Peering inside a batterer's mind -- and his victim's soul

Story highlights

  • A man who abused with his words and his fist shares how he got there
  • The memories of the abuse differ for his victim, as does the impact
  • He says he's a new man and shows how he evolved into a career protecting women
  • They are friends and she forgives, but she still struggles to trust and love freely

(CNN)He's nothing like I imagined. His demeanor is gentle, his smile and handshake warm, his words friendly and measured. He asks permission before taking a bite of his takeout salad.

Where's the batterer I've come to meet? The man who grabbed, pushed and punched a woman he claimed to love? The one I've enlisted to help me understand: Why do some men do this? How can they be stopped?
"Dylan" is Ivy League-educated, a self-professed nerd who was raised by loving parents with advanced degrees. He grew up in a beautiful home in a tony Atlanta suburb. He enjoyed every privilege a boy could want. He vacationed in places like Cairo, London and Paris before he could even shave.
He defies the stereotypical image of a batterer I have in mind. I'm ashamed of my own naiveté. Lesson one: Just because he had it so good doesn't mean he wasn't capable of becoming brutal.
Dylan has met me after work in a quiet office outside Atlanta. He's asked that I change his name and hide his identity to protect him and his victim. In exchange, he has agreed to take me back to a time he'd rather forget. He will map out how he became an abuser. And how, some 10 years later, he became a new person, the man he wanted to be.
Going inside the mind of a batterer, I'll learn, means examining much more than the images we hold onto. The story of suspended NFL running back Ray Rice, and other abusers, doesn't end with a knock-out punch in an elevator or an attack never seen on video. Nor do these tragedies begin there.
Power and control
Dylan's parents weren't perfect. Neither were friends who he idolized. Not many people are.
Scene one: His mother and father argued. The abuse was verbal, sometimes physical. Twice he watched his father push his mother.
Scene two: He was sitting on a bus in the high school parking lot. He watched out the window as an upperclassman he respected struck his girlfriend. Hard. She was the sort of girl Dylan dreamed of dating someday. He gawked with others as she cowered and bled.
At home and at school, no one talked about what Dylan saw. Love between a man and a woman, as far as he could tell, was allowed to look this way.
Now, in his mid-30s, Dylan has a tool for identifying what he witnessed -- and how he acted himself.
"Have you ever seen the power and control wheel?" he asks me.
I have no idea what this means. He pulls out a sheet with a round diagram.
Understanding scope of intimate partner violence

INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE IN U.S.

Victims of severe physical violence:
1 in 4 women
1 in 7 men

Raped in the course of a lifetime:
1 in 5 women
1 in 59 men

Stalked during a lifetime:
1 in 6 women
1 in 19 men

Source: National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey

It shows tactics a man might use to gain leverage in a relationship, ways he may behave before resorting to physical or sexual violence. These are the less obvious, but insidious, means by which men keep women down. Red flags Dylan couldn't identify back then.
Minimizing. Coercion. Male privilege. At first, the language sounds like over-intellectualized psychobabble. But soon I realize that the wheel represents everything I'd like to caution my nieces about before they go out into the world.
Dylan was in college when he met his first girlfriend. Early on, without even knowing her friends, he told her he didn't like them. Isolation. Controlling who she sees.
When she came to his room later at night than he wanted, he locked the door -- something he never did otherwise -- and made her knock. He took his time answering to remind her who was boss. Male privilege. Acting like the "master of the castle."
Fast forward to after college. He was living with a new girlfriend, "Isabelle," in Atlanta. She might have had the better job, but he was the one who could drive. She has a disability and depended on him to get to work. He didn't let her forget it. Threats. Making her feel guilty. The cloud of economic abuse; she could lose her job.
His boss treated him like an idiot, but Dylan felt he had to take it. Out in the world, it seemed like people walked all over him. So at home, Dylan exerted power in the only place he felt he could. He was making more money by then, he says, and had earned the right to "act like a man." More male privilege. Defining their roles.
He criticized how she did her hair, what she wore, even the way she filled the dishwasher. Emotional abuse. Making her feel small and humiliated.
You see how this works, right? He kept the wheel well-oiled, and it would eventually spin out of control.
Smarter than this
It's one thing to hear his story, but what about hers? Once I learned he was still in touch with Isabelle, I told Dylan I wanted to give voice to her perspective, too. It seemed only fair, I said. He didn't think she'd be interested in talking, but he agreed to reach out to her for me. A week later, Isabelle and I first communicated.
She was eager to speak, but only if I used a pseudonym. She doesn't want her past to define her present or future.
Growing up thousands of miles from Dylan, Isabelle watched her father suppress her mother. He degraded her with his words and threw things to intimidate her. Even though her mother would later find the strength to leave, Isabelle learned early about submission.
Today, she seems self-aware and certainly no pushover as we share chips and salsa in a small Mexican joint. Thinking back to how her relationship with Dylan unfolded, she says she should have seen what was coming.
She'd taken to going away on weekends to escape him. She pleaded with him to move out of her house, but he wouldn't budge. He used her inability to drive against her -- even though she'd managed just fine before he came along.
He isolated her from friends and family. Too ashamed to admit how unhappy and worried she was, she isolated herself further. He put her down in public and made her feel like a child. She was embarrassed. After all, she had a master's degree. She was smarter than this.
Still, for so long, she hungered for what they had when the relationship was good.
"I wanted him to come back to me as I remembered him," she says. "I lived for those moments when he would show up."
When she changed the radio station in the car without asking, he says he gave her a push and yelled about wanting to be respected.
She remembers him pinning her against the door in the moving car and worried that if it opened she'd be a goner.
When she once called him an asshole, he grabbed her arm: "If you want to call me an asshole, I'll show you an asshole," he says.
It was a Sunday morning, when he crossed the line for the last time.
This is how Dylan recalls it: She'd been up late talking on the phone with a male friend, and Dylan decided she was cheating. He ripped up some of her favorite photographs. He called her a bitch and a whore. He took a vase of flowers -- "they were irises," he says, thinking back a decade -- and dumped it over her head. He threatened to break her cell phone. And then, he unleashed his remaining rage with a punch to her chest.
"In that moment," he says, "I realized what I'd done."
He picked up the flowers and poured on the apologies. He left to give her space. He was at his parents' house when the sheriff's deputy drove up and served him a temporary restraining order.
Dylan never fought it. That last punch was a jolt to him, too. He'd assaulted