In The Lions’ Den

by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

 

This is how it begins: a friend, an assistant district attorney, calls and offers me a position as co-facilitator of a batterer education program.

“We’re looking for a feminist who’s worked in shelters and won’t be taken in by male bullshit.  I thought you’d be perfect for the job.” Her voice is blithe, as though she’s asked if I want to meet for dinner.

“Me?” I say.

“Yeah. We want a woman who’s not afraid to be confrontational but who can also project enough warmth to be liked.”  She laughs wryly.  “If such is possible.”  She continues in an upbeat her voice. “It won’t pay much, but it’ll be something extra to get your kids through college.” She waits. 

Outside the half-open door of my office in the adolescent unit of the local psychiatric hospital, children mill noisily around the nurse’s desk.  She warns them to speak softly and their voices drop, except for the whine of a boy who complains about his loss of radio privileges.

“Quiet down,” the nurse says, irritation rasping at the edge of her voice like a file.

I decide that, in the supervision group I run for nurses, I’ll ask about what irritates them most and elicit group comment on how to handle it.

I cradle the phone on my shoulder, turn towards the window and rest my arms on the desk.  It’s spring and the sky is brilliant.  There’s no shade in the parking lot and cars shimmer hazily like a mirage.  I’ve been at the hospital for a year and still haven’t decided whether or not I like the job.  I do know, however, that I don’t like my ambivalence.  Now I’m being offered still something else that I feel ambivalent about.

 “I don’t know,” I answer. “I’ve worked with battered women and kids in shelters. Every client I’ve worked with has been affected by domestic violence.  I don’t know if I can work with batterers. Let me think about it.” 

“Sure,” she says quietly.

Something in her voice, some element of resignation, informs me that I’m not her first choice; she’s been turned down at least a couple of times before me and she’s running out of options.

“Listen,” she offers.  “If it will help you decide, just go talk to the guy you’d work with.  See what you think.”

Sympathetic to her weariness, I agree to see him before work the next morning.

“Great,” she says brightly.  “I’ll even set up the appointment.  Have a pad and pen handy?  Here’s the address.”  She hesitates a moment then says, “You’ll like Don.”

“Absolutely,” I assure her with no hesitation at all.  “I’ve got nothing to lose.”

 

His office is on a side street of narrow brick buildings, mostly professional, with large windows and tiny front gardens fenced in with wrought iron. It’s a more expensive neighborhood than the one where I rent an office two nights a week in hopes of developing a private practice. I climb the stairs to the third floor.  The hall-light is out and I squint at the tiny brass suite numbers and nameplates until I find his, then knock softly.

A yelled, “Come on in,” greets my knock.

The waiting room is small but comfortable: a few leather chairs, a table piled with Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, Field and Stream and Ladies Home Journal. 

“In here,” calls a voice from the open office door.

“O.K.” I say and go in.

Don sits on a swivel chair, smiling and barefoot, cup of coffee in his hand. He’s heavy-set, though not fat, dressed in chinos and a plaid shirt, a man with an amiable smile and thinning gray hair.  His desk is a mess. 

“Help yourself.” He points to a dented plug-in coffeepot on a corner table with mugs, sugar packets with Burger King on them, a container of powered creamer.

I pour some into a stained mug with a hockey team logo and settle onto an ancient recliner that’s surprisingly comfortable. The coffee is bitter, stronger than I like it, and I grimace a bit despite myself. 

He grins and holds his cup up in a toast.  “Good to the last drop.”

 “Great coffee,” I say matching his toast with my own mug.

We smile at each other in a sudden, unexpected comfort.

“Try it with sugar next time or one of these,” he says and pulls a box of powdered doughnuts from a desk drawer.

I shake my head and he opens it, takes the last one then dumps the box into a waste-paper basket overflowing with candy wrappers, Styrofoam cups and trays and empty junk food boxes. The fine white dust of powdered sugar drifts onto his pants.  He brushes it off, looks for a napkin, shrugs at me, then wipes his hand on his pants leg.  There’s something charming about it and I suspect it’s for my benefit. 

