City Paper is not for tourists
Steven Stosny says he can break the cycle of domestic violence. So why are victims’ advocates some of his biggest critics?
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
On a cold, blustery night last November, John, a 39-year-old, white, divorced father of three, makes his way down Good Luck Road to Reid Temple Episcopal Church in Lanham, Md. His destination isn’t the sanctuary, but Fellowship Hall I, a small, overheated cinder-block room that smells of franks and beans from the nearby kitchen. He picks the table closest to the door, puts his carry-out coffee down, and plops himself into a metal folding chair. There, he reluctantly awaits his transformation.
Around him are arrayed two dozen or so men and a handful of women. Many don’t bother to take off their heavy winter coats or make themselves comfortable. After all, this is not an easy room to get comfortable in: Nearly everyone here has been arrested for assaulting a spouse, significant other, or relative. Nearly everyone is here because a judge or probation officer ordered it. Everyone in the room is keenly aware of this fact, and practically no one speaks or makes eye contact.
First-night jitters are to be expected, especially tonight, the first session of a court-ordered “intervention” for batterers. Authorities have ordered these men and women to attend in the hope that, after 12 weekly meetings, they will never again assault the ones they love.
John is here because he argued with his ex-wife over the way he was disciplining their son. During the argument, he says, she tried to brush past him and he blocked her path and shoved her. It was the second time he had been arrested on an assault charge against her. He was first arrested almost two years ago, after they argued one evening in his car. Angry, he had gone over to the passenger side and tried to pull her out, but she resisted. When she finally relented, he yanked her out and threw her on the ground. That incident landed him in a group similar to this one, but whatever he learned there didn’t help him contain himself the next time he was “caught off-guard” by his ex-wife’s reaction to something.
Dr. Steven Stosny, the man whose job it is to make sure John doesn’t assault his ex-wife again, stands just a few feet away. Wearing a tweed jacket over a wool V-neck sweater, he looks as if he’s here to lead a college symposium, not a batterers’ treatment. And the room is arranged classroom style, with Stosny speaking from a podium. He doesn’t press his new pupils about why they are here. Instead, he seems more intent on assuaging their palpable sense of unease over having to attend his “Compassion Workshop.”
“Some of you will say, ‘My case has nothing to do with family violence,’” Stosny says, twirling his reading glasses in one hand, leaning over the lectern. “Some of you are not here because of family violence. But the person who referred you asked for a specific treatment. The other treatment available is more confrontational and a lot more about treating you like a criminal,” he says with an odd chuckle. “Here we try to treat you with dignity and respect.
“This is a greatly accelerated course,” Stosny continues. “Thirty-six weeks of material is crammed into 12 weeks. You won’t share your experience or problems in this group. It would have to last a year for that.
“We’re going to teach you skills. If you practice them, you’re going to end up feeling more empowered than you do now,” Stosny tells the class enthusiastically. “Your well-being isn’t going to depend on somebody else when you’re done with this course.”
For the rest of the 90-minute session, Stosny does most of the talking. John listens intently. His coffee goes untouched. He sits holding a pen poised over a pad of paper. For a while, he doesn’t take any notes.
Ever since shelters for battered women first opened their doors more than a generation ago, there have been programs that have tried to rehabilitate people who batter. As more jurisdictions began to require arrests in domestic-abuse cases, judges and prosecutors reluctant to fill precious jail space with men who typically faced only misdemeanor assault chargessearched for ways to give abusers a chance to reform themselves. Ironically, advocates for battered women were the first to answer the call, often devoting scarce resources to batterer interventions. They did so because they reasoned that domestic violence would never end unless batterers could learn to change their behavior. Such interventions try to reach the roughly one-third of abusers who domestic-violence experts estimate are not reformed by a brush with the law.
