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(Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)
(Scott Munn for The Globe and Mail)

Can domestic abusers be rehabilitated? Add to ...

The guy I am calling Jimmy was trying to remember the first time he hit his girlfriend. You’d think the event would stick in his mind. But Jimmy was 18 at the time, and they’d been going out for three weeks when it happened, and they stayed together for nearly a decade, so there were quite a few candidates for the honour: a punch, throttlings, manhandling, times the cops had been called and times they hadn’t, plus the night that led to three months in jail.

Jimmy had it down to two possibilities: The first was either the time he slapped her, or the time he smeared blood in her face.

Jimmy is a weightlifter. He’s 28, has a three-tuft beard, acres of ink, and a compressed, energetic air, as if he were made of India rubber balls: You sense that once he starts bouncing, he won’t stop any time soon. We’re sitting in his church, on one of those seamlessly grey Nova Scotia days that makes you think the sun hasn’t been invented.

A few weeks earlier, as the world watched Ray Rice deck his then-fiancée, now-wife, Janay, in an Atlantic City elevator, a domestic-abuse counsellor had said something intriguing to me. “In the past 24 hours,” she said, “I’ve been asked 100 times, ‘Why do women stay?’ No one ever asks ‘Why do men hit? Why do men abuse the women they love?’ ”

I thought it was an important question, which is why I was talking to Jimmy. Almost all the perpetrators of the most serious domestic violence are men. Statistics give us some sense – only a sense, given how many cases go unreported – of how often women are abused. The headline-making controversies surrounding the violent behaviour of everyone from Ray Rice to Phu Lam (Edmonton’s killer, last Christmas) to the alleged transgressions of Jian Ghomeshi and Charlie Sheen remind us how pernicious and pervasive abuse is.

But what you discover when you drop into the private world of domestic violence is that no one actually knows, for sure, why men abuse women. Experts have many, and often competing, theories, but those tend to identify the symptoms, not the causes, of an intimate and individual problem. If we can figure out why men abuse the women they claim to like and love, maybe we can get them to stop. Maybe we can get better at preventing men from abusing in the first place. Maybe we can also begin to resolve the standoff between those who believe abusers should be punished and jailed, and those who believe they can be rehabilitated as well.

It’s a lot to hope for. It took me two months to find three men willing to talk about their lives as abusers, and then, only if I used pseudonyms. They’re not representative – but no one is. What makes them even less representative is their willingness to talk in the first place. The most serious abusers don’t come forward, don’t talk about their violence, don’t seek help. So this is unavoidably a story about individuals – about Jimmy and a few men who intimidate and hit women, about how they got that way and maybe why. It is also their story, from their point of view, in some cases without the corroboration of their partners. These people could, in theory, be snowing me. But this is, so far, a secret world, and you have to start somewhere.

Jimmy eventually worked one thing out: The first time he hit his girlfriend was the time he slapped her. This was one evening back when he was in the game and dealing and had money galore, before he went to jail (again) for robbery. One day, out of the blue, she said, “I cheated on you.” It was a shock. Like a lot of guys who smack their partners around, Jimmy says she pushed his buttons. (She once smashed a bottle over his head, once threw a knife at him.)

Also like a lot of guys who hit their wives and girlfriends, he claims to have adored her, thought he was uncontrollably in love. “She has a light shining out of her,” he says. He still feels that way three years after they split up.

He didn’t do anything at first when she said she’d cheated on him. He just looked at her. Then she said, “Well, aren’t you going to hit me? Why don’t you hit me?” Then Jimmy said, “What do you mean, ‘Why don’t I hit you?’ ” And she said, ‘Don’t you love me?’ ”

That was his version, anyway.

Pretty soon, he claims, he felt as if he had to hit her, so he slapped her. He can’t remember what he was thinking the moment he struck her. It felt like a fugue state. The impulse came from somewhere in him that he couldn’t locate. He starts stuttering and crying when he tries to describe it. He seems ashamed of himself. Maybe he’s faking.

He tried to leave the house a few weeks later, after another vicious fight, but his girlfriend’s three year-old daughter ran after him and said she wanted him to stay. He did, for nine years.

Years later, telling me about the blows he’d dealt her, he says that “a lot of the things came from what I thought I had to do.”

Some say this is how the patriarchy works.

