Forget what you've heard about domestic violence. The truth is that women are just as likely to batter as men.
By Patricia Pearson for SATURDAY NIGHT magazine SEPTEMBER 1997
Before his life fell to ruins, 'Peter Swann' (To protect the identity of family members, some names have been changed) inhabited a world that felt good to him, purposeful and clear. As he entered his thirties, he had solid work as a municipal engineer and was raising his seven-year-old daughter, Grace, in a house perched high on the grassy bluffs of Lake Ontario, east of the city of Toronto. From that untroubled vista, he could pursue his love of the natural world, taking Grace up onto the roof on clear summer nights to show her the stars through his telescope, riding their mountain bikes through the sprawling ravines of Toronto's Metro Zoo. He filled the house with small wonders - an aquarium full of rare fish, a collection of rocks. Sometimes he'd dig out the treasure of his mother's phonograph to teach Grace what snatches of old songs he knew.
Peter had always wanted to be a teacher, preferably of science. In the manner we associate with men, he felt most comfortable connecting to others through the learning of facts and the doing of things. Social politics intimidated him. Interior landscapes mystified. A little shy, emotionally awkward, he wasn't one to navigate the swift headwaters of intimacy with anything approaching skill.
As Grace approached puberty, with all its attendant moods, he began to look for a relationship, hoping to find a woman who might act as a mother-figure to her. Her own mother had vanished, not long after the Catholic Children's Aid charged her with abuse and transferred custody to Peter. He was immensely relieved to have Grace back. Her upbringing was his mission. He had been given up for adoption as an infant. His daughter would stay with her own "flesh and blood." "Mr. Swann," a counselor wrote some years later, "presents as a mature, warm and caring father."
In 1989, a mutual friend introduced Peter to a thirty-five-year-old nurse's aide named Dana, whose marriage was on the rocks. Dana was a bright and charming woman, and if her temper seemed extreme, Peter reasonably attributed that to her frustrations with her husband, who was something of a boor. "They fought all the time," he remembers. "She used to beat him up on the couch. Hit him in the face. He thought it was a joke. The rest of us...." Peter imitates a face of consternation. "But I felt, I'm not like him, so it won't be like that for us. I'm more easy-going, not the same personality."
Once Peter and Dana got involved, their relationship deepened quickly. Within months she'd moved into his home on the bluffs, continuing to work in nursing, a job that she loved and was good at. They appeared to be a well-adjusted couple: two professionals raising a child. Three full and busy lives. There was only one, very private problem. Dana's temper, which Peter had attributed to her anger at her first husband, didn't go away. Far from calming her down, his more peaceable (and avoidant) temperament seemed to fuel her. "She'd start making an anthill into a molehill into a mountain" he says. Then he abruptly switches to the present tense, as if he is returning to that place in their kitchen, or his basement office, where something he said or did had tripped an invisible wire. "She comes home from work, comes downstairs and starts screaming at me, kicking holes in the walls. I don't know what to do. What's bugging her now? Somethin' at work, or what? I cleaned the kitchen, paid the bills.....It's going through my mind and I'm just stymied, you know, I just don't know what to do, how I can calm her down? It just didn't work. Wham, bam. I'm getting hit."
Peter should have seen, he adamantly tells himself, that Dana's violent outbursts would continue, that his disinclination to respond with crude jokes and counterpunches, as her ex-husband had, would serve him no better in checking a fury that was essentially impersonal, an unresolved maelstrom of emotions from childhood. But Peter was stunned by her anger. He tried to appease her. "I became more passive." Whatever wound Dana up to the point of violence, he would simply refrain from; it wasn't worth it. "Our honeymoon was the only time we got along. It was like passing through an empty space and then, Bang! Back into the hard stuff again." The list of nixed activities grew longer. He didn't go off on his bike rides with Grace; he didn't go out with his friends by himself; he didn't go out with his friends at all. Eventually, he didn't even wander out of sight in the supermarket, lest it start another fight he couldn't win.
