Learning to Unclench Their Fists


HE leans forward, elbows on knees, a slight tension in his voice. ''My name is Mark. I had a good week,'' he says, ''no drugs, no alcohol. I had a problem with my kids, but I didn't lose control. We sat down and talked about it as a family.''

Mark (not his real name) and the other 13 men seated in a circle in an upstairs room at the First Baptist Church in Wollaston, Mass. are attending Common Purpose, a court-mandated treatment program for men who batter women.

At hundreds of community sites in the United States every week, more and more troubled men are gathering in treatment programs. The objective is to stop male violence against women by changing the attitudes and behavior of men.

In 1993, according to the US Department of Justice, 1,531 women in the US were killed by their husbands or boyfriends, up by 99 over 1992. (And 591 men were killed by their wives or girlfriends.) Another 2.3 million women were beaten, abused, or raped.

Most programs for men are less than three or four years old, experts say. Approaches to treatment and standards are being debated and decided in some two- dozen states.

While many other social issues have been studied for decades, broad-based knowledge about male-initiated domestic violence is only now being developed. Consequently, wrangling over what constitutes effective treatment is usual today.

''What is common to the men I have seen in 14 years of counseling is that they grew up believing that it is all right to hit women,'' says Mitch Rothenberg, acting director of Common Purpose. ''There is no taboo in our society yet that says, you just can't do this to women.''

The complex social and cultural dynamics that trigger domestic violence, often with deadly consequences for women, are just beginning to be fully understood, professionals say. ''The almost-overnight growth of treatment programs is comparable to drunk-driving programs in the 1970s,'' says David Adams, founder of Emerge, the nation's first batterers program founded in 1977 in Cambridge, Mass.

Violence as choice

For years psychiatrists and social scientists tended to regard batterers as people with deep psychological problems. ''We really want to move away from the view that these men have psychological defects so that they see violence is a choice,'' says Michael Paymar, training coordinator of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minn.

''Our philosophy,'' Mr. Adams says, ''is to take an educational approach and say that domestic violence is not a sickness, but a learned behavior. It is essential to talk confidentially with the victim during the batterer's treatment to help measure his progress.'' The goal in this approach is the safety of the women as well as treatment for the men.

At the same time, Adams says, there is now something of a ''backlash'' in many courts and law-enforcement agencies against the recent increased efforts to protect women. As predominantly male-controlled institutions, some courts still write off domestic violence as a ''family matter'' rather than a criminal act.

Common Purpose, a non-profit, private social agency operating since 1989, offers treatment programs at the Wollaston church and other locations in the Boston area. Participants meet three times weekly for a minimum of 40 weeks, exploring a different theme each week, such as ''partnership.''

The men pay to attend the sessions and are under restraining orders. If a man misses a session, a judge could order immediate incarceration.

Two trainers (a man and a woman) guide the discussions, which include videos of domestic confrontations between men and women and role playing. Batterers also write ''control logs'' to explore their intents and beliefs. ''The point is that violence is learned,'' says Rothenberg, ''and the foundation of violence is a system of beliefs.''

For Jim (not his real name), the program has apparently helped. ''At work a guy confronted me over the use of a phone,'' he says, ''and I was reported to management. He wanted to have it out with me, and called me a [wimp]. But I stepped back even though I wanted to hit him and be abusive. I could see it wasn't worth it.''

''The truth is we don't know if we are successful or not in the long run,'' Rothenberg says, after the session with Mark and the other men ends. ''We've always said that our program is only one part of a larger intervention picture that includes the courts, law enforcement, shelters, mental-health departments, religious organizations, and businesses.''

Bryan May, an anger-control trainer at Whatcom County Crisis Services in Bellingham, Wash., says, ''I think in the future the victim will be involved more and more, and we'll move toward actually intervening in the home with counselors arriving to help. The closer we can get to the incident, the lower the denial by the batterer.''

Hunger for power

Although there is no ''typical'' batterer, there are common characteristics, say Rothenberg and Adams. Batterers have a need for power and control, and they believe women should be subordinate to men. Conversely, often they are emotionally dependent on their wife or girlfriend.

''It's fairly common for these guys to be charmers,'' says Adams, ''and often the batterer comes across as the more credible person in a dispute.''

Many batterers were abused as children or saw their mothers abused, and believe violence is natural or necessary. Many deny responsibility for their actions. ''I blamed my wife for my behavior,'' says Larry (not his real name), ''because I told her she was so dumb and clumsy that I had to keep her in line.''

Batterers are often dissatisfied with their lives outside the home, too. Many use alcohol and drugs as an excuse for their violent behavior, but some studies indicate these men are violent with or without substance abuse.

''My old man beat me up all the time,'' says Tim (not his real name), standing outside the church after the program. ''But he never hit my mother.

''I smashed my wife in the face, because she was hassling me. It's hard to admit that I can't justify violence, but what I'm learning is to go out of here and at least consider other possibilities.''

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