Let me try to speak more precisely: after the next few weeks are up I will still be spending a lot of online and IRL time — pretty much every day — among boys and men who, most often without realizing it, expect girls’ and women’s deference, use whatever level of force is necessary to ensure it, and punish girls and women who defy those normative expectations. When I say “normative expectations” I mean that the dominant social and cultural expectation for girls and women to please boys and men is so normal that it seldom gets questioned because it rarely really even gets noticed. It just is. It’s always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not, like oxygen. It permeates. It’s definitive. It defines our culture to such an inherent degree that folks who dare to name it look crazy to everyone but each other. Folks who publicly question or defy it on the regular court repercussions along a continuum more broad and real than you might realize.
None of that stuff is going to change in a few weeks.
What will change, on December 18, is that after almost nine years of doing it I’ll quit co-facilitating critical dialogue among men who have — unlike almost every other man who uses mental and physical violence against women — been arrested for doing it then court-ordered to groups run by the program I’ve been working in. Tuesday the 18th will be my last night of group.
I have always, since long before becoming a Domestic Abuse Intervention Program Coordinating a Process of Change for Men Who Batter co-facilitator in early summer 2010, existed among boys and men who both overtly and with deft subtlety, both intentionally and with zero awareness of it, abuse girls and women. So have you. I will always, after the 18th, still be around all those boys and girls and men and women. So will you. I’ll just no longer get paid 50 bucks a session to co-facilitate 90-minute conversations intended to help some men see some things differently enough to stop hurting women (and, either directly or by extension, children).
Before going any further I want to clumsily acknowledge a couple things:
1. Despite my beliefs and best intentions, I always come closer than I intend to, in discussing these matters of men using violence against women, to erasing human beings whose genders transcend my current ability to write and speak about with the inclusion I aspire to. I speak in heteronormative binary code about cis-gendered folks in heterosexual relationships. That’s partially because the program I work in was established to address power-and-control-based violence in that one type of relationship. It’s also partially because I came up in a dominant culture where straight and cis-gendered weren’t only considered normal by everyone who got to decide such things, they were taught as right, and even though I’m a quick cultural study I am still trying hard but failing at a lot of things I don’t know or know how to do. I know about some of my blind spots. I know I have others I won’t see for a while. You should know, if you don’t already, that intimate-partner violence among all kinds of human beings is more common than you think it is, and that the more closely a person aligns with what the dominant culture dictates as standard or normal, the more likely they are to be the one using violence, and the more distant a person is from what dominant culture defies as normal, the more vulnerable to violence they are. Also: the closer to supposedly “regular” a person is the more readily they can find and access resources to help them survive or stop using violence. That’s a start on how complicated it gets. Everything is much more complicated than I’m making it sound. I appreciate your patience with my process. If you’ve got feedback for me I’ll accept it with gratitude.
2. I’m stating all this stuff as fact because I believe it is. That doesn’t mean I’m “right.” It means everything I’ve experienced in almost 48 years tells me these things are true. Everything I’ve experienced also tells me my experiences are full of gaps and I am full of intellectual deficiencies that cause me to misperceive quite a bit. There’s just a lot I’ll never experience or have the capacity to understand; my perspective will always be inherently limited. I try very hard to interrogate my own perspectives. I might be more willing to do that, and less fearful (and perhaps more reckless) about doing it at my own expense, than almost anyone I know. I also talk a lot about it out loud, and while I haven’t figured out exactly what I get from doing that, I’m fairly certain not all of it is admirable. I’m sure my tendency to never shut up about certain things has lost me credibility among acquaintances and folks I once thought were friends. I cringe when I realize I probably come across a lot more like a virtue-signaling grandstander than I want to. Much of the criticism I get for what I say and how I say it is right on. A lot of it is wrong. Like, really wrong. I’ve done my work. A lot more of it than most people. I do miss a lot of things that are obvious to most other folks, but I see a lot of things most other folks don’t. And I’m still doing it. I have chosen to engage aggressively in a never-ending process of fairly uncomfortable, destabilizing self-examination. It’s not always all that productive. Sometimes it’s just self-indulgent. So it goes. Here’s the thing: I haven’t always believed what I believe now. I expect some things I believe to change. I expect other beliefs to become more strong and feel more credible as I age, keep building insight and perspective, and keep testing what I think I know against what fellow human beings say they know. I test my beliefs very often, and when I need to admit I’ve misperceived something or just been wrong about it, I do. I know a lot of people who won’t. Or can’t. If your experiences lead you to believe something different from what I’m telling you, you must reject what I say. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I’m trying to show you the arithmetic of my experience.