I examine the office; photographs of boats, Maine islands, Don Lobstering, decorate two walls.  The third is covered by a giant poster: a “Power and Control” wheel, one of the basic tools of the Batter Education Program.  The spokes of the wheel name forms of abuse; emotional, verbal, economic, physical, economic, isolation, sexual and some others. Don watches me and bites into his donut.  When my eyes reach the photograph on his desk of an adolescent boy in a hockey uniform he holds it out for me to look at. 

“My son,” he says. 

“Very handsome.  Looks like you. ” I hand it back.

“Just thinner.”  He shoves the last bite of donut into his mouth, rubs his hands on his pants again and asks, “ So, going to do the program with me?”

 I shrug and answer, “I don’t know a damned thing about it.”

 “Hey, you can learn as you go.  I’ll give you all the material you need and you can look at it over the weekend.  The program is pretty carefully explained and goes step by step. We can talk more after you read the manual, but I’ll tell you a little about it now.” 

He reaches into the drawer and pulls out another box of donuts.  “No breakfast today,” he explains.  I examine his waistline and suspect that breakfast has nothing to do with it.  

“So, the program,” he says, and launches into it. He gestures emphatically as he speaks, projecting a casual authority that suggests he knows what he’s doing.  I decide he might be a good group partner.

“Here.”  He hands me a workbook.  “Take it home, study it.”

“I’ve worked with battered women a long time. I don’t know if I can work with the perps,” I warn him as I take the book.

“Piece of cake,” he says.

 The deliberately innocuous sincerity of his voice confirms that he’s lying.  The very nature of the population we’ll work with confirms that he’s lying. He knows I know he’s lying.   I nod.  

Don holds out his hand as I stand to leave and I take it. 

“Give it a try for a couple of weeks?” It’s a rhetorical question. He holds my hand, smiles engagingly, points to the book.

Despite my doubts I say, “Sure.  A trial period.”

I want to believe the program works.  I want to believe there’s a way out of the mess of domestic violence that’s so prevalent in the country.  I want to believe him.

 

The class is held on the second floor of the police station, a hive of frenzied activity. On the first evening I stand across the street and watch what I’m certain are men from the group who have gathered at the top of the steps. I spot newcomers by the nervous way they watch the cops coming and going.  The ones who pay no attention to the police have probably been there a while.  A steady stream of police cars enters and leaves the garage beneath the building. A man looks at his watch and says something.  Heads nod, last drags are taken before cigarettes are stomped out and the men go in. I take a deep breath and cross the street.

At the entrance, I step sideways between two departing patrolmen who look at me curiously.  A pleasant-looking woman, with a serious face, sits behind the high, front desk. I tell her why I’m there, and she smiles and holds out her hand. 

“Michelle,” I introduce myself. 

“Mary,” she responds.  “Good luck. It’s a tough crowd to win over.  I should know. I’ve been here when most of them have been booked.” She buzzes me in.

Don is balanced on the rear legs of a chair and reading a newspaper while the men chat together in their seats.  When he sees me, he drops his paper, lands solidly on all four chair legs and says, “We’ve been waiting for you.” 

He turns to the men who have grown silent and examine me either impassively or suspiciously.  “This is Michelle,” he says.  “She’s my partner.  You guys are in for some hard work now.”

Thanks, I think, and nod.  I look around.

This room will become as familiar as my home.

The windows face the street and the sound of traffic seeps in.  The plastic chairs that aren’t in current use are stacked carelessly in the back of the room.  There are enough of them to make me think we get a lot of men in here.  The walls are lined with blackboards that will remain coated with chalk dust no matter how thoroughly we cleaned them. The ceilings are low.  The fluorescent lights flicker.  Voices, scuffling feet, police radios, door buzzers, ringing phones, and edgy laughter, angry voices bleed beneath the door. The room will always be too hot or too cold. The stale stink of cigarettes, sweat, burnt coffee, pizza, burgers, popcorn, aftershave fills the air and will permeate my hair and my clothes.  This room will come home with me every week.