"She couldn't compromise," he explains. "It was her way or no way. She controlled me, hit me, controlled me, hit me. Any excuse would do. She told me I was no good, that I drank too much, my family's no good, I'm useless. She'd throw metal address books at he my head, ashtray. Oh, bruises, right?" He lights another cigarette and rubs his forehead, his embarrassment rising. "I go to work, and guys say: 'What happened?" "Oh, I fell down," whatever. Later I told them. They said, "Get out of it." He flicks his cigarette ash, missing the ashtray, then wanders over to pick up his pet guinea pig. "I tried to get out, but I didn't....I just didn't know how. We've got a townhouse, my daughter's there, between us we're making fifty-two grand a year. I started giving her the paycheques. I had to ask her for a pack of cigarettes. "Please?" you know, like a dog. I didn't realize it, I was stupid, okay? I'm a wuss, okay? It's hard to say it. It's hard for a man to say that."
But Swann has to say that now, because Grace is gone. So is his job, his house, his telescope, everything he owned, even the phonograph, and Swann is sleeping in a boarding house with the guinea pig as his sole family. One night in that paltry place, he fumbles with the screw-top of an unrefrigerated bottle of wine, pours another splash into a coffee mug, and stammers out the simpleness of what he'd hoped: "A family is supposed to be a family. You know? We all get along." He waves his hand feebly, his voice weepy, his words slurred. "I want to be responsible for my daughter. Is there something wrong with that, did I do something wrong?" What Peter Swann did was to meet and marry a female batterer, a woman who was angry, controlling, abusive, and manipulative, and who ultimately walked away with everything in his life, including his thirteen-year-old daughter.
Husband abusers aren't supposed to exist, but they do.
NINETY PER CENT OF THE ABUSIVE WOMEN SAID THEY DIDN'T ACT IN SELF-DEFENSE, THEY WERE FURIOUS OR JEALOUS, HIGH OR FRUSTRATED. The idea that domestic violence refers exclusively to wife abuse or to violence against women is so deeply ingrained in Western consciousness that it is impossible to grapple with Peter Swans story without first unraveling some potent conventional wisdom. Most of us believe that masculine power is the fountainhead of private, as well as public, violence. Never mind that women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of severe physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, and an overwhelming share of the killings of newborns. Spouse assault is what men do to women, women from all walks of life, getting punched in the face by the dark fist of patriarchy. Even if we concede that women batter their children, we cannot take it a step further and picture them battering men. We might learn that a man's nose was broken, that he lost his job, that he was emotionally devastated, but we still think to ourselves: He's a man. He could have hit back. He could have hit harder.
Men do indeed have a more powerful left hook. The problem is that the dynamic of domestic violence is not analogous to two differently weighted boxers in a ring. There are relational strategies and psychological issues at work in an intimate relationship that negate the fact of physical strength. At the heart of the matter lies human will. Which partner - by dint of temperament, personality, life history - has the will to harm the other? Given the news coming out of North America's gay community, that rates of assault in lesbian relationships approach those in heterosexual unions, the will to harm is not exclusively the providence of men.
A great source of skepticism for people confronting the concept of husband assault is the absence of visible injury. Few abused men or lesbians emerge from their relationships resembling Hedda Nussbaum, the New Yorker whose common-law husband, Joel Steinberg, was prosecuted in 1988 for the beating death of their adopted daughter, Lisa. When Hedda Nussbaum testified, her appallingly broken face, with its cauliflower ear and boxer nose, was so vividly captured by television cameras that she quickly became the iconographic figure of the battered woman. Every time an activist proclaims that one in four American women were assaulted by their partners, the image of Nussbaum springs to mind. In reality, victims like Hedda Nussbaum dwell at the extreme end of a continuum of violence in marital and dating relationships, in which about four per cent of women are that severely injured. The majority of couples embroiled in intimate power struggles engage in a spectrum of violent acts, which women are statistically as likely as men to initiate: the slaps across the face, the glass suddenly hurled, the bite, the fierce pinch, the waved gun, the kick to the stomach, the knee to the groin. Add the invisible wave of violence that washes over American households in an acid bath of words, the children used as pawns, the destruction of property, the enlistment of community as a means of control, and all this paints a much more complex picture of domestic violence than that summoned by one woman's face in a heartbreaking trial.
The most significant data to uncover male victims originally came from a survey published in 1980 by three highly respected family-violence scholars in New Hampshire: Murray Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz. Their random survey of 2,143 American homes uncovered that severe abuse was committed equally by men and women. Minor, but recurring, violence was also on a par, with 11.6 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men reporting that they hit, slapped, or kicked their partners.
