The Professor

Chris Godsey Saturday Essay“You should be very careful about who else you discuss this with, Chris,” The Professor said. “You should let anyone you’ve told know they can expect to hear from my lawyer.

“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.



about 5 years ago

So well written thanks for sharing it.


about 5 years ago

Powerful story, thank you for sharing.

Anna Tennis

about 5 years ago

Holy shit.  I want to divide my commentary into three groups: the way you experienced this,  the way you wrote this,  and the kind of person you are to do the first two things the way you did. In an homage to your own linguistic parsimony, I find I can use just three words to sum up: you are very good.


about 5 years ago

Jesus, he sounds like a real Svengoolie. Does his first name happen to be a synonym for his throbbing member? Nevermind, you said professor not personal trainer. Yah, testosterone is a silent killer. So is assbaggery.  Ironically, the only real known antidote to the former short of 'removal,' is pheromone.  But also unfortunately, women and men perform sex/have relationships for entirely different reasons.  Women often seem shocked to learn that dudes don't have sex for emotional or bonding purposes.  All sorts of problems, violence aside, begin because men and women have sex from entirely differing perspectives/agendas.  Sure there's nature v nurture. And I think we're improving our sensitivity training for young men.  I know that with sex ed in the 80's, it was all about anatomical drawings of the P&V, and about zero percent training on the ways in which men and women differ in their thinking. Yet I would've traded ten pounds of vag/penis drawings for an ounce of understanding the differences between men and women. The damage the lousy sex ed training of the 80's did to me and countless other dudes was irreversible. Now young guys can just google how to be a gentleman.  Fair's got nothing to do with it. 

I'm sure if you talked to a lot of men though, the way they are at 40, versus the dumb shit they did in high school as far as how they responded to women would be worlds apart.  Sounds like this guy has/had issues that went beyond the average shlep. Unresolved anger, lack of anger management, generally dickery, whatever... Was it Chris Rock who said, 'its never okay to hit or choke a woman, but you sure would like to shake one from time to time?'  And yet, everybody gets a little excited when some lady finally slays her abusive husband or cuts off his bird while he's sleeping. It's funny.

I was biking home last summer and passed this guy who was wearing headphones, he slowed down at a stop and as I was passing through sort of yelled to him thanks that I was using his eyes for the traffic check so I didn't have to stop, well he thought I was criticizing him for stopping, caught up with me all ready to engage me in a fight over that, and when I told him I hadn't said anything of the sort, he went on his merry way, like oh, never mind.  But the real problem was simply that his testoterone levels ran so high, you could read it on his forehead that he wasn't getting enough action. I've seen more problems result from a dude's lack of sex, because I've been there, and I know the pain. But shoot, ladies don't want a guy like that because he doesn't care about their feelings, esp when he's chomping at the bit.  It's a vicious cycle. 

So I guess if dudes were more emotional sensitive feeling, like Chris here, they'd be getting laid more and there'd be less overall violence, or it would be a wash because there'd be more disease and babies, and guys would feel weird because they opened up, in turn increasing the violence. Which brings us back to the only real solution here, is for mothers to leave their male children out in the woods all night long this evening, and the ones who make it, maybe they deserve a second chance? That and to keep sending our young men off to a foreign country to kill other ignorant underlaid young men. The solutions here are simple, and few.  Free tazers for the ladies.  Two strikes you're out castration for the men.  You'll notice the only thing ISIS isn't proposing is general castration for their troops.  I rest my case.

Kevin Walsh

about 5 years ago

Grace and peace. And many thanks for the human being that you are.

Melody Morrell

about 5 years ago

This is an incredibly important article, Chris, and particularly important for this time. To my mind, it has very simple implications: These conversations need to begin long before people come to the DAIP. We need to be talking about these things in school, at church, in our living rooms, sharing the truth about how we have agreed to live together as men and women. I am very interested in hearing from you on next steps--or your interest in any next steps--not with The Professor, but in the world where there are many Professors.


about 5 years ago

Hello, I'm brand new to posting here.  I visit Perfect Duluth Day about 4 times a year and yesterday I happened to be looking for a blog I'd heard about, about local gifts, when BAM! this article is looking at me.  I feel really, really sad about the whole thing.  I was impressed and grateful for your sharing of your story, Chris.  As others have mentioned, it is so important that we open this dialogue.  