 

Groups consist of fifteen to twenty men serving six months. Some wear expensive suits and ties, an armor of respectability.  Others wear jeans and muscle shirts that expose tattoos.  Soldiers from the nearby military base are notable for their gleaming boots, short-cropped hair and the way they sit at attention.

I’m quiet through the litany of strangling, punching, kicking, threatening I hear about that first week.  My stomach sinks, my throat closes. I wonder what I’m doing there.  This, I think, is the lion’s den. By week three it’s familiar and predictable as a weekly television show.   Excuses are repetitive; it’s the fault of the wife who won’t listen, or “the kid” who won’t pay attention. I develop my style; speak calmly, confront directly, occasionally use humor to point out absurdities in a man’s story, but most important of all, stand my ground - nothing justifies physical violence or any other form of abuse.

 

Don and I face each other in a circle so we can observe subtle changes in facial expression, shifting body language, eyes that look away when a particular form of abuse is mentioned.  We take cues from each other on whether something seems suspicious and which one of us will follow up on it.  We start with check-in; each man says his name and why he’s here.  Some look at us remorsefully during their recitation in a silent plea for understanding.  Others stare at their feet. Some men refuse to speak, staring defiantly, daring us to revoke probation.  We develop a policy; a man may sit silently through two groups if attentive to others. Only by keeping a man in the program can we hope to teach him peaceful alternatives to violence when dealing with conflict.  It’s all about power and control played out in conflict.  He won’t learn that if we send him back to jail.

Between groups, in what will become a weekly ritual, Don and I go for ice cream. We discuss the men’s denial of culpability, shake our heads at the man who said his wife got a black eye and broken nose because she somehow slammed into a door.

I repeat the definitive evasion; “Mistakes were made.” 

Don looks at me blankly.

“Watergate.”

“Right.” He nods. 

Newcomers are furious at my presence.

“What the hell do women know about this shit?” one asks, looking around the circle for agreement

He encounters laughter from the men who’ve been here awhile. “Who would know better?” one answers. 

The man’s face slowly lights up with understanding, although it doesn’t change the anger he feels toward me.  Men will listen to things from each other that they don’t want to hear from us.  After group, Don and I discuss the thin line between anger, denial and shame. 

 

Two years pass; I’ve stopped using make-up.  I pin my hair back and wear shapeless dresses or loose pants with long jackets. I walk the fine line between demanding the same respect as a woman that they’d give to a man while remaining plain enough not to be a distraction.  I haven’t worked at the hospital for eighteen months.  My private practice is full: men who batter, women who are victims, traumatized children.

“This group is aging you,” Don jokes over ice cream.

“You’re getting pretty damned gray yourself,” I joke back.

“Nah, they’re making me bald,” he says and runs his hand through the thinning disheveled hair.

We collect homework at the beginning of each two-hour session.  Men are required to discuss an incident that occurred each week, speak about their behavior, whether abusive or not, and analyze the situation. Half of a session is devoted to charting a man’s abusive acts on the night of his arrest.  We write out on the blackboard each step that led to the violence.  Don and I share an understanding; whatever we hear at chartings is only half the story.  Men minimize their actions, and exaggerate their victim’s, in an effort to prove she was responsible.  We ferret out the truth and examine inconsistencies until a man’s story unravels like a hem with faulty stitching.  I discover I have a talent for uncovering lies the way a gardener finds weeds. I perfect my understanding of the nuances of facial expression, voice, and body language.

One night we chart a man who beat his wife until he thought she was dead.

“What did you do next?” I ask. “After you thought she was dead?”

“I raped her.” His voice is pleasant. He has deep blue eyes and an expensive haircut.  He owns a few fishing boats and loves being out on the water.

“What did you do next?” Don asks sharply.

He’s at the blackboard, chalk in hand, writing down the man’s words.  His eyes are hard and something about the tilt of his hips feels almost threatening.  I stare at him; he shrugs imperceptibly at this failure to sound “even-keeled,” an important part of doing the work.

“I wrapped her in a sheet and threw her in a dumpster.”  The man takes a sip of his coffee.  He looks at us calmly.

It’s pouring outside. Car horns complain and headlights and traffic signals spread in a wet blur of red and green and white over the window. The rain pounds against the glass in slanted, glistening drops.