Why? Because I’m arrogant enough to believe my limited, imperfect experience is valuable, and that I can write about it in a way that helps expand your perspective in important ways.
The group I co-facilitate meets Tuesdays from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. in a purpose-built windowless room on the second floor of 202 East Superior Street, a three-story building DAIP owns kitty-corner from the casino. (A 5:30-7:00 Tuesday night group meets one floor up in a much larger room with huge windows and a high ceiling; it was built to host trainings attended by people from around the world who want to learn about implementing various aspects of DAIP’s philosophy of coordinated community response to men’s violence against women.) For the last few months I’ve co-facilitated with a really nice woman named Judy. She and I usually show up around 5:30. We make some pretty bad coffee in an industrial Bunn machine, grab a receipt book, payment sheet, and attendance sign-in sheet, then sit at a desk at the top of the stairs up from street level and wait for the guys, 20 or so if they all show up, to arrive.
While waiting, we discuss what topic we’ll try to co-facilitate critical dialogue about that night. Most nights we settle on a tactic from the Power and Control Wheel or a characteristic from the Equality Wheel. The wheel format is ripped off by a lot of people who think they can throw their own words into the same shape and accomplish what the original DAIP wheels do. Those folks generally have no idea how the original Power and Control Wheel (which came a few years before the Equality Wheel) was created or what it means. Its design isn’t arbitrary or a gimmick. Most often those folks don’t care. I know about that misrepresentation and apathy partially because I know the stories about how the wheel came about. I also worked full-time at DAIP in 2011-2012, and I spent many hours on the phone with people either admirably asking to re-purpose the wheel for reasons of varying credibility or ill-informedly telling me why their cockamamie idea for an “alternative” wheel made just as much sense as the original. But anyway, Judy and I settle on a topic, sketch out a quick idea about how to introduce it to the group, then start greeting guys as they climb the creaky stairs to sign in, banter, pay their fee for the night or explain why they can’t, and grab a seat in the room.
Each co-facilitation pair — a man and woman, when it’s done according to this specific program’s intentions — falls into its own rhythm and pattern. Judy and I have a basic routine that’s close to but significantly different in some ways from what I’ve experienced with the one woman I facilitated with for multiple years and the other women I’ve worked with various numbers of other times: I greet the guys; if any guys are on their first or last night, I let the group know, and if new guys are there I explain how the evening will go; I remind everyone that Judy will lead us in a breathing exercise once I shut up; I say something like, “If sitting quietly for 10 deep breaths in and out is tough for you and you want something to occupy your brain, maybe think about what your intentions are for tonight — do you want to be thinking about or working on anything in particular tonight — and whether you want to share that with the rest of the group once we’re done breathing”; Judy guides us through the breathing exercise; we go around in the circle — Judy and I sit at the front of the room, a few feet a way from a chalkboard, and the guys are arranged in a semi-circle around the rest of the room — and everyone says their first name; I ask if anyone wants to let everyone else know what they’re going to be thinking about or working on.
The overt and subtle components of how Judy and I conduct ourselves in those opening moments and throughout each session are very important in modeling a relationship of shared authority between a man and a woman. That puts more responsibility on me than on Judy, because with incredibly rare exceptions the men in the room see the group as mine and Judy as my assistant or some other extra aspect of what should really be a conversation among men. They are predisposed, for a lot of individual and broad cultural reasons, to take me more seriously than they take her. Some guys will never get over resenting the woman in the room. Some guys will ease into a patronizing tolerance. More guys than you might assume come to understand and respect that the man and woman co-facilitating conversation are equals.
From the time the guys approach the desk to sign in and pay until the end of the session I can do a lot, without trying to do it, to confirm those perspectives. If I’m as mindful as I intend to be, most of what I do subverts those perspectives. I never get it perfect. If Judy and I were to keep working together beyond the middle of December, I would hope for us to start making changes in who says what to the guys before and during the group. She came in after I’d been facilitating alone — which is an indescribably bad idea — for about a year because of a facilitator shortage. I took on some really bad habits during that time, and there are still guys in the group who had enough experience with me as their only facilitator that despite everything I tried to tell them before Judy arrived about how the group has never been “mine,” it’s tough for them not to see it that way, and I promise I’ve had trouble transitioning back into sharing space as rigorously as credible co-facilitating demands it to be shared. Basically, I need to shut up a lot more.
