Crashing Views of Domestic Abuse

I recently viewed a brilliant movie on racism. Crash presented the many faces of racism through the lens of a kaleidoscope exposing the nuances and variegations. It highlighted the “To Kill a Mockingbird” type of racism. In one scene a white male police officer sexually harassed a black female citizen while her black husband watched, scared and powerless to defend his partner. The movie also showed a young black man using his “race card” to avoid accountability for his own behavior, while he stole a rich white couples’ Cadillac at gunpoint. Crash, as the movie connotes brilliantly, allows opposing views of racism to mercilessly collide into each other, twisting, blotting, and contorting monolithic and monocular views on the subject of racism. You see, there was a time when racism wasn’t even seen. It was hidden behind the curtain of white supremacy until Uncle Tom and Reverend King pulled that curtain back. It was appropriately put on a slide for our society to view closely through a high-powered microscopic movement. Those who took their blinders off, and peered through the high-powered lenses of the movement saw the injustice, pain, and fear of disenfranchised blacks. Now, we have a movie like Crash to forward the complexity of an issue such that it becomes difficult to know what is true and real at any given particular time. Is the white male police officer evil and pathological for sexually harassing an innocent black female, or is he a hero for later saving the life of that same innocent, helpless, black woman. The movie leaves the open minded and compassionate souls confused, unsteady in a state of wonderment and anxiety.

This confusion, anxiety, wonder and unsteadiness have been creeping into my professional life as I work in the domestic abuse field. I provide intervention and counseling for men who acknowledge, or are deemed abusive and controlling to women. I also provide counseling, evaluation, and parenting coordination in the context of divorce, custody and parenting time disputes. The paradigm for working with people with domestic abuse crashes into the paradigm for working with people in divorce and custody, parenting time disputes.

In domestic abuse, the men that come to us are assumed guilty, in denial, not forthcoming, and essentially controlling. We know this because we know domestic violence. You see, the pro-feminist batterers women’s movement pulled back the curtain on patriarchy to reveal the ugliness and oppression of domestic abuse. When we peer through the microscopic lens provided to us by this movement we can clearly see how the need for power and control can lead to verbal abuse, intimidation, social and economic control, threats, violence, and even hundreds of deaths each year of our mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and wives. Although, we may not see this social ill dramatized on the big screen like racism, we all watched “To Kill a Wife, Nichole Brown Simpson”, dramatized on the small screen. This high-powered case put domestic violence on the map like school shootings put bullying in the popular landscape. When we begin to understand the wreckage of domestic abuse, we become passionate about seeing it and stopping it at every corner. In fact, we may start thinking that we’re seeing it on every street so much so that our monocular vision through our rear view mirrors causes us to run over some children and fathers of divorce trying to play in the cul-de-sacs. The thing I liked about the movie Crash is that the creators didn’t quantify or qualify the cruelty of misperceiving or misjudging one individual. It brilliantly and provocatively communicated that all of it is painful, dehumanizing, and cruel. Our disciplines, paradigms, theories, programs, expertise, and professions sometimes don’t afford us the kind of kaleidoscope needed to understand and see the complexity of human behavior. Instead, we argue, disagree, become territorial, collide and crash while working with individuals, relationships, and families. “If only they could see this family through my microscope, then they would get it.”

Perhaps we’re all a little wrong, and a little right. Depending on the individual or family that stumbles into our office, our lens may afford us the theory, paradigm, or profession to be right on with some, and really off with others. In our efforts to help, we may at times do more damage to the cause.

Let’s take for example the reality of some individuals, who during custody and parenting time disputes get caught up in the vortex of litigation or the adversarial model. They minimize their problems, while maximizing or dramatizing the problems of their ex-partner. Some even manufacture problems in their ex-partner to contaminate them in court while gaining a foothold to win custody or parenting time. Some do this out of their legitimate hurt and pain from what happened to them during the marriage. Nonetheless, this sets up very difficult odds and barriers for individuals that need to be heard and seen clearly in the litigation process.

We talk about ways to hold batterers accountable in the coordinated community so as to protect the safety and welfare of victims and their children. How well do we do at addressing how maximizing and manufacturing problems during litigation hurts and undermines the individuals who need to be seen and heard? For example, when a woman manufactures or dramatizes domestic abuse problems to get what she wants or to be heard in a custody and parenting time dispute, she is directly undermining the domestic violence victim in the next courtroom trying to “prove” she is a victim. Domestic violence victims’ safety and welfare are compromised in many ways. We poignantly begin seeing this when we look through the kaleidoscope without quantifying or qualifying.