People working on the subject of family violence now had a choice: they could expand the field to include male victims - establishing that abused men were not the same men who were abusing, and vice versa for women - or they could do what they did: devote an extraordinary amount of energy to shouting the data down. For feminists, the idea that men could be victimized was nonsensical. It didn't square with their fundamental analysis of wife assault - that it was an extension of male political, economic, and ideological dominance over women. If women were so clearly subjugated in the public domain, how could there be a different reality behind closed doors? Activists anticipated, moreover, that the New Hampshire data might be used to devalue female victims, in the manner of male lawyers, judges, and politicians saying, "See? She does it too"; case dismissed. As a result, critics rushed to accuse Straus and Gelles, who were the primary authors, of shoddy research. Put on the defensive, Straus and Gelles reworked their survey questions and sampled several thousand households again. Their findings, published in 1985, were virtually identical, with the additional discovery that women initiated the aggression as often as men. About a quarter of the relationships had an exclusively violent male, another quarter had an exclusively violent female, and the rest were mutually aggressive.
Once again, there was a flurry of protest and scrutiny. Scholars set out to prove that male self-esteem was less damaged by abuse, that men took their wives' violence less seriously, and that injury had to be measured in terms of harm rather than intentions. A woman with a broken jaw could not be compared to a man like Peter Swann, who only got an ashtray to the head. In truth, both sides were guilty of using a male-centered measure of harm, in that neither was looking at the damage women could cause through indirect aggression. Moreover, Straus and Gelles, as well as subsequent scholars, have found that men often do, in fact, sustain comparable levels of injury. A 1995 study of young American military couples, arguably the most patriarchal of all, found that forty-seven per cent of the husbands and wives had bruised, battered, and wounded each other to exactly the same degree.
In 1989, a Winnipeg social scientist named Reena Sommer conducted a citywide survey on alcoholism for the University of Manitoba and found that 39.1 per cent of the women in her survey had responded that they had committed acts of violence against their spouses at some point in their relationships, with 39.1 per cent of those acts defined as severe. Sommer went back to her original list, found the telephone numbers, called up her respondents, and interviewed 737 of them. Ninety per cent of the women who'd reported being abusive told her that they hadn't struck in self-defense. They had been furious or jealous, or they were high, or frustrated. Rational or irrational, impulsive or controlling, they had hit, kicked, thrown, and bitten. Fourteen per cent of the men went to the hospital....
Accompanying the resistance to statistics on men has been a tendency to suppress data altogether. A 1978 survey conducted by the Kentucky Commission on Violence against Women uncovered that thirty-eight per cent of the assaults in the state were committed by women, but that finding wasn't included when the survey was released. (The information was discovered some years later by scholars.) In Detroit, a tally of emergency medical admissions due to domestic violence was widely reported by activists as evidence of injuries to women. No-one told the media that thirty-eight per cent of the admissions were men. In Canada, the federal government allotted $250,000 to a research project on comparative rates of violence in dating relationships. In 1993, the lead researcher, Carleton University sociologist Walter DeKeseredy, released only his data on victimized women, generating a wave of violence-against-women headlines and conveying the impression that Canadian college campuses were bastions of violent misogyny. Assaults by women in premarital romance are among the best documented in the field. Nevertheless DeKeseredy said in a 1994 telephone interview, "the battered-husband syndrome is a backlash. Men are using this information to keep women out of shelters." In fact, men are not using the information for anything, because academics are keeping it to themselves.
"BLOOD STARTED RUNNING AND SHE CALLED THE POLICE. I HIT MY HUSBAND. LATER, WHEN A JUDGE HEARD THE COMPLAINT, HE LAUGHED." One mild October afternoon in Toronto, Steve Easton sat on the front porch of his small, ramshackle wooden house. A small grey cat peered warily out of the window, perched on a pile of Easton's homemade fliers about the Easton Alliance for the Prevention of Family Violence, which runs support groups for both battered men and women. It's hard to know what to expect from a self-proclaimed "abused man"-someone touchy-feely, fragile, and bohemian, plying his visitor with herbal tea. But Easton, who is thirty-one, resembles one of the college-age guys in a Budweiser beer commercial. He is clean-cut and well built, blow-dried hair and a Gap-style dress shirt. Easton wasn't remotely interested in the issue of domestic violence until he fell in love at the age of twenty-two, and fell deeper, into a traumatically volatile romance.
