When I taught in a batterer intervention program--an educational, not counseling program--we'd draw a triangle on the board to help the men look at their belief system. During this lesson on the hierarchy of power, we'd use different 'systems' so they could identify the ways they classified people. Schools, corporations and prisons were just a few of the organizations we sliced and diced.
They stratified prison, showing the prisoners on the bottom, squashed under the guards, wardens, politicians and everyone else in the world. When I asked if the guards had any chance of having an "authentic relationship" with the prisoners as they loomed over them as shown in the hierarchy triangle, their laughs were loud and derisive.
When we asked them to define the layers of family, the woman usually laid on the bottom of the heap. Some men argued that the women rated a place above the male children, but they were always wedged under the husbands and fathers. Men who'd grown up in single mother households still stuck the father figure on top.
This doesn't come from the air.
The Boston Globe today reported on another domestic homicide, the 16th in Massachusetts since January. Sarin Chan was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. The murder was witnessed by her four-year-old and six-year-old. (The article does not say if they are boys or girls, and it is not known if the alleged murderer is the father.)
Honestly? I feel a bit shaky writing the above. My novel, The Murderer's Daughters, revolves around young girls witnessing their father murdering their mother. I worked with men who savagely beat (and some murdered) their partners. My father tried to kill my mother, and still I try to pretend that it's not happening. If I'm trying to live in this fantasy world, how deep do others bury it?
In February, another Globe article reported that rising economic stress as a contributing factor in the domestic violence spree in Massachusetts. This may or may not be true, but if we're not careful, that can be a facile way to pigeonhole domestic homicides.
There's an awful lot of woman-hating in the world, and it's all too acceptable. Certainly, Mel Gibson's self-pitying and rage-filled rant at Oksana Grigorieva could have little relation to the economy, not when the word 'billion' has been used to describe his net worth.
Men who batter and kill their partners are usually self-pitying and see themselves as victims -- victims with fists. For these men, it's all too comfortable to step on someone else's head to lift oneself up. Night after night, when I worked with batterers, the men demonstrated that the bodies on the bottom of the hierarchy belong to their woman at home.
If men are angry because of the economy, why do they kill their wives and girlfriends? Why not bosses, ex-bosses (not that I'm suggesting this!) or bankers or government workers?
The men I worked with, after being arrested for hurting their wives, usually claimed good reason. "She pushed my buttons." "She was being a bitch." "She knows I hate it when she ... "
I'd ask them if they ever punched their boss, and they'd laugh as though I were crazy.
"Don't you ever get mad at your boss?" I'd ask. "Don't they push your buttons?"
"Of course, but I don't hit them."
"Why?" I'd want to know. "Do you love your boss more than you love your wife?"
Usually they'd open their mouth and sputter, not knowing what to say. That's when we'd go back to the hierarchy of power.
It's easier to step on the person on the bottom, and we're still sadly in a world that places wives, girlfriends, daughters and mothers on the bottom rung for the crime of being female in this world.
There's a lot left to teach our children, such as notions that equality can equal life, and authentic relationships. Sometimes I'd say very simple things to the men I worked with (and many of them were men who wanted to change): Hitting, yelling, pushing--these are all bad. It doesn't make you big and manly. It makes you small and mean.