“What did you do next?” I ask.

“I closed the dumpster and went to get pizza.”

There’s a sharp intake of breath, a rare occurrence, from one of the men.

He continues as though he hadn’t heard it and tells us that he was arrested later that night after a wino heard his wife moaning and called the police.  He’s the most honest man we’ve charted thus far.  He doesn’t hesitate to tell the truth because he doesn’t give a damn what we think. Group members stare at the floor, the usual shuffling of chairs and feet stilled as he speaks. His story is a vacuum sucking air out of the room.  Something inside me trembles.  Don and I often pace as we chart, but this time we sink into chairs.  Don stops writing on the board.  This incident will be remembered; there’s no need to record it.  At the end of the charting we send everyone home an hour early. The men leave without any of the usual banter.

“He’s a baaad man,” Don says. His shirt is ringed with perspiration.

“Baaaad,” I repeat. I’m drenched as well.   

“We got through it,” he smiles weakly.

“Yeah,” I answer as I stand and begin to fold chairs, “but there’s the next one, isn’t there?” 

 

I develop a friendship with a woman who runs the program in the next county. She’s upbeat and hopeful, touched by what she sees as breakthroughs.

“They’re trying,” she insists over a cup of coffee.

“They’re trying in the classroom,” I tell her.  “What about outside.”

“They’re trying,” she repeats.

“We’ll see how it all comes out.” I tell her.  “And sometimes I do feel optimistic.”

“You gotta believe in something,” she says.

 

One afternoon on my way to the supermarket I pass a group member laughing with a friend as they walk along the street.  They’re both wearing business suits. His mouth tightens and something flickers in his eyes as we pass with no nod of recognition. My head pounds. My ears ring. The world spins. I’ve always known this would happen someday, but the encounter hits me at such a visceral level I’m breathless and lean against the wall for support. I go into a coffee shop to sit down.

 “Expresso,” I tell the boy behind the counter. I watch him tap the coffee into the machine and wonder if he’s ever hit his girlfriend.  His smile, as he gives me the expresso, is warm and open.  I smile back, find a table in the corner away from everyone, sink onto my chair. The group member was indistinguishable from any other man in the street.  This accidental meeting, a stunning juxtaposition of my personal and working lives, drives home a simple truth: your average batterer is the man next door.

 

My husband and I go to see, “Tequila Sunrise” with Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfieffer.  In a scene on a boat Michelle tells Mel she loves him but he’s busy and doesn’t want to be interrupted. He hits her and sends her flying across the deck.  On the way home we agree that it was a bad film. I remember the television show, "The Honeymooners,” Ralph’s raised fist, the words “To the moon, Alice,” that made everyone laugh. Ralph was threatening Alice.  Nobody believed he’d do it, but why not.  Some of the nicest men I’ve met hit their wives.  I think about classical musicals, remember a woman telling Billy, the hero of “Carousal” that she understands he hits his wife.  He nods and a few frames later lapses into song.  Nobody says anything further in the movie about Bill being a batterer.

Often when I meet women at parties and they learn what I do, they tell me things about their boyfriends or husbands.  They whisper and their eyes dart around the room to see if anybody has overheard them.   They always end by saying, “But he’s not like the men in your group.  He’s different. And I’m certainly not a battered woman.” Nobody wants to be identified as a battered woman - battered women are held responsible for their abuse. Often after a woman has told me her secret, she avoids me.  I don’t want to go to parties anymore and rarely accept an invitation.

“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is the question most often asked.  I always respond with another; “Why does he believe he has the right to batter her?”

Men challenge me; “Power and control wheel?” they say, “It sounds like you’re trying to control the men.” I don’t want men - especially those from my social circle - to challenge my work; it confirms my worse fears.

I tell people I’m off-duty but it doesn’t make any difference. When Daryl Hannah, the actress, appears with a black eye and says her singer boyfriend, Jackson Browne, hit her, people call to ask what I think about it. Then they tell me that “she must have done something terrible to make him do that.” A movie star suggests publicly that it’s OK to slap a woman sometimes, and everyone asks me if I think the interviewer misquoted him. Another star claims that her husband hit her. “How dare she say that?” a woman at a party says. “He’s such a gentleman.”

