He’s nothing like I imagined. His demeanor is gentle, his smile and handshake warm, his words friendly and measured. He asks permission before taking a bite of his takeout salad.
Where’s the batterer I’ve come to meet? The man who grabbed, pushed and punched a woman he claimed to love? The one I’ve enlisted to help me understand: Why do some men do this? How can they be stopped?
“Dylan” is Ivy League-educated, a self-professed nerd who was raised by loving parents with advanced degrees. He grew up in a beautiful home in a tony Atlanta suburb. He enjoyed every privilege a boy could want. He vacationed in places like Cairo, London and Paris before he could even shave.
He defies the stereotypical image of a batterer I have in mind. I’m ashamed of my own naiveté. Lesson one: Just because he had it so good doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of becoming brutal.
Dylan has met me after work in a quiet office outside Atlanta. He’s asked that I change his name and hide his identity to protect him and his victim. In exchange, he has agreed to take me back to a time he’d rather forget. He will map out how he became an abuser. And how, some 10 years later, he became a new person, the man he wanted to be.
Going inside the mind of a batterer, I’ll learn, means examining much more than the images we hold onto. The story of suspended NFL running back Ray Rice, and other abusers, doesn’t end with a knock-out punch in an elevator or an attack never seen on video. Nor do these tragedies begin there.
Power and control
Dylan’s parents weren’t perfect. Neither were friends who he idolized. Not many people are.
Scene one: His mother and father argued. The abuse was verbal, sometimes physical. Twice he watched his father push his mother.
Scene two: He was sitting on a bus in the high school parking lot. He watched out the window as an upperclassman he respected struck his girlfriend. Hard. She was the sort of girl Dylan dreamed of dating someday. He gawked with others as she cowered and bled.
At home and at school, no one talked about what Dylan saw. Love between a man and a woman, as far as he could tell, was allowed to look this way.
Now, in his mid-30s, Dylan has a tool for identifying what he witnessed — and how he acted himself.
“Have you ever seen the power and control wheel?” he asks me.
I have no idea what this means. He pulls out a sheet with a round diagram.
It shows tactics a man might use to gain leverage in a relationship, ways he may behave before resorting to physical or sexual violence. These are the less obvious, but insidious, means by which men keep women down. Red flags Dylan couldn’t identify back then.
Minimizing. Coercion. Male privilege. At first, the language sounds like over-intellectualized psychobabble. But soon I realize that the wheel represents everything I’d like to caution my nieces about before they go out into the world.
Dylan was in college when he met his first girlfriend. Early on, without even knowing her friends, he told her he didn’t like them.Isolation. Controlling who she sees.
When she came to his room later at night than he wanted, he locked the door — something he never did otherwise — and made her knock. He took his time answering to remind her who was boss. Male privilege. Acting like the “master of the castle.”
Fast forward to after college. He was living with a new girlfriend, “Isabelle,” in Atlanta. She might have had the better job, but he was the one who could drive. She has a disability and depended on him to get to work. He didn’t let her forget it. Threats. Making her feel guilty. The cloud of economic abuse; she could lose her job.
His boss treated him like an idiot, but Dylan felt he had to take it. Out in the world, it seemed like people walked all over him. So at home, Dylan exerted power in the only place he felt he could. He was making more money by then, he says, and had earned the right to “act like a man.” More male privilege. Defining their roles.
He criticized how she did her hair, what she wore, even the way she filled the dishwasher. Emotional abuse. Making her feel small and humiliated.
You see how this works, right? He kept the wheel well-oiled, and it would eventually spin out of control.