Over the years, those who have worked with batterers have tried numerous approaches, incorporating anger management, individual talk therapy, and even 12-step-style meetings. Today, the most widely used program is based on the idea that domestic violence is just one of a range of ways that men try to subjugate women. Created by the same people who pioneered the first coordinated law enforcement response to domestic violenceknown as the Duluth Modelthe program involves 26 weeks of intensive encounter-group sessions that seek to change abusers’ attitudes about gender roles as well as teach them different methods to control their anger. Each year, hundreds of cities and counties around the country send domestic-violence offenders to programs based on the Duluth Model intervention for batterers.
Duluth-style programs are grounded in a feminist analysis of domestic violence. In his book Violent No More, Michael Paymar, a Minnesota state legislator who helped develop the Duluth Model intervention, argues that “men batter women because they believe they are entitled, on account of their gender, to call the shots, end disputes, and control relationships. There are variations in this thinking, but belief in male superiority and authority is a central theme for many men, and especially for men who batter.” As a result, an integral part of Duluth-type treatments involves breaking through abusers’ denial about their abusive behavior and challenging their beliefs about gender roles.
Few take issue with the Duluth Model’s prescription for a criminal-justice response to domestic violence. Yet there are a growing number of researchers who disagree with the model’s treatment for batterers. They argue that the theory behind it doesn’t explain domestic violence among same-sex couples, or child abuse. And despite such treatments, along with overall tougher responses by law enforcement, domestic violence remains pervasive.
According to the July 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey, conducted by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four of the 8,000 women interviewed said she had been assaulted, stalked, or raped by an intimate at some point in her life. On the basis of this figure and others, the researchers estimated that the 141 million women who live in the United States endure about 4.9 million rapes and physical assaults by intimate partners every year. The 135 million men who live in the U.S. suffer approximately 2.9 million such assaults. It’s not surprising, then, that a recent Urban Institute study of crime statistics in the District of Columbia revealed that one of the most common victims of violent crime in Washington is a woman battered in a domestic assault.
Thus, researchers and clinicians are increasingly searching for more effective ways to treat batterersa quest only hastened by the results of several large-scale experimental studies of Duluth-style programs, which have suggested that such treatments may not be any more effective than no treatment at all.
“Abusers have a sense of powerlessness over their emotions,” argues Stosny. “They say, ‘You can make me feel things I can’t handle.’ So they try to control your behavior to regulate their emotion. That’s the motivation for abuse. It’s more than negative attitudes toward women.
“Nothing in feminism isn’t true,” he says. “The feminist view is just too superficial for treatment. It doesn’t explain what is the motivation for controlling someone else.”
Stosny’s Compassion Workshop was one of the first departures from Duluth-style interventions to be accepted by local courts. Stosny starts a new group at Reid Temple every three months. Two other groups operated by his organization, CompassionPower Inc., run at the same time in other locations. Stosny also licenses the Compassion Workshop to other treatment providers, which run groups across the country and abroad. Duluth Model programs, however, are still more widespread. Baltimore and Washington, for example, direct domestic-violence offenders to Duluth-style interventions. As a result, Stosny is considered something of a maverick among batterer-treatment providers and victims’ advocates; his methods are highly controversial. But the Compassion Workshop, Stosny says, has had some impressive outcomes. According to his research, which is based on victim reports, 86 percent of the people who complete his class remain violence-free for a year.
His critics counter that there has yet to be an independent evaluation of the Compassion Workshopa point that Stosny and his supporters concede.
“It’s a promising program, but he’s open to criticism until he’s had more rigorous testing,” says Adele Harrell, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, whose 1991 quasi-experimental study was one of the first to find that conventional batterer treatments are not very effective.
Even without definitive data showing that Stosny’s methods work, some clinicians, judges, and prosecutors who face the everyday dilemma of what to do with batterers have been willing to take Stosny at his word and adopt his Compassion Workshop.
“Everything is not easy. Life isn’t a 22-minute situation comedy with a resolution,” says Prince George’s County District Court Judge Patrice E. Lewis, who heads the court’s Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and sends batterers to the Compassion Workshop. “We’re trying to untwist a lifetime of learned behavior. It’s not simple.”
“My take is: whatever works,” says retired Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Theresa Nolan, who was the first judge to send Prince George’s defendants to Stosny. “If we can change this man’s behavior, it’s worth a shot.”