If new guys are in the room, Judy and I and the guys who have already completed some of their 27 weeks list the group rules in whatever order we remember them:
• refer to your current and former partners by their first names;
• come sober;
• no intentionally racist, sexist, homophobic, or other derogatory language;
• what’s said here stays here*;
• cell phones off or on vibrate and out of sight;
• no crosstalk;
• focus on your own stuff (which is by far the toughest one to go a full night without breaking);
• no sleeping;
• there are a couple-three others I can’t remember right now.
There used to be a no-profanity rule, but too many co-facilitators were breaking it. I swear a lot when I co-facilitate. I always intend not to, but as Brother Ali says, “clean words don’t describe the shit that I’ve seen.” And if we’re going to name things we need to name them. No Voldemorting. No minimizing impact with euphemisms. The asterisk after “what’s said here says here” denotes two situations in which Judy and I will very quickly tell our program directors something they and relevant authorities need to know about: 1. a guy makes it clear he has plans to hurt himself or someone else; 2. a guy is disruptive enough that he makes it difficult for anyone else to get something from their time in group. Judy and I aren’t clinicians. We’re not doing therapy. (Although I’ve been told I’m doing cognitive behavioral therapy by folks, usually therapists, who seem uncomfortable with me saying I’m trying to engage men in social change, not heal them.) We’re not bound to confidentiality by any rules or laws beyond wanting everyone in the room to respect each other’s privacy. In my time co-facilitating, I’ve had to report four or five instances of those two situations, and most reports were to recommend a guy get suspended from or kicked out of group because he was treating everyone else in the room disrespectfully. I’m comfortable writing all this stuff, even the specific stories I might tell a few paragraphs down, because I’m not saying anything in a way that makes it possible to identify anyone other than me, Judy, and a woman (referred to a few paragraphs below) I co-facilitated with for about five years.
We ask every new guy two questions on his first night: What did you do to get yourself here? What do you want to get out of your time in group? No guy or set of experiences is identical, but patterns emerge. That first question elicits some common answers: nothing; I don’t know; caught a domestic; dated a crazy chick when I knew better; just tried to leave / defend myself / take away her keys so she wouldn’t drive / get the phone out of her hand / do some other thing that supposedly proves I was acting admirably and shouldn’t be here and probably actually proves she should be here. Every now and then a guy very clearly describes the violence he used in the specific situation that led to his presence in group, says he knows it was wrong, and says he has no one to blame for it but himself. I’ve heard one or two guys say something like, “I didn’t do the thing she and the cops say I did on that night, but I should definitely still be here, because there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t been caught for.” I’ve seen a couple-three guys tear up with remorse about what they did.
There are also some common responses to the second question: I have no idea; no offense, but I just want to get this shit done; I want to learn how to manage my anger; I want to know what to do when she pisses me off; I guess I just need to learn how to keep my mouth shut so she can’t put me back in jail or in these classes. Occasionally a guy will say something like, “I know I talk to her and treat her in ways that are really mean, and I don’t think it’s her fault, but I don’t know why I do it. I want to figure that out. I don’t want to treat her like that.” One night a guy who didn’t realize how incisive he was being said, “I don’t want to hit or hurt her anymore. I do want to figure how to have control without using violence.”
Volunteer group members occasionally show up. They seldom last more than a handful of weeks. They usually think we’re going to help them with things that are different from what the group is actually about. Most often, in my experience, they want to know how to “deal with” women in their lives — for example: how to avoid getting angry at an inherently difficult woman (as opposed to thinking critically about whether what they see as “difficult” might actually have something to do with expectations based in a conscious or subconscious sense of entitlement to her deference, compliance, submission, etc). Not a lot of people I know voluntarily maintain the type of intense self-critique we ask men to engage in. It’s tough. No one who engages in it honestly can avoid seeing ugliness. If the alternative to being in group is jail, prison, losing child visitation rights, or some other significant legal consequence, most guys can stick it out even if they detest, in the words of one guy whose frank, affable frustration I remember well, “every goddamn second of this man-hating bullshit.” One guy a few years ago stopped showing up after 24 of 27 weeks and got locked up. If internal motivation is the only thing keeping them there to engage in the process of confronting difficult self-awareness then making tough changes based on it, they usually bolt the moment it gets difficult. Makes sense. It’s what I would have done.
