When I first met him, Nick was a strikingly good-looking and buff young man, a 19-year-old kid in a tight T-shirt, body covered with tattoos. This was in 1987, back when tattoos were not as fashionable, and usually meant you were a rock star, convict, or Hells Angel.
Nick grew up in a family that was, to say the least, dysfunctional. When he was in grade school, his mother became addicted to pain medication and alcohol, and deteriorated into a chronic state of substance abuse, irritability, depression, and irresponsibility.
“She lied, cheated, and stole to get her pain pills,” he told me. “Then she would burn herself with cigarettes because she was so out of it. She still does it. I was always ashamed of her. It’s like I had to be the parent to my mother.
“When I was 15, I began to drive her around to different doctors to get her prescriptions. In exchange, she’d give me money to buy pot. Then I’d steal her pills from her and sell them back to her, and she didn’t even know it. It was so sick. I once told her, ‘‘You’re a horrible mother. I don’t care if you live or die.’”
When Nick was about 11, he started drinking every day, later progressing to almost every street drug I’d ever heard of. He was arrested at least 10 times, for vandalism, drug dealing, hit-and-run, robbery, battery, assault. He was in and out of residential treatment centers and juvenile hall.
Nick first came to see me after he’d hit rock bottom and became clean and sober through a 12-step program. He was in a very stormy, emotionally exhausting, off-and-on relationship with a girl named Danielle, whom he loved passionately but couldn’t get along with well enough to make it work. Danielle was working without a green card, having recently moved to the United States from Mexico to flee an abusive father at home.
After Nick broke up with Danielle, I didn’t see him for a couple of months. Then one day he came in to see me in crisis. “Even though I started screwing around with a couple girls after Danielle,” he said, “I couldn’t get her out of my head. When a friend told me Danielle was dancing in strip clubs because she was so broke, I went nuts. I pictured her dancing for people who didn’t treat her with any respect. I wanted to kill her for doing that to herself! I was so pissed, I stormed over to her place and I started screaming, ‘You whore! I’m gonna disfigure you and turn you in to immigration if I ever find out you’re dancing again!’ I wasn’t really gonna do it, but I felt like it.” He paused and hung his head. “Then I slapped her—hard.”
Nick knew what he had done to Danielle was horribly wrong. What’s more, he knew that I knew that.
“That girl gave me more love than anybody in my life,” he continued. “She’d do anything for me. She’s taken the place of everybody I’ve ever needed in my life. I grew up through her. What did I do?” He was despondent. “I totally lost it. How can your life be so small that you’d hurt someone you love and want to kill yourself over it?” he asked.
I had a lot of formulaic answers I could’ve given, and I was prepared to do just that, but then he turned to me and asked a question I absolutely wasn’t prepared for. “Have you ever done anything like that?”
My first reaction was to be deeply offended. How could this punk, with his horrible criminal behavior, possibly think that he and I were in any way alike? Then, given that I was still pretty early in my career, all the voices of my clinical supervisors jumped in to warn me never to talk about myself. Interpret, interpret, interpret. Shift the focus from you and investigate his curiosity about your life experience. What does it mean to him? Explore the projections.
I was just starting to focus my work on treating male domestic violence offenders, so I was also steeped in the conventional wisdom at the time around working with this kind of abuse. These guys are slippery. Don’t be fooled. They want you to collude with them to minimize and normalize their behavior. The important thing is to keep confronting them about their treatment of women and never let them make excuses. It’s all about power and control. Never forget that. If the man dared to talk about the abuse he experienced from his father growing up, the response was always the same: I don’t want to hear about your abusive childhood—that’s just making excuses!
All this was spinning around in my head as I sat across from Nick, but something gave me pause. Somehow, I felt there was more to Nick than I’d been taught to look for, some basic quality of genuine remorse and humanity that didn’t fit the classic model of the abuser my supervisors had hammered into me. So rather than instinctively parroting my training, I felt I had a decision to make. Was he more like me than not? Should I disclose or not disclose? Should I risk revealing something about my personal life or maintain my buttoned-down therapist front? Should I just go ahead and admonish him for his abusive behavior—or let him know I understood at least something about what he’d done from the inside out?
I felt a panic bubble up inside, fearing that if I didn’t properly confront and shame Nick for his violent action, I’d be judged naïve and incompetent by all the supervisors in my head. Worse, I didn’t want to let down all the women, all over the world, who are victims of male aggression. I had about three milliseconds to decide what to do. Taking a quick breath, I plunged in and told Nick the following story:
When I was 21, I was in a very stormy relationship with a girlfriend. The day I tried to break up with her, she yelled at me and spit right in my face. On pure reflex, I slapped her, and we both collapsed in tears. I was horrified at what I’d done; she was too. I’ve never been anywhere even close to any act of violence in any relationship, before or since, but I do know what it’s like to lose control, and now I know how to turn back from that edge.