Two weeks before Christmas, Stosny is poised before his class, face to face with John, who has volunteered to let Stosny demonstrate a key concept of the Compassion Workshop.
“Think of a time you got angry recently,” Stosny instructs John.
“When my wife called the police when I was trying to discipline my child,” John replies.
“It was a shock to you when they came to the door, wasn’t it?” Stosny asks. “The initial reaction is, ‘What’s going on?’”
“When did you realize why they were there?”
“I knew right away,” John replies. “I talked to my wife about a problem with my son, and we had an altercation.”
“Feel that anger just for a moment,” Stosny says. “Feel it in your neck, your shoulders, your stomach.”
Stosny turns to the class. “When you get angry, you can feel it. It starts at the neck and goes down.” He demonstrates, lifting his shoulders up slightly, clenching his fists and his teeth. “You get into revenge mode when you want to bash somethingnot that you would, of course.”
Stosny relaxes his body and faces John again. He is about to demonstrate the cornerstone of his workshop, something he calls “HEALS.”
To combat their feelings of powerlessness, Stosny believes abusers must learn to empower themselves by valuing themselves and their loved ones. “If they don’t, they will empower themselves self-destructively with alcohol and drugs, and antisocially by abusing their loved ones,” he explains. Abusers can empower themselves, he contends, by learning to regulate their emotions. On the Web site for CompassionPower, Stosny describes HEALS as a “new technology of emotional regulation skill [that] allows subjects to replace focus on injury…with instant focus on healing and improving.”
“HEALS” is a mnemonic. The H represents “See HEALS flash four times”; the E stands for “Experience your core hurt”or the pain that you are using the anger to avoid; the A means “Access your core value”or get in touch with your compassionate side; the L stands for “Love yourself”or make yourself lovable by feeling compassion for whoever is making you angry; and the S stands for “Solve the problem.”
Stosny demands that each participant in the Compassion Workshop master the technique by going through the steps of HEALS 45 to 72 times a week, for a total of 720 times by the time the course ends, so that it will become automatic whenever anger threatens to overcome a potential batterer. (“It’s like shooting foul shots,” Stosny explains.)
“See the word ‘HEALS’ flash across her face four times,” Stosny tells John, flashing his fingers in front of John’s face four times like a magician casting a spell.
“Feel your deepest core hurt,” Stosny continues. “In your case, it’s powerlessness. Now, let all your defenses down. Really feel it. Say, ‘I feel powerless.’”
“I feel powerless,” John replies in a monotone.
Then, with the gusto of a Method acting coach, Stosny declares: “She is living in your head rent-free, controlling your head.” He scans John’s face for evidence that the message is getting through and then says in his normal voice, “You’re resisting it. You want to go deeper.”
“Now go to your core value, to the part of you that would save a child in the desert, the part of you that loves your children,” Stosny says. “You can choose not to feel angry. Now expand that. Love yourself. You can do that by feeling compassion for her core hurt. What do you think that is? It’s the same one, right? Powerlessness. You can sympathize with that. You just felt it.”
“Now, are you going to solve the problem better feeling anger or compassion?”
“Compassion,” John replies.
“Do you feel it?” Stosny asks.
Stosny shakes his hand. Both men take a step away from each other and face the class, which applauds.
Stosny believes his HEALS approach has applications far beyond abusers, so he has turned the Compassion Workshop into a full-time business called CompassionPower. (“‘Power’ comes out of the word ‘compassion,’” Stosny likes to point out.) The organization’s Web site describes “CompassionPower” as “Emotional intelligence for Eating Control, Parenting, Work, Love, Health, and Self-Esteem.” Stosny has designed nine interventions using HEALS for everything from reckless drivers to overeaters and angry adolescents.