As for the blood-in-the-face incident, that happened well after that initial slap. Jimmy and his girlfriend were bickering one day while she did some ironing, and she said something about his family, and he retaliated by insulting her mother, so she threw the iron at him. Violence should be unacceptable in any domestic circumstance – let’s lay that rule down right here – but like a lot of their fights, this one seemed to start in more than one place. The iron hit him on the left side of his head, which started gushing blood.

Then he said to her – said is probably an understatement – “If I was any kind of bad man or wife-beater, you know what I’d probably do right now? I’d probably wrap this cord around your neck and chuck you over the stairwell.” Instead he smeared his blood on her face. He did not do it gently.

“Was that the right thing to do?” Jimmy asks me this grey morning. “Probably not. I should’ve walked away. Should’ve called the cops, to be honest with you. The first time anything like that happened, I should’ve called the cops. Because the next thing she did was call the cops on me.”

That might have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.

Slapping, punching, fear

According to police arrest statistics, there were 97,451 reported victims of intimate-partner violence in Canada in 2011. More than 80 per cent of them were women. Over the course of their lifetimes, as many as a third of Canadian couples have some experience of domestic violence. Women are more likely to be victims if they’re dating than if they’re married, and especially if they’re between the ages of 25 and 34. Roughly one-quarter of all violent events involving spouses come to the attention of police, according to Canada’s General Social Survey; of those, more than 70 per cent result in charges being recommended or laid.

Intimate-partner violence entails “a range of abusive behaviours that occur within relationships,” and “can encompass physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and financial victimization or neglect,” according to Statistics Canada. Shouting and name-calling can qualify. Lasting consequences can include depression and what one expert refers to as “the complete dismantling of a personality.” They can also include suicide. A recent Department of Justice study claims that in 2009 domestic violence cost Canadians $7.4-billion in legal fees, victim expenses and other outlays. It shows up in all classes and at all income levels.

It’s a field where people try to hang on to numbers: If we know how much violence there is, maybe we can control it.

Instead, the data tell the same horrifying stories over and over again. Sixty-five per cent of spouses accused of homicide in 2010 – almost all of whom were men – had a previous history of attacking their victim. (Get out while you can.) Nearly half the women who become victims of spousal violence were first assaulted before they turned 15. (Having been victimized makes you more likely to be a victim again.) About 35 pregnant women are assaulted by their husbands every day.

Eight out of 10 physical intimate-partner attacks are common assaults – “an offence with little or no injury to the victim,” as one federal statistical report cavalierly puts it. Common assault includes pushing, slapping, punching and face-to-face verbal aggression. There is also, obviously, fear, which is not included in the formal definition. The next-most-common forms of intimate violence are uttering threats (way down at 9 per cent) and criminal harassment, or stalking (at 7 per cent).

The majority of men use their hands, rather than a weapon. Maybe assault feels more personal that way? Ontario has the lowest rate of family violence; Saskatchewan has the highest, after Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

The good news: Domestic abuse seems to have been declining for decades. From 1993 to 2013, the rate at which women were murdered by their intimate partners – a rate that is almost always reported, and indisputable – dropped 48 per cent. The most commonly reported motives for killing a spouse are still jealousy, frustration, and despair, in that order.

The bad news: That decline has evened out in the past decade, and has been flat for the past few years. (The rate of intimate-partner homicide against women actually rose 19 per cent between 2010 and 2011.) More than 80,000 Canadian women are still abused every year, judging by police statistics alone, and we’re not doing enough to stop it.

Dreams of trying to run

But those are numbers. Let me tell you about a woman I’ll call Laura, a woman I met last fall. She was 20 when she met her husband. (Again, this is her account; contacting him to corroborate it runs the risk of endangering her.) She was on vacation in Prince Edward Island. He was 20 years older than she was, a schoolteacher, “a dream come true.” They married within a year; within another year, it was clear he didn’t like her talking to other people. He was secretive about money, wouldn’t even let her get the groceries. Groceries. (That kept her in the house.) He seemed almost paranoically insecure, but at first she figured she could change him: “I thought that, if I loved him enough, and he loved me, we could work it out.”

Then – like clockwork – came the name-calling and the mocking (“telling me I was a piece of garbage”), the complaints about her cooking and her housework, the spitting (in her face) and the punching. He controlled what she ate (almost always tuna fish). “I started to become more and more depressed, and more and more unsure of myself.”

One night, he threw her out of the house down some stairs into a snowbank. She repeatedly went to shelters, tried to leave half a dozen times, but by then he’d moved the family to Northern Ontario, where he hunted, and had a gun, and that was terrifying too.