His lover had seen her mother abuse her father. Ursula approached her love the same way. She called him "cock-sucker" and "prick." She chose what clothes he could wear to work, arguing that certain ties or shirts would attract his female colleagues. If he disregarded her choices, he came home to find his wardrobe burned to ashes. She insisted, as Dana had to Peter, that he couldn't go out with his friends. If he did, she locked him out of the house for the night. He wasn't permitted to read the Toronto Sun, because the tabloid carries daily photos of a woman in a bikini - the "Sunshine Girl"- and that was evidence that he lusted after other women. When she started a fight, she would follow him from room to room in their house, keeping him up all night: "I'm not finished with you!" Exhausted, he came late to work too many times. Ursula punched him, hurled bottles and books at his head, and shoved him through the glass pane of their dining-room window. But it wasn't until the day he hit her back that Easton resolved to leave her. Homeless and now unemployed, he went in search of counseling. One organization, Education Wife Assault, handed him a pamphlet entitled "Why Husband Abuse Is a Red Herring."
Other shelters and family-service organizations responded similarly, reflecting the views of prominent Toronto columnist Michele Landsberg, who wrote, "The next time a men's advocate starts moaning about "husband-battering," question his material and suspect his motives. He sure isn't operating from a basis of reality - and he probably knows it." Since it began, in 1993, The Easton Alliance - which is perpetually broke - has received between three and ten calls a day, 1,000 to 4,000 calls each year, from men who are enmeshed in violent relationships they cannot get out of. The reasons are as multifarious as they are 6r battered women: the men are afraid for their children; they are unemployed, or working class; they can't afford new housing. Some men love their wives and don't want to leave them, just want them to stop; others are too depressed to get out, or they've taken cover in booze and don't have the wits any more; some think they can take it and can't. None of these reasons should be surprising, given that men can be broken-down souls, that they can care passionately about their children, that patriarchy may control the economy, but millions of individual males are flat broke. Yet as Easton discovered when he founded his group, the politics that once proclaimed family violence to be a private affair now proclaim it a woman's affair There is no longer room - if there ever was - for men to be victims themselves.
By the late l980s, activists and scholars within the battered women's movement had grown markedly more militant about the inherent distinctions between men and women If women were inherently blameless, it followed with mounting conviction that men were inherently blameworthy, to the point where any investigation of their motives was denounced as providing them with "an excuse." Childhood abuse wasn't relevant, because it was an excuse. So were individual pathologies, marital dynamics, personal circumstances - until the whole field of inquiry was blocked.
In Canada, the final report of a multimillion-dollar government panel on violence against women, which canvassed experts from across the nation for several years, concluded in 1993: "If [a man] abuses his wife, it is because he has the privilege and the means to do so." Ten-million dollars to cough up a cliche. Those who advise policy makers in the United States had their view summed up in Ms. magazine's 1994 special issue on wife beating: "Researchers are now beginning to examine the batterers," wrote Ann Jones. "It's the same old crap. Nobody wants to admit that men do this because they like to."
FEMALE APPROVAL OF HUSBAND ASSAULT REMAINS HIGH: TWENTY-THREE PER CENTOF WOMEN BELIEVE 'SLAPPING THE CAD' IS FINE What began as a nuances discussion of one of the most volatile arenas of human relating had been reduced to a bigoted creed. Men are evil. Women are good. Domestic violence is wife beating, and any man who finds himself at the receiving end of a woman's fist is a liar or a freak.
No agency will grant them space or funds, so Easton's group congregate where they can. One very cold night in November, they meet in the children's nursery of an empty community centre. A dozen men sit scrunched up in a circle among brightly coloured posters of giraffes and bears. In unison, their voices solemn and halting, they recite something Steve Easton wrote to begin each meeting, based on the letters in the word "Solutions." S is for Safety: "I will accept responsibility for my own personal safety. I will no longer allow myself to become involved in situations which will cause me emotional and physical pain. I will be diligent on my own behalf." They go through the letters, vowing to be Open-minded, Loving, Understanding, Trusting, Independent, Open-hearted, good at Negotiation, and willing (not embarrassed, as men) to accept Support.
A man named Charles is the meeting convener tonight, but he's shy about it, tentative. He's in his mid-thirties, a tall, gaunt man who has lost his hair. Except for a softness around his mouth and in his blue eyes, he looks rather skeletal. He cries a lot, apologizing to the group with an embarrassed wave of the hand. He's supposed to be following an agenda, but his words keep straying to his three-year-old daughter, Susy: how he had her for Thanksgiving, taught her to finger paint, how good she was; she drew a big "S" for Susy. He misses her. The other men listen in silence. They've learned their function here is to let each other be sad, fucked up, afraid.