I never tell people what I do professionally.  Sometimes aggressive prodding forces an answer.  There’s silence then usually somebody mentions low-income or ethnic families and others nod with relief, but sometimes a woman turns away and a glint of hostility brightens her husband’s eyes.

Nine years later, we’re doing four, sometimes five groups a week. We check homework, do initial intake interviews, speak on the telephone to police, wives, or men in crisis the rest of the time.  We do violence.

Don gets irritable during group, sometimes raises his voice.  I bring it up.

“Yeah, I guess this stuff’s catching,” he says and scratches his head.  He’s eating an ice cream sundae.

“So is the flu and you’re careful not to catch that,” I say trying to keep it light because I’m uncomfortable with the conversation.  I take a spoonful of ice cream but it’s suddenly hard for me to swallow.  I rely on him and I know he relies on me.  Sometimes in group we seem to be in telepathic communication with each other.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right,” he agrees, “I’ll watch it.”

Don develops a sideline as an expert witness.  I’m not interested in going to court despite the money.  I’ve got a private practice.  My last case was a deeply depressed child whose father stalked his mother across the country when they fled and stabbed her.  She survived. He served a couple of years with time off for good behavior.  The court is debating giving him custody because she had two jobs and isn’t home enough while he’s remarried with a wife at home.

My friends are mostly those from the world of domestic violence; a woman who helps run the shelter, my assistant DA friend, cops, the facilitator from the next county who believes we’re making a difference. If a man she’s worked with reoffends she’s crushed. We discuss television, movies, music videos; Axel Rose drives a woman off a cliff, Sting sings that he’s watching every step you take, even Santa Claus has a twenty-four hour peephole into your sleeping and waking life, dispensing punishment while warning us to watch out. 

We agree; violence has burst the dikes and spread like a flood everywhere.

Nothing shocks me anymore. I don’t remember the last time I cried.

I joke easily with group members, and those who’ve been there awhile joke easily with me.  I’m at home in this world of violent men. They tell me about trouble at work, cars that break down, disagreements with spouses, carefully assuring me that they’re not behaving abusively.  Women report, “He threatened, called me a name, but hell, he didn’t hit me.  I’m not complaining.”

Other people’s refrigerators are covered with their kid’s report cards and school projects; ours has graphs of monthly rates of domestic violence that spike like EKG readouts.  Beneath those are graphs that chart the level of violence in different countries; America is “off the charts.”  There are articles on new programs and conferences on violence.  My husband’s friends look silently at the refrigerator door and turn away while he makes weak jokes about it.

By the time we’ve been doing it eleven years our groups are big: doctors, attorneys, teachers, truck drivers, cops, the military, accountants, computer programmers, the unemployed, fishermen. We show and discuss twenty-minute videos of men as they abuse women emotionally, verbally and/or physically. Eyes widen in recognition, and lips tighten.  Some faces fill with shame; others harden and look away.  At first men gravitate towards those in similar professions, but by week ten it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference. Class distinctions fade as men face the truth.

“You beat your wife and kids just like I did,” a man who unloads cartons tells another who owns his own business. 

The business owner bows his head and nods. 

Groups of men, cigarette smoke encircling them like fog, greet me when I arrive at the police station.  They call themselves “Michelle’s Men,” like they’re the chorus and I’m the headliner.

 Days drenched in the fabric of violence tumble one over another like the blocks in a quilt of shadows and light.

We chart a man who killed his 6 month-old daughter after his wife visited her sister, leaving him to “baby-sit.”  He tells his story in a monotone. He is the second most open man we’ve ever charted.  Later the group talks about the charting.

“I feel for you man,” a guy says, and the others all nod, “It took guts to tell your story.”

There is affirmation after affirmation for his courage.

I grow dizzy in this skewered world where people are admired for telling their terrible truth without shame.  Nobody asks about the man’s ex-wife.

