She’s running for her life from the man she loves. She’s just locked the bathroom door when he slams his fist into it, breaking some of the bones in his hands. He damns her to hell for making him do it. Then he slumps against the door and breaks into tears. She crouches on the other side of the door listening to his sobs. Who, she wonders, is this man?
For some, the first, last and only answer is a batterer. But Michael Groetsch, a senior parole officer from Louisiana and the author of a provocative new book which categorizes batterers, thinks it’s more complicated than that.
Whether or not they buy into his theories, local experts agree that it’s important to keep the issue of battering in plain sight.
And with good reason. Last year, according to the Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium, 24 percent of the total number of homicides in Spokane were domestic violence-related. Thirty-three percent of the assault cases treated at Sacred Heart Medical Center were domestic violence-related. Some 6,412 incidents of domestic violence were reported, and 3,241 arrests were made.
Who is committing these crimes? Groestch says the perpetrators can and should be categorized.
“There are three categories of batterers,” says Groetsch, who wrote “He Promised He’d Stop: Helping Women Find Safe Passage for Abusive Relationships” (CPI Publishing, $14.95). The categories are remorseful, sporadic and serial.
Groetsch developed these profiles from interviews with over 25,000 batterers and their victims over a 20-year period. The categories make up the Batterers Continuum, a diagnostic tool created by Groetsch to help victims and professionals make better choices when dealing with batterers.
At one end of Groetsch’s continuum is the remorseful batterer, “a normal man in abnormal circumstances.” These circumstances are external. He has no prior history of violence and the incident is isolated. He often seeks treatment voluntarily. “The remorseful batterer,” says Groetsch, “can change.”
The serial batterer, according to Groetsch, cannot. At the other end of the continuum, his violence is an expression of a severe personality disorder that prevents him from ever bonding with others. He enters treatment only by court order and only in order to manipulate his victim back into the relationship or to get her to drop charges against him. His violence is ongoing, systematic and premeditated. “He is the most likely to murder his victim,” says Groetsch.
Groetsch says most batterers fall between the two extremes. On the continuum, these men are defined as “sporadic batterers.” Groetsch says the violence of the sporadic batterer is neither ongoing nor rare. His violence is triggered by both internal and external circumstances. He doesn’t usually have the severe personality problems of the serial batterer, but does have a consistent pattern of violence.
This pattern can often escalate into serial battering. He will generally comply with a court-ordered treatment program. Even so, says Groetsch, “he may or may not be capable of change.”
Given the vast and unpredictable territory that batterers and their victims inhabit, is it useful or even possible to categorize them?
“A batterer is a batterer,” says Denise Brown, domestic violence activist and sister of this country’s most recognizable victim, Nicole Brown Simpson. In October, Brown spoke as part of Domestic Violence month in Spokane. “It doesn’t matter if he hits you lightly or he hits you hard. If he hits you once, unless he gets help, he’s going to hit you again.”
Nate Sitton, a counselor at the YWCA’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence program, agrees. “A batterer can kill at any level of categorization,” says Sitton. “The issue isn’t whether they are remorseful or have a personality disorder. The issue is power and control. And there is never an excuse for violence.”
Amy Blair, lead counselor of the Y’s program, says she has never seen a one-time offender, what Groetsch refers to as the remorseful batterer. “By the time they come to us, the cycle has been going on for a lengthy period of time,” says Blair. “I’m not even sure that it’s a valid category since remorse is just part of the honeymoon phase in the cycle of violence.”
The honeymoon phase refers to the time frame immediately after a battering incident. Batterers tend to cry, apologize profusely, and lure victims back with gifts, flowers, or manipulative promises. Typically, the next battering incident is even more severe.
Brown, who has not read Groetsch’s book, does not subscribe to the theory of categorization. “You can’t categorize people,” she says. “And in the moment of violence, the victim has no ability to discern or make decisions. A victim is a victim, a batterer is a batterer. Both are human beings who need help.”
Groetsch says this kind of “naive thinking” is just an example of “good people giving bad advice.” He cites other examples.
“A lot of professionals in the domestic violence field have gotten into a passive collusion with batterers,” says Groetsch. “They do it unwittingly, but they do it. Therapists do it primarily by promoting the theory that every batterer is treatable, that violence is a learned behavior that can be unlearned. But you can’t unlearn psychopathology, and the serial batterer is no different than a serial killer or a serial rapist.”
Therapists colluding with serial batterers?
