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Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Scott Miller, system coordinator of The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minnesota; Robert King, a former offender and participant in the program; and Melissa Scaia, Executive Director of Advocates for Family Peace in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Carol Boss: Scott Miller with The Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth, are many of the men that are in the non-violence program court-ordered to do so?
Scott Miller: Most are, yes. Most are ordered through criminal courts, some are ordered through the civil court process, orders of protections get issued and sometimes will order men to the program and then about 10% of the men in our program are volunteers.
Boss: So do you have to deal with, at the beginning, resistance from a good number of them just because of the fact that they have to be there?
Miller: Well yeah. The orientation class is made up of six or eight men and it’s their first time there. They think they’re victims of the system, that they don’t belong there, that everything she says is a lie and that they have nothing to learn. All of that is there. Really the challenge to it starts right when they walk into the door. I walk over, shake their hands, welcome them, tell them that we’re going to meet in this room down the hall, there’s coffee in the room and, if they want it, can really model something alternative.
They’ve come through the criminal justice system, which is really focused on a particular incident, and they’ve been fighting this whole time to prove that they are innocent of that particular incident. We’re more interested in what the context of their lives has been in that home with their family. We’re not going to talk about that incident on the first day. We’re not going to even go there because they’re too used to fighting that in the courts. “Tell me: what are the things that you do in your relationship with a woman that make it not go so well.” That’s the question and then they get to pick the problem they want to identify and we start there. By the time that one hour of conversation is done, most of the guys in there see that they have something, even if it’s a little thing, to learn that might help them.
Boss: So, Robert King, that program consists of 27 or 28 –
Robert King: Twenty-seven groups, 27 sessions,  weeks.
Boss: So what was the first one like for you? You came walking in resisting. It sounds like you probably did not have positive expectations for it.
King: No because 90% of the guys there are court-ordered meaning you’re mandated by your probation officer to go through the course. It’s kind of a scenario to addict; if you’re forced into getting help, it’s like you’re not going to help yourself unless you want the help, but then after a few classes, I just sat back and listened and reflected on my own life and my own behaviors and realizing and thinking about that what Scott Miller and the other people were saying made sense and made me look at myself and realize how much of a shallow life that I’ve lived and how much of an ass I really was.
Boss: When did that happen? Do you remember when in the program [that happened]? It sounds like it wouldn’t have been the first group meeting.
King: It was the fourth or fifth group.
Boss: And what happened in the group? What had been happening in the group those weeks before or that fourth or fifth meeting that something changed for you?
King: I thought they were full of [expletive] trying to tell me that I was abusive, that I was this controlling manipulating prick. I didn’t want to admit to anything as to how I was as to what got me into that program even though it was in black and white as to the charges and what happened. I sit in the group now and I listen to other guys’ stories and they all want to say, “All I did was push her and I’m here.” Well, okay, you still have an abusive behavior that led to the pattern of you ending up here, so you are abusive.
Boss: Was there a moment or a story or a particular point that Scott Miller, who has been leading these groups, really had an impact? Was there one of those moments that just went straight to your heart?
King: When Scott started his story with me. When Scott shared with the group how he was abused, how he was not afraid to tell what happened to him, it made me step back and be like wow, this is the perfect stranger that I’ve never known speaking out and openly sharing his story of what happened to him. I wouldn’t say exactly from that moment on, but pretty dang close is when I realized that I’m going to get a lot out of sharing rather than sitting there with my mouth closed and trying to convince everybody else that I’m not abusive.
Boss: Melissa Scaia, Advocates for Family Peace has developed an intervention program for women. So this program for women uses the Duluth Model. Can you tell us what some of the elements of that program are?
Scaia: Battered women were essentially getting arrested. What we knew was that a lot of women who were being battered were using legal and illegal force in response to being oppressed, dominated and battered.
We worked with the criminal justice response and the Duluth Model. Part of that are groups or classes, men’s own violence classes. We wanted to take that model and work with the women who are not using oppressive violence, but resistive violence, resisting to the oppression that they are experiencing and develop a different group model for that.
One of the founders of the Duluth Model, Ellen Pence, worked with me and another of our staff members, Laura Connolly, to develop an intervention called Turning Points, a non-violence curriculum for women. We wanted to develop a model that looked at the resistant violence. How is it that you end the violence that women are experiencing as well as the violence they’re using? Anybody living in a battered situation, or most people, at some point will resist it with some use of violence and so we have to take up the contextual nature of that violence.
Ellen and Laura and I started with interviewing battered women who were getting arrested and doing focus groups with women who were getting arrested to find out what was their lived experience and then the curriculum and the work came from that.
Part of the notion of the Duluth Model is that you always start with the “live lives” of the people who are experiencing the violence, so we took that theory and notion and then developed this piece of work, “Turning Points: A Non-Violence Curriculum for Women” to really think about and utilize a process. Part of that had to be with the criminal justice system; what is justice? That was a key question that Mary Asmus from the City of Duluth Attorney’s Office looked at; what is justice in a case in which a battered woman is using violence from a resistive place as opposed to an oppressive place. That started the grounding of our work.
