"SERIAL BATTERERS, What turns boys into brutes?"
Conservative estimates add up to 165,000 hardcore batterers in Canada, and they wreak havoc on us all. These are the stalkers, the men who consistently and deliberately abuse women verbally and physically, the ones responsible for the ongoing fear, pain and agony—and sometimes death.
Their behavior is inexcusable. It is also a mystery. With more muscular laws in place and society sensitized to the issue, the very existence of serial batters is confounding.
They can’t all be dismissed as crazy; psychopaths and sociopaths constitute only 10 to 15 per cent of their number. They can’t be deemed underprivileged; men who have insidiously woven battery into the fabric of their relationships come from every walk of life—from loggers to lawyers, from short-order cooks to company presidents to policemen. They are a constant and relentless threat. And they are getting away with it; almost invariably, until the woman tells her friends or family, calls the police or physically flees the home, the battery remains a potentially lethal secret, the man protected by fear and silence from whatever remedies society might bring to bear.
What turns boys into brutes? Why do they continue to behave the way they do? More importantly, where do we go from here?
Vancouver psychologist Don Dutton, who testified for the prosecution at the Simpson trials’ preliminary hearings, calls serial batterers Jekylls and Hydes—seemingly upstanding citizens who make life hell behind closed doors. He recalls being cross-examined by F. Lee Bailey, one of Simpson’s “Dream Team”: “Bailey tried to get me to say that an outstanding citizen, who was captain of the football team and so forth, couldn’t possibly have been a wife batterer. I said, That’s not true at all. If you look at the literature, there really are two personalities, with no relation between the public and the private one.”
An author and professor of forensic psychology at the University of British Columbia, Dutton first began to study the largely unresearched subject of spousal battery in 1974, when he was asked by the Vancouver police force to help modernize its officer training program. “For two years I spent every Friday night riding on patrol,” he writes in his new book ‘The Batterer: A Psychological Profile’ (HarperCollins, 1995). “I saw violence and death, and I learned that one of the duties police officers dread most was intervening in what they called ‘domestic disputes.’”
Based on his research and experience, Dutton has concluded that three traumatizing factors in early childhood development seem to produce an adolescent “ticking bomb”: a shaming or disparaging father who regularly humiliates the boy, often in public; an insecure attachment to the mother figure, which produces a “Madonna of whore” perception of all women; and experiencing or witnessing an abusive home environment.
As far as he’s concerned, Simpson fits the profile to a T: “His father left home when O.J. was a kid, and the neighborhood talk was that the father was gay. His mother went out and worked 16 hours a day to keep a roof over their heads and meals on the table, so she wasn’t available to him much of the time. On top of that, he had rickets. The neighborhood kids would call him Pencil Pins, and because there wasn’t much money, his mother made homemade braces for him. So he experienced extreme shame, I would think—from the deformity, to the homosexual father who leaves home, which is the ultimate rejection, to the mother who tries but isn’t available. With the shame comes rage, which doesn’t go away just because he wins a football scholarship and goes to become an American celebrity. The personality splits, and the rage goes underground.”
When these ticking bombs get into their teens, Dutton continues, “their future relationships with woman are doomed—but it’s masked because most teenage relationships are doomed. The guy starts going out with Partner A, and when it doesn’t work he blames Partner A. Partner B—same thing. After Partner C or D, he’s blaming all women. He may then start shopping around in the culture for signs that will reinforce his negative beliefs.” Misogynist song lyrics, advertisements that objectify women, TV shows that glorify violence—all will fall on an unusually fertile imagination, but, Dutton insists, “the predisposition toward violence in intimate relations comes first.”
Dutton has made the study of male batterers, and inevitably their victims, his specialty, and he’s now the director of the Assaultive Husbands Program in Vancouver. “It’s the country’s oldest court mandated treatment program,” say Dutton, who with his fellow therapists runs a 16-week group-counseling program. Essentially, the program forces clients to first acknowledge their anger and aggressiveness and then learn how to deal with their problem. (In groups of a dozen or so men, three quarters will be there by court order, the rest having voluntarily sought help.) With 1,100 case studies in his files, Dutton has evidence that the program works: “Eight-four per cent of the women we’ve followed up with say their men have been violence-free two and one half years later.” Therapy definitely reduces the rate of recidivism, he says.
One who hopes to keep battering from happening in the first place by intervening at the adolescent stage is Allam Sheps, who for 20 years worked with the Jewish Family and Child Service of Metropolitan Toronto, where he developed a program for male abusers. Now a social worker in private practice (and like Dutton a counselor of court-mandated and self-referred batterers), Sheps also participates in a program, under the auspices of Metro Men Against Violence, at the high school level. “Early intervention is the name of the game,” he says. “We talk to young men about the continuum of violence, how it can take all sorts of forms—verbal, non-verbal shunning, physical. We talk about the issue of power in their lives, and the role of male friendship.” The program has met with a fair degree of acceptance, Sheps says, but there are exceptions. “We get reactions like, ‘I’m OK—it’s the other guys you should be talking to,’ or ‘What about the way women treat us?’ or ‘Yeah, but nice guys don’t win.’”