After Judy and I and the guys have worked through all those preliminaries, we have a conversation. Sometimes it’s vibrant and interesting and it feels really productive. Very often it’s a slog for at least part of the session. When I first started I used to feel really excited when multiple guys were participating and there was a lot of back-and-forth among everyone in the room. I used to let myself think I was seeing evidence of the process working. I no longer do that. Even when dialogue hums along and guys really seem to be engaged in taking accountability and doing some work, nothing facilitators can perceive in the room has anything to do with what’s happening in a guy’s head or how he treats the women (and kids) in his life. I’ve left the building feeling like we had a great group only to see a guy who had been super-earnest during dialogue full-on berating a woman in a car (with a kid in the back seat) parked across the street. I have become very good at discerning social performances designed for self-aggrandizement, self-protection, manipulation, and other admirable and nefarious purposes. I have also become much more wary than I once was. Some of you who know me may have heard or seen me say I trust almost no one and love pretty much everyone. That’s directly related to working in this group.
A lot of articulate, intelligent, clever, charming, funny guys show up in the group. Some of them start showing us what they think we want to see very quickly. Sometimes they pick up the vocabulary and tone and quite effectively — both intentionally and unintentionally — perform what they think we’re asking or telling them to be. If we’re doing our jobs we’re not asking or telling them to be anything other than a man who doesn’t hurt people. We’re never coy about that. But we’re truly not there to judge or shame them, heal or fix them, hold them accountable, teach them lessons, dictate behavior or beliefs, or do anything other than engage them in dialogue that challenges and poses problems about perspectives that support using violence against women (and, inherently, kids) in relationships. I used to, when a guy would say something that sounded like evidence of remorse or self-awareness or empathy, respond with a much more demonstrative, less measured version of positive reinforcement from what I respond with now. Back then, I might say something like, “Good job. That really shows some progress.” Now, I might say, “If I’m understanding you correctly — and I might not be — it sounds like you feel bad about some things you’ve done and want to change. Can you say more about that? How did you get there?”
We ask a lot of questions. So many. We push back on broad generalizations. A guy: “Come on, Chris. You know how women can be.” We challenge assumptions. Me: “I don’t. I mean . . . I’ve known a lot of guys and even some women who seem to believe all women are the same, but that doesn’t fit with my experience. Can you tell us a little more about what you mean?” The whole process is probably both a little bit like and a lot different from what you assume it is. Same with the guys — some look and talk and smell exactly exactly how you assume them to. Quite a few don’t. If you live in an effete liberal bubble, as I do, you might see very few guys who resemble ones you most often spend time around. Those guys use just as much violence against women as any other guys. They also usually have characteristics and resources that help them avoid being assigned to group. But more often than you might expect they’re in the room. They usually feel the most insufferable to me because even though they have just as many blind spots as the guys they feel superior to, the comical cluelessness and pretentiousness in that sense of superiority is obvious to everyone but them. They’re generally imperceptive and self-delusional enough to have no idea that the rest of the guys in the room see them much more clearly than they see themselves and the rest of the guys.
We try to ease into the night’s topic relatively easily, maybe by watching a short video vignette, drawn from experiences described by women who have survived men’s violence and men who have used violence against women. Maybe I’ll talk for a moment or two about how my thinking about the topic has changed over time — how I used to see it, what happened to change my perspective, and how I see it now. Eventually we’ll start asking guys to share examples and thoughts. If the night’s topic is minimization, denial, and blame, for example, we’ll ask them to talk about times they have minimized their violence or its impact, denied using violence, or blamed someone else, including the woman they abused, for the violence. We usually keep track of conversation through a process we call logging. Under a chalkboard heading labeled ACTIONS we’ll write down verbatim responses: “yelled at her”; “slammed my hand on the wall next to her head”; “told her I wouldn’t have done it if she didn’t make me so mad.” After (or, on some nights, if) we’ve generated a few useful responses under that heading, we’ll start filling in under the INTENTIONS heading. We might ask, “What were you trying to do or get when you did those things you just described — when you told her you wouldn’t have screamed at her and slammed the wall next to her head if she wouldn’t have made you so mad?” The guy might say: “I wanted her to shut up;” “I wanted to change the subject and get the focus off me.”
After that we gather some responses under BELIEFS. We might ask things like, “So, you said when you screamed and slammed the wall, then told her she made you do it, you did that because you wanted her to shut up and you wanted to change the subject. What was the belief, or what were the beliefs, that told you it was OK to do that?” That’s an incredibly difficult question for anyone to answer about most of their behaviors. A lot of guys have no idea where to go with it, and for a lot of understandable reasons. Some guys can do that type of self-examination right away. Most guys can’t. But a guy who’s been part of the group for a while, and who’s been trying to develop some self-awareness (or who’s been learning how to play the game he things we’ve set up for him to play), might be able to come up with something like, “I just felt like I shouldn’t have to deal with the way she was talking to me.” That’s a start.