I was a little alarmed to realize, however, that I know the person you are talking about.  If I do, then others do as well.  I want to exhort you to edit your story so you are sharing less personal details, less of the other person's story which really isn't yours to tell.  As you mentioned, there are children involved; children completely innocent of their father's crime and who stand to suffer, who have already suffered, immensely.  The man you speak of is in the middle of his own process.  It must unfold in its own time and way.  My prayers are with this family as they navigate something that must be a nightmare for all of them.  I can only hope, as you do and have tried to accomplish, that he comes to the place of empowerment that you have found.  Thanks again for bringing it up and, please, won't you consider revising to protect the innocents?

Erica Henkel

about 5 years ago


As someone who was previously in an abusive relationship and has had friends in abusive relationships where people "blamed the victims" and refused  to acknowledge their friends as abusers, I have to strongly protest your comment. The ONLY way abuse will be stopped is by bringing it clearly out into the light of day where everyone (including the kids) know about it and talk about it. Abuse feeds on secret corners and hidden conversations. By suggesting it should stay there, you are very much part of the problem that allows abuse to continue in our society. Sorry if that hurts, but it is true. What do you teach an abuser when you say they should not have to face the public for what they have done? What do you teach children by saying their victimized parent should be denied public support? What do you teach a victim by telling them that their abuser's reputation is more important than justice and bringing a halt to their abuser's habitual behavior? The instinctive discomfort which leads you to ask the writer to sweep this under the rug is the only thing that will teach the abuser that what he does is wrong and unacceptable. You need to stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

Tim Lieder

about 5 years ago

I agree with Erica. Stating that an abuser's privacy should be protected - particularly an abuser who is willing to harangue and harass people into silence - is ludicrous. Claiming that the abuser's children will suffer from people knowing that their father is a manipulative creep is utterly ignorant. The children are suffering. They will suffer from being around this guy and from knowing him. Their only comfort is to know that it's NOT their fault or their problem to solve. 

The more you keep this hushed up and under wraps, the more the guy's family can be shuffled into the dark corner where they see their dad being praised as a great humanitarian or wonderful friendly man even as he is beating them and punishing them for standing up for themselves. By publicizing this guy and his identity, his children know that HE is the problem. HE is the manipulator and HE is the one who is in the wrong, not them. 

Hiding abuse - whether it's sexual abuse (Catholic Church, DragonCON, Marc Gafni) or physical abuse (O.J. Simpson) just shows the abuser that he can get away with it.

Arinn Dembo

about 5 years ago

Fantastic piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it.

Joyce Scrivner

about 5 years ago

Wow.   I, personally, would be very interested in knowing how you solve the issues of being bullied.  I haven't and am still stalled.  Thank you for writing.


about 5 years ago

This is some powerful and personal writing! Thank you for your efforts to bring to the forefront how destructive domestic abuse is and that it cuts across all socioeconomic levels (as well as levels of intelligence). That is a very important message for all of us to be reminded of - thank you again.  

I do, however, agree with Juniper's comment about the level of detail about this man's identity. It appears to cloud the valuable message. It's understandable that you felt betrayed and hurt by him during your interactions, though I would encourage you to reflect a bit more about your motives to make him so easily identifiable in the Duluth community (almost 3 years later). It, unfortunately, creates a tone of vindictiveness, which detracts from the importance of your message. Let me make it clear that I am in no way defending this man's actions. Abusing one's partner (or others) is unacceptable, which is why he was arrested and referred to DAIP for treatment. 

My concern about your making him so identifiable stems, more importantly, from a code of professional ethics that just about all mental health professions/organizations subscribe and adhere to (and you do as well when you work at such an organization). Even individuals who commit shameful acts are entitled to confidentiality with their treatment providers. Domestic abuse interventions/groups are indeed treatment, with the intention of helping people gain skills to change how they relate to women/men - this is true for the DAIP model as well. Because of your position at DAIP, being more careful about disclosing identifying information is essential. 

Something else that would be useful for you to consider is your engaging in a dual relationship - both a friend and DAIP employee. Although you're no longer friends, engaging in these types of relationships are discouraged in mental health professions because they cloud thinking and create conflicting motivations. I applaud your reflecting on your actions and motives over your life and how you've become aware of your own history. I also applaud you for working on changing those ways of relating to others and bringing the pervasiveness of relationship aggression  to our attention. Please consider Juniper's comments and how you can continue to educate the public without unintentionally harming others.

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