There are moving moments of compassion in the group that encourage the belief you’re getting somewhere, until you realize the compassion is mostly for each other, little of it for the women and children who bear the scars of their violence.  Men cry and other men comfort them for battering a loved one.  But the tears and warmth and compassion are misleading, a snowstorm of emotion that nearly blinds you to the fact that few weep for those they’ve wounded.

A group of men, now close friends with each other, stay long past their mandatory six months.  We call them the old-timers group and, like sages, they offer advice to newcomers. They are some of the most violent men in group and worry what might happen without the restraining mechanism of a weekly check-in.  We come to rely on them. They confront, tease out the truth, and bypass fury heaped on us because each of them is just one of the guys.  Their perception of their behaviors and of the world shifts the longer they’re in the group.  They offer us renewed hope.

We reluctantly accept two teen-age boys who feign bravado their first day while their eyes dance with fear.  Men in the group vacillate between more honesty than we’ve ever witnessed and withholding the most violent parts of their story in embarrassment.  By the third week, the boys sit with the old timers in what looks, startlingly, like a father-son gathering.  Some of the old timers take the boys to baseball games.  The boys call them on the telephone when they’re violently angry.  One evening Don and I hear a conversation outside the classroom between group members and the boys.

“You’re damned lucky you’re in here,” a gruff voice tells them.

“What the hell are you talking about?” the younger of the two responds angrily.

“Listen to what you hear, goddamn it.  I wish somebody had put me in a group like this when I was your age,” one of the old timers says. 

“Yeah,” another adds and his voice breaks a little. I hear the sharp inhale of a cigarette as he continues, “I’ve lost my wife, my kids, my job and my self-respect.”  He sighs, “You’ve got a chance to make your life right, don’t blow it.”

Another man adds, “Yeah, you’re still a juvie.  Once you’re a man your record follows you everywhere.  So don’t be an asshole.  Listen.”

My eyes fill with tears and I turn to Don.  He’s clearly moved as well.  Parenting these boys in a way they never parented their own sons becomes the group act of contrition.

Don and I confess that we’ve grown to really care for some of the old timers.  With the complexity of a spider’s web, the fine filaments of each man’s character, good and bad, have been intricately woven together, as impossible to tease apart, and as contradictory as the whole spoiled face of American culture.

I’m asked to speak at the Rotary Club. 

“We want to learn,” the man says confidently on the phone, “about who these men are, and maybe raise some money for their families.”

I tell him, “Lots of the men in my group are well-educated and earn more than I do.  Some are probably even members of the Rotary.”

Silence.

Two days later a message on my answering machine informs me there’s been a conflict in dates and he’ll get back to me to reschedule the talk.  I never hear from him again.

I teach a college class on violence and a man confesses that he slapped his wife.  He looks around the room defiantly; “Sometimes it’s unavoidable.”

His fellow students are confused and silent.  They’ve gone to school with him for two years and never knew.

Years pass. Nothing in my life remains untouched.  Like a sore tooth that twinges, I’m sensitive to the casual violence everywhere.  I cringe at the coarse acceptance in the language: “the rule of thumb,” which meant a man could beat with wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb; “I wanted to kill somebody,” or “What you need is a good smack,” and on and on and on. I long to be cradled, to be innocent again.

My friend who facilitates the group in the next county calls.  She’s positive a man in her group is stalking her.  Her voice is faded and edgy.  She keeps the curtains drawn, will now only shop when her husband is available, screens her calls, has someone walk her to her car.  She wants to move him to my group.  Don and I agree.  Once there, he seems like any other group member. A few months later she moves and enters a different profession.  I never learn if he actually stalked her.

Don and I conduct frequent informational seminars for different organizations.  I begin each one, “One-third of the men in this room have hit their wives or some significant other at least once.”  

Don continues, “But they’ll call it by any other name than what it is, domestic violence.” 

We watch each face carefully: the narrowing eyes, tightening lips, glances at the ground. We look at each other and surreptitiously nod.  Our last seminar together is one of the very last times I feel closer and more bonded to him than to anyone else.

 

Don’s different. His tone is frequently hostile, language confrontational, hands clenched in fists.  He sizes up group members as though measuring his physical strength against theirs.  I try to talk about it over ice cream. 