“You start to lose your ability to cope,” she tells me the morning I meet her. “You don’t know who you can trust, socially. And then psychologically, he’s been calling you names so much, you begin to wonder, ‘Maybe he’s right. Maybe I deserve this. Maybe if I’d done one more thing.’ ”

One night, he left bruises on her stomach – he liked to punch her there, of all the tender places – so she went to the hospital. She begged the nurses not to call the police, because if her husband were arrested and lost his job, how was she going to support the family? He even mocked her crying: He called her Zipper because of the sound her sniffling made.

“If he wasn’t happy, no one was going to be happy. There’s no comparison. Any relationship, where you’re having arguments and getting angry, that’s normal. But when a person can’t control their anger, when people are being called names on a daily basis, where they’re being hurt on a daily basis, when there’s sexual violence, it’s not normal.”

The worst of it was her fear. “It’s like nothing you can describe. It’s everyday fear. Because you never know how he’s going to behave, whether you’re going to sleep properly that night, whether your kids are going to be safe. Because it never stops. It never goes away.”

Last year, a decade after leaving him, was the first year she didn’t feel afraid every single day. If you ask her today why she thinks her husband hit her, she says, “I would believe he has some kind of anger-management problem, No. 1. No. 2, certainly alcohol could have played a part in it. Because he was a drinker. Whether he has mental-health issues is questionable too, because what would cause someone to do that? It’s beyond thinking. And he may have grown up in an abusive situation that was happening in his own home.”

But, she says, why he hit her is beside the point: “It doesn’t help any. It doesn’t matter what the cause is or what his issues are because it’s very damaging to the kids and the spouse, and the pain lasts forever.” She has the same dreams every night, of being attacked or of trying to run away. There are no symbols involved. It’s always him she’s running from.

Or let me tell you about Attiya Khan. At 16, she fell in love with a young man of 17. They met before a concert, but the concert was cancelled, and they spent the day together. She fell for him on the spot, for his sense of humour and the way he looked. Two months later, they moved in together. Two weeks after that, he pushed her across the room. Soon he was beating her every day

“The first time is something he doesn’t remember,” she says, as hard as that is to fathom. We’re sitting in an outdoor café, in bright sunshine. She’s well dressed, articulate, friendly, enthusiastic. “I remember, because we were still living in my parents’ home.” She can’t remember if they’d had sex yet. He was jealous: of her friends, that she did better in school, that she spoke French. The violence got worse, and worse still. Gradually, by hitting her, he isolated her: She stopped seeing her friends, stopped talking to others in the hallway at school, stopped going to school (because she had bruises, or because he wouldn’t let her).

Over the course of their two years together, he wasn’t abusive to anyone else, but she was terrified he was going to kill her; and though she thought he might, she couldn’t conceive of leaving him, the only person who loved her. It was that kind of darkness.

She believed she deserved the beatings, “because it happened a lot, and because a lot of people didn’t intervene. My self-worth was non-existent. So that when he said things to cut me down” – that she was terrible, ugly, useless – “I believed him.”

His words were more painful than his blows. This is the cave of sex and love and intimacy, after all, where our secret selves live: There is no logic there. It all stayed with her. Nearly 15 years later, when she became pregnant by another man, and learned she was carrying a boy, her first thought was: “Please don’t hurt anyone.”

Unlike many women who are profoundly abused, both physically and sexually, by a man who claims he loves them, Ms. Khan managed to fight her way clear of her abuser, but that would take time, as we shall see.

She finds it slightly offensive to be asked her opinion of why her partner hit her: The question smells of blaming the victim. But she did once ask him why he was violent to her. “He answered that he didn’t want me to leave, that he cared for me and loved me, and in order for me to stay, he had to control me. He was also scared that if I left, he’d be completely alone.”

This is somewhere near the heart of the abuse dilemma: love, expressed as violence, and violence described as love. Try to solve that.

“Violence is something that happens all the way through life, from the time we’re babies first using our hands,” Katreena Scott, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who specializes in domestic abuse, told me not long ago. “Some people have poor control over it, for a variety of reasons. But I think we also have this myth that intimate partners are supposed to have these beautiful, faithful relationships, that there are these beautiful, romantic spaces.”

Angels in the bodies of beasts, as the poets say.

‘Intimate terrorism’

As if the causes of domestic abuse weren’t thorny enough, our understanding of it has been clouded by inherited prejudices, sexual politics and academic infighting.

