, but the one thing they do have is making love.”
He stayed at her house the night before they went to court. “We get up and go to court together. She hit that court and she was on a mission, boy. The friendliness was over. The public defender said they’ll give you three months’ probation. Now I did hit her, but I was also slapped and I hadn’t been in any trouble since I’d been sober. I said, ‘I don’t want this crap.’ A woman public defender came back and said, ‘I’ll give you two months supervision.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want anything. I’ll take a court date, I’ll come back with a real lawyer, and we’ll see what happens.’ And I sat here, and my girlfriend sat over there, and the court wound down. All of a sudden I saw her get up and march into the state’s attorney’s office and drop the charges. We got into the car, and I knew she was pissed, I knew she wanted to hit me real bad. She didn’t, but she was throwing shit around. She wanted to control it, she wanted to humiliate me, she wanted John to get supervision. As it was, I went in front of the judge. And I’m not guilty because she’s dropping the charges, but this guy says, ‘All right, the charges are stricken, but I don’t want to hear any more of this.’ He’s treating me as if I’m guilty–which really pissed me off.”
Ann had been encouraging John to see a professional and not just depend on the self-help group. He’d heard about Jim Dugo from a couple of men in the group, and he finally called him. “When I went to Dugo’s the first night, I almost went off in there. I was so used to confronting people. I used to act out a lot, lash out. If I could make someone else hurt, rattle someone else’s cage, push their buttons, and they’d scream, cry, or consider me an asshole, I would think I did a pretty good day’s work. For some reason. I had no idea why.”
He struggled to relate what he heard in the two groups to his own life. But last August, almost a year after he started the self-help group and eight months after he started seeing Dugo, he could still say, “I don’t see the connection between feeling bad about yourself and hitting someone. I can see it a little bit, but I don’t really feel it.” He went on to explain how little things had often set him off and described how he’d been awakened one night 20 years ago by a drunk man and woman screaming at each other as they tried to get on a motorcycle. He went down and punched the man, slapped the woman, and kicked the motorcycle over. “And this is because I was woken up in the middle of the night with screaming. I don’t know the connection. It would be easy to say, ‘Well, it brought back crap.’ But I don’t know why I have to hurt somebody.”
Nevertheless he could see that he had learned early on that it was sometimes right to be violent. “I was always raised that if you get hurt and you feel hurt–though it wasn’t said like that–it’s appropriate to hurt. Violence can be an effective form of communication. It was around when I was growing up–peers, the guys I grew up with, guys that were older than me, whites, the black guys I played basketball with. It was one of the ways that I learned I could keep people away from me, I could have control over certain things.” He paused. “And I never knew how to stop it when it came to women. I almost have to learn to stop hitting men first.
“I remember a guy I knew offhand trying to get a beer from me in a tavern. He told the bartender I was buying. I had like two bucks on me, and I told this guy I’m not buying. He orders the beer anyway–and before I even thought, I just grabbed this guy’s face and slammed it into the bar, threw him on the ground, and kicked him. I mean I was just vicious, ugly, dog-bone mean. But I didn’t want to be. I might have needed to be for some reason, but I didn’t want to be. I just didn’t want to buy the guy a beer. Where do you say to yourself, ‘OK, am I supposed to walk out of this? Am I supposed to be a doormat? Am I supposed to turn the other cheek?’ You’re used to doing it to men constantly. I’m a big guy anyway, and I don’t get in that many fights. But you learn–and I don’t care if you’re a Rhodes scholar or a famous author like Jack London or Ernest Hemingway–there’re times when it’s enough. You throw a punch, you do something, OK? And now all of a sudden with a woman it’s different. They have more ground, they can fuck with you longer, and you can’t hit them. They can take your money. You can leave the apartment, you can walk away, you can get cool, you can see a doctor–but you can’t hit them. I’m trying to incorporate that shit into my thinking, but there’s still a part of me that doesn’t really buy it.”
Yet he was getting Jim Dugo’s message, and two weeks later said, “I’m starting to understand it’s not acceptable to hit somebody. I mean, I should defend myself. But our basic purpose with Dugo is not to break the law. And for some reason as I go to these groups and I see these people coming in that are green, I’ve seen where I’m growing. Seeing people who are afraid of losing their girlfriends or wives, afraid to be alone, afraid that they’re not controlling things, afraid because they don’t like themselves–I keep seeing that and it reminds me of what I’m like and especially what I was like.” And, he added, “I have to be able to look at the painful things about myself and accept them rather than try to deny them or push them out of the way. I think I’m unlearning some of my old reactions. I felt a lot of pain when I was growing up, and I’ve been refeeling it now that I’m sober. I’m just finding out the sources of feelings I’ve had. They’re not hidden, they’re not ambushing me out of the blue anymore.”
He also acknowledged that the violence in their home may have affected his daughters, who are now 8 and 14. “I saw a movie the other night, and the guy slapped Molly Ringwald and she slapped him back. My oldest daughter felt real offended that the girl was slapped–and my niece didn’t. So maybe it’s from witnessing me and my wife. I don’t know. It’s just the way she was caught in it–it concerned me. I wondered if I had anything to do with that.”
