Working With Batterers

05/14/2010 06:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

For many years I sat in church basements listening to men speak about their violence towards woman. I worked in a Certified Batterer Intervention Program where men blamed their crimes on everything from invisible buttons their unreasonable wives pressed, to whiskey and beer.

These men weren't different from the bad boys to whom I'd once been drawn. I craved them before, but never again. Bad boys aren't exciting; they're dangerous. Children living in abusive homes spend their childhood cowering. They become hyper-vigilant. They may become promiscuous. They may become abusers. They may become the abused.

Many become strong at the broken places. Human services are full of us. My father tried to kill my mother; my sister and I spend our lives teaching and counseling. But the trauma always stays.

We mythologize that batterers don't abuse their children. Read Lundy Bancroft for the truth. Domestic violence is rarely limited to partners. Clients swear screaming and hitting children teaches them to be better people.

My father belted the hell out of me--this said as though beatings were proof their fathers loved them. Perhaps we adopt what hurt us to prove our pain wasn't suffered in vain. Or perhaps it's just laziness.

To help the men consider not terrifying their children, just rent the idea, I'd say, I'd write down the words they used to describe their childhood feelings when they were yelled at and hit. Humiliated. Terrified. Nauseated. Wanted to kill myself. Wanted to die.

Is this what you want for your children? I'd ask.

We offered tools for change, but they had to choose to use them. They fought the idea that they could control themselves. Thinking themselves victims of invisible buttons was more comfortable than admitting they chose violence to get their way. And what did they want? Why did cheeks get shattered and tender skin become black and blue?

Money, sex, cold food. When honest, they admitted they simply wanted her to shut the "f" up. They didn't have the goal of breaking a bone. They had goals like hot suppers and sex and met them the quickest way they knew: with fists and raised voices.

What was it like to work with these men? Sad. Enraging. Toxic. It was never just about being drunk or high, but being drunk and high never helped. It was about power, control, and a violence that seemed all-too-accessible.

Denial and shame blocked their change; changing meant admitting they'd done hateful things to people they loved.

On my best day, a woman walked in with her husband, a former client who'd started the program belligerent, in denial, and with eyes telling me how deeply he hated me.

Halfway through the program, he cried, admitting he'd done the one thing he'd promised he'd never do. He'd watched his father beat his mother and now he'd beaten his wife.

He left the program wanting to work with young men in an anti-violence program.

That best day, his wife came in carrying a cake and these words: Thank you for giving me back my husband.

That sums it up for me. When people ask me if it worked, this is what I say: It worked for that family.