Before Nick, only a handful of people in my life had known this story: my wife, whom I’d told when we first started dating, and two other close friends. Shameful as it was, I’d mostly pushed it way out of my mind.
Nick looked up at me and said, “Really?” He didn’t ask me any more questions or seem to need any more details about my personal life. He just leaned closer to me and exhaled so deeply that a different kind of tear fell from his eyes. Rather than hopeless self-hatred and despair, he seemed to have found some kind of relief and hope from my story. Although what he’d done was wrong and unacceptable in any circumstance, I knew heaping more shame on him wasn’t the answer to helping him.
Telling Nick my story was a turning point for our relationship and for his treatment. And, it turns out, for me too. I realized then that there’d been something fundamentally missing in my training—I’d never be able to help the Nicks of the world turn back from the edge of losing control if I couldn’t see the piece of them that existed in myself, as horrifying as that piece may be to the rest of me. Sure, not every man who commits an abusive act is like Nick—some are beyond help, unfortunately. But I saw that a big part of my job with abusers was distinguishing those who were real candidates for finding ways to heal the wounds that led them to abuse and those who were not.
Nick was willing to go on a journey that some abusive men wouldn’t tolerate. Over the next few months, we painstakingly worked to challenge a buried underlying narrative in his life: that he had committed the “imaginary crime” of failing to rescue his mother. All his life, he’d been trying to escape the pain of it. Danielle’s dancing was Nick’s broken mirror, reflecting back to him a picture of himself as guilty of failing to rescue someone he cared for. His terrorizing actions toward her may have looked like a brute exercise of power and control, but it was also an expression of deep and tortured concern run amok.
However indisputably destructive and wrong his behavior, he was trying to do something he’d failed to accomplish as a child—he was determined to do something to rescue the person he loved. Positive motivations, horrible action, nasty consequences. But contrary to what my training dictated, it was not all just about power and control.
As uncomfortable as it was for me to admit what I’d done all those years ago, my choice to get real with Nick softened his sense of shame. He became available in our connection in ways I’d never imagined possible before. Rather than giving him permission to vent his anger and impulsiveness, it increased his capacity to experience genuine remorse and tolerate the pain of examining the imaginary crimes toward his mother he felt guilty of committing.
And I learned a thing or two about getting real with difficult and defensive men, lessons that have been confirmed again and again after much trial-and-error over the decades of working with them. Of course, the decision to self-disclose in a clinical setting is complicated, and there are often many reasons not to, but I learned that the decision to see myself in the man in front of me is the key to making a therapeutic bond possible.
After Nick helped me put aside my impersonal therapist façade, I started more clearly hearing reflections of my own story in those coming from many of the other men I worked with. To be sure, some of the domestic violence offenders absolutely fit the profile of the classic unreachable, untreatable wife-beating scumbag. But what I found, as almost anyone who’s actually had experience with abusive men’s groups will tell you, is that the vast majority of the men did not. By tuning into the hurt, the desperation, the dreams, and dashed hopes, I came to understand their inner worlds in ways that the rigid rules, the stereotypes, and all the oversimplifications of my training had never prepared me to do.
Instead of distancing myself from the men I treated, I found myself going through a different internal process of monitoring my own reactions. Feeling hurt and defensive in a relationship? I’ve been there. Misreading a complaint as a character assault? Been there too. Blowing up in frustration at a child who won’t cooperate? Yep. Engaging in power and control tactics in my relationship? Well, no, not that exactly, but getting triggered to react aggressively? Done that. Of course, I’m not proud of any of it. Even to this day, it’s difficult to admit, but I do because acknowledging is important to my work.
Over the years, as I’ve trained thousands of professionals treating domestic violence offenders, I’ve tried to show the importance of relating to these men (and sometimes women) from some understanding of a shared emotional experience. I often get challenged and have received my share of hate mail: “You’re coddling these abusers and putting more women at risk!” “You’re falling for their sob stories and letting them blame their shitty childhoods for their actions!”
But time after time, both male and female treatment providers, successful in their work with this population, have come to me and said, “I’m so glad to hear you talking like this—I’ve secretly been working this way for years and not telling anybody about it.”
I learned a lot from Nick about the power of recognizing the dark forces that reside not only in our abusive clients, but in those of us who make a career of trying to help them. Rather than denying our own dark side, we need to acknowledge it. How else can we best teach our clients about confronting and controlling theirs?
As cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo said in the 1960s, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I met Nick, and he is me. I’ve never been the same as a therapist, or a man, since.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
David Wexler, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Relationship Training Institute. He’s the author of six books, including When Good Men Behave Badly and Men in Therapy.