The same day he also said that sometimes he almost felt happy. “I’m pretty close to that right now. When I woke up as a child, I used to wake up really high, a song in my chest. I get that once in a while–I don’t get it like when I was a kid, but I get it. I’m starting to accept the fact that other human beings besides me belong on this planet. And that’s neat enough right now. I used to hate the birds singing in the morning–I hated them. I didn’t even like to get up in the daytime. I mean, how could I like a day when I didn’t like myself? And I had no place in the world. And obviously if you dislike yourself enough, it’s easy to take it out on other people. You’re not going to yell at yourself–or I didn’t anyway.”
“I think that at the core of violence is pain, and that pain is tremendous,” says Eric. “I used to write a lot about pain. A lot. And I’d say, ‘Now look, I’m not talking about physical pain–I’m talking about emotional pain.’ And emotional pain is real important for the person that’s working through violence. It’s crucial.” For a moment his voice turns hard. “It’s pain about fucking being a man. It’s pain about having to pay the bills. It’s pain about not being able to get the job you have to get. It’s pain about being abusive, seeing myself explode and do something to somebody. It’s pain about false expectations and all kinds of dumb stuff.”
He thinks that men generally avoid looking at that pain because they can’t really tell where it comes from. “We don’t sort out emotions real well. They’re in a clump. Pain or joy–it’s still in a clump. It’s a ball of worms, and you can’t sort one from the other.” And he thinks a lot of anger comes from not being conscious of or able to express the individual emotions.
He and the men in his self-help groups tried to tease their emotions apart by literally listing all the ones they could think of and then trying to correlate each label with what they felt. “Embarrassment–I never understood that. I knew I got flustered at certain things, but I didn’t know what the feeling was. ‘I’m embarrassed because my fly is open.’ ‘I’m embarrassed because I said this silly thing in the classroom.’ But I didn’t feel it until I was in the men’s group working through some of these feelings and began to say inside my head, ‘This thing that’s going on with my face is embarrassment.’ ‘Oh! I’ve discovered embarrassment, guys!’ ‘Love.’ What the hell does that mean? ‘Well, it’s a warm feeling inside–you know, affection.’ Affection and love didn’t quite go together, but I didn’t know there was a difference.” But how did he perceive his emotions? “I was just in this body, and it was sort of doing things that I didn’t know what they were. If I’d been educated in terms of my body and other things, and if I’d known what my emotions were, I might have felt all kinds of feelings. But I never sorted them out. Emotions were not something that you were supposed to express. There’s not attention given to emotions. There’s attention given to action.”
He had always been quite clear about that action–what he was expected to aspire to and achieve. “The only option was to get married and have kids–have a boy child–have a car. If I had all of these, some of it was luck. But in any case, I was headed to being president. I was strong. I was the image of a good male. But even though I was doing all these nice things, I really was insecure out of some earlier feelings that I was not a macho person. I needed to be macho, I needed to be much tougher. I’d never won a fight. I’d been beat up as a kid. I had gun things that showed me I was macho, and the triggering of the adrenaline gave me a feeling that I was a man. But I was unsuccessful in really being the kind of–feeling I was a man.”
That sense of failure was one more painful thing in his snarl of emotions, one that was terrifying to look at when he finally separated it out. “Because I’m a man, because I do these things, because I have a family, house, car, boy child, I have worth. That has been built into the psyche. Once that gets questioned, I think that shifts the person into–Well, what am I if I’m not this? What is my life worth if it’s not that? When I began to question that particular aspect, I was lost. Because I didn’t know there was another way to live. I didn’t know there were any options.”
As he slowly untangled one emotion after another, he began to understand that having had no control over what was inside of him, he had been trying to assert control over what was outside–his wife, his children, even his time, for he had rarely allowed himself to take a vacation or sick day. But his need to control so many things gradually dropped away. “When I could finally say that I loved myself and I was looking after my own happiness and I felt I was doing things for me, it didn’t matter whether I did or didn’t have a woman, or was or wasn’t successful in the world. It was me who was feeling my self-worth. With that kind of positive position, I didn’t need to assert my control outward.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t still have moments when he feels that he failed in some way. “If I’d done things the way I should have, I could have been a professor, I could have been running a vocational program, I could have been making my 60, 80 thousand. I still feel uncomfortable. Look where I am–I’m stuck in a place like this.” He sweeps his arm around the cramped clutter and makeshift desks and shelves of his office. “I was headed to being president. All of us white boys, that was what was promised.” Then he throws his head back and laughs. “Even though it was like the lottery–I mean we still could get somewhere close.” But most of the time he doesn’t care anymore. He’s thinking about moving out of the city and says he’d be happy to quit and just travel for a while.