“Shit.” He thrusts big spoonfuls of ice cream into his mouth. “It’s their fucking attitude that pisses me.”

I feel a crazy sense of deju vu, “Didn’t I hear this from some of the men in group?” I ask and push my cup of ice cream away from me.

Don checks his watch.  “It’s time.”  We hurry off to the next group and avoid talking about it afterward.

 

I meet my friend from the shelter for lunch.  She’s pale, circles beneath her eyes, weariness in her voice as we order lunch.  I know that funding has been cut for shelters, but there’s something more.  I finally ask, “What’s up?”

“The shelters are totally filled and I’m scrambling to find safe houses.”

I nod in sympathy.

“Anyway, I processed four women this morning, three of them badly beaten and pretty obviously.  The fourth looked fine and when I spoke with her it turned out all her husband had done was slap her.”

“That’s it?” I said.  “That’s all.” 

We suddenly stared at each other in horror, realizing that somewhere over the course of this work we’d developed a new tolerance meter.  What was once completely unacceptable is now so commonplace that we rated abuse by how many bones have been broken. Like a well slowly filling with poisoned water, the category of “minor, nearly unimportant, abuses” has risen. I think about Don and about points of saturation where the meaning of things begins to slip away.  My friend and I reach across the table and clasp each other’s hands fiercely.  It is clear at that moment what this work is doing to us, but we don’t know how to leave this particular world and its hot-wired, jittery energy.

 

There are a series of rapes in the city.  Three of the men decide that they’ll walk me to my car after each group until the rapist is found.

“Do you feel scared,” one asks “Walking with three of the meanest guys in town?”  His eyes are warm and his voice is friendly.  He’s in group because he hit his girlfriend with a telephone.

“No,” I answer, “I feel safer than I could feel with anyone else.”

 

One day we ask the men to list all the derogatory names for women and men.  We come up with half a blackboard for men, most referring to homosexuals and three blackboards for women, words and expressions I’ve never heard, startling in their descriptive clarity.  Everybody laughs as they try to outdo each other and Don and I nearly laugh too at the absurdity of it until we realize what we’re doing and call the group back to order.

“This isn’t funny,” I say, “It’s serious.  It’s dangerous.”

“This is the technique used to enable people to kill during a war,” Don says.  “Reduce a man to a gook, a woman to a cunt, and you’re not killing a human being.” 

They sober up, but after group we hear them laughing in the hall and know it’s not a good lesson.

We forget to clean the blackboards and when we come back to the police station the next week we discover every police officer on every shift, read them.

“It’s a monument to human creativity,” Don says solemnly.

I nod, but my head whirls with anxiety. I’m a woman - is this how they see me?  We erase the blackboards.

A group member stalks me.  Everybody knows it, but there’s no proof.

My husband is tired.  “Isn’t it somebody else’s turn to do this work?” he asks.

A few men wait outside group.

“Would you like us to take care of it?” a fisherman with a bandanna on his head and a thick gray beard asks.  The accountant and the schoolteacher nod.  The lawyer is silent.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You know,” the teacher says and smiles uneasily. 

They circle around me.  For the briefest second I consider their offer, it would make it all so simple.  I scare myself.

“No,” I answer, “You should know better.”  Automatically I add, “Thanks anyway,” and curse myself for it.

That night in bed, I think about every time I raised my voice, every time I yelled at my kids or spanked them in frustration, every time I thought that I wanted to kill somebody and meant it. The times I’d wished a particularly violent man in group would get run over on the way home.  I weep in sorrow at my own complicity. A few weeks later the man’s probation officer makes an unannounced visit to his house and discovers a roomful of assault weapons.  He’s jailed.

 

Don and I give the men in the group an assignment; find ten abusive things in the world around you.

The next week, everybody is blown away as the men appear with ads, records, photographs, books, and incidents.  One man who works in a large, well-respected company speaks about his boss who said his secretary looks like “a nice piece of ass and he’d love to get her alone.”  Another tells us that when he pointed out to a friend that the friend’s wife had broken into tears because he’d treated her abusively, the man replied irritably, what the hell was the big deal anyway.  Somebody talks about the scene in the comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” where the hero drags a screaming heroine into the courtroom.