It may all sound excessively trendy and even New Age touchy-feely, but some of these spinoff workshops are even being championed by public officials in the Washington metro area. Virginia and Maryland are testing Stosny’s aggressive-drivers’ intervention on people arrested for reckless driving; D.C. is about to adopt it as well. Stosny also recently met with officials from Lockheed Martin Information Management Systems, which has a contract with the District to move people from welfare to work, to discuss incorporating aspects of the Compassion Workshop into job-training classes.
Stosny is also a sought-after speaker and has trained people to run Compassion Workshops in about a dozen countries. For such engagements, he typically charges $200 an hour. The workshops themselves don’t break even, he says, because at least half of his clients can’t afford to pay for them. (He doesn’t turn anyone away for financial reasons, he says, because to do so would send the wrong “social message.”) But he’s able to draw most of his income from speaking and consulting and now sees only a handful of private clients.
Growing up in Camden, N.J., in the ’50s, Stosny says, he could not have guessed that he would one day build a business working with abusers, especially given how he got the dent in the back of his head.
When he was a child, he relates, he upset a pile of roofing shingles his father had stacked while making repairs to their house. In a fit of rage, his father threw one of the shingles at him so hard that a surgeon later had to remove a piece that had gotten lodged in his head. Stosny makes a point of mentioning this to workshop participants. What he doesn’t tell them is that besides the hole in the head, his father knocked out several teeth. And, he adds in private, “There’s a small scar on my neck from a hurled glass.”
His late mother, however, bore the brunt of the abuse. “The pain of witnessing her abuse surpassed the pain of [my] being abused,” he says.
Both his parents were alcoholics. And both, he recalls, were abusive when they drankalthough loving when they were sober. The police came to their door about once a month; an ambulance, two or three times a year. By the time he was 11, Stosny says, his mother had left his father 19 times. She would have gone back the last time, too, he says, but his father found another woman.
A few years later, his mother remarried, this time to a man Stosny describes as “wonderful and compassionate.” The two experienced a religious conversion and stopped drinking. His mother’s newfound faith awakened her to the idea of compassion for herself and othersan idea that would become the basis for Stosny’s treatment. “My mother’s intuition and recollections were invaluable to developing this theory,” he says.
It would be years, however, before Stosny had any professional interest in domestic violence. He originally pursued a career as a playwright. But he eventually grew tired of the theater, and when he was nearly 40, he decided to switch tracks and go for a master’s degree in clinical social work.
In graduate school, Stosny agreed to fill in for a friend who had to back out of a domestic-violence research project. As he read the literature, he says, he became intrigued by the problem of abusers resisting treatment. In 1990, two years after he’d begun to work with batterers himself, he sat in on a Duluth-style treatment group at the House of Ruth in Maryland and walked away unimpressed. “It was obvious that invoking guilt and shame in people who could not value themselves would only lead them to blame and punish all the more,” he says.
So one of the first projects Stosny undertook was to find a better way to engage abusers, most of whom are usually court-ordered into treatment. He created a video called Shadows of the Heart, which he tested in 1994 in a randomized experiment with 106 spouse abusers drawn from seven different nonprofit agencies. His results indicated, he says, that the film “greatly increased participation in the group-treatment process.”
Over the years, Stosny has not been shy about criticizing conventional batterer treatment. And that, combined with his entrepreneurship, has earned him his share of critics, who accuse him of coddling abusers and of being little more than a slick salesman.
“He’s good at taking simple things and making them look beautiful,” notes Leila Becker, clinical director of the Family Crisis Center in Hyattsville, Md. “He’s a good statistician. He’s good at making it look like he gets good outcomes. Most programs are not good at marketing. They’re limping along, doing activist work, victim work, and batterer work.”
“There are a lot of people who would like to believe there are shortcuts,” says Louise Machen, who has worked with batterers in Baltimore using a Duluth-style intervention for the past 15 years. “That’s certainly what the court system would like to believethat there’s a magic bullet that can turn batterers into empathetic human beings, and it doesn’t cost anything. Stosny is feeding into that.”
Few aspects of Stosny’s approach get his critics going the way Shadows of the Heart does. They offer the film as the ultimate proof that his methods are not only wrongheaded but also irresponsible.