Canadian and U.S. courts treated wife-battering mostly as a private family matter until the 1970s, when the subject was forced into public consciousness by second-wave feminists. Advocates organized battered-women’s shelters, which became the first valuable source of information about intimate-partner abuse.

The data were then used to lobby for the long-overdue criminalization of sexual and domestic abuse (and later, sexual harassment, stalking, and other related crimes). That led, over the ensuing two decades, to the automatic laying of charges in domestic-abuse complaints, stricter jail sentences, the use of separation and restraining orders, forfeiture of parental rights, and other now-standard tools of criminal justice.

The data gathered at the shelters, however, was often challenged by sociologists who studied larger, less intensively urban populations. They questioned just how widespread domestic violence was, how violent it was, and who was committing it. The bitter arguments that emerged – about who is to blame for how much violence; and whether the justice system should favour punishment over rehabilitation, and which one best serves the abused – rage to this day. They are disputes with enormous implications for the safety of women, the custody and health of children, and what we do with men who abuse.

Michael Johnson, a now-famous and now-emeritus sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, was one of the first researchers to figure out why the battered-women’s movement (as it was then called) and those sociologists were coming up with such different results. In the early 1990s, he began to identify different strains of what he called “intimate terrorism.” (His data, like this story, pertain mostly to heterosexual couples, though abuse certainly exists, for many of the same reasons, in same-sex relationships as well.)

The three main ones were: coercive controlling violence (a pattern of strict control, reinforced by violence); violent resistance (victims, often women, fighting back in self-defence or retaliation); and situational couple violence (which we’ll come to in a moment). Not only were all abusers not alike, Prof. Johnson discovered; they needed to be treated in different ways.

The worst offenders, he says, are the perpetrators of coercive controlling violence, who fall into two groups. The first are “basically anti-social intimate terrorists, sociopaths that are violent to their partners,” Prof. Johnson says. “The kind of people who don’t have a well-developed conscience. And they do whatever they need to do to get whatever they want.”

The other group comprises the “emotionally dependent intimate terrorist. These are men who are so insecure and desperate to hang onto their partner that they become violently controlling, to try to hang onto the relationship.” They account for most murder-suicides, but if caught in time, they’re slightly more amenable to treatment: “They start to respond to help with their violence when they think they’re going to lose their partner. The anti-socials are harder to get to. They’re cold-blooded.”

In fact, 25 per cent of hard-core abusers won’t change.

These are the men – and they’re almost always men – who commit the most severe physical and emotional assaults on both women and children, who do so repetitively, whose violence escalates over time, who minimize and deny their abuses, who resort to confinement as well as battery, who are most likely to send their partners to shelters and leave them with lasting psychological damage. Their relationships constitute between 2 and, at most, 4 per cent of couples.

A far more common type of intimate-partner violence, Prof. Johnson discovered, is situational couple violence – fighting that escalates from an argument, but that isn’t obsessed with control. Roughly one in eight American couples experience it in a given year. (In poorer communities, where money is a steady stressor, the number is one in five). A third of Canadian couples experience some domestic violence over the course of their lifetimes, most of it situational couple violence. In about 40 per cent of those couples, at least according to some studies, such violence occurs only once. About 20 per cent of situational couple violence – again according to some studies – ends up in court.

And it can still escalate to homicide. Female victims of serious spousal violence are twice as likely as men to be injured, and seven times more likely to fear for their lives.

The younger the couple, the more likely a situational clash is to happen. A 2014 study at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that one in four newlywed husbands and one in three newlywed wives were physically aggressive, which in turn was a predictor of future marital strife. Situational couple violence is also the most “gender symmetric. About as many women as men escalate to violence,” Prof. Johnson says, though he quickly adds that the impact of the violence is not symmetrical: A punch from a 110-pound woman is rarely as severe as punch from a 200-pound man. (Gender symmetry does not extend to coercive controlling violence: There, men are almost always the culprits.) Fortunately, situational couple violence is situational, and often fixable: Some forms of couples therapy have lowered rates of such violence in up to 90 per cent of cases.

In other words, the roots of domestic violence are complicated. “We’ve got patriarchal traditions that can provide a justification for men to think they have a right to control their partners,” Prof. Johnson says. “But clearly the vast majority of men never do that. So that’s not the only explanation. You’ve got to ask, ‘Why are some men going to the extremes of that tradition, to violence and other control tactics, to terrorize their partners?’ Then you go to the personality.”

How do you fix a broken personality?