Eric says over and over how grateful he is to the men who helped him through. “I deeply thank men. I thank men profusely. This wasn’t an intellectual thing. I didn’t learn it out of books. It was other men who were courageous enough to say ‘I have been violent’ and to be very specific about what that violence was. The men in that group will never know how I thank them. I thank them for the peace and happiness I’m having now.” He hasn’t been part of a group for three years now and says he doesn’t think one would offer him much anymore. “There aren’t many men to click in with at a deep level and move with at this point,” he says almost wistfully.
Yet he says he’s sorry that so few men have anyone to help them through their violence and controlling behavior, and he’s disturbed that society hasn’t made helping them a priority. “We really respond to crises. This society is still working on intervention, on policing, rather than prevention–because it’s not ready to look at the issue of male dominance. It’s not wanting to do anything about male control. It’s not wanting to have shared and open relationships. Because then you would have to work on these values that keep this from happening. But until those values change there’s no way the rape’s going to stop, or beating wives is going to stop, or beating kids is going to stop.”
Asked what he thinks causes men to be violent, Jim Dugo sits quietly for a minute and then says, “I know more what the syndrome is like than what the causes are. I know that these men, almost all of them, have trouble expressing a wide range of emotions, expressing feelings other than anger. There’s an inability to cry, an inability to laugh, an inability to show the whole range of human emotions–which is what they need to do in order to not have things only get channeled through aggression. They don’t often convert pain into sadness and crying and talking from the heart.” Part of his job is to pull out emotions other than anger. “I find that when you get men together and they can cry with each other, what you begin to do is reinforce in them the notion that crying takes more courage than being angry–that it’s a lot riskier to express feelings.”
Dugo also suggests that violence is the result of a need to control other people. “I think controlling comes out of feelings of inadequacy and fear. So if you can control the other person, you won’t have to feel inadequate. If you can control, you won’t have to be fearful. Your focus is out there–you don’t have to look in. If controlling makes you feel better, then you don’t have to think about what in you needs to change. And violence is one way of trying to gain control over another person.”
He says violent men seem to learn early on to channel their emotions into anger that’s directed outward. “I would say that about seven out of ten of the men that come in to see me have either been victims of physical abuse as children or watched a parent or family member be a victim.” He also points to the general perception that it’s OK for siblings to fight and for parents to slap and spank their children. And though he says he can’t prove a link, he cites the pervasive violence in newspapers, in movies (according to one study, one out of eight films show scenes of sexual violence), and on television (by the time the average child is 18 he will have watched 250,000 acts of violence and 40,000 attempted murders). He says the men don’t have to go far to get seemingly legitimate support for their behavior. “I’ve seen individuals use passages from the Bible to show that men should be dominant. I once attended a workshop on spouse abuse where the presenter was from Utah, and he claimed the incidence of spouse abuse was quite high in his state because the Mormon religion reinforces this notion that men are superior to women.”
Like Eric, Dugo has seen patterns among violent men. “I think there’s oftentimes a self-esteem issue, where the man doesn’t feel he’s measuring up to some expectations. So there’s a lot of fear there, and he takes it out on the spouse.” The men he’s seen are also often very jealous, even when they have no reason to be. “Underneath it all they’re very dependent on this other person, and they don’t want to lose her. They almost all have the fear of being left, being deserted. I think everybody has those needs–to be loved and wanted and not be alone. It’s just that most men never tell anybody they need that, let alone themselves.” He pauses. “I always think it’s interesting when men say women are more sensitive than men. I don’t think women are more sensitive than men. I think men get hurt just as easy, just as fast, but don’t let it register as that.”
Dugo has found that a lot of violent men are racist, though he has been surprised to see blacks and whites getting along fine in his groups. “They’re all batterers. And they all come in here a little bit vulnerable, with their tail between their legs. I don’t mean their prejudices are erased, but for some reason they’re able to rise above them.”
Some of the men are also often intensely homophobic, far more so than the general population. “I wasn’t at all prepared to see that. It’s part of their fear–fear of not being a man. There was a whole debate in one group when it was reported that homosexuality might be linked to a certain gene and that there was a biological component. That was very disturbing to the men.” He says he has a hypothesis about why. “If you look at boys 13, 14 years old, homosexuality is incredibly repugnant to them. There’s something about the process of identity that each person goes through when they make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Visit the same boy five years later at a party, and here’s Joe, his friend who’s gay, and Sally, who’s a lesbian–and that’s fine. Because all of a sudden that wasn’t a threat. He’s clear, he knows who he is, he’s not frightened by notions of things that might happen to him that he may have no control over. I think there may be something that goes wrong in that process with men who are batterers. I think these men are often fixated at that early identity age–so they retain those macho characteristics and simplistic notions to reassure themselves that they’re a man.”
Dugo can cite various reasons men become violent, but he points out that many men grow up in violent homes but don’t become violent. And many men feel inadequate and have difficulty with their emotions but don’t become batterers. And most men exhibit controlling, dominant behavior when they relate to women but usually don’t cross the boundary into extreme behavior. He doesn’t know why. Research in this area is still meager–in fact, very few data about domestic violence in this country existed until the mid 1970s, and almost none exist for other countries. But Dugo suggests that the people around a child who might have a tendency to use force often either reinforce that tendency or don’t curb it.