Lee Lakeman, one of the many warriors in the front lines of the battle against violence against women, is a director of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, which counsels thousands of women a year but can offer shelter to only 10 at a time. In her opinion, the situation won’t improve in any substantive way without a couple of systematic changes: the police and the courts, she says, have to “start viewing crimes against people as being more important than crimes against property” and they must “start practicing believing women. Start with the assumption that she’s telling the truth.” Otherwise, why should women believe in a justice system that does not confront men with the consequences of their actions?
There is remarkable unanimity among experts that men have to face these consequences in court. “Going to court increases the likelihood of a conviction and subsequent public censure,” says Lakeman, while admitting that she and her colleagues across the country “don’t agree about punishment.” Her shelter colleague Bonnie Agnew emphasizes the need for swiftly applied and consistently enforced restraining orders—particularly when the woman has fled the relationship, a proven-dangerous time for 18 months or so. Dutton seconds that motion, recalling a case where a batterer had lied to his probation officer about a business trip to Japan, while he stayed in town to terrorize his estranged wife. The probation officer had taken the Japan bit at face value—until Dutton, who was also counseling the wife, called to tell him that the abuse was ongoing.
There is a theory about punishment, addressed at length by Harvard University professor James Q. Wilson in ‘Thinking About Crime’ (New York: Basic, 1983), that three elements—severity, certainty and swiftness-must be in sync. “The trick,” says Dutton, “is to set the severity of punishment so that it’s severe enough, but not so severe that the guy’s going to mortgage the farm to fight it.” Dutton endorses a year’s enforced probation and a court-mandated treatment program—even for first-timers. “It’s a real wake-up call: the night in jail, the judge, the sentence. General deterrence—seeing others get nailed—doesn’t work with these guys. What works is what happens to them personally.” As he strongly believes, do treatment programs.
Bonnie Agnew suggests that, in numerous ways, all of us, as friends and neighbors, need to maintain vigilance on a daily basis. “Men should make a point of finding out whether their male friends are beating their wives,” she says, and Allan Sheps agrees. “Men don’t talk to one another enough about their feelings toward the women in their lives.” As well, says Agnew, “Neighbors can know—and do know. They can put two and two together, and they must intervene.” We all underestimate, adds Lakeman, the power that public censure can have right after the event. “Whatever else we do, we should be withdrawing prestige and status from these men.” If you’re convicted of battery and you’re a teacher, for example, should you be allowed to teach?
Women must also force themselves to stop believing the seemingly heartfelt apologies of the serial batterer’s inevitable contrition phase, Dutton says. The typical cycle of domestic battery goes from a gradual buildup of tension to an explosive release to a period of I’ll-never-do-it-again remorse that he says can sometimes seem like a seductive second honeymoon. It’s a pattern that can promote a strong form of bonding, but a woman should resist it with every ounce of energy she has. Instead, Dutton advises, “look for a real change of behavior. He can’t just talk the talk, he’s gotta walk the walk. What’s he promising? That he can change on his own? Forget it—chances are he can’t. If he says he’ll get help, does he follow through?” As hard as it may be, Dutton says, a battered woman “has to admit that she’s a battered woman. Not, ‘He’s got a bit of a temper. If I just stopped doing A, he’d be better.’ So you change, but he doesn’t. ‘Oh, maybe if I stop doing B.’ It keeps going on. Once you understand that it’s his problem and not yours, there’s a sea of change.”
In an era when young lovers are well-advised to ask one another for blood tests before going any further, cautionary measures for abuse are equally appropriate. People like Agnew and Dutton, who deal with spousal battery every day, offer a checklist for young women, who must, alas, fear that Dr. Jekyll could someday turn into Mr. Hyde.
Does he make disparaging jokes about women? Does he think the expression ‘I’ll O.J. you’ is funny?
In his last relationship, who left whom and why? What does he say about that?
Does he have mood swings that seem to have nothing to do with you—but end up with you being good or bad?
How does he describe his upbringing? His parents? Does he happily see them?
What’s his attitude toward money? Is he controlling of yours?
Is he excessively jealous of attention paid to you by friends of either sex? By strangers?
If your answers to any of these questions make you uneasy, it’s wise to insist on further discussion, or even break things off. Otherwise, the future may hold visits to a shelter, a hospital—or the morgue.
Taken in part from Homemaker’s Magazine©, April 1996. Telemedia Communications Inc.; “Serial Batterers, what turns boys into brutes?” written by John T. D. Keyes.
REJECTION, SHAME AND RAGE GALVANIZE THESE "TICKING BOMBS."