The film opens with the image of a teddy bear dropping to the floor near an empty rocking chair. The production values are low, the lighting daytime-television bad. The acting, it turns out, isn’t much better:
A tall, slender man in his 30s, wearing too much eyeliner, sits impatiently in a waiting room. He’s greeted by a doughy counselor with a broadcast-news announcer’s voice: “Hi, Brent. I’m really glad you could join us tonight.”
“I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?” Brent sneers, trying to hammer the counselor into submission with hyperenunciation.
Unperturbed, the counselor leads him to another room where Tyrone, a peer counselor, sits waiting for him. Tyrone and the counselor try to get Brent to confront the pain he feelspain that he has surrounded with an “electric fence” of anger. The pain can be healed by rescuing “the child within.”
As Brent goes through the rescue of his inner child, a small boy with jagged teeth appears sitting in a rocking chair with a teddy bear. Presumably, he is a young Brent. The boy hears crockery shattering and feet running up the stairs. A woman, presumably his mother, suddenly enters the room and picks him up. A drunken man, presumably his father, stumbles in after her. The father pulls the boy away from his mother and roughly puts him down on a bed, where the child gets a front-row view of his father whacking his mother several times.
“He needs you to take him out of here. You’re his only chance,” the counselor implores in voice-over as the adult Brent enters the room, picks up the little boy, and carries him out.
“Looking back into the past and rescuing your inner child?” asks Machen, who saw the video several years ago. “[Stosny’s treatment] doesn’t focus enough on holding these men accountable for what they’ve done.”
Machen doesn’t necessarily disagree with Stosny’s theory that deep-seated feelings of shame are at the root of abusive behavior: “He may well be right. Many of the men were certainly horribly abused as children. Nobody gets to a stage like this growing up in a healthy house. But OKso what? That sounds cavalier, but that’s just not where I’d start in working with them. These are very manipulative folks.
“You have to get them to the point,” Machen concludes, “where they understand there’s a reason for them to be [in treatment]. I don’t think you’ve done anything with them if you send them out believing they’re victims, because they already believe that’s what they are.”
Stosny says Machen and other critics misunderstand his methods. “[The video] is just a setup to make them feel compassion,” he says. “The knee-jerk reaction of advocates comes because they do not read the instructions for processing the video that come with it. They take the ‘child within’ material literally.”
In his manual for Compassion Workshop group leaders, Stosny explains that no one is actually supposed to do the rescue described in the film. Or, as he tells me later, “It’s just so I can say [to the class] afterwards, ‘Which did you prefer: Feeling anger or compassion?’ And they say, ‘Compassion.’”
Though Stosny’s program is designed not to alienate abusers, he still runs into his share of resistance. When he lectures, he likes to bombard classes with insights gleaned from studies about everything from differences between the sexes (men most fear shame; women most fear physical harm) to the reason people tend to get into fights at funerals (they’re avoiding grief via anger). Stosny sometimes dishes these out with humor (“The hard part isn’t breaking upit’s waking up!”) but always with an air of confidence that seems to suggest that psychology has solved all these mysteries of the psyche with complete precision.
People in the group usually seem most receptive when Stosny talks about the physiological dimensions of anger or strategies for avoiding power struggles with people. But at times, the gulf between the tweedy therapist and his largely working-class pupils is obvious. For example, several protest when Stosny tries to explain why corporal punishment never works.
“Ask [your kids] about the last four times you spanked them,” Stosny says. “Ask them what it was for. Research shows one out of four remembers why; the rest only remember the spanking.”
A man in a Verizon baseball cap immediately begs to differ: “Even the Bible, in Proverbs 22:15, says, ‘The rod will drive foolishness out of the heart of a child.’”
“Why does that mean spank them?” Stosny counters. “Biblical scholars have argued that the rod stands for authority. It doesn’t mean you have to spank them.”
“You give us the opportunity to say things, but you don’t let us express ourselves fully,” the man in the cap replies huffily. “You say if this were interactive, [the program would take] 36 weeks. So you say it’s not interactive. Fine. But I spank my kids and they know why.”
