“You’ve made a very righteous decision that’s putting my job at risk, and you’re using a challenging time for my family as entertainment. I don’t appreciate either of those things.
“How dare you.”
That was early spring almost three years ago. I’m sure those aren’t the exact words he used, but it’s precisely what he said.
A few weeks earlier, The Professor had been arrested for obstructing his wife’s airway. During a school-night discussion, a while after they’d put their four kids to bed, she wouldn’t shut up when he wanted her to and he pinned her body — with his much bigger, stronger one — to their living-room couch and covered her mouth and nose with his hand until he felt like letting her go. Once free, she grabbed a phone while running to the basement, locked herself in a bathroom, and called 911.
Soon after spending two or three days in county jail, he visited me at my then-job, at the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP). “I put my hands on [her],” he said, eyes watery-red, voice quavering.
He used her name; later, affectation dropped, he wouldn’t.
We found a private room. I asked him what he’d done. He told me his story. It’s different from the one in the preceding paragraph. I won’t tell you my sources, so I hope you’ll feel skeptical when I tell you they’re more credible on the incident than he is, but they are.
I’d considered him one of my closest friends for a decade. I’d let myself trust and be vulnerable to him while we seemed to bond over music and bicycles. Despite a lot of contradictory evidence, I chose to believe we shared convictions about teaching and living with authentic compassion. Resolving how much of an earnest rube I was toward him for so long might shake and embarrass me until I die.
I asked, “Have you done that or things like it before?”
“Yes,” he said.
Turns out that until the night he got arrested, through more than 10 years of marriage and abuse, he’d been able to dictate that keeping his secret was best for the family. His ruse was and remains tight — perhaps more so since they’ve been divorced.
“Chris, what should I do?” he eventually asked, after 20 minutes of crying and declaring how much he’d screwed up.
I worked at DAIP full-time for just a few months in 2012 and 2013, but since June 2010 I’ve spent at least one night a week there co-facilitating a critical-dialogue group in a program for men who use emotional and physical violence against women. The program, part of Duluth’s coordinated criminal-justice and social-service response to men’s violence against women, is designed to help men who use violence to identify, confront, and ideally change beliefs that justify abusing wives and girlfriends (and usually, directly or by close extension, kids).
Many people mistake the groups for — or believe they should be — therapy, treatment, counseling, or anger management (whatever that is). Those approaches make sense to folks who believe individual men’s pain and other “issues” cause them to use violence against women. According to that perspective, once a guy gets sober, resolves trauma, finds work, learns how to “communicate,” goes back to church, figures out how to stop attracting and enabling difficult women, or solves some other real or supposed disorder, he’ll stop using violence. It’s a seductive idea. It makes “those guys” (a designation that seldom includes men who present as The Professor does) and “those women” the problems.
It means they, not we, are the only ones whose thinking and behavior have to change.
But some folks believe men’s violence against women is a social problem enabled by dominant norms that teach boys and men they’re entitled to expect and enforce deference from girls and women. Those same norms, according to this perspective, teach girls and women their human worth depends on how pleasing (including deferential) they are to boys and men, and that not creating a fuss is the best way for women to avoid men’s violence. A lot of people disagree with this explanation. It suggests we’re all culpable and (whether we know it or not) complicit. I believe in it quite strongly.
The Professor knew all this when he came to see me. I’d spent a lot of time telling him about how working on myself and with other men who have used violence has changed my life and teaching — it’s transformed the way I notice and understand the effects of social, cultural, professional, and other hierarchies that privilege some people at the expense of many others.
Our conversations generally got deep on long bike rides. He’s prominent among scholars who study processes of belief and behavior change, so I asked him a lot of questions about using critical dialogue to help facilitate real changes. His responses always seemed thoughtful. He’s smarter than I am, so I took what he said seriously. I feel angry, foolish, and ill when I think about those exchanges. I think about them a lot.
Here’s some other stuff he knew: Before I started working with men who have used violence, I was certain my presence would be a gift. I’d believed that since I’d never used violence against any woman, I probably had a lot of valuable insight that would help them see a better way. I could, I thought, be a formative example. Throughout the three-day co-facilitation training I felt quite noble and generous.
Fifteen minutes into my first time observing a group, while listening to men I’d entered the room feeling morally superior toward, I realized I’d abused my wife (the term she prefers over “partner” or “spouse”) and every girl and woman I’d dated.
Throughout my first year of observing and co-facilitating groups, I learned a painful amount about how, since high school, I’d intentionally used my facility with words to belittle, scare, shame, mock, dismiss, instruct, and punish girls and women who trusted me. How I’d unintentionally used my size and strength to intimidate them. How I’d used my facial expressions, especially my eyes, as bludgeons and knives.
I’d used a lot of violence against girls and women.
The Professor knew all that when he came to see me. I’d been telling him about it for three years: sharing troubling blind spots I’d found through group dialogue and personal reflection; explaining why I’ll spend the rest of my life figuring out how to live with the impossibility of taking back words and actions I’ve used to hurt my wife and other girls and women; trying to describe irreparable shifts in my perspectives toward popular culture, hetero relationships, and many other aspects of life most of us seldom question. In some settings I seldom shut up about any of it. Time with him was one of those settings.
I actually believed he wanted to change. I thought he wanted the kind of help I could give from being a few years into my own process of figuring out how to stop using violence. So I repeated some things I’d already told him. I told him some things I’ve never told anyone else. We were in a room where men’s groups are held and he’d asked about them, so I told him what they’d been like for me as both a co-facilitator and a participant. I tried to be earnest and firm and sincere. Not judgmental, but not collusive. I tried to show him love and support and friendship.