Boss: I read the objectives of this intervention program for women and one of them is to help women step back from the immediacy of their situations to see the bigger picture. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what that looks like?
Scaia: Right. Part of it is that when you’re living in battering, every little thing that you’re experiencing, because it’s so oppressive, you don’t get the experience of being reflective about it.
When you’re doing a group for women who are arrested, you’re going to have women who are actually still living in the battering situation. I’m thinking about the last group of women we just had. The woman said, “Do you mind if I tell my partner this group is actually two hours long instead of 90 minutes long because it’s the only two hours in my week in which I get a reflective place of non-oppression and non-violence because I still live in it, but I’m court-ordered to come to this group.” Anytime [these] women come together, they’re part of a reflective process to understand the bigger forces in their lives in terms of the violence.
For example, we had a number of women in this last group come in and say, “You know, I’m just as violent as he is. He tells me it, he reminds me of it every time I use violence. What I’m learning here in this group is that the experience of my battering and really just resisting it (and that I know myself and outside of this battering relationship I would never be violent), is part of just the living and the surviving of it every day. This group gives me that time and space of reflection that I wouldn’t otherwise have in my life.”
Boss: Scott, point out the difference between the focus of this program and that of others which work with abusers.
Miller: One of the differences is what Melissa was referring to in that we don’t impose our notions on the men. So we’re not trying to teach them our notions of respect, we’re trying to understand theirs, share ours and see where it is they want to go. There is a deep belief that the program has that the liberation from this violence is in them. It’s our work to help them see their possibilities.
The last class last week, the men said that, “This is a violent world.” One of the guys actually said, “I use violence for peace. I use violence to keep the peace.”
Really they couldn’t imagine non-violence. As we begin to ask them questions about the caring things that they do in their lives, we can say, “That sounds like non-violence to me.” If you can’t see it, if you can’t identify something, it’s really hard to build on it.
Over the course of time, over the course of 27 of these classes, the men really develop a different understanding of themselves as men and the possibilities there are to live non-violently with their children and the woman that they care about.
Boss: It sounds like they get a whole new understanding of what peace really is.
Miller: Oh yeah. Interestingly, and this has come up a number of times over the years, icons of peace like Martin Luther King or Gandhi will come up and the men will say, “But they lost.” That’s what one of the guys last week said. “They’re dead. They ended up dead.” Their definition of it was if you don’t use violence against somebody else, if you don’t overpower them, then you will pay the price and the price is death. We really talked about, “Was that their goal, to live forever? What was the most important thing for them (in this particular case, men) to accomplish? What were they trying to do and achieve?” There is a selflessness that comes from them that challenges this notion that violence deserves a violent response. There is another way to go about this. We’re opening up the idea of possibility to these men that they have a hard time wrapping their heads around.
Melissa: Part of work, in terms of building off of what Duluth was doing, is that we wanted to look at men who batter as fathers in particular and addressing fatherhood with them. One of the experiences a woman came to tell us was talking about a time where she was sitting at the coffee table or the small dining room table with her son doing math homework and her partner, the father of her son who was about ten years old were doing math and he came in and abruptly said to the son, (let’s say his name was Johnny) “Johnny, what are you doing with your mother?” And he said, “Well, Mom is helping me with math homework.” And so the dad then picked up the math book and he hit the mom upside of the head with it, hit the kitchen table and her head popped up because he hit the back of her head so hard with that math book. The woman said, “The first sight I saw was my son’s face,” she said, “and my son lost respect for me in that moment.” After the father, her husband had done that, he said, “Your mother can’t even balance the checkbook. Don’t do math homework with your mother. She is stupid.”
That’s the level of what we’re talking about in terms of battering and so when we look at safety, we’re looking at it in this broader way of how, when men who batter, their violence impacts the children directly, but also literally puts a wedge between the relationship of women and their children, mothers and their children.
When we think about what is our work in terms of safety, that’s the level of what we’re looking at. That’s the level of violence and battering that is being done in terms of destroying relationships. There is very much intent to create this wedge in between mothers and their children.
Boss: What are the signs of an abusive relationship, a few key things that someone who is being abused should recognize?
Scaia: When we talk with battered women, when we think about our own life stories. Part of what we begin to realize is that it becomes a slow takeover of what we think, what we say and what we want. Part of it is to begin to see how much of what we want, what we have to say becomes important or relevant or how much of what we say or think is taken down or dismissed in terms of the relationship.
A way to think about it is that a lot of people ask the question: “Why doesn’t she just leave.” Part of it is because if men who batter, let’s say in the first three dates, start calling names, using physical violence, trying to force sex, it would be quite easy to leave in the first three days. We’re not emotionally attached, we don’t have children, our money isn’t attached, we don’t have a legal bond such as marriage and so it really is an intentional way to lure women in and take over their lives. We have to begin to look at very early on, some of the small signs (because they’re not always really big and obvious).