Walking on eggshells

In George’s family, they call it “having a fit” – blind bouts of rage, name-calling, breaking things. George watched his father have fits all his life. Growing up in rural Southwestern Ontario, in a family of nine children, in a party-ridden house overseen by alcoholic, drug-addicted parents, the fits were a way of clearing space. His father wasn’t always physically abusive: “It was more of the psychological abuse. His screaming and yelling was pretty much daily. You were always walking on eggshells that he might just explode, eh? You’d say or do something wrong, and he’d say, ‘I’ll cut off your fuckin’ head and shit down your throat,’ you know?”

We are sitting in a public library, chatting. It is 9 in the morning. George’s name isn’t really George. He’s 57, short, stocky, bald.

George’s dad could turn on you in a flick, the way George would come to do. The fits lasted only half an hour, but he remembered them forever, the way kids remember things. His father once threw a chair across the room while everyone was watching TV; no one could remember why. “You know those old chrome dining-room chairs they used to have? And it stuck in the wall. The legs of it, eh? One of us was going up to remove it, and Mum said, ‘No, leave it there. As a constant reminder.’ ” It stayed in the wall for three weeks.

George’s mother had borne 10 children in 10 years (one of them not his father’s), and was addicted to painkillers. When a family friend burnt George’s arms with his cigar, “my mum was right there watching the guy do it. And it wasn’t so much that he did it. The traumatic part for me was, my mum’s not doing anything about it.” The kids often found her in bed with other men.

Some days, George’s father and mother would say, “We’re just going to the grocery store,” and would return four days later, blotto. “Just leave us there, with whatever was in the house. I remember we had nothing to eat, so we’d just go pick dandelion greens, cook ’em up, stuff like that.” When George was 15, his mother left the house for good. She didn’t leave a note. “She just disappeared.”

As we’re talking, she is dying in a hospice. George has flown 2,000 kilometres from Nova Scotia to say goodbye to her. Somehow she still draws him.

Does it come as a surprise that George has been married 37 years? Or that for a lot of that time he has been unwilling to let his wife out of his psychological grip? He met her when she was 17 and he was 18.

He started yelling at her, losing his temper and having fits, the first year they were married. He didn’t hit her or the kids (although he acknowledges there were disciplinary spankings) but he punched walls and broke his hands.

“Another time, this was very shortly before we had kids, I’m trying to talk to her, and we’re having a bit of an argument, and she quiets down, and starts to watch TV.” That was unacceptable. He would force her to pay attention. “I don’t know if you remember those little TVs, back in the seventies, a little portable TV? I just kicked it right off the stand. That’s why she says she has no nice things any more. Because I broke ’em all.” He doesn’t hesitate to admit he terrorized the woman he loves.

Just as he turned 45, George’s sister discovered she had been sexually abused by an acquaintance, which in turn jogged George to remember that he had been, too. A few years later, he was throttled by a co-worker. The combination of events dropped him into what he is certain was a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder: He became depressed, lost his temper incessantly, was suicidal. “It took about five years before I realized, you know, I can’t do this on my own. I’m gonna need professional help.”

He answered an ad for a mood-disorder study, was prescribed an anti-depressant, and is now seeing a therapist who specializes in domestic violence. He and his wife go to couples therapy. He has three tantrums a year, down from three a week. He had a fit recently when he asked his wife to direct him while he backed up their vacation motor home, and she directed him not onto a set of concrete blocks, but up to the axles in mud.

“I just went out,” George says, shaking his head. “I was like Linda Blair, my head was spinning on top of my shoulders, and the neighbours were all come running out.” But after two years of therapy, he’s learned he can pull back from his rages on his own. Now, when he feels a fit coming on, he divides his brain into two parts. One, the instinctual, frightened, fighting part, he calls Lizard Brain. The other, the rational, noble, controlled part, is Sir Galahad. I’m not making this up. Sir Galahad then tells Lizard Brain to back off.

This works, most of the time. George can now assess his own behaviour from a distance.

He is a better husband, but still not an ideal one. Demanding that he should be is where the public conversation about domestic violence risks becoming toxic and oppressive – not just for those directly involved in abusive relationships but for anyone who wants to talk about abuse more honestly.

“I don’t have to be violent any more,” George says, threading his fingers together. The library is filling up with retirees who spend much of their days in the mall next door. “I don’t have to make people appreciate me. I don’t need their opinion.” Fury is need turned inside out. George stopped losing his temper when he understood that his wife’s (real or imagined) disapproval was not the end of his world, when he freed himself from his own expectation of being the perfectly obeyed, and therefore perfect, husband.

