This week, I am writing a riff on another article I found powerful and thoughtful - a CNN article titled "Peering inside a batterer's mind - and a victim's soul." Published on January 2, 2015 by Jessica Ravitz, this article surfaced about 11 months after TMZ released the video of Ray Rice beating his girlfriend, Janay Palmer, in a casino elevator. The article reckons with an individual - and unique story of two people's story in a relationship of domestic violence - and the article in itself is very, very unique as well. It is told from the perspective of the abuser - and the victim, tells both their stories and documents how their lives and souls have reckoned and changed from their experiences.
The article immediately grips the reader with an encounter with "Dylan," the former batterer. "He's nothing like I imagined. His demeanor is gentle, his smile and handshake warm, his words friendly and measured."
It's a fundamental theme of the human condition, and something we need to all realize within ourselves and within others. No one is better or worse than anyone. Anyone, no matter how kind, compassionate, or thoughtful, is capable of anything, no matter how cruel or monstrous. I often look to Romans 3:10-12 to see what I believe of the human condition, that we are all imperfect sinners before a God who saved us: "as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." I don't believe in bad people, but only good people who've done terrible things.
Ravitz then questions in the next paragraph: "where is the batterer I've come to meet? 'The man who grabbed, pushed and punched a woman he claimed to love?" She describes, so painfully, in the next sentence, what compelled her to seek out Dylan and why she's writing this article: he is "the one I've enlisted to help me understand: Why do some men do this? How can they be stopped?"
She then describes Dylan as the antithesis of what she expected from a wife-beater: he is Ivy-league educated and raised by loving parents. In exchange for Dylan agreeing to "take me back to a time he'd rather forget," Ravitz agreed to change his name and hide his identity to protect himself and the abused victim. But the story doesn't end with the trauma and abuse: it is also a story of reform, as she also tells of how "some 10 years later, he became a new person, the man he wanted to be."
For Dylan, there were stark similarities with what he saw growing up and how he acted as an adult. His parents argued, and twice, he saw his father push his mother. Another time, he saw a friend he respected striking his girlfriend in a high school parking lot, and both times, no one talked about it. "Love between a man and a woman, as far as he could tell, was allowed to look this way."
Dylan then showed Ravitz the power and control wheel, "tactics a man might use to gain leverage in a relationship." The tactics on the wheel include examples like minimizing, coercion, male privilege, isolation, threats, and economic abuse. The actual implementation of these tactics included things like telling his girlfriend he didn't like her friends (even though he didn't know them) and criticizing how she did her hair and unloaded the dishwasher. In their unique situation, Isabella, Dylan's ex-girlfriend, had a disability and relied on him to get to work. "He didn't forget it…He kept the wheel well-oiled, and it would eventually spin out of control.
Through Dylan, Ravitz got into contact with Isabelle. Like Dylan, she only agreed to speak to Ravitz using a pseudonym. Growing up, she also saw her father verbally abuse her mother and throw things at her. Her mother would eventually leave, but "Isabelle learned early about submission."
From her perspective, she regrets not seeing the warning signs coming. She escaped him on the weekends and went away, and although she couldn't drive, she did just fine before he came along. Isabelle, isolated from loved ones, was "too ashamed to admit how unhappy and worried she was, [and] isolated herself further."
However, she still loved him. "Still, for so long, she hungered for what they had when the relationship was good."
The first time violence happened, Dylan recalls thinking she was cheating when she was up late talking with a male friend. "He ripped up some of her favorite photographs. He called her a bitch and a whore…And then, he unleashed his remaining rage with a punch to her chest." Dylan immediately realized what he'd done and apologized and left to give Isabelle space. Later, in court, he agreed to stay away from her for a year.
As Isabelle recalls it, she hadn't been on the phone on the day of "the incident." Dylan tried to break a vase of flowers over her head, and when Isabelle tried to close a door between them, he punched her in the chest. "The world, she says, fell silent. And then 'the universe said just play dead, and so I did.'"
Dylan, freaked out and appalled, apologized and offered her Advil. "She laughs at the absurdity of that suggestion. As if Advil could make things better?" When a friend later took Isabelle to the hospital, the doctor told her this: "I don't know how you're alive." If the punch were an inch more to the left, the blow to her chest could have killed her.
After being the court date, Dylan sought out ways to change himself. He discovered Men Stopping Violence (MSV), a training program that seeks to help society prevent, understand, and change the norms that create violent men, "and thereby prevent the abuse of women from even starting." Since only a small portion of batters get caught, MSV Executive Director, Ulester Douglas, says that "it's better to engage all men before they abuse." MSV has both prevention and intervention programs to protect women in these situations.
In MSV, Dylan re-shaped his perception of what it meant to be a man, and "he'd owned what he'd done and who he'd become. Only then could he change." Learning techniques to "center himself," he learned to practice a spirit of patience, peace, love, and empathy for others. Today, he works in social justice and dedicates himself to protecting women, and he volunteers with MSV. He's in a healthy relationship now, and calls Isabelle his best friend.
Isabelle, however, wouldn't go that far. Although she sees him as a brother and doesn't believe he would hurt another woman, she states explicitly that "I forgave that day because I choose to forgive…but some of my life got stolen." Dylan has built a successful and inspirational career, but "in some ways, she paid for it. He wouldn't be doing what he's doing, after all, if he hadn't abused her and found his way to Men Stopping Violence." Even though Isabelle has been through therapy, the PTSD still reverberates through her life: she flinches when a man takes her arm, or a man makes a critical comment. In relationships, she still worries that she'll miss the signs, and also wonders if the other person is trying to manipulate her.
"But she also emerged on the other side empowered in new ways. She isn't afraid to stand up for herself. She's strong enough to know she'd rather be alone than mistreated."
When asked why she was willing to share her story, Isabelle had this to say: "she wants women to see their value. She wants to give hope to those in unhealthy or dangerous relationships."
Let's take a moment to stop, and acknowledge how uncommon this sort of radical change is for people. The story of Dylan and Isabelle is just that unique. There are no second acts in life – because the past can never ever be erased. What's done is done, and what we think of reform and radical change is a building and growing from the past. For how could you have reformed so much if you weren't, at some level, deeply ashamed of what you'd done or who you were?
One of the last lines of Ravitz's article is that she "loses sleep wondering if it's too good to be true." Walking through the Dekalb County Courthouse, and observing men arrested for domestic violence misdemeanors, Ravitz stumbles into an afternoon class for the people who have to be there, and "no one is happy to be here. Some are outwardly mad."
At the end of the course, a Ravitz observes a couple light bulbs go off as the men go through exercises. She wonders, at the end, whether "they, like Dylan, [can] give change a chance? Or will they walk the path they've already traveled and abuse again? And, most pressing to me, how many Isabelles will suffer in their wakes?"
The truest answer, three years after this article was published, is that I don't know. No one does. At some level, at least the men are in the class, for the majority of batterers don't get caught. What stuck out to me in this article is that Dylan changed because he wanted to and because Isabelle treated him with hope and forgiveness – and yes, Isabelle paid the price for it.
It haunts and terrifies me that this story is often the best it gets in the narrative of the batterer and his victim – and when I think about what would happen if I met and talked to Isabelle and Dylan, I would know that they're a lot more than victim and batterer. But the fact that they describe these experiences so vividly show that, to some degree, the relationship was a cornerstone moment and turning point for both of their lives – and what we can take away in its wake is that the story didn't end on that Sunday night for either Dylan or Isabelle. Even if we're not in domestically violent relationships, when we're in our own trauma-inducing circumstances – when there seems to be no end in sight – the story doesn't end there, no matter how defining the moment was.