Asked how much his group therapy can change a violent man, Dugo answers, “I don’t think the urge to be violent per se gets cured. But I’ve certainly seen lots of men who have stopped being physically violent, who I’ve talked to three or four years later and there are no reported acts of physical violence–though I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that there hasn’t continued to be some sort of verbal abuse. But usually there’s a reduction in frequency and intensity. This guy who grabbed his wife’s jaw, before he might have pushed her. This guy who grabbed an arm, before he might have punched that arm. A lot of times I see people come in for a while and then leave, and then they come back three or four years later and report it’s happened again. I don’t know of any longitudinal studies that have tracked this over five or ten years. Most of these studies track three or six months later. Well, if you’re tracking people six months later and their cycle is every six months, I mean–” He throws up his hands and laughs.
Of course some of the men don’t change. “They just can’t see that they’re doing something wrong. Or they want to simplistically believe that once they’ve realized what they’re doing they’ll never do it again. A lot of them want to believe that they’re cured prematurely–the majority of them. ‘Well, I learned my lesson. I’m never going to do that again.’ I don’t have a lot of faith when people say that and they haven’t demonstrated that they’ve worked through an understanding of the issues, they haven’t really learned different ways to communicate their feelings, they don’t really understand what it does to somebody when they’re violent.
“These men aren’t that motivated to change to begin with. Now if you’re coming in because you’re depressed or having anxiety attacks, believe me, you’ll be motivated, especially if you feel the treatment is helping you–because this causes you pain. But if you come in because your wife is in pain and she’s threatening to leave you, and then she stops pressuring you–why would you want to keep coming and talk about something as shameful as this in front of a bunch of other people?” Particularly if a man’s partner makes it easy for him. “The woman can go into a denial cycle herself. The guy says, ‘Look, I’ll never do this again. I’m sorry, honey. I love you. Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s tempting for her to believe it. Because if she doesn’t believe it, it means she has to do things that are uncomfortable, like take a stand with him or say ‘This may not work out’–which creates economic and emotional dependency issues. So oftentimes the woman enters into a conspiracy with the guy to say, ‘It’s OK. It’s going to work out. It won’t happen again.’ And then it happens again, and it happens again.”
In early August John announces in a voice that’s half proud and half perplexed that Ann had slapped him the night before, and he hadn’t hit her back. He says they’d just been through the best eight weeks of their relationship. She became pregnant, and they talked about getting married. But they finally agreed it wasn’t a good idea, and she had an abortion.
Then she told him she wanted some time alone. He says they’d started arguing, and he pushed her into a chair. “I wanted her to look at me when I was talking to her. I was getting pissed and said, ‘You’re going to hear what I have to say.’ She’s ripping my shirt, and I let go of one of her hands. I saw it coming. I probably could have got my hand up, so part of me must have wanted it. Some kind of sick atonement or something. You’ll find if you study this that men who really beat their wives and shit, a lot of them when they get hit and hurt, it’s like they’ve got it coming. That’s what I’ve read. And I figured I had this one coming. I just didn’t get any of that inner stuff–I didn’t get that ‘I’m worthless. I’m not in control. I’m being rejected.’ I caught the slap because–” He stops. “I thought it was from someone who probably loves me–and she does. And that’s a big step.”
He thought about calling the police and taking her to court. Instead they made up. “Went out and ate, made love, and all this stuff.” He suggested that they take the shirt she’d ripped and hang it next to the one of hers he’d ripped a while back. “She started smiling and laughing–and then, ‘That’s not funny.’ But it was funny,” John says, letting out a clipped laugh.
Later she was irritated that he was pleased with himself for not hitting her back. “She said, ‘What am I supposed to do? Do a jig just because you didn’t bash my head in?’ And I said, ‘No. The point is you hit me, and I didn’t hit you. And you don’t know this, but I’m telling you, I didn’t even think of hitting you.’ She said, ‘Well, I guess that is pretty good.’ Because, you know, she had a lot to do with getting me there.”
Ann had been to see Jim Dugo, and John was trying to understand how her problems affected the way she responded to him. “Dugo says she fears the commitment, she needs to push me away, she needs this distance–because of all the abuse she went through or whatever the reason is. He’s helped me know her better than she has. He’s like a conduit between us.”
But on this morning John was still measuring his own hurt. “She’s all weird right now. She’s wondering about ‘if I love you.’ She doesn’t think we’re friends. All this bullshit. I start crying. I say, ‘Hey, I fucking love you.’ So I’m vulnerable, I’m able to be honest.” Later he said, “I’m perfectly happy to be without her all day today. Maybe the rest of my life. You can hear all these reasons for why someone does something, but you start adding them up and it’s so what? They’re still illogical. What I’m starting to question is is it worth it for me to be with someone who’s so fucking full of fear and whatever it is? I don’t want to get into this rhythm. She can go away and she knows that I’m hurt. And I go after her, and we get back together. It’s got to stop, one way or another. That’s why I’m going to wait this one out. I’m not calling her–and it’s not a teenage game. I have to take care of myself. I have to be prepared for this shit to end, even if I’m hoping for it not to end.”