It is certainly understandable why we don’t look through the kaleidoscope because our images, theories, paradigms, and programs become blurry ushering in fear, uncertainty and instability. Our once confident, strident and cogent arguments get dosed with gradations, angles, shades and hopefully humility. We are forced to be more patient, and less impulsive, more thoughtful and less ideological, more open and less closed. Others begin to see us as perhaps unsure, wishy-washy, confused, na├»ve, or at worst the enemy. The response from others only serves to create more fear and uncertainty tempting recapitulation to the land of monocular vision, certainty.

The movie Crash shows us that there are many sides, forms, and ironies to racism. You can’t necessarily put it in a neat package easy to identify and claim. Racism is as obvious as Rodney King’s beating on the side of the highway and as skewed, dynamic and layered as portrayed in the movie Crash.

Also, there is complexity in domestic violence. We often talk about domestic violence in gender terms; men are perpetrators and women are victims. We talk like this because we see statistics and work with clients who tell us that this is the majority of cases. Men perpetrate approximately 95% of serious domestic abuse. And the ones that do often present themselves as victims of domestic abuse. Nonetheless, we also know that men are victims and women are perpetrators of domestic violence. Because this is the minority we shouldn’t bring this reality into our conversations, our treatment approaches, our coordinated community responses and resources, and criminal justice policies? If the movie Crash took this approach to filming racism, we would have never viewed the scenes where minority groups propagated racism. When we take this approach to domestic violence, we silence the male victims of domestic violence by telling them, “You aren’t important enough for us to consider you in our community efforts. In fact, your training as a male should serve you well as a victim”, “suck it up”, “don’t talk about it”, and suffer as the “lone ranger”. We can learn from the women victims of domestic violence in that when you give victims permission and support to talk, they are more likely to reach out for help and resources.

There is also the knowledge of typologies among domestic violence perpetrators. Some want to simply call all of the perpetrators of domestic violence batterers, perhaps similar to calling all drunk drivers, alcoholics. Interestingly, there are alcoholics that elude traffic violations and individuals with no diagnosable alcohol problem being convicted of Driving Under the Influence. Merely using an individual’s act of abuse to assess the complexity of why one controls, how often, risk level, recidivism, amenability to counseling, purpose of action, etc. is irresponsible and simplistic. For over 13 years I have been working with men who abuse and control. When starting this work, I saw and treated the men as a “one size fits all”. I tried my best to cram all these men into my neat, square, and reliable box only to find some who simply didn’t fit. They acted out during times when they feared too much closeness, rather than during times they were attempting to get their partner to remain loyal and available. They used intimidation tactics to push their partner away, and to get what they wanted, but didn’t use social isolation tactics to impact their partner’s other relationships. Some men inappropriately yell, and bust things around the house episodically to get their controlling and emotionally volatile partner to stop their invasive and abusive behavior. Some men let go of control after divorce as easily as they gained control of their partners during marriage. Some men act out abusively at times because they are emotionally illiterate, not because they want to be an oppressive patriarch. Some men control and abuse their partner, yet when not actively in an intimate relationship, they can be decent parents.

I was once very capable of stuffing all these men into the “one size fits all” batterer box with sophisticated, reasoned and plausible explanations. I could fit all of the men into the box, because I could use my sound empirical or theoretical explanation for each. As of late, I can also find sound alternative explanations for the aforementioned men ushering in angles, nuances, and complexity. I find myself more humble than the days of yore, when I thought I knew more. I continue to have a deeper understanding that the more I learn, the more I realize what I didn’t know. It is humbling yet exciting to know that I continue to learn more, despite my finite humanity.

Some folks in the domestic violence community are alarmed by this notion of being outspoken about the complexities of domestic violence. They get concerned that it will confuse and water down the message we so fervently have been trying to get out since the batterers women’s movement started. They fear that the community response will become uncoordinated and fractious. And the most frightening, batterers and the professionals working with them will use the angles, nuances, and complexity to yet again avoid accountability. The reality is that this happens, and it will continue to happen on some level. Although vigorous protection of victimized women is noble, denying reality in pursuit of this, while marginalizing others and not holding some accountable in the process is irresponsible and no longer acceptable.

Families and relationships in crisis can be skewed, dynamic and layered. Maybe it is not effective to look at these families through a Kaleidoscope or a microscope. The former creates too many contrasting images at once, while the latter misses images. Maybe we need a telescope. This can offer us the ability to see a variety of images, studying one at a time, eventually giving us the opportunity to see the full cosmic landscape. Stay open, be patient, and remain thoughtful while you do this. Then based on what you really see, make decisions and provide services that truly help the individuals, relationships and families you serve. These individuals, relationships, and families need to be served, not your theories,

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