“OK. I’m going to write that under BELIEFS, but I have a follow-up question: If you wanted her to shut up and you didn’t think you should have to deal with how she was talking to you, why — and this might be a tough thing to remember right now — but why, when you could have expressed that to her in a lot of different ways, did you choose to do it by screaming and slamming your hand on the wall next to her head? And why did you tell her she made you do it? Is that what you really thought?” Sometimes a guy can’t answer that and we move on. Sometimes he’ll say something like, “It wasn’t a choice. I just lost control.” That goes on the board. Or maybe he’ll say, “I don’t know. I guess I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I thought hitting the wall wasn’t as bad as hitting her. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but it’s still better. And I really wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t pushed my buttons so bad.” Those things go on the board.
And now we’ve got some things to work with if our intention is to have open-ended, critical, problem-posing dialogue intended to help the men in the room build self-awareness about their behavior, the believes that enable it, and its short- and long-term effects on the people who directly and indirectly experience it. (The last category we usually get to on a really productive night is EFFECTS.) We’ve got more to ask about, examples for the guys who can read comfortably to contemplate, and some voices and ideas swirling around in the room. On a really good night the board gets filled under every category.
That example dialogue snippet is fairly representative of what happens multiple times on a slightly above-average night. Some nights are just beyond grim — dialogue deserts in which time just scrapes by. Sometimes it’s guys giving unsure responses in upspeak because they’re trying to figure out what “correct” answers they think we’re fishing for, even though all we’re really hoping for is whatever honest thing they have to say. There’s always something to work with. Some nights that something is tough to identify. One of the reasons I’m quitting is that I’ve noticed myself feeling and expressing increasing impatience and judgment, and a tendency to veer very close to lecturing or accusing, on those slow nights. I’m probably not coming as close to those things as I think I am. I guarantee I’m closer than I want to be. It’s tough for me to stay curious and open-hearted when I’m mad at guys for either not talking or not saying what I want them to say. I feel a special sort of animosity that borders on rage when I know for sure or have credible reasons to believe a guy is lying, trying to bullshit the room, or mocking the process. For a good, calm co-facilitation team, all those types of apparently unproductive responses are huge opportunities. Even though I’m better at the work than I think I am, I’ve never been as good at confounding situations as I want to be, and my growing impatience in them manifests as a sensation I anticipate would lead to outright, obvious hostility. It’s time for me to get out.
Judy and I get on fairly well, but we’re still learning to work together. The Danish Boss and I co-facilitated for my first five years or so in the program. It took us a couple years, as far as I can tell, to really get good together. I think I was able to help her in some ways. She definitely helped me. She was patient with me when I very inaccurately thought I knew what I was doing. She showed me that when I felt frustrated about conversation going or not going in a certain direction, I was expecting a fair amount of compliance from the guys while trying to help them see the awful effects of them expecting compliance from women in their lives — I was unconsciously embodying control tendencies in my attempt to help peers identify their control tendencies. Duh.
We became good enough friends that I felt grateful when she would give post-group notes like, “You really pissed me off tonight. You were teaching instead of facilitating, and there was nothing ‘co-’ about how you did it.” She’s on the UMD social work faculty, and occasionally I speak to students in classes she teaches. Sometimes we kind of co-present on the topic of co-facilitation. Sometimes she asks me to focus on my own process of change — my ongoing process of identifying and trying to eliminate, as much as possible, the ways I take advantage of those cultural norms that oblige women to defer and entitle — require, even — men to expect and enforce women’s deference.
The Boss and I have stories. Some of them make us laugh when we reminisce, or when I present in classes she’s teaching, because in the context of what we were doing they were, in a way, hilarious. Other facilitators laugh at them too. Sometimes students or friends who aren’t familiar with the groups respond to us with horrific, befuddled expressions when we share supposedly funny anecdotes from group.
There was the middle-aged guy who told a long tale of woe, on a night we were trying to discuss compromising and sharing decisions, about how stupid it was that his wife wanted to buy DVDs at Target even though they “already paid for every movie channel we can get.” We asked him what a compromise in the situation might look like, and what he might do to show his wife he was interested in compromising. “I know exactly what it would be,” he said. “I’d sit her down and explain the situation to her, and she’d see why she’s wrong.” After a beat or two the entire room, even guys whose faces most often looked like stone, erupted in eye-watering laughter. We had a strong enough group culture that the guy knew we sincerely weren’t laughing at him. After we’d all calmed down he said — and this was a big deal for him — “I guess that’s not really a compromise, is it.”
