Editor's note: The names of those subjects identified only by first names were changed to ensure confidentiality.
"Sometimes it's very easy to look in the mirror and not see who's there."
When Jack's wife threw him out of the house last year, he took a hard look. He saw a man who lost his temper easily, who yelled, who talked himself into jealous rages. He saw the type of man he wouldn't want his young daughters to marry when they grew up.
"I'm a controlling person by nature," Jack says. His dad was a control freak, too, but he didn't know anyone in his father's generation who wasn't.
Somewhere along the line, control became domination. He's never struck Beth, he says, but he owns up to physical intimidation. At 6-feet-3, he's about a foot taller than she is, and he'd tower over her as he yelled in her face. More importantly, he says, he's been inflicting emotional and verbal abuse for years.
"I feel truly ashamed of this, but I put Beth in a box," Jack says. "I tried to control what she did, where she was, who she was friends with. The only thing I didn't do was hit her."
(Beth declined to be interviewed for this story.)
A friend gave Jack a copy of Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, who started the first treatment program in the United States for abusive men.
"I read that book, and I was like, oh my God, I'm abusive," Jack says. "Once I figured out what I was, I wanted to find some help."
Searching the Internet, Jack found a batterers treatment program in Chatham County, where he lives, called PEACE (People Ending Abuse through Counseling and Education). He set up an interview and entered the program.
PEACE meets Wednesday nights in Siler City. A typical group has 14 to 15 men. The class is ongoing, with people cycling through, but in order to get credit clients must attend for 26 weeks, paying $20 per visit—$560 over six months.
Demand is high, as state law dictates that people convicted of domestic violence charges must complete such a program as a condition of probation. The department of social services also refers clients.
According to the North Carolina Council for Women, which certifies 55 abuser treatment programs across the state, about half of all participants drop out—even with the possibility of jail time hanging over their heads.
"Some of the guys would rather do the time," says Alan Brown, a facilitator with PEACE.
Jack is one of the rare participants who enrolled on his own initiative. "He stands out a little," Brown says. For one thing, Jack is a college-educated, middle-class professional who works as a project manager for a technology company. Most PEACE clients are working-class, though Brown says he once had a client who lived at the Governors Club, an upscale golf course community near Chapel Hill. Of course, abuse does occur in middle- and upper-class homes, but those who can afford to usually arrange private counseling to meet the court's requirements.
Another reason Jack stands out is that he's on his second voluntary go-round. About eight months after completing the program the first time, he called Brown, saying he'd relapsed and Beth had left him. He's been coming to most of the weekly sessions for the past five months.
"He recognizes his controlling tendencies," Brown said. "Shaking that is an ongoing process. I think he's feeling good that he's making progress, but it hasn't necessarily saved his marriage."
"I try to keep myself open," Jack says. "I don't want to hide."
On a hot August evening, the men file into the conference room. Most come straight from work. One man's clothes are covered with construction dust.
Brown leads the group with Andrea Redman. The treatment model they use—called the Duluth Model after the Minnesota community that created it in 1981—calls for one male and one female co-facilitator.
As they introduce themselves, some of the men volunteer the reason they're here. "I kicked my wife in the behind," one guy says.
"I hit her and put a gun to her back," says another. This is the second time a court has ordered him to attend the program.
Given a chance to ask questions of a reporter, one man takes the opportunity to make a point. "I think my wife should have to do something like this," he says, "so she would know what I'm going through."
Jack says that when the program's over, he'd like to go to couple's counseling. Brown explains the reasons why that's not a good thing to focus on now. For one thing, Beth might choose not to stay in the relationship.
"How does that relate to the bottom line of this class?" Brown asks, stating that bottom line for the first of many times this evening: "You are responsible for your behavior 100 percent of the time."
On a white board, Brown writes the word "cues" and Redman asks the men to name signs their anger is escalating. They need to learn to notice the triggers before the anger escalates to violence, so they can consciously do something to stop the cycle.
The guys call out their cues: Yelling. Staring. Rolling their eyes. One guy says he has a habit of "hitting things" and knocking his fists against the table.
"My voice gets out of whack," says another guy, "and I say things I don't really mean."
The guy who had threatened his wife with a gun says he's realized that using methamphetamine is what sets him off. When he was using, he might be high for 14 hours straight, which made him paranoid. Small arguments became intense. "I thought, 'She's just against me like everybody else is,'" he says. Staying clean is a day-to-day struggle.
Jack says he knows how the guy feels—he struggles with alcohol. "If you start drinking in a bad mood," he says, "it whips you up until you're just a ball of piss and vinegar, and there she sits."
The other guys in the group nod. "That was good, man," one of them says to Jack.
"When I first started this, I thought, everyone's a treatment candidate. You know, apple pie and rainbows, we can save anybody," says Brown. A social worker by training, he has led weekly batterer treatment sessions off and on for 20 years.
"Over the years, looking at research, I think probably a third of the guys I see, I'm not convinced we're going to be able to get through to."
Reliable data are hard to come by, as subsequent abuse can often go unreported. But most studies estimate the recidivism rate for batterer intervention programs to be at least 50 percent.
Some abusers have to bottom out before they're motivated to change, Brown says. One client told him that spending 48 hours in jail turned him around. For another, it was the moment his 6-year-old called the police.
"You see some men who you truly feel like this is a first offense, the first time they have been violent at all," Brown says, "and you detect a sense of remorse, that they really are feeling sorry for what they did."
In group, men often express disgust with themselves over what they've done. More than one describes memories of watching his father or stepfather beating his mother and thinking, I'll never be like him.
But sometimes, Brown admits, it's hard to tell who's sincere. "I've been doing this long enough to know I can still be conned," he says. "Some guys are very convincing." Even the most dangerous abusers may be very likeable and say all the right things in group, or before a judge.
Part of what keeps the guys honest is the scrutiny of their peers.
"You're talking about a lot of males who are there because of a lie—they're abusive," Jack says. It helps when guys call bullshit on his excuses, he says. "They might say, 'Hey, Jack, I think you're leaving something out.' Or, 'Hey look, dude, that's bull crap.'"
About four months after he finished the program the first time, Jack started to slowly slip back into his bad habits and old excuses. He didn't yell—except when she yelled first. He'd say things to belittle and criticize her. By the time eight months had passed, he knew deep down what was happening but didn't want to admit it. "I even caught myself saying to her, 'I've been through this program, I'm not abusive!'"
When Beth left him, he called Brown and asked to return to the program. Brown says it's not the first time that's happened. "Chances are they didn't learn this behavior in 26 weeks, so it's not likely they can reverse it in that much time. Not hitting her might be the easiest part. But maybe the verbal abuse escalates, or the control of money. Power and control is not just about physical violence."
For now, Beth is living in her own apartment. They have an informal custody arrangement. Jack wants to hang on to her, to his children, to their life together. He says he's learned to step away when he starts to get angry. And where he used to make all the financial decisions, he recently let her decide whether to spend money on home repair or on a boat.
Jack believes he'll always struggle with his need for control. Last week, he started Alcoholics Anonymous. He keeps a log of how he handled each day's situations. "There's no clicking your heels and saying, I'm done. You have to work on it every day."
What he wants from those around him is honesty, not sympathy.
"When I told my neighbor what happened, you know what he said? 'Jack, you're a good person. You'd do anything for anybody. You can't be that bad.' I've even heard from some people that she probably deserved it. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. People are oblivious. They don't want to believe this is a problem."
For information about the PEACE program, contact Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services at 542-5445 or visit www.fvrc.org. More information about resources for victims of domestic violence is available through the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www.nccadv.org.