The week before John had talked for almost half an hour at an AA meeting–he still goes almost every day–and had been praised for what he said. “They said that I was honest, had gratitude, and this and that. And I kept hearing it. Sometimes you’ll get people that will say nice things about you at these AA meetings who are just trying to be nice. But when it comes in abundance like that, you have to give some credence to it. And people at the men’s groups are saying that I helped them. It helped me to realize that I’m all right. I don’t get a lot of strokes from my girlfriend anymore. I don’t know why that is. She doesn’t see the good things, or she doesn’t want to acknowledge them, or she doesn’t believe they’re there.”
John says he’s decided to go back to college and become a counselor for alcoholics. Though his grades were good and he only had a year to go, he never finished his degree. He isn’t quite sure why. Fear of success, he suggests. But maybe fear of failure. He’s nervous about going back.
He has also decided he wants to start his own self-help group for batterers, though he’ll keep going to Jim Dugo’s group sessions. He says he doesn’t get much from his old self-help group anymore. “I get it to an extent, because I see new people there who are more violent than at Dugo’s. Lower moneywise maybe. More desperate, more hurt, more beginning. That’s neat to see. It’s a tough group. But I just don’t think they know where they’re going all the time. Dugo listens to what you’re saying, paraphrases it, and comes back at you. And he gives some decent advice.” He also says some people in his self-help group can be too judgmental. “If Dugo’s judgmental, he’s going to judge the act, not me. He will break down what happened and try to find out why I’m doing it–because of abandonment, or because I’ve been hurt, or because of control. He just knows what he’s doing.”
John also wants to start a group because he thinks it’s important that more exist. “People come from all over the city to my group on Belmont. And you think there are only five, six, eight, nine men in the city that are hitting women?” His voice rises. “And where are the commercials on television? They’ve got them all night long: ‘If you’re battered by your old man, call 1-800–.’ Where are the ones that say ‘If you’re hitting a woman and you want to get help–‘? They’re attacking the symptom, not the problem. If a woman’s getting hit, the solution is for the man not to hit her.”
John remembered that Eric had once come to talk to his self-help group, and though he doubted that Eric would remember him, he called him in early October to ask his advice on starting a group. They got together, talked for a couple of hours, and traded book titles.
By mid-October John’s doing well in school. He’s quit smoking and rides his bike to classes, almost a 30-mile round trip. He talks excitedly about his plans for the self-help group. “I’d like to get speakers to come in once in a while to tell their stories. I want to mix a little AA stuff with it. Maybe have a preamble or some kind of definition of the group and what our purpose is. Read it before every meeting so we can remind ourselves ‘Hey, we’re here to stop hitting women and children and people in general. And not to hit anybody unless we’re defending ourselves.’ Stuff like that. Mention control, mention some of these things that are common to all of us.” He pauses. “I’ve been saving up a lot of energy all these years. I ain’t done shit. I’m just saying–I haven’t given back a lot yet. I’m doing it for myself too. I think it’s going to help me get better.”
He says he and Ann are off again. He’d told her he didn’t think they should see each other for 30 days. “We lasted about 15. We had a nice couple of weeks together, and then we got into shit. Just a long verbal fight. And I pushed her on the bed a couple of times. But that isn’t what I would call violence. It was Sunday night. I’m pissed off because she won’t see my children–she hasn’t seen them in ten months. I feel she’s being disloyal. I feel I’m dishonoring myself to remain with her if this is the case. I haven’t given her any ultimatum yet. Eric told me not to. He said that would be a form of control. He said, ‘But you can make up your mind whether you need to stay with her or not.’ So I’m enjoying myself and getting into things. And she’s started her incest-survivor’s stuff, and that’s going to be tough. So maybe we’re doing what we need to do.”
By the end of 1985 Eric was feeling increasingly happy living by himself and had no intention of getting into another serious relationship–particularly since by this time he firmly believed that sexual interactions were necessarily violent. Yet he found himself drawing closer and closer to Jean (not her real name), a woman he’d met a couple of years before. “It was really funny how we got together and our sexual interactions began to take place. Who knows? It may have been chemistry that made it possible, but it transformed both of us with respect to our sexuality.” He pauses. “There are times when I’m not too delicate in terms of my loving and hugging and touching. She’s much smaller than I am and very delicate, and I’m big and sort of clumsy. So I’ll lie on her arm or movements of that sort. And we’ve had some tense moments, but it’s gotten even more peaceful and happy as we’ve moved along.” He shakes his head and smiles. “I would never have guessed in my wildest imagination that I’d have this relationship, but I fell in love with this lady. I’m just more and more enamored and enthralled with this relationship.”
