Step in Another Direction to Eliminate Domestic Violence

A recent Friday found me motoring along I-93; then, benefit of the marvelous MapQuest, north through small towns and hills crimson with autumn toward Kittery, Maine. The trees were lovely, the sun was shining, and the traffic wasn’t too bad, but I wasn’t there to ogle the foliage. Rather I was on my way, as participant and presenter, to the Third National Conference on Domestic Violence.

This was a conference, however, with a twist. It was sponsored by two organizations that specialize in documenting domestic violence against men and providing support for such men. The director of one of the organizations, the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men (1-877-643-2515, access code 0757) contacted me after reading a Ledger column. She asked if I would be willing to attend and present and, with some trepidation, I said I would.

The trepidation related to some of my past experiences with domestic violence advocates in general, and with fathering advocacy groups in particular. All too often they are reservoirs for the uncathected rage of those who somehow manufacture a lifestyle from their belief that they have been dealt with unfairly. As someone once said, they are the kind of people who will forward petitions regarding the conditions in heaven, should they ever make it there. By and large, when faced with one of these hate-motivated individuals, one quickly hear a voice in one’s head telling you to create as much distance from them as possible.

But this appeared to be different. The conference organizer had gone on a bit about the nastiness and bias of Aradical feminist groups. I had suggested that feminism was a wonderful philosophy that helped women discover their personal power and which supported, as I do, the goal that women shall someday share equally in civil and economic power in our society. What she was referring to, I said, was not feminism at all but simple anti-masculine anger voiced by those who need a target for the rage that roils around their insides. Indeed many, perhaps most, anti-masculine people are not women at all but rather are man-hating men, or rather males, who for divers reasons get an emotional jolt out of kicking the butts of those of their gender.

The director agreed completely and so changed some of the conference literature so that ir read anti-masculine rather than Aradical feminist. The director herself received phone calls daily of those who had personal experience with this process; she had just spoken to a man who , as a result of false accusations of abuse, had been separated from his children for more than seven years. Finally, on the day before the conference, after years of legal struggle, an enterprising attorney had gotten a judge to let the father see his daughter. On the night of my arrival we all went to dinner. The father had had his visit and, by surprise, his 10 year old son had shown up as well. There was an air of celebration and possibility. Because regional administrators in the domestic violence community had labeled the conference a gathering of batterers registration had been less then hoped for. Domestic violence workers knew that attendance was professional suicide. But who cared? At least one couple had persisted and succeeded, and through their efforts the lives of two children would be returned to something approaching normalcy.

The next day I presented a workshop on The Neuropsychology of Behavioral Control. Strategically, I wanted to remain apart from the gender-based battle, and both my experience and some preliminary research indicated that domestic violence, much of which is both impulsive in nature and accompanied by substance abuse, is not primarily related to one’s sex. Rather, the capacity and willingness to strike someone, again and again and on many occasions, may be related to a deficit in what is called perspective-taking ability.

Perspective-taking ability is a fundamental cognitive task that involves detaching from one’s one angle on the world and imagining, or hypothesizing, about how the world looks, and how it might be experienced, by someone else. This process of self-detachment and hypothesis-testing, research has shown, is largely mediated by the frontal lobes of the brain. To do it well, to use the complexity of our experience to imagine both the thoughts and feelings of another, is a demanding cognitive task that is as capable of being disrupted by brain damage, genetic factors, or neurodevelopmental influences as language functions or any other cognitive skill.

It is for this reason that people who are able to richly and deeply imagine the experience of others are less likely to hurt them. This imaginative, intersubjective skill is the basis of empathy, the capacity to see and feel another’s world. Of course, those less able to imagine another’s perspective are more likely to inflict harm, for they are essentially blind to the impact of their actions on those around them. They are neuropsychological narcissists, isolated on a cognitive island.

Thus, I proposed, the proclivity to batter one’s partner is likely not gender determined; the partner that has his or her feet on the ground@ and is able to see their own actions realistically probably is not going to cause harm to another. Ironically, according to this thinking, if you start a group of Avictims some of those who rush to join it will have perspective taking deficits, because narcissists habitually search for reasons to externalize responsibility for their own aberrant behavior. This has been the psychological basis (often inaccurate in actuality) of the long recognized relationship between seeing oneself as a victim and allowing oneself to be a perpetrator B of child abuse, sexual assault, or domestic violence.

It turned out that enough people attended to fill the room to overflowing and their participation was positive. As I drove back through the shining hills I realized again how much needs to be done to allow men to re-enter family life in America; change the consciousness of poorly informed probate and criminal court judges, work to induce government bureaucracies to allow themselves to be informed by empirical research on domestic violence, struggle to get people to sever their dependence on anger and resentment. It was a big job, but a small group in Maine had made a start, and maybe, in time, that will make all the difference.