Miller: I actually ask that question in the men’s group because it really opens up a fascinating reality about how they go about getting her. The question is: “How would you describe meeting your partner and being in a relationship?” “I saw her at gathering at a park and she was funny and she was laughing and I just thought she was attractive and I wanted to be with her.” “What did you do?” “Well, I went over and talked to her.” I said, “How did you talk to her?” “Well, what do you mean?” “Well, did you listen? Did you do things she wanted to do? Did you find what she had to say funny or interesting?” “Oh yeah, yeah.”
As men, they talk about how they do it now in their relationships, but why did they do it that way then and not that way now? They say, “That’s really when you’re trying to get her.” “Well, talk about ‘getting her.’ What does that mean?” “Well, you want her to be with you, so you kind of listen to her and you do what she wants and you don’t mind her friends and you go to places she wants to go to until you know you got her.” I said, “Well, how do you know when you have her?” One guys said, “When she moves in with me out into the country and there’s one car.” Another guys said, “When she’s pregnant.” Another guys said, “Our wedding night is the first time I beat her.”
So they all had this notion about when she’s theirs. Then I said, “Why does the behavior change once you know she’s yours and you got her?” “Because now she’s going to know who I really am. None of this other crap about having to listen to her and do the kinds of things she wants and put up with her stupid friends. Now she’s with me and she’s mine. Now she’s going to learn how I am.”
So there’s this whole idea and it really became apparent that what these men were talking about was really a task. It wasn’t about that kind of courtship that we would normally think of, it’s like a task. They need to get her, this is how they’re going to do it and once they have her and she is theirs and she is locked into them in the ways that Melissa talked about, then she is going to know who they really are and she is going to have to live with it.
Scaia: And then often what will happen is women will say, “But I know he can be different because he was different in the beginning.” Part of our work as advocates is to say, “But is that who he really was or is this who he really is now?” Often times we’ll find that women are socialization; the romanticizing of the world and relationships gets them attached to who he was in the beginning and our task as advocates is to pose that question; “Is that who he really was or is this who he really is?”
Part of the fascinating stuff we learn in doing this work is that these men can be nice in relationships. It’s what she fell in love with, so it’s not like they’re without the ability or without the skill. It’s really about what the men believe about women and what a man gets to do in a relationship with a woman. Once the man knows he has her, now he’s going to be who he really is, which is what he believes.
Boss: Scott, the men are telling you the two sides of it. Do they get how chilling it sounds?
Miller: I think that if there is anything that the men in group struggle with fully appreciating it’s how dehumanizing it is and the impact of that on the women. I think they really struggle with emotionally connecting to how bad it is and has been for her.
In other words, when we’re working with men in group, we not only talk about what they’re doing, but we’re talking about what society validates for them in regards to treating women as objects. They have to see the link otherwise they can’t critically be aware of all the messages that we men get in our communities. They have to see it and we have to see it in order to be effective in this work.
Boss: Robert King, you’re talking right now about your wife (whom he said was struggling with substance abuse and whom they hadn’t heard from in a week). It’s a difficult situation and there are a lot of sad feelings, so if we just put that aside for a moment, if you look at where you were in life a few years ago in the relationship you were in with your wife and where you are right now in terms of your relationship with your children and the relationship you have been trying to grow with your wife, do you feel how far you have come; the major steps that you have taken?
King: I think it’s been groundbreaking. It’s like putting the first man on the moon. That’s how I look at it. It’s monumental for me to change the way that I have because the only path that I was heading down was the continuous destructive road.
I’m thankful that things happened the way that they did. I’m very thankful that I got help in the AIP. I’m very thankful for Carlton County for actually pressing charges on me and making me face the music.
I wouldn’t say 100% mission accomplished, but I’ve been able to live with myself. I’ve been able to look at myself in the mirror. I’ve been able to hold my head high. I’ve been able to reflect a lot of my life and live my life for my children.
Boss: What motivates you to be public about your process? Just talking to us and making yourself available to the media seems like a big step.
King: I think it’s important that people hear people’s real stories and not some sugar-coated bull [expletive] where people aren’t going to believe it’s real. I have nothing to hide. If somebody can get something out of hearing someone who was truly abusive and owns it and can acknowledge it and can talk about, if they can get something out of listening to what I’m saying, then mission accomplished. I don’t look for nothing in return. I don’t expect nothing to come back out of this. I just want to try to educate some people into realizing, (especially across Indian Country because we’re in first place as far as domestic abuse) that there needs to be more awareness, there needs to be more advocates on reservations so that there is not so much abuse going on. Women should not have to turn their cheeks and just brush it off like it’s everyday life because it’s not everyday life. No one deserves to be put in a corner or held down to the point to where they fear for their life or pee their pants because they’re scared of you and don’t want to say nothing to you because of how you might react. No woman should have to be put in that situation.