He says he was completely open with her about his past. “She was somewhat astonished that there was anything like this going on, but aware that it could and did. She doesn’t minimize it or deny it. She knows, she’s sensitive to my dominance, control, but we can talk about it.” (Jean says she was at first repulsed by what he said he had done, then admiring of how much he had changed. “I have no sense of the person that Eric describes himself as having been,” she says. “I accept that it’s there, but I don’t feel it.” She laughs. “And he also knows I wouldn’t put up with that.” She says they’ve certainly butted heads, but his responses have always been under control. “I don’t get any of the appalling reactions–raised voices and discounting, all the symptoms of anger–that I can see in my father, my brother, my son.”)
Eric says that during the Clarence Thomas hearings Jean came home and asked him if he had ever harassed a woman. “Ten years ago my ex-wife would come home and say, ‘What do you have to say about rape?'” He laughs. “I would say, ‘What? I don’t do it.’ ‘Oh, yeah?’ And here was my lover saying, ‘Have you ever harassed a woman?’ I said, ‘Yeah. True.’ Now I want to minimize it, but I started giving a few examples. She let it go.”
The two of them now live together out in the suburbs with her 24-year-old son, whose behavior sometimes annoys Eric. “He would come marching in and expect her to have a meal on the table for him. I said, ‘Where am I? I thought this new generation was a little bit enlightened. Meal on the table?’ So we talk a lot about these things, and I supported her in doing only the meals she wants to do.” Usually Eric and Jean cook their meals together. “It’s a wonderful, sharing thing to do, and nobody’s better than somebody else. I got a little teed because I saw a pattern of her making me wash the pans. But I commented about it, and she’s changing.”
He says Jean recently suggested they get married. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? Marriage? I love you! Marriage really doesn’t do things for me right now. The institution requires the male to provide money–so I’m going to step in and assume that? Unh unh. It scares the shit out of me.’ I was honest with her. ‘If we can just flow through life and you can understand that I can’t have that pressure–‘” His face reddens and he chokes on his words. Then he starts laughing at the tears in his eyes. “It’s close to the surface. Being a male is just bullshit. It’s fun to be alive, and that’s why to have those expectations turns it into a drag.” He says Jean has plenty of money of her own, but he still fears the dynamic marriage sets up. “I don’t think marriage is a healthy institution in the culture we’re in–and I think it reinforces violence.”
Eric had pretty much cut off his relationship with his family when he met Jean, but she encouraged him to call and see his children, who are now 24 and 26. “I’m glad she did,” he says. “I love them a whole lot. They’re just wonderful.” He has a lot of regrets about how little joy he took in them when they were growing up, and he’s dismayed by some of the things he sees in his son. “He’s taken on some of the control behaviors, which are part of his insecurity. I don’t understand it very well. He’s seen the changes I’ve gone through, and he’s extremely bright–he’s very capable, more so than myself. But he’s carrying some of these male things I don’t appreciate–dogma and decisions that aren’t flexible, and so on. He learned all that from–I’m getting a reflection by looking at him.” His eyes fill with tears again. “I can’t talk to him too well. We go out and we’re together, and I supply him some money to help him through.”
He never sees his ex-wife anymore. “There’s no real reason for contact. I think she feels a lot of things about the past, and it doesn’t really take me to a very peaceful place when I am with her. Maybe when we’re 70 or 80, if there’s still a connection. But I don’t think there is a real connection.”
Up until two years ago, more than a decade after Eric started trying to understand and stop his own violence, work could still trigger the old explosions. Sometimes they would burst out and he would yell at someone. He found it particularly difficult to deal with men who weren’t aware of how controlling their behavior was–especially since he could sense that they were exploding inside. Now he’s learned to calmly point out to them exactly what they’re doing that bothers him.
It dismays him that he occasionally still catches himself being controlling. Last summer when he made arrangements for Jean and him to go see his sister, he bought tickets for a plane that left at 11 AM. But Jean taught a class at 11 AM. “I didn’t want to leave later. I didn’t mean to do that, but that’s really control. Because I was the one who was making the plans, and I bought the tickets–so I thought I could do what I wanted to do.”
He also worries about what he and the other men in his self-help groups called “the thoughts that don’t get out”–occasional involuntary thoughts so frightening the men could rarely talk about them even among themselves. “If I pick up a knife, there is an association of weapon with it–an association flashes of using it to injure the persons I love, the people I’m around. It doesn’t worry me at all because I’ve never carried through with any such thought. But what’s it doing floating around in my mind? I don’t know.”
He says the old anger is rooted so deep that he doubts he’ll ever be entirely rid of it. “I’m getting freer and freer. I don’t stick my finger up at people when I’m driving anymore–that used to be such an explosive response for me. I still feel some of those things, but it isn’t the explosion that goes off inside, it isn’t quite the adrenaline shot. It’s more ‘Look at my mind saying that.'” He pauses. “I would like to believe that people beat the feeling of dominance, this explosion inside, being in this role, but I don’t know. I used to think that there’d be another role to jump into that would be better, but I don’t think it’s a role that one goes into in order to be free. I think it’s got to be situational living–where we move and are sensitive and feel and we try to be what we are in that space.” Quietly he adds, “Fifty years is too long to learn this stuff. I don’t regret life, but it could have been a lot more fun.”