You could say George has resisted patriarchal values, or that he has been a good candidate for therapy, or both. But George would never say any of that. What George says is, “We’re one of the great loves of history. We’re like Romeo and Juliet, like Cleopatra and Antony, you know?”

Lovers who kill each other, but that’s not what he means.

Jane Donovan is the 57-year-old clinical supervisor at New Start Counselling in Dartmouth, where George and his wife have been for couples therapy. Ninety per cent of the 300 clients who walk into the clinic every year are men, half on court-mandated visits. All of them are angry about something.

“I have found that men have a real sense of injustice, and that’s why they’re angry,” Ms. Donovan tells me late one afternoon in her office overlooking Halifax Harbour. “They’re generally not angry at their wives. It’s not their sense of injustice that’s wrong; it’s how they respond that’s wrong. And the patriarchy plays into that. Think of the messages men get starting when they’re seven years old on the playground.” Be in control, show no weakness, and never admit to your fallible humanness.

“It’s often the case that they have been treated badly in the course of their lives,” Ms. Donovan continues. “My sense is that people wouldn’t come up with hitting on their own. It’s a learned behaviour. But just because you have been abused doesn’t mean you’re going to be abusive. And it doesn’t excuse it, either.”

Her sessions tend to follow a pattern. Abuse is defined – the definition can include shouting. She asks the client to cop to what he’s done. He accuses his partner of pushing his buttons. Ms. Donovan rhetorically asks the client what the woman needs to do to stop provoking the attacks. He has plenty of suggestions.

Then she turns the tables: And what would you need to do in turn, sir? Can he admit the damage he has done, face his shame? She asks the man to build an alternative self, the man he could respect. “I guess I see the work here as reconstructing their ideals,” she says. All of this takes between 15 and 40 weeks.

She sees many clients improve their behaviour. “Of course, what’s change? Not pushing? Not pushing as much?”

“None of us is perfect,” Ms. Donovan says. “We all experience abuse, and we all distribute a little abuse about.”

Therapy for abusers is often dismissed as pandering to abusers. But being able to talk about and treat abuse as a human failing, rather than as the spawn of the Prince of Darkness, has important consequences. Some research in the United States suggests that as many as 70 per cent of couples in which one of the partners has been charged with domestic violence end up staying together. In many states, a woman who doesn’t leave her abuser can have her children taken away.

“It’s not surprising there was a push toward criminalization,” Leigh Goodmark, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and a long-time legal advocate for battered women, explains. “We weren’t treating this violence as aberrant at all. But that’s a serious unintended consequence. If [the research] is true, then we’re using a system that’s premised on separating people, and not on providing them with the necessary tools to repair their relationships. My contention is that, between the state and the woman, I want the woman to make that determination.”

‘I was just so tired of it’

Joe and Maria are not their real names; they met on Plenty of Fish, the online dating site, a year ago December. He was 30, she was 28. They texted for two weeks. By February, they were living together with Maria’s two girls on a military base in (let’s say) Northern Ontario. It might have been a little precipitate, but these things happen. Early on, Maria noticed Joe was stricter than she was: insisted the girls keep their hands in their laps at the dinner table when they weren’t eating, that sort of thing. “He didn’t think I was disciplining them the way he would have disciplined them,” Maria remembers. That was when he started shouting.

Joe had always had a temper – bullied as an immigrant, he’d become a fighter – but his behaviour quickly degenerated. He didn’t hit Maria or her children, but he drank and threw things and kicked shoes left in a doorway, and put holes in walls. He broke Maria’s hair wand and her curling iron. “It was sort of a control thing,” Maria remembers. “He thought he was taking on way too much, and thought he had to do it all by himself.” Sometimes Maria was there when he lost his temper and sometimes she wasn’t (she works as an office manager).

“I got to the point where I was just so tired of it,” she says. One day she poured what was left of his alcohol down the sink. Joe retaliated by snapping the heels off all her shoes. “I just said, like, ‘I hate you when you get like this.’ I’m pretty sure I hit him in the chest. Because I was afraid to hit him in the face. Because then I think he would have retaliated.”

On her birthday in March, “he told me I didn’t give a fuck about my kids.” She responded by throwing her drink in his face, and told him to get out of the house. “He just sat there,” she recalls, “I think he was trying to calm down.”