At the end of group we’re all exhausted, cowed by the discovery of how pervasive abuse is.  I feel defeated and imagine myself as the little boy with his finger in the dike, realizing the finger can’t hold it back.

 

Whenever I hear a local newscast about a man who’s killed his wife, I wait anxiously until I learn that the killer isn’t from our group and feel relieved.

One day at a training seminar for district attorneys, I realize that I’m not making sense; I sound like a mystic, a poet, and a madwoman.  I’m argumentative and hostile.  I point out how frequently men receive light sentences.  I read an article from the newspaper about it.   They don’t like me and snicker. They behave like hecklers in a nightclub and I respond like a performer who’s giving a bad performance.  I watch myself from somewhere else and wonder who the hell has control of my mouth.  I understand - I’m on the losing end of this thing and my options are running out.

 

I’m unprepared for the explosion in group, although I think later that during the charting I’d ignored the increasing rigidity of Don’s shoulders, the grip of Don’s fingers on the chalk as he stared impassively at the batterer who casually defied him, the tilt of Don’s head as though listening to something that I couldn’t hear. 

“Who thinks he’s telling the truth?” I asked. 

Don and I had the police reports and knew the true story, but I waited for confirmation of the group’s best “shit-detectors” to speak up. Before anybody answered Don was across the room in a few, swift strides.

“You’re a liar,” he said, and then more, much more, a litany of thirteen years saved-up fury.  The contempt and anger in his voice left me breathless.  The batterer was thrilled by Don’s verbal attack. It proved that anybody could be abusive. 

He sprung to his feet in victory and slammed out the door, shouting over his shoulder, “Fuck you, counselor.” 

There was shock, and then immediate, frenzied action.  Two of the men ran out the door to try and reason with him, everyone concerned about his wife - would he take his anger out on her.  I ran down the stairs, a list of phone numbers in my shaking hand as I searched for hers to call and explain what had happened.  Don remained in the room, his eyes skittering away from the now-empty chair, speaking softly to the men.  Later, we processed it as a group and still later, outside, Don flicked his cigarette over the stairs of the police station like a shooting star lost in the night and I shook my head and held up my hands to stop him as he began to speak.

“Not now,” I said and left him there.  

 

The following day we meet over lunch.  I’ve made a decision.

“This work changes you for the worse,” I tell him.

I don’t want to work with him anymore. 

I don’t want to work with myself. 

I quit.

The men are distraught.  One describes it as mom deserting.  They complain that they were never offered a vote…that I just made up my mind and never consulted them.  I tell them that anyone who believes we live in a democracy is a fool.  We say good-by. A few have tears in their eyes.  I tell them, as I look directly at Don, that I have confidence that they’ll make it.  I’m lying.

Don and I go out for ice cream for the last time. We’re quiet. We know we can’t be friends.

My husband has a bottle of champagne waiting. 

 

A year later an old-timer’s wife calls. He’s abusing her again and she asks if I’ll see him. I tell her that I don’t do that work anymore, give her a couple of names and refer her to the group again. When I hang up, I lean back in my chair and think about the man.  He was so articulate, so passionate in his encouragement to the other men to adapt non-violent behavior that we thought he might make it. He was frequently a speaker at our presentations, testifying to the possibility of change if a man is really determined to remain non-violent. My eyes fill with tears, and a tattered scrap of belief that I didn’t know still existed, vanished.

###

In The Lions’ Den was first published by The Sun in October 2000. 

Michelle Cacho-Negrete has been published in a number of magazines that include The Sun, Family Therapy Networker, SNReview, Persimmon Tree, Sierra.  She is a retired social worker with post-graduate work in ecopsychology, the study of people in the environment.  She has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and in 2004 her essay Heat was selected as one of the 100 most notable essays of the year.  Her Essay, Passion Most of All, will appear in a February Anthology and her essay Burial will appear in The Sun in March.  She works with students both in person and on-line and can be reached at Mcacho@maine.rr.com.