He’s troubled that he hasn’t seen much change in the male culture he believes encourages violence. “Men have to find a new way to be, a new reason to live. We’re faced with a cultural-language problem. We have a whole economic system based on power and violence. And there isn’t any safe place–just like women talk about a safe place–there isn’t a safe place for men to explore the whole variety of our lives and our feelings and our talents.
“We’re destroying ourselves by not taking this on. It’s a cancer inside us. Yes, women are getting hurt, people are getting killed. But until men begin to see that we are destroying ourselves by being violent, there isn’t going to be any reason to change.”
Violent men who can’t or won’t see the few private practitioners who, like Jim Dugo, specialize in domestic violence don’t have a lot of alternatives. Around the city and suburbs there are therapists in the overburdened community mental-health programs, which have sliding-scale fees, and a handful of private community-service or hospital programs that offer facilitated group programs, most of which also have sliding-scale fees.
The Cook County courts have a program for Chicago residents who have been found guilty of assault, battery, or violating an order of protection (convicted men who live in the suburbs are referred to one of five private programs, including Dugo’s practice). Set up in 1979, the court program was one of the first in the country and remains one of only a few. But it too is limited. It only lasts for 18 weeks, and in 11 years only 2,500 to 3,000 people, almost all of them men, have been referred to it. That’s only a tiny percentage of those who have had domestic-violence charges filed against them in criminal court. In 1990 alone 18,745 such cases were filed in Chicago (the majority of them were later dropped).
Three to four million women are battered in this country every year, though there are signs the number is dropping. Half of all women will at some time be physically attacked by a partner (we don’t know what portion of men are batterers). Battering is the most common cause of injury to women, and one-quarter to one-third of women who show up in emergency rooms are there for something related to ongoing abuse. And these statistics appear to be based on tallies of incidents of blatant physical violence; if other abuses were included, the numbers would be far higher. Of course most incidents, regardless of their severity, are never reported.
Yet little government money is being spent on programs for men, and no one’s likely to propose adding any during a budget crisis in the middle of a recession. “There’s a Domestic Violence Act that funds treatment for the victims,” says Dugo. “There are shelters that get funding, so they have places to go to stay and be safe–and that’s an important issue if you’re going to leave your spouse and he’s going to hunt you down. There are agencies that provide women legal and counseling services for free–which makes sense because a lot of those who are beat up are dependent financially and that’s part of why they remain in the situation. But there isn’t comparable money for men.”
Given the cost and scarcity of programs facilitated by professionals, men might want to turn to self-help groups, but domestic-violence organizations that keep referral lists knew of only two. Some people who work with abused women worry that without a professional facilitator, men in self-help groups may reinforce their tendencies to minimize their violence and blame their partners. Dugo also cautions that few of the groups are likely to have a clear process for teaching men to understand and take responsibility for their violent actions. But he still thinks the groups can be useful. “My guess is that if someone’s coming there voluntarily and being with other people who are trying to change something, something positive happens.”
In fact, he wishes a lot more men could find someplace to talk about violence. He says the burgeoning new men’s movement could serve that purpose, though he doesn’t think it does now. “I think they’re dealing more with men’s identity issues–what it means to be a man, what it means to be macho, what it means to be sensitive. I think they’re raising the right questions. But why would men be willing to give up power and face their violence if they believed it was giving them an edge unless they had to?”
Toward the end of October John heard Robert Bly speak at a men’s gathering. Later his words tumble out as he describes a single sentence in Bly’s talk that shook him. “Bly mentioned somebody arguing with their boss and hoping the shame in this person would not lead to violence. And my stomach literally turned, and I felt a physical connection with what he said. It was far more than ‘Well I took another step in this fucking thing, this drudgery about violence.’ This was a physical happening to me, to such an extent that every 15 minutes for the next six days I had tears coming into my eyes. I found the connection between me and when I struck out. Shame. The feeling that I’m not worth anything as a little child. That I’m a mistake. That I’m a piece of whatever as a little child. My parents are always letting me know, demeaning my value as a little child. So I grew up with this base, and as a consequence your boundaries get fiercely, fiercely protected. I’ve seen it with me over and over.
“Shame is a constant, continuing feeling which I probably started developing when my mom went wacko. My father shamed me in different ways. It was very bad. Wrigley Field. I still feel–I don’t know–that physical feeling of shame, when you get warm in your whole body. I can feel that still in confrontations, and I think some of that has to do with these incidents, especially with my dad. I remember once we got on a bus, and the bus driver accused me of not paying my fare. I told my dad I paid the fare–which I did–and my dad’s first reaction was to go pay this guy again. He’s just completely dishonoring me. He’s deciding that my worth is not as much as this bus driver’s.