Later, Maria heard Joe and her nine-year-old daughter arguing, and then the daughter came and complained that Joe had pushed her. When Maria stepped out of the shower five minutes later, she heard more talking, and a crash. This time Joe really had pushed the girl, later saying he was trying to teach her a lesson about lying, about what constituted a push and what didn’t.

Maria called the police. They arrested Joe, fingerprinted him, banned him from the house. Maria was granted a restraining order prohibiting all contact. This is the point at which abusers are at greatest risk for reoffending. Joe started seeing a therapist instead. He and Maria started talking again in June. In August, he moved back home: Had he not done so, Maria and the girls would have had to move out of the house.

Therapy seemed to help. Joe still had a temper, but now he had a way of contextualizing it. “It all had to do with me,” Joe says today. “It was my way or the highway. I didn’t want to acknowledge it. I bought into being macho and an alpha-male personality. I think a lot of it has to do with what we know we can get away with. I definitely think that if this situation had kept up, and Maria hadn’t called the cops, it would have progressed and gotten worse. And I think more violent. Because there was no consequence to what I was doing.”

Today Joe and his step-daughter do the shopping together. “It’s a lot better,” Maria says. “It’s a complete 180 from what was going on before. I think he didn’t know what he was doing. He still gets upset from time to time, but we can talk about it. We’ll call them big arguments, because they make him cry. He does a lot of crying now! But at least he’s feeling the emotions that he needs to feel. I think his crying is actually a way of showing that he cares.”

Does reading that, if you are a man, make you cringe? That’s how deeply patriarchal rules – or whatever you want to call the performance standards many men unconsciously carry – are embedded. Why does it matter if Joe cries when he argues? Maybe he’s crying out of gratitude, because he has another chance to be who he wanted to be.

Condemnation, and candour

One of the reasons we don’t understand domestic violence and all its intimacies is that we don’t talk about it in a nuanced way. Right-wing conservatives and anti-feminists mishandle data and claim that women are as violent as men, when nothing could be farther from the truth. Other ideologues recite the dreadful crimes of seriously abusive men, whose relationships make up between 2 and 4 per cent of all couples, and imply that these tendencies are simmering in every man. An open conversation that includes a man’s history – because that is sometimes essential to understanding why he becomes violent – runs the immediate risk of being branded a reprivileging of abusers.

Words are freighted with meaning. Each week, about 35 women call Boston’s Emerge program – which bills itself as the oldest program for batterers in the United States – seeking help for their husbands. But only 10 or so of the husbands follow up, a drop-off that led the program to omit the word “batterer” from its literature and change its name to the Program for Abusive and Controlling Behaviors. “The word ‘batterer’ was labelling,” Dr. David Adams, one of the program’s co-founders, explains, “and off-putting.” It implied that everyone who attended was “a worst-case scenario.”

For men, the subject is radioactive. I had a rare conversation about abuse a few weeks ago in a bar in Toronto, where I ran into a guy I know. He’s a lovely man, smart and clever and funny. I told him I was writing about domestic abuse, and he immediately began to talk about shouting and tussling and name-calling. “Pushing each other around in an argument; everybody does that,” he said. “That’s not abuse.”

“Well,” I said, “there are lots of people who would disagree.”

He gave me a look, the oh-come-on look. He asked if I’d ever been slapped by a woman. “Yes,” I said. “Long ago.”

“Were you afraid?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Abuse is when someone is made to be afraid,” he said. “No one’s afraid in these tussles. But that’s the problem with calling it abuse. Then no one can talk about it.”

There are lots of people who are afraid in precisely that scenario. And that is precisely the problem: Because the term “abuse” can encompass both the most horrific violence and much more common shouting matches, we render ourselves incapable of frankly talking about either.

Shame has a long history in the treatment of domestic abuse. Tod Augusta-Scott is the 46-year-old director of the Bridges Institute, a small but increasingly influential domestic-violence counselling and research institute in Truro, N.S. Bridges has provided Jane Donovan and a growing number of therapists with new scripts for treating men who abuse. Soft-spoken, hyperarticulate, floppy-haired, and deeply political, Mr. Augusta-Scott first went to work with battered women and their attackers in the 1980s.

The system he trained under, and would later reject, the famous Duluth Model, is still the mainstream treatment for domestic abusers. Heavily influenced by the battered-women’s movement, it focuses on violence as a choice men make to control women.