Next to Charles sits Dave, a bulky, biker type in a leather jacket. His physical presence is so strong (and so incongruous, beneath a cheerful string of alphabet letters) that it's hard to envision him as a victim. When he speaks, his gruff voice is anxious and rambling, his experience so chaotic that he can't tell it straight, sum it up, and it's clear he's a big, broken child. Life as a fractious sequence of injuries and anger, abused as a boy, roughed up on the street, his wife drunkly belligerent, his sons two small wrecks he can't repair, he himself losing his temper with them. They've got to stop the fighting, he and Candi. She's gotta stop with the booze. "Jesus Christ, I come home and Greg's runnin' around the street, he's two years old, and she's passed out in the bedroom for Christ fuckin' sake." Dave's lost control, he never had it, he needs it now. Can the others help?
Asking for help is the hardest part. These men are mostly working class. Their identities are coded by masculine scripts. Among their buddies and colleagues, they have everything to lose by admitting they need protection from the blows of a woman, that they can't stop the spiral of raised voices, too much booze, jealousy, insults, shattering glass. "For men," says the sociologist Murray Straus, "[abuse] is a double whammy. Like women, they don't want people to know that their partner is treating them badly, but there's the additional shame of feeling that a "real man" ought to be able to "handle his woman."
How internalized that feeling is for men - whether they actively want to see themselves as dominant or it's something they realize that other men expect of them depends on the individual. Steve Easton didn't want to dominate Ursula. He saw himself as her healer. Peter Swann was willing to let Dana be the strong one, as long as they could get along without a fuss. "These men are appeasers," says the therapist Michael Thomas, referring to the battered husbands he counsels in Seattle. "They always back down to keep things calm, to keep the conflict from escalating. In my experience, the women [in these particular marriages) have a lot of problems with anger control. They are much more likely to throw things, they're more likely to hit or kick when he's not looking or asleep or driving. He doesn't hit back because, number one, he's conditioned to believe that you never hit a woman. Two, he's afraid of losing his kids. Three, [our society) doesn't think of violence as mutual - it's always "him" doing it to "her". So if he hits back, the attention shifts to him and he knows that he'll be up against the wall."
The ambiguity and trivialization of female-perpetrated abuse inhibits battered men from voicing need, but it also causes women to underestimate their impact, to see what they are doing is abusive. "I try to get these men to give her feedback when she's hurting them," says Michael Thomas, "rather than provoking her into lashing out more. The problem is that many of these women have no sense at all that they've hurt their partners. "Why would they? What information is there out in their culture, to suggest that men are vulnerable? As one Austin, Texas, woman whose husband had received treatment for wife assault, said "[Now] he tries to understand my side of the argument. He talks to me rather than hits me. I still hit him, however. I would like to enroll in a class in anger management, but the shelter for battered women does not help women with this problem." Female approval of husband assault remains as high now as it was twenty years ago: twenty-three per cent of women believe that "slapping the cad" is just fine.
Research on the motives and feelings of abusive heterosexual women is scant. The available studies show them to be a widely heterogeneous group who defy simple labels.... Perhaps the most well-documented cause for both men and women is the "intergenerational transmission of violence." The female abuser is repeating the style of communication she learned as a girl. She saw her mother beat her father, or she and her siblings were beaten themselves. Family patterning is a force so powerful that it transcends gender conditioning. A woman may lack models for aggression in the public arena yet still find them in her home. According to one recent study, children who are beaten by their fathers tend to grow up to become victims, whether they are boys or girls. Children who are beaten by their mothers, on the other hand, are more likely to become victimizers. One theory about why this would be is that men act as authority figures in children's lives, breeding in them habits of submission that last a lifetime. Women are teaching figures. They are most likely to show their children how to communicate emotionally.
The effects of child abuse, depending upon the sex of the parent, explains how a man who was abused as a child can tolerate abuse from his female partner. "About eighty per cent of the men coming through the programme," says Steve Easton, "were also abused as children. And so were their wives. [They're] picking each other." Soon after he fell in love with her, Easton began to see that Ursula was insecure about him because love had always come packaged for her in the sour wrapping of insults and fists.