One night a very handsome, articulate, cocky, and occasionally thoughtful early-20s guy told a story about how he had berated his girlfriend for asking a question about why the car they shared had broken down. The topic that night was emotional abuse. He told us that when the car started sputtering and coughing on the highway a few weeks before, he had told her to pull over. He’d grown up with a dad who was an auto mechanic. As he was preparing to get out and check under the hood, he told us, she said, “Hey Babe, a couple days ago I noticed one of the tires was really low. I put some air in it at the gas station, but do you think that could be part of the problem?” A few guys in the room rolled their eyes. He said, “I told her that was the dumbest thing any person had ever asked, and if she didn’t stop asking stupid questions about the car I wasn’t going to let her drive it anymore. But she kept on. She asked me about it again. So I told her to shut the fuck up, stop being a stupid bitch, respect that I know about cars and she doesn’t, and let me get out and look at what’s wrong. And of course she started crying, but I didn’t even feel bad.”
I wrote some of that on the board under ACTIONS and Danish Boss asked, “What were you trying to do or accomplish by saying all that to her in those ways?” He said, “I wanted her to see how stupid she was. I wanted her to actually trust that I knew what I was talking about. I wanted to let her know how disrespectful it is to question my knowledge when she doesn’t know shit.” We wrote that stuff under INTENTIONS.
“Do you have any idea what beliefs all that stuff came from? Why did you believe it was OK to talk to her like that and try to make her feel those ways?” After a quick pause he said, “Because I’m the man.” I still don’t know if he meant, “Because I’m the male human in the relationship and it is the female human’s job to show the male human deference or be punished for her lack of deference,” or something more like, “Because my masculine characteristics are singularly dominant among other human males.”
Whatever he meant, he didn’t like the way the words looked when we wrote, “Because I’m the man” under BELIEFS on the chalkboard. “Hey!” he said. “When you write it that way you make me look like an asshole.” A bunch of guys laughed. Danish Boss and I did, too. “But Chris just wrote exactly what you said,” she said. “I know,” he said, “but when you write it like that it just doesn’t make me look like that great of a great guy.”
So I erased it and said, “Take another shot at it and I’ll write the new version.” He started and stopped a few times, getting out a few partial sentences that were just different words saying the same thing he’d already said.“Dude,” another guy said warmly, with a smile on his face, “it’s possible that you’re just kind of an asshole.” Even the original guy reluctantly laughed at that.
We’ve got stories for days about guys who are sincerely convinced that if a woman in their life would just stop doing this one thing everything would perfect and smooth and drama-free. One guy couldn’t believe other guys weren’t aghast that his wife had once set their partially swaddled and freshly bathed infant on the kitchen counter in the vicinity of a turkey in a roasting pan awaiting Thanksgiving preparation. He was aghast that even in the present moment, almost four years later, she seemed not to think it was a big deal and he couldn’t convince her it was. “The turkey was just, like, two feet away!” he bellowed. He had an incredibly deep, resonant voice. He was on the edge of his chair, face red, neck veins bulging, expectantly scanning the room for a confirming facial expression or utterance.
“Did she put the kid on the turkey?” another guy asked. “Like, in the pan with it?”
“No, goddamnit,” he roared. “Next to it! That’s just as bad! Haven’t you ever heard that it’s bad to put a baby next to raw meat?!” Blank stares. Guys glancing at each other to see if anyone would shake their head yes. “Raw meat!” he hollered. A third guy said, “You seem pretty upset, man. I’m not trying to dismiss that, but you might be making a big deal out of nothing. It might be time to let that go.” The guy’s face got even redder. He glared at the room incredulously then sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, indignant.
I’ve seen guys get similarly upset because, “she won’t put her shoes in the shoe basket in the front entryway like I’ve told her to a thousand times,” because, “she has no idea how much money we’re pissing away because she can’t remember to shut the dryer door and I have to constantly go down to the basement to check on it,” because, “who gives a fuck if I leave the toilet seat up when I piss in the middle of the night — if she can’t remember to put it down she’s got bigger problems than what I don’t do,” and hundreds of other Very Important Issues That She Should Care About in the Same Ways I Do. Almost always, in the guys’ stories, her stuff is stupid and his stuff is vital.
I just remembered another one: the guy who told an incomprehensibly complex series of lies to create a fake situation that would force him and the woman he was dating to cancel their trip to Las Vegas because he couldn’t imagine having to go into the Coach bag outlet with her and he preferred to make himself sick with dishonesty stress and ruin a trip they’d both been looking forward to because, “I don’t care about purses and all that bullshit.” Same dude felt justified yelling at her or her kids for talking to him during Vikings games. “They know how important the Vikings are to me. Why would they talk to me if they know that?”