“Unfortunately, what we did in the movement was throw out all the therapists,” Mr. Augusta-Scott tells me, “and turned it into a matter of re-education. It was unhelpful.” (“Unhelpful” is a word you hear a lot in the domestic-violence debate.)

“The dominant domestic-violence discourse defined all men as only wanting power and control, all women as being terrorized and wanting to leave, and all violence as equally severe.” As a consequence, he says, “The men then just shut up, or went underground. We do not have a second act in this field. But we have the first act, condemnation, down pat.”

Mr. Augusta-Scott eventually shut down his group-therapy sessions – “That was taboo [according to the Duluth Model], because group was ‘educational’” – and dealt only with individuals.

In the privacy of one-on-one therapeutic relationships – using what he calls “an invitational rather than an oppositional approach” – he discovered that abusers could not be reduced to simplistic villains. After all, if power was all men wanted, why did so many instantly regret the violence they committed?

“We need to be outraged about domestic violence,” Mr. Augusta-Scott says. “We need courtroom improvements, police improvements, we need consequences. That’s not to deny the fear a man who abuses creates. But I’ve seen relationships beset by violence of 20 years, and I’ve seen the relationship heal and repair. Now all we have is consequences.”

Hidden within the single-minded fury directed at Ray Rice and men like him, he feels, is the assumption that men can’t change. “It’s a very conservative response.” Some advocates reasonably fear that “understanding” Ray Rice will excuse his actions. “But,” Mr. Augusta-Scott insists, “we can talk about the complexity of abusive relationships and hold men responsible for their choices.”

As noted, domestic-abuse rates declined for 30 years and have now plateaued. In Boston, Dr. Adams attributes the fall-off to the women’s movement and its brave efforts to criminalize domestic and sexual assault. But more than 80,000 Canadian women are still abused every year. To reduce domestic violence and its effects further, men who abuse, or who are at risk for abusing, have to be intercepted and treated before they do more harm.

“The average abuser, even if the wife leaves, he’s going to abuse two to four more women,” Dr. Adams says. “Why not deal with the problem that’s causing the abuse, by treating the abuser? You can’t shelter your way out of the problem entirely. You can’t arrest your way out of the problem either. And criminalization of the problem has led to this overreliance on the criminal-justice system.” Jail puts a man away. It doesn’t stop him from abusing. Neither does therapy, in every case. We need both.

Therapeutic programs for abusers are often criticized as ineffective, in part because success is hard to define. Emerge recently completed its first long-term-effectiveness study of its own such program. Of men who attended 10 or more sessions, only 19 per cent were rearrested or served with a new restraining order. That’s an improvement.

But only 4 per cent of domestic-abuse offenders in the U.S. go through pretrial anti-violence counselling. In Canada, demand is up for programs such as Mr. Augusta-Scott’s – but funding is flat. And Canada doesn’t formally measure the effectiveness of court-mandated therapy at all.

Which leaves candour as a therapeutic option, and brings us back to Attiya Khan. She’s 40 now, two decades beyond the daily thrashings she took in her teens. Although she used to run into her abusive ex, she tried to avoid him. But eight years after she left, he said he wanted to talk.

“Something in the way he said it made me think that if we went to a safe place, I could hear him. And he just – there were not many words, believe me – he started to cry, and he said he was sorry. And something lifted in me, and I saw him for the first time not as someone who hurt me, but as someone who wanted to change.” How could she tell? “I found out that when he was committing abuse, he didn’t want to be an abuser. He didn’t want to have done those things. That, for me, is kind of fantastic. Doesn’t excuse it. But it’s a release. I felt a great weight lift.”

Ms. Khan, now a Toronto writer and anti-abuse advocate, is planning to make a documentary about her relationship. Radically, A Better Man will be told mostly from the point of view of the man who hurt her, who comes clean on camera. The project has the public support of Margaret Atwood; Sarah Polley is an executive producer; and $110,000 has been raised in the first phase of a Kickstarter campaign. Ms. Khan was a women’s studies major at the University of Toronto, and later attended an advocate program at the city’s George Brown College. But in neither place, she says, “did we once discuss the men who are abusive.”

That, she has decided, is a problem. “That’s what we forget about people in domestic-violence situations. That it’s an intimate situation. A lot of abusers do need to go to jail. But we also need therapeutic models. So that when they get out they are not going to abuse again.” She feels the mainstream solutions now in place to prevent and end abuse – punishment, incarceration, shame – aren’t working. “We haven’t heard men’s words. And of course they haven’t spoken up. Because we think of them as monsters.”

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