“Ask them why,” Stosny says calmly. “Tell us next week what they say.”
It’s hard to tell whether the man in the Verizon cap is in the majority or the minority in the group. During a break, he tells me the class is “bullshit.”
But about half of Compassion Workshop participants seem to actually enjoy being in the class, which I have signed on to attend to try to understand how it works. The table where I sit each week is probably the most pro-Stosny clique in the entire group. It includes a guy whom I’ll refer to as Gary, another fellow whom I’ll call George, and an older couple. The husband in the couple has already been through the class once; graduates can return whenever they want for free, alone or with their partners. Gary shares his Ice Breaker gum with them. He’s also a bit of a class clown. When Stosny asks class members what they will do the next time they are angry, he grins and pretends to break a window with an imaginary hammer. George breaks into chuckles. Stosny takes all this in stride. To him, it’s a sign that they are paying attention.
After several weeks in the class, John says he’s practiced HEALS only a few times. “It’s not practical,” he says. “I’m not an angry person to begin with. It’s not like I fought with every person I met or [I get angry] in traffic, in lines, or at shopping centersnot me. I know very specifically what makes me angry. Experience your core hurt? I didn’t have enough material [to practice with]. I had to bring up the same bad things. It’s too unrealistic.”
John is not the only one having trouble with HEALS. At the end of the third class, a burly guy with a mustache and glasses hovers by the podium to speak to Stosny. “I’m just not getting it,” he says.
I remember him from the first night. I was sitting next to him when he turned to me and said abruptly, “I’ve been married 23 years, and I’d like to keep it that way!”
His name is Bill. Unlike most of the class, he is not here on a court order. He is a volunteer. But his path here wasn’t really much different from the others’.
One evening a few months earlier, Bill says, he got into an argument with his wife, Rosa. During the argument, Rosa got up on the couch and started flailing at him. “She’s yelling, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get out of the house! I want a divorce!’” he says. “I grab her arm because she’s wailing about my head, and my hand ends up around her throat. In the heat of everything, I realize I’m squeezing her throat, so I broke off and locked myself in the bedroom so she wouldn’t come after me. And I was afraid I was going to go out of control and going to be incarcerated for a long time.”
Rosa didn’t call the police. Instead, the couple went to counseling. Bill says he had never hit Rosa before, but he had been arrested twice for assaulting others. He started taking medication for depression. Therapy, however, wasn’t helping him control his anger, which he and Rosa say continued to be a problem. So Bill volunteered to go to batterers’ treatment.
“I knew I had some kind of a problem,” he says. “I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Back in Fellowship Hall I, Bill tells Stosny after class that he’s already tried the audio tape of the HEALS steps that Stosny has either lent for free or sold to participants for $5. (You’re supposed to play it in your car so you can practice whenever you’re getting pissed off in traffic.) But it hasn’t worked. Stosny roots around in his bag and comes back with a CD-ROM. He’s just finished making it, he tells Bill. It flashes the steps of HEALS on a computer screen; maybe visualizing HEALS will help, Stosny suggests. Bill shrugs, tucks the CD under his arm, and goes on his way.
As the weeks roll by, a 12-foot Christmas tree appears in the corner of Fellowship Hall I for several sessions. After New Year’s, it disappears. Stosny starts showing up wearing stubble. By February, he has grown a full beard. Most strikingly, however, the number of students dwindles from a peak of about 30 to about a dozen. Some of the original participants have transferred to sessions in other locations or time slots. Others have dropped out.
Stosny says the dropout rate for the Compassion Workshop is about 30 percent, which is slightly better than average for groups that deal with batterers. At the Family Crisis Center, the rate is about 45 percent, according to Becker. And at Anger Domestic Abuse Prevention and Treatment in Fairfax County, which has switched from Duluth-style interventions to Stosny’s, the dropout rate is about 50 percent, according to program coordinator Sam Bachman. Participants who drop out or don’t even show up for the first class may face penalties such as jail time, but that depends on the judgea situation that leads many who work with batterers to note that an intervention is only as good as the response of the criminal-justice system that goes with it. Stosny, by contrast, believes whether the judge throws the book at them or not is irrelevant; people don’t come back when an intervention isn’t reaching them.