A person's experience of childhood abuse or abandonment may have been so horrific that she experiences her emotional vulnerability as virtually life-threatening. To need and to trust, she recalls, is to hurt like no other pain. Women who feel this way are perhaps more likely to use violence instrumentally. They need to control and diminish their mates in order to feel safe with them, to convince themselves that they are not the weaker of the pair. "Domination begins with the attempt to deny dependency," notes the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. "The primary consequence of the inability to reconcile dependence with independence. . . is the transformation of need for the other into domination of him." I love you, therefore, you terrify me, so I must strike you down.
Ruben lives in a tiny studio apartment in Toronto's East End. It is a space decorated in a surprisingly childlike manner, with posters of dolphins and "Sesame Street" characters on the wall, brightly crocheted pillows on his bed: home sentimentally envisaged as one's childhood bedroom, a safe and trusted place. He is a handsome man, with the long-lashed dark eyes of his native Greece and a lush mouth that always hovers on the edge of a smile - uncertain, and appeasing. Ruben is the sort of man a woman might retreat to when she wants to flee from love's combative field.
He and his future second wife met in 1983. After an exchange of smiles on a long subway ride, the two began to talk, leaving the train with each other's number, pressed into a pocket, a purse. Ruben was a lonely divorce who wanted companionship. Jenny was a former waitress who'd had it rough and was looking for a stretch of peace. "Later," says Ruben, carefully stirring a cup of instant coffee, "I found out that she was from an abusive background. When she was a teenager, she did an abortion on herself.
"I STILL HIT HIM. I WOULD LIKE TO ENROLLMENT IN A CLASS ON ANGER MANAGEMENT, BUT THE WOMEN'S SHELTER DOESN'T DEAL WITH THIS" She told me that her ex-husband tried to hit her. She got a divorce for that reason. When she was a waitress, a man tried to rape her. So she was coming from a lot of bad experiences with men. She had a lot of rage, a lot of rage. She used to say to me all the time that men are evil."
When they married, Jenny's stipulation was that Ruben get a vasectomy.
She said she couldn't fathom having children - she was thirty-nine. "I married her in August," he says, "and three months later I had the operation. A few days after that we were sitting home watching television and all of a sudden without any provocation she hit me on my groin. I hit the roof with pain. I had to go to the hospital to make sure there was no internal bleeding. She told me that this was an accident, and I bought that. But then she out of nowhere kicked my chair from beneath me, and this time I realized there was something wrong with the marriage.
"She became very irritable and noncommunicative and had been a very, very good communicator [before]. She was out-going, she used to confide in me. Now, every day she would come home and throw herself in front of the television, watch it for hours, and sleep a lot. She was extremely depressed, no question about it."
The next instance of physical violence was connected to sex. After months of mutual solitude, with Ruben's sense of rejection simmering into anger, he entered the separate bedroom she'd taken, intending to insist that they make love: They were husband and wife. Hovering over her in the bed on his sad, desperate mission, Ruben got a vicious knee to the head. "She grabbed my head and pulled it down and hit me with her knee above my right eye. Blood started running, and she called the police. She told them, 'I hit my husband.' The police arrived, took me to the hospital, I received six or seven stitches. The police brought me back, but they wouldn't press charges against her. They said I could do it myself" When the judge reviewed his complaint and audibly chuckled, however, Ruben was so humiliated that he dropped them.
"It was so confusing," he says, "I did not have anybody to talk to. When I told my friends about it they just didn't believe it. I started missing lots of time from my work because I was going to the hospital. Finally I confided in my boss, I told him 'My wife is beating me,' and he immediately responded, 'Well, why don't you hit her back? "'But, unlike Peter Swann and Steve Easton, who both eventually did hit back - and got arrested for doing so -Ruben couldn't do it. "I don't believe in violence, I wasn't taught to be a violent person, I just don't do it."
Within the year, the physical violence abated and Jenny withdrew into a punishing silence. When he pleaded with her for discussion, she wouldn't reply. Instead, she got up and left the room. Being ignored, Ruben says, was far more harrowing than getting hit. "You're treated like a nobody, like you don't exist," he says. He sighs very deeply, still stirring a now tepid cup of coffee. He couldn't move out, because it was his house, and he didn't want to ask her to leave. He wanted to reconcile. She left anyway, in spirit. Ruben, for his part, disappeared into a bottle.