“I realized why I’m crippled. You’re sitting there with your girlfriend, and you’ve had a beautiful day. The next thing you know you’re into some ugly, ugly argument, and you know you’re pushing shit you shouldn’t. And you know some of the things she’s been doing have hurt your feelings. And it’s like all of a sudden you understand fucking why they hurt you, and why that hurt can lead to aggression and violence.”
He’d had a week of revelations. Jim Dugo gave him a book called When Anger Hurts, which he flew through. “Books are my friends again all of a sudden. It was real sneaky–it just came up on me. The point is, I change when I read. I’m a quieter guy. And I’ve been wondering, where’s this other guy been? He’s been hit and beat up and lost and locked away because I’ve given this other guy all this strength.”
His new self-help group also had its first meeting. “I talked to Dugo and said, ‘I’m not exactly through the wall myself yet.’ He said, ‘No. But that’s all right. You can still bring other people to the wall as you’re getting better.'” A couple of the men who came were from his old self-help group, including one who had just started. John says the man had been hitting his wife for years and said he didn’t know it was wrong until his wife said she was leaving. The man was going to AA meetings and every other kind of self-help group he could find. “Trying to give himself a boot camp in this stuff in six weeks. I said, ‘Hey, there is no quick path through this.’ I had to burst his bubble, you know? This is fucking work. It really is. He just looked at me.”
John says the meeting went well, even though he thinks he has to learn to talk less aggressively when he’s directing the discussion. “If I can just be an example of a change–like Eric is to me. You know it works when you see Eric. There’s something beautiful about that guy. I caught that when I first saw him. He helped me out tremendously a couple of weeks ago when I was talking about Ann. He says one thing we can’t afford is any kind of control. He opened my eyes a whisker before Bly did. The cause might be my shame, but the other cause that comes right after is the control shit. If I want to change her because I feel that shame, and she’s not giving it to me, then what happens? He was adamant about it, and I knew he was serious. Like they say, when the student’s ready the teacher will appear. Here he was. ‘No fucking control.’ That’s what I got from him. And I have to do that. Really have to work on that.” Then he adds, “It’s exciting. I feel I have some hope now. I really do.”
He and Ann are on again. “We had a real good night last night and a good night Thursday. And we just got done with two and a half weeks apart. Since this has happened I’ve realized from what I’ve been hearing in these groups and stuff, it takes a while to get over this anger that women have toward men who have hit them or hurt them or abused them. I used to be of the mind that ‘Honey, I’m home. Everything’s better.’ And as long as I believed that, I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t believe that. Well, I don’t think that way anymore. There were a couple of times when I got ‘attacked,’ shall we say, and it didn’t register like it used to. It was like, I’ll listen to it, understanding I don’t have to take it personally anymore. I’m getting the picture that she was the one that was fucking hit.” He pauses. “Except for the times she hit me.” He starts to laugh, then cuts himself off. “She’s the one that’s hurt at this point, and she’s got her own pain that she’s dealing with too.”
Suddenly he realizes he’s being a bit smug. “Guys like me, I have to be vigilant. Right now I feel good, but what about that unguarded moment? When everything clicks from the past, the moon ain’t right, and there’s a coyote nippin’ my soul–and somebody’s bothering me? I can’t even afford to raise my voice like I used to. I started to last night a bit, and Ann said, ‘Don’t yell.’ And I started yelling like that–” He whispers a snarl. “Pretend yell. So I could make my point, but I wouldn’t raise my voice. And I’ve just learned how to do that. There were times when I’d get flustered when I’d think, ‘If I just talk louder, it’ll make more sense. I know it will.’ It’s about unlearning old behavior. I’ve got to unlearn this old shit first.”
A month later John and Ann have broken up again.
- Bobby Wright Mental Health Center, Chicago, 722-7900
- Charter Barclay Hospital, Chicago, 728-7100, ext.137
- Community Crisis Center, Elgin, 708-697-2380
- Counseling Service Associates; Chicago, Flossmoor, Forest Park, Oak Lawn, Naperville, Skokie; 708-771-1841
- Crisis Center, Tinley Park, 708-974-1791
- Dr. Dugo & Associates, Des Plaines, 708-635-2040
- Tom Golebiewski, Wilmette, 708-251-5506
- Men Overcoming Violence, Chicago, 327-0036
- Old Orchard Hospital, Skokie, 708-679-0760
- Options, southwest suburbs, 708-485-5254
- Portage Cragin Counseling Center, Chicago, 282-7800
- Promises Kept, Evanston, 708-332-2030
- Proviso Family Service; Melrose Park, Westchester; 708-681-2324
- Psychological Counseling, Lake Bluff, 708-234-8541
- A Safe Place, Waukegan, 708-249-4450
- Sarah’s Inn, Oak Park, 708-386-3305
- The Self-Help Center (a general clearinghouse), 708-328-0470
- South Suburban Family Shelter, Homewood, 708-335-4125
- TRI Counseling Services, Inc., Chicago, 561-8431
The following individuals and organizations offer help to violent men:
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Zielinski.