Those who stick with Stosny to the end must complete the final and most difficult leg of the course: reading a “statement of compassion.” The statement has certain requirements. First, you have to describe what you did in explicit terms. Then you must relate how your abusive behavior affected your victim, your family, yourself. Finally, you have to lay out what you are going to do to make sure you don’t abuse or control anyone again.
The reading of the statements is the climax of the Compassion Workshop. Short of tracking the progress of each participant over the next year, this is, for all intents and purposes, the most concrete indication you’re going to get of whether these batterers have learned to mend their ways.
Just as they did on the first day, the group members sit in tense silence. One of the first to get up is Gary. Everyone has come to know Gary as the guy whose jokes have made the class tolerable, the one who always shares his gum. And now, for the first time, everyone knows Gary as someone who knocked his mother down after they argued over some repairs to the house they shared.
His voice chokes up as he describes the incident. He and his mother had a mutually verbally abusive relationship, he explains. He’s since moved out and hasn’t seen her in more than a year. “I think I can keep the fangs retracted,” he says, his voice growing steady. “I now have compassion for others. I can understand where they’re coming from. It keeps me from getting upset. Since I’ve taken this course, it’s helped me out so much. I think everyone should take it.”
With few exceptions, the experience of getting up in front of the group and baring their souls proves to be just as emotional for the rest of the participants. One man has brought his wife along for the first time. As she sits in a chair looking up at him, he recounts how the couple tussled on the way to pick up their marriage license. Both were arrested, but he was the only one who landed in the Compassion Workshop. Nonetheless, he says, he shared what he learned with his wife. “Now when she gets mad, I say, ‘HEALS, baby, HEALS,’” he says, drawing a few chuckles.
One of the last to read his statement is Bill. The CD-ROM, he tells me later, did the trick. “It’s very visual. I played it on my computer every day, sometimes over and over and over. It started sinking in. It started calming me down,” he says. “I’m treating my kids better. The atmosphere at my house is much calmer. I don’t go from Level 1 to Level 10 in a second. I don’t take off like a rocket.”
When I ask Rosa if she’s noticed any difference, she confirms Bill’s report. “He’s able to stop and not react right away and take in more information than he used to,” she says, although there seems to be a note of caution in her voice. “His relationship with the kids is better. Before, he was a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type person. People were scared of him. We were really scared of him. I think it got to the point, we were so frightened, he needed help or we were out.”
“We’ve got our heads together more; we’re working in tandem,” Bill says of Rosa. “Hopefully, I’ll be with her another 23 years.”
After an hour, everyone has spoken, with one exception: John. Stosny doesn’t press him. He simply gets up and starts to hand out certificates to everyone else. They’re green-bordered affairs, the kind you get at junior-high graduations. They declare that each participant “has completed the requirements of the Compassion Workshop.” There’s a little gold seal embossed with the words “Emotional Regulation” and “CompassionPower.”
A week or so after the final class, John agrees to a phone interview.
“My expectations [for the Compassion Workshop] were low,” he says. “I learned so much in the first [court-ordered treatment I went to], I couldn’t learn much more on this topic that would help me in everyday life.
I learned that altercations, whether you’ve initiated them or not, are not going to solve problems, and you can’t make anyone do something they don’t want. I forgot that for half a second.”
John says he will continue in the Compassion Workshop. (According to Stosny, those who don’t finish the last assignment have to start over.) John knows he will probably have to read a statement of compassion at some point, especially if he wants the course to count in his favor when he appears at his upcoming trial on assault charges. But he says he just couldn’t bring himself to do it the other day. He told Stosny so before the last class.
“I’m not an angry person to begin with,” John says. “I told [Stosny] this from the beginningthat in all my years, I’ve never gotten in a fight with anyone. I seldom get angry or lose my temper. I don’t yell in arguments. I’m not sure why that’s the case with me, but the two times I’ve gotten in trouble, I was surprised. I was basically caught off guard. I’m not sure HEALS helps in those situations where you’re caught off guard.”