"I became an alcoholic. One day I woke up in my bedroom. It was Sunday morning. I started thinking about alcohol, how I wanted to drink. I went into a rage looking for a bottle in the house, unable to understand why they were all empty because I didn't know that I'd consumed four bottles of vodka the day before. When I realized it, it really shocked me. I went back to my bedroom and got totally undressed. I looked into the mirror and I just didn't like what I saw: a scuffed-up, liquor-beaten, watered-down man. I sat down and took a complete inventory of my life, and in every aspect the bad part was far more than the good. I realized that I had to get out, I had to figure out what it is I had going for myself."
If severe male violence is physical, bringing women like Hedda Nussbaum to the brink of death, it might be said that the most extreme form of female-perpetrated abuse is situational. Women can operate the system to their advantage. Donning the feminine mask, they can manipulate the biases of family and community in order to set men up. If he tries to leave, or fight back, a fateful moment comes when she reaches for the phone, dials 911, and has him arrested on the strength of her word: "Officer, he hit me."
With mounting pressure on North American police forces to disavow misogynistic attitudes and take the word of a woman over a man, female psychopaths and other hard-core female abusers have an extremely effective means to up the ante and win the game. It isn't what abusive men do, the robbing of breath, but it is as surely the ruin of a life. The most common theme among abused men is their tales not of physical anguish but of dispossession - losing custody of children owing to accusations of physical and sexual abuse, and having criminal records that permanently shatter their integrity as loving men and decent human beings.
"I got arrested twice," says Peter Swann, pacing his boarding-house room and completing his tale of how Dana undid him. "I did sixty days and two years' probation. It was very unpleasant and scary, and I was wondering, what the hell did I do to deserve this? The first time it happened, I spent one night in jail. Then I went to stay at a co-worker's. Dana found out where I was, she called around, and she asked me to come home. Well, she had my daughter, so, yeah, I went back. The second time she got me arrested, I was still on probation. She nailed me two days before my last meeting [with the probation officer]. I was going to go camping that weekend, everything was packed. She had a fit. The gear went flying. Thrown out in the backyard. You're not going camping.' You can tell when she starts. The look on her face. She's building up the pressure like a volcano." But Dana didn't explode the way a man of her ilk might, by beating Peter senseless, because she couldn't. What she could do was destroy his property and pick up the phone. On the strength of his first conviction, he was easily convicted again, and on the strength of that, Dana won custody of Grace. Having spent all his money on the custody battle, he has no resources left with which to fight for his household possessions. He fell into a downward spiral of poverty, alcohol, and self-recrimination. Having lost his job, he fell behind on his child support payments, and got branded, on top of all the other labels, a deadbeat dad.
Dinnertime has come and gone without dinner. Peter's landlady taps on his door and invites herself in, a plump woman in her sixties clad in a bright blue housecoat, to offer a plate of chocolate doughnuts. She listens to his meanderings a moment, then interrupts. "You mustn't blame yourself, dear' she says, and she has clearly said it before. She turns to the visitor "I was in that kind of situation myself. My husband was a very respectable banker. He beat me black and blue."
Settling herself in the room's one chair, she offers her observations of Dana, and her Scottish accent lends a proper, even disapproving, air, though her face is relaxed and quick to smile. "She's a spiteful woman she is. The time I remember most it was Pete's birthday, and Dana promised faithfully she'd bring Grace at four o'clock so Pete could take her to dinner Well, hours and hours and hours later he said to me, 'She's not coming, will you come and have a drink with me?' So we did. Dana showed up, finally, at midnight, which is a disgusting time to bring a child over. She came in, took one look at the glass in his hand, and said, 'She's not staying here, you're drunk,' and off they went! I mean, that was a set-up.'
Maybe it was, but who would believe it? Take one look at Hedda Nussbaum and understand perfectly what she's been through. But a stumbling, inarticulate, alcoholic, twice-convicted deadbeat dad? Where would you even begin? "Peter's not perfect, he's not a perfect man," says his landlady, "he's not a perfect husband, but he doesn't deserve the punishment he's getting. He doesn't deserve this."
No person, male or female, gay or straight, complicit or not, deserves to wind up in the vortex of violence. But how will we find a way out if what we want is the simplest answer? Trying to make a neat and pretty package of relational discord is as impossible as bottling love. No two people live it the same. The one decent thing we can do in our rush to categorize, simplify and hurl blame is to stop for a moment and recognize, as Ruben says, "the human face of pain."
Adapted from 'Balancing the Domestic Equation' in 'When she was bad, Women and the Myth of Innocence', by Patricia Pearson, to be published in October by Random House of Canada.