“That would be very hard for me to agree with,” says Herb Robinson, supervisor of Tapio Counseling’s Washington State Certified Perpetrator Treatment Program. “Everything we do in treatment is aimed at getting the man to recognize that his violence is inexcusable.” Robinson has treated more than 600 perpetrators of violent crimes, sexual abusers and their victims.
“Theoretically, some people probably are unreachable. But our stance is that violence is not only a psychological issue, it’s not only a family issue, it’s not only a sociological issue. It’s primarily a crime.”
But are a portion of batterers really untreatable, the same as serial rapists or serial killers?
Unfortunately, yes, say Blair and Sitton. “Their psychopathology is so ingrained that they cannot see that the problem is theirs,” says Blair. “In their minds, it’s always, always the victim’s fault.” Still, they say, the majority of batterers do not fall into the serial category.
“People aren’t born perpetrators or victims,” says Blair. “It’s what they see and learn.”
“Our approach to treating domestic violence,” says Sitton, “is that it’s a learned behavior. And yes, if it’s learned it can be unlearned. We can teach men skills to treat women with respect and on equal ground.”
Domestic violence, according to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth, Minn., is not just about physical violence. It’s also about economic abuse, isolation, emotional abuse, and using a skewed sense of male privilege, a “master of the castle” mentality to manipulate and control. All of this can occur before a single blow is struck. And all of it is part of the cycle of domestic violence.
“The bottom line issues are power and control,” says Jennifer Pearson Stapleton, Executive Director of the Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium. “Anger management was the first step in treating abusers and it is still used extensively. But many perpetrators are not angry when they abuse. If we only give them anger management training, we just give them the tools to be better perpetrators. Our first priority is the victim’s safety. Our second is that the perpetrator be held accountable. Otherwise, he’ll just get another victim.”
And yes, she says, “some of our trainers would not say that everyone is treatable. Some are just not amenable to treatment.’
Still, some contend that treatment should be offered. “How can you treat domestic violence,” asks Denise Brown, “if you don’t treat the men who are doing it? Lots of these men weren’t allowed to have any emotions as children. A person has to be able to release emotions. If they don’t, they lash out at others. These men need programs. They need help.”
Maybe, says Groetsch. But a lot of them need prison. While many would argue that the penal system does nothing to help batterers, Groetsch says the “jail isn’t there to help the criminal, it’s there to protect his victim.”
Groetsch applies his continuum to treatment in this way: “A Level One Batterer (remorseful) should receive treatment. His prognosis is good. A Level Two Batterer (sporadic) should be recommended to treatment only if he is extremely remorseful and highly motivated to change. Otherwise, he should go to jail. His prognosis is guarded. A Level Three Batterer should be prosecuted and incarcerated. His prognosis for rehabilitation is non-existent.”
While Robinson says that Groetsch’s continuum is basically sound, he adds that “I don’t keep people out of treatment just because I think they may be out on that far end of the pathological continuum.”
“It’s OK to categorize,” says Robinson. “But we have to keep the categories soft. Who knows, really, who can be reached by whom? It is my belief that no matter how damaged a person is, there is still that life force, still that hope. There aren’t any absolute descriptions of people.”
“Diagnosing the external reasons why a man batters” says Robinson, “is a whole different world than taking that man’s hand and seeing if you can lead him out of the minefield. Lots of programs for batterers are autocratic. They use power and control to stop the batterer’s power and control.
“But there’s another side of treatment. Something profound happens when a person really attends to these men. They see a different way of being in the world. In seeing it, they can then share it. Our goal is to become a consortium of men who are part of the solution instead of part of the problem. A person has to become, at least minimally, a political activist. Until you become that, you’ve missed the point.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CALL FOR HELP If you or someone you love is a victim of domestic violence, help is available. In Spokane, call the YWCA’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence’s 24-hour crisis line at 326-2255. In Coeur d’Alene, call the Women’s Center at (208) 664-9303 or (208) 664-1443. Both lines are open 24 hours a day. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also staffed 24 hours a day by trained counselors. Call (800) 799-SAFE (7233). RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network hotline number is (800) 656-HOPE (4673) Press 1 to be automatically transferred to the rape crisis center nearest you. For information on perpetrator treatment programs, call Tapio Counseling at 534-5028. For more information on the issue of domestic violence, call the Spokane County Domestic Violence Consortium at 487-6783. To order “He Promised He’d Stop: Helping Women Find Safe Passage From Abusive Relationships” call Upper Access Books at (800) 356-9315.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.