Unlike Brent in Shadows of the Heart, John says, he did not grow up in a violent home. “Maybe we should’ve yelled more. I wasn’t as well equipped to handle it.” When they married 16 years ago, he says, his then-wife “saw me as a gentle person,” he recalls.
Their kids are the main reason they still see each other even though they divorced six years ago.
John attributes their divorce largely to differences in religion. His ex-wife, however, says a bigger factor was his abuse. “At first, his anger was not directed toward me,” she recalls in a separate interview. “When it was, it was few and far between at first. Then the cycles got shorter and shorter as time went on, particularly during difficult periods.”
The incident John was arrested for, she says, was not the first time he had become violent with her. It was just the first time she had called the police.
“Even if it was not a happy marriage, I probably would’ve dealt with it indefinitely,” she muses. “People like me who end up like this are very willing to love their partners, so willing to overlook way too much. It wouldn’t take much for people like me to want to continue the relationship. Stopping the abuse would be all it took. You think that would be a small thing, but it’s an impossible thing. To this day, he’ll say he barely touched me. Ask him where the bruises came from. He doesn’t answer.”
Indeed, John doesn’t mention any past incidents of violence, only recent close calls. “I did go back at one point” to the first batterers’ program, he says. “I had gotten angry about something with my ex-wife, and I went back to talk to them.”
But he doubts he will keep in touch with Stosny after he finishes the Compassion Workshop. He doesn’t feel the same affinity with him. “I got the feeling [Stosny] is good at this, but I didn’t think he was doing this to help us, because we were helping him with his research and his statistics. In the other group, I felt connected to the people running it.”
His ex-wife, however, says she has seen more results since John has been in the Compassion Workshop. “I don’t think [the first class] reached him. I think its target was a different kind of person, someone who’s always very overtly violent,” she says. “[The Compassion Workshop] does appear to be doing a better job. I see instances that in the past would have escalated that [now] seem to be checked. I definitely see better work happening here than in the previous class.” But, she adds, John may also be on his best behavior because there is a trial coming up. She isn’t so sure he will never be violent toward her again.
Though John says he can keep himself under control, he doesn’t sound completely sure, either. “For all these years and all the ups and downs in our marriage, I was able to handle everything except being completely surprised by a reaction from my ex-wife that I couldn’t have expected. It’s the 1 percent of things I have a hard time with. That’s hard to prepare for.”
By Stosny’s estimation, this Reid Temple group was a success. Yet the 14 percent recidivism rate he boasts of still applies. It means that at least a couple of the participants who completed the class will likely abuse their partners again within a year, though according to studies of batterer programs, those who re-offend usually do so within the first three months. Whether John is likely to be among the recidivists, Stosny doesn’t hazard a prediction. But, he says, if he does suspect that one of his pupils is dangerous, he makes sure to warn that batterer’s potential victim.
The victims, after all, are why Stosny and the others who work with batterers do what they do. And why they aren’t likely to give up anytime soon.
“It’s similar to substance abuse,” says Janet Dennis, a court advocate for domestic-violence victims with Turning Points, a battered women’s program in Dumfries, Va., who used to run batterers’ groups as well. “We’re not naive enough to think everyone who goes through this treatment will be cured….I can never tell you if they’re cured. They’re probably never cured. We just hope we’re keeping people a little safer and that these men take some of those skills and change their lives.”
“I’m not saying any of these programs are right or wrong,” echoes Vic Bogo, Turning Points’ men’s groups coordinator, who has worked with batterers for 25 years and runs both Duluth groups and Compassion Workshops. “They’re just different ways of getting to the same thing: to change the behavior and make it safer for the abused.
“We don’t know what the answer is,” Bogo continues. “We deal with this big elephant that exists in America, and we’re all taking different sections of it and trying to fathom the best way to do this. I’m not sure we’re really there yet.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.