'Learning to Be Kinder to People' Turns Two Lives Around

Becky Savino had suffered years of verbal and physical abuse. But the final straw came when Becky's husband beat her because their dog had chewed on some clothes.

''The dog wasn't beaten,'' says Becky, ''I was.''

She fled to a friend's house and only returned after her husband promised no further physical violence. Verbal and sexual abuse, however, continued for several more years, she says.

But this story doesn't end in tragedy or murder. Becky's husband, Mike Savino, enrolled in a unique counseling program that helped turn his life around.

At weekly sessions of Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE) in San Francisco, Mike says he learned how to put himself in another person's shoes. ''I learned to be kinder to other people, basically,'' he says.

MOVE, which began in 1980, draws its counseling techniques from the feminist movement and men's consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s. Unlike some other programs, MOVE emphasizes societal causes of male violence.

''Society rewards people who wield power,'' says MOVE's acting director John Beem. ''But that doesn't work very well in relationships. Men letting go [of sexism] will not only result in their partners not getting hurt, it will also result in a fuller, richer life for themselves.''

Mike grew up in a working-class family in Connecticut. He says both his parents were alcoholics. He thought of himself as dumb, and constantly daydreamed in school. Only later, through counseling, did he realize that the daydreaming was really worrying about his family. ''I wasn't supposed to change diapers and pick up a drunk mother,'' Mike says. ''I wasn't supposed to be a parent when I was 10 years old.''

His father told him that a husband's job is to keep a roof over his family's head and provide food. ''If they get out of line,'' Mike learned, use ''a strap.''

''Basically, I was a recorder,'' Mike says. ''What came in, when you played it back, came out.''

But he doesn't justify his domestic violence because of family history. He learned that abusive behavior patterns ''aren't my fault, but it is my responsibility to change.'' He says his marriage to Becky deteriorated because of his abuse.

Becky suffered not only physically but emotionally. She went into therapy for more than two years, she says, because ''that's how convinced I was that I was the problem.''

During that time, Mike considered himself a good, church-going Christian. ''I could have an argument, slap my wife and fight on the way to church, and be just terrific when I got there.''

By then he was physically abusing Becky almost every three days.

Then Becky left. One day she went to her jazzercise class and didn't come back. Her departure shocked Mike into realizing the seriousness of his problem. While he stopped the physical attacks, verbal and sexual abuse continued. So in 1993 Becky insisted he either seek counseling or she would leave for good.

Each week Mike and other participants report to the group any abusive incidents and also situations in which they avoided flare-ups.

''It's possible for men to become aware of their own physical and mental processes,'' that lead to violence, Mr. Beem says. Some men clench their fists, others have a sinking sensation in the stomach. When they feel those symptoms, MOVE tells the men to ''take time outs, to just go away for a period of time.''

Mike also went through an Alcoholics Anonymous program as the son of alcoholic parents. While Beem says alcoholism is not the root cause of domestic violence, it is another result of the same flawed reasoning many abusers use. MOVE requires alcoholics in the program to attend outside courses to treat the alcoholism as well.

Mike says that with MOVE he came to understand how men take out their frustrations on their families. ''If a man doesn't have enough money or the boss fired him, it's not his fault,'' Mike says. But under those circumstances, a man often gets angry at his wife and wants to control her instead. ''The wife becomes property of the man,'' he says.

Beem says Mike has made tremendous progress in overcoming that kind of sexism. ''Now his ability to tolerate differences, to voice feelings instead of acting on them, is much higher,'' Beem says.

Nevertheless, Mike has stayed in the program for 2-1/2 years, longer than most men, because he doesn't completely trust his ability to defer anger. ''I need to know myself a little better,'' he says.

Sometimes progress is measured in small steps. Becky says that on the day of this interview, Mike showed how much progress he's made. He got into an argument with a male relative who physically pushed Mike several times. Rather than slug him, Mike called a time out and just walked away.

''I feel so good about him not responding in a violent way,'' says Becky. ''That was a red-letter day for us.''

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