Caught up in my own tale of contrition and woe, I didn’t notice his eyes hardening, posture straightening, and arms folding. And then he was confronting me with a gaze — if you know him you know it, even if you have trouble believing you do — that sees nothing, only intimidates and coerces and demands.
“But Chris,” he admonished, “what should I do?”
That’s when I should have known what he really wanted, but I still (silly, adorable jackass) misunderstood. I apologized for talking so much about myself during a difficult time for him. I told him I couldn’t speak from experience because I’d never been in his situation, but I’d do anything I could to help.
He gave up. We hugged. He left. When I got home I told my wife. She was less surprised than I’d been; we’d both had a growing number of unsettling experiences with The Professor for a year or two, but she’d had some I hadn’t.
He and I had weird conversations a handful of times after that day at DAIP, over coffee and on chilly bike rides. I’d stopped believing he and I were buddies, but I had no idea, until it was way too late, how certain he seemed I’d be his ally — how ardently he felt entitled to using me as an ideally positioned advocate for his self-serving story: he’s a good, liberal, Catholic man who shouldn’t have done what he did but got pushed too far by the constant lack of respect his insufferable wife and ungrateful children showed for his sacrifice and leadership. He withstands all they put him through, then she abandons him after he makes one mistake? And then she and her advocates say he’s dangerous to her and his kids — try to control when he can and can’t see them? Of course he’s going to fight back. What should he do: just keep taking it? He’s got his job to think about.
The last time he and I talked was during a late-afternoon, mid-spring ride that started as a supposed opportunity to discuss why some women where he works feel uncomfortable around him. I’d naively raised the topic in an email, still believing he wanted my help in starting to see some things differently. He thanked me and suggested we discuss it while riding roads for a couple hours.
Maybe 20 minutes into the ride, after I’d told him what I see, and had shared a small bit of what I’d heard from women — when it started getting to a point where he could take some accountability — his face and tone hardened, he pulled over to the driver’s-side shoulder of Howard-Gnesen Road just after we passed Homecroft Elementary heading north, and he berated me for the better part of an hour, maybe more, until I “admitted” nothing I’d said was true.
Then he berated me for taking so long to admit I’d been lying. Then for showing up at his court dates to support his wife, for a lack of loyalty, for being an incredible hypocrite — for having the nerve to judge him when I’ve told him about so much of my own bad behavior — and for whatever else he could think of.
It may be the most withering experience of my life. It wasn’t an argument or a fight. Not a spirited debate. It was an onslaught. His obvious intention was to crush me. I’m not surprised that, among the folks I’ve talked to about it, the only ones who really get what I say about the surreality of the experience are his ex-wife, their adult daughter, and two women (close friends of his wife) he’d attacked after they challenged his authority. I know we’re not the only ones.
I wasn’t afraid he’d come at me physically; I’m not a tough guy, but I almost wanted him to.
I just had no idea what to do or say.
I wish I could describe it.
I think about those elongated, confounding moments many times every week, sometimes every day for multiple months, mostly feeling ashamed for how I did and didn’t respond. Nothing would have mattered, but I still wish I’d have known how to do something different from what I did, which was mostly feel confused, exhausted, afraid, and hopeless. Eventually I gave up, shrank inward, and spent a long while almost silent. He didn’t stop, but he got nothing new to work with.
I can’t imagine how anyone has survived him as a husband or dad, or how colleagues and students sustain sanity against his demand for absolute deference and control. Even when he’s less intense than what I experienced, he’s brutal. He chooses to use brutality.
He can also be quite charming. He’s very smart and well-spoken. He presents incredibly well. I’m sure some of his apparent kindness and patience toward other people is sincere, but when I reconsider a decade of interaction with him, I have no idea how to discern what was real and what was performance for self-interested purposes.
At some point during the Howard-Gnesen harangue, I said out loud that my wife knew he’d been arrested — I was certain he already knew — and he lost his shit on me until long after we’d started shivering in our light cycling clothes, lacerating me in cascades of rage for self-righteousness and hypocrisy, demanding that I explain every intricate nuance of the thought process I used to justify sharing his family’s business with my wife, who at the time was a campus-level administrator where he teaches.
“Do you know that when you decided to share that information with her I was just days away from finding out whether or not I would get tenure, Chris?!” He slammed the front wheel of his carbon-fiber bike into the gravel. Again. Again. “God damnit! Do you know the risk you’ve put my family in, Chris?! This is not an abstract concept, Chris! This is my life and my family’s life! You’re messing with my kids! YOU BROUGHT THIS TO MY JOB! How dare you. How dare you make such a righteous decision. What made you think that was OK?”
On and on. Over and over.
And I kept stupidly believing in a resolution, and eventually we rode to where he’d been living since getting out of jail, and then we were standing, glaring at each other, backs against opposite brick walls of a heated entrance vestibule big enough to keep a few feet between us. Outside the glass doors, mid-spring darkness fell in frigid indigo gradients.
He emanated fury.
“You should be very careful about who else you discuss this with, Chris,” he said. “You should let anyone you’ve told know they can expect to hear from my lawyer.”
Again: “You’ve made a very self-righteous decision that’s putting my job at risk, and you’re using a challenging time for my family as entertainment. I don’t appreciate either of those things.”
Again: “How dare you.”
Inexact and precise.
There’s much more to tell but I’m afraid to say it.
I barrelled home in my own rage, and almost got into the house before breaking down bawling.
The next day he sent me an email that went something like this:
“Dear Chris: I admire the courage you showed trying to help me. Thank you.”
I didn’t believe him. I still don’t.
Many people do.
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