What Makes a Man Beat a Woman?

IN the shocking story that follows, Self reporter Bob Ivry takes a rare glimpse inside the mind of a batterer, and makes him answer for his horrible crimes.

He wouldn’t have hit her if he didn’t love her so much. That deception kept running through his head. Nobody could hurt him like she could and that’s exactly what she was doing now, back-talking him, shaking her finger at him, tearing his heart out. Why couldn’t she love, honor, and obey him like she vowed? Tom Burke walked over to the sofa, got right up in Peggy’s face: “Back Off,” he screamed, “I’m warning you.” He felt reckless anger build behind his eyes.

And then his fist came down. And then Peggy went down. She rolled off the couch, onto the carpet and cried in pain. No woman, he thought, could tell Tom Burke what to do. Peggy lay on the floor and cried. She held herself, and rocked back and forth. The children gathered silently at the bottom of the stairs to watch. “You hurt me bad,” Peggy cried. “Ah, get up,” Tom told her, “it ain’t that bad.” And then he laughed. When the judge called it abuse, Tom couldn’t believe it. “I’ve only hit er once or twice, ” he told the judge. “I’m not a batterer.” The judge wasn’t impressed. He gave Tom a choice: a batterer’s program or prison.

His first day in the program they told him that hitting was only a small part of the problem. They gave Tom a pamphlet listing the eight types of abuse. The list was arranged in a wheel – Economic Abuse, Intimidation, Using Children – and said – “Yeah, I do that.” Emotional Abuse, Threats, Using Male Privilege – “Yeah, I do that, too.” Isolation, Sexual Abuse. He went around the entire wheel saying, “Guilty, guilty, guilty.”

It was abuse when he threatened to get Peggy thrown in the psych ward so she’d never see her children again. It was abuse when he made her get a second job. It was abuse when he kept the bank account in his name and made her come to him if she wanted to spend the money she’d earned. It was abuse when he forced sex on her. It was abuse when he quietly placed a knife on the table between them during an argument.

Tom listened to the counselor in the batterers’ group make these points, but there was still no getting through to him. he didn’t want to be in the program. He had always been cold to the world. So cold they called him “iceberg” in prison. Six years for burglary and cocaine.

So cold that the night he hit Peggy, he laughed all the way to Checkers, the bar up the street from where he lives in a quiet town nestled against the bluffs that rise high above the Delaware River. A hunter’s town. Plenty of guys for Tom to get drunk with and tell his story to.

“Yeah, the old lady was raggin’ me out, so I belted her.”

“Way to go, Tommy,” they said. “The bitch deserves it. You put her in her place.” The guys at the bar never called it abuse. If a woman didn’t listen, their thinking went, you used your fists to make her. Tom never called it abuse either. After all, he told himself, he loved Peggy. So what made him do it? Sitting in a loose circle of folding chairs in a church basement with the other batterers, Tom Burke was sure it wasn’t his fault. He rushed to his own defense.

“I’m only abusive because of the anger,” he said.

“That’s a cop-out,” the other men told him. “Anger is a tactic of control. You use it as a weapon to get what you want. You get angry when you’re at the supermarket, but you don’t hit the cashier. That’s because you have no interest in controlling the cashier.”

“But it’s blind rage,” Tom said.

“Wrong. Blind rage is an excuse,” they told him, “not a reason.” “It’s an invention of defense attorneys and has no physiological basis. You’re giving yourself permission to lash out.”

“But I’m a blackout drinker,” Tom said. “It’s the alcohol that makes me do it.”

“Wrong again. When you’re drunk, how come you’re only abusive with Peggy? It’s because even when you blackout, you choose. And you choose to abuse only her.”

“She was in my face.” Tom said. “The bitch deserved it.”

“Nobody ever deserves to be beaten, raped, terrorized.” The others said. “Ever. Period.”

Tom still held out. “It’s the way I was raised.” He said. “My father was a dictator and he’d beat me with a leather belt. I used to go to bed at night praying for him to die.”

“Not every son of a violent man is violent,” they told him. “You learned to use terror as a means to control others. To control Peggy.”

Did Tom Burke learn anything from the therapy and the counselors? He thought he had. He said that one day God smacked him on the head and showed him who he really was; an angry controlling man who was so scared of being alone he’d rather beat a woman than endure the thought that she had her own mind, her own will. He said he now understood that there’s only one reason men batter: control. So, he quit drinking, saw a therapist, and did everything he was supposed to do.

And then one dim morning he woke in a jail cell, still drunk, covered with blood. He didn’t know whose blood it was.

They told him he’d shoved his new girlfriend, Marge, clear across the kitchen and bounced her off the fridge. She called the cops. By the time they arrived, Tom was in the street, loud and raging. when the cops tried to stop him, he took a swing. Resisting arrest. The blood was his own.

Will Tom Burke hit a woman again? Ask him and he’ll say it has been a year since that drunken and bloody trip to jail. He’ll say he keeps a copy of the Power and Control Wheel at home to study when he feels the rage build behind his eyes.

He’ll say that his life is finally going in the right direction. But ask him a second time, and he’ll say he doesn’t know if he’ll ever hit a woman again, not for sure.

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