Oh and there’s the guy in his late 20s who was just really on his game one night when a youngish woman filled in to co-facilitate in a group I was observing. He was super pleasant or somber when appropriate, he disclosed stuff with apparent openness and accountability, and he had a lot of helpful comments in response to what other guys said. Then, about 30 seconds after group ended, he asked the woman if he could talk to her a couple steps down the hall from where guys were filing out of the room. He asked her out for a drink. He thought he had performed well enough in the batterer-intervention group she was co-facilitating that it made sense to ask her on a date. The Venn diagram illustrating everything clueless, scary, and hilarious about that action would take weeks to draw.
The justification for laughing at actually horrifying stuff like that can be a tough thing to describe. I say it’s horrifying because we’re not talking about foibles and disagreements in average couples in which both people are equally safe. We’re talking about men for whom an open dryer door might become a reason to cut off a woman’s airway. Danish Boss and I were never, and still aren’t, anything less than 100 percent conscious of why we were there and how important it was to avoid, as much as we could, colluding with — unintentionally co-signing on — beliefs that legitimize violence. A lot of people collude. Sometimes it should be obvious. If a guy admits he’s used violence against his wife or girlfriend and his friends remain friendly with him and fail to take the woman he abused seriously, they are helping him hurt her. They are complicit in the abuse. Sometimes they have no idea how he’s playing them. Trying to tell them that’s happening usually goes quite poorly. But whether they mean to or not, they are telling and showing him that what he did — and is very often still doing through different tactics even if the relationship is over — is OK.
Most folks I know who could do something about men’s violence against women in their daily lives simply don’t have the will or courage or patience or humility or whatever else it takes to really confront men in professional or social situations. I’m usually among them. And we all know — whether we admit it or not — what happens to anyone who tries to interrupt the dominant narrative. We are not greeted with curiosity and gratitude and camaraderie. We’re punished. Told to shut up, lighten up, stop making such a big deal out of nothing, stop questioning the natural order, stop being so sexist, stop infantilizing women and demonizing men. Or we’re smiled at blithely and dismissively. The most common criticism of my perspective toward men’s normalized patriarchal violence against women is from women and men telling me I’m a beta cuck who hates men and idealizes women because I desperately want women’s approval. The second most common criticism is from women who identify as feminists then tell me they resent a man telling them women are weaker than men.
It’s impossible to completely collusion. Dutch Boss and I aren’t laughing at the guys. We’re not laughing at what they did or what it suggests. I guess we’re laughing at the absurdity of the distance between what those guys think they’re saying and what they’re actually saying. It’s not a, “Wow, are you an idiot” or “Gosh, that tickles my funny bone,” laughter. It’s more of a, “You said what?” laughter. That doesn’t really convey what I’m tryin to say. If you’re uncomfortable with us laughing at that stuff I don’t know that I’ll be able to explain it in a way that comforts you.
In my first year or two with the program I would co-facilitate with Danish Boss, then go watch experienced co-facilitation pairs work on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Once I’d developed some experience, I occasionally filled in if one of those co-facilitators couldn’t make it. After I’d been observing the Thursday group for two or three months, an older guy in the semi-circle looked me in the eye after the breathing exercise one night and warmly but firmly said, “Hey, Chris. You’ve been sitting back there in the corner not saying anything for long enough. It’s time for you to sit with the rest of us and participate.”
So I did. And after making sure it was OK with the Wednesday night guys I started doing the same thing with them. And it changed and keeps changing my life. I am now a perfect human being making steady progress toward Operating Thetan Level 8.
I’m not. But seriously: because of experiences I’ve had and hard work I’ve done in and related to what happens in those rooms, I do think and behave a lot differently from how I used to. Some of it’s obvious to people around me. Some of it’s wholly internal. I have so many stories about experiences and epiphanies that add up to where I am now. Folks who spend more than superficial time around me know it’s a mistake to get me talking about it all. The result of those experiences and realizations and the thinking they have helped me do is that I am a much different husband, teacher, and human being than I was before 2010. In good ways. I wish I could convey the whole process and its results and what it all means to me. I also hope you don’t confuse me saying I’ve made progress with me saying I’ve reached a state of mindfulness or self-awareness or compassion I’m comfortable with. I haven’t. I still treat people in ways I regret based on beliefs I’m only partially conscious of. I have blind spots in my blind spots. I’m going to be doing this work until I die.
I could spend at least another 6,800 words or so responding to the questions Danish Boss and I and other DAIP facilitators get when folks find out we do this work. I’m going to say just a little bit about the two I get most often: 1. What about women who abuse men? 2. What causes guys to do that to women; is it usually a combination of drugs and alcohol and poverty?
1. Every bit of what I have experienced and studied tells me that if women’s violence against men went away the world we live in would look and function almost identically to how it currently functions, and if men stopped using normative violence against women we’d have no idea how to identify what we were experiencing. There are women who batter men. There are women who are incredibly unfair and mean to men. There are groups and programs and other resources for men surviving those relationships and women causing problems. A lot of guys assigned to DAIP see themselves as “the real victims” in the situations that landed them in the group. A lot of those guys are living chaotic lives that include mutual violence. (And “mutual violence” most often doesn’t mean “violence of identical intention and impact.”) A lot of them aren’t. I’m trying to help solve the problem of men’s violence against women for a few reasons I’m conscious of: I believe it’s the bigger problem; I’m always more interested in identifying problems in myself and groups I’m part of than I am in trying to call out people who aren’t me and groups that aren’t mine; I harbor grief and regrets, and I have amends to make. I also pay very close attention to context, and almost every time a guy tells me he’s the real victim these four contextual factors help me parse his story: 1. What is the intent of each person using violence? 2. What does the violence mean to the people using it and surviving it? 3. What are the short- and long-term effects of the violence on the people using it and the people surviving it? 4. What is the role of the violence in established behavior patterns? Those questions seldom “prove” anything. They are powerfully illuminating.
2. Men’s violence against women is caused by men deciding to use violence against women. Nothing else. Those decisions can be influenced by a lot of factors inside and outside the guy who uses the violence. Mental illness doesn’t help. Substance addiction and abuse don’t help. Unresolved trauma from surviving violence and other damaging experiences doesn’t help. The stress of being poor and desperate and frustrated and heartbroken doesn’t help. My set of experiences tells me none of those things, in any combination, causes a guy to use violence. Among people who study domestic violence, intimate-partner violence, spousal abuse, or what I almost always refer to as men’s violence against women, four explanations for the abuse are most prominent: 1. individual pathology — there’s just something not right in the brain, for chemical, experiential, or other reasons, of the person using the violence; 2. relationship dysfunction — it’s just a toxic relationship, you know, and once they end it she’ll be safer (which is a myth) and he won’t do what he did to her anymore (which is also a myth); 3. Lenore Walker’s theoretical Cycle of Violence, which moves through tension-building, explosion, and honeymoon phases — it’s a supposedly predictable pattern that creates supposedly predictable results and supposedly happens the same way for all men and all women; 4. social norms that teach women their primary value lies in how pleasing (including deferential) they are to men and teaches men our value and credibility depend on how successfully we get women to please us and elicit their deference — men’s violence against women is a cultural norm present in far more situations than the ones most people define as violent. Each of those explanations demands a certain set of responses. Creating a Process of Change for Men Who Batter is part of a coordinated community response — a literal coordination of community resources including 911 procedures, first-responder and police protocols, survivor-advocacy policies and practices, sentencing guidelines — intended to leverage social resources to solve a social problem. The philosophy behind that response is called the Duluth Model. Anyone who tells you the Duluth Model is anything other than that either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or has incentives for misrepresenting the term and what it’s about.
I’m tempted to try to tell you a bunch of other things I’ve learned about myself and fellow human beings by doing the work this essay attempts to describe. Believe it or not I’ve got a lot more to say about all this.
I didn’t intend to write all this. It’s what came out when I sat down to tell you something simple and complicated: your boys are not under attack. They are not in danger. I promise. They are definitely — especially since Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and Brett Kavanaugh and Brock Turner and Louis C.K. and a bunch of other lesser-known guys have been getting called out — being asked to abide by standards that might seem restrictive for folks who were raised to believe “boys will be boys” is natural law instead of a lazy excuse that protects boys and men from accountability and consequences and endangers girls and women in ways most boys and men can barely imagine. My friend Maglina Lubovich says it way better than that in her recent piece “Mothers of Sons Should Be Scared—of Sexism, Patriarchy and Misogyny” at msmagazine.com. Boys and men are not being treated unfairly. We’re being asked to confront what fairness might actually look and feel like, and that’s going to be more uncomfortable than most of us feel like we should have to put up with.
I was born in 1971. Every boy and man and most girls and women I know have been intentionally or by default brought up to take boys and men more seriously than girls and women. That’s why men use violence against women. I didn’t always used to believe that or a lot of the other things in this essay. After I started believing it all and seeing how it damages every one of us, I’ve done my best to no longer embody and help perpetuate it. I have no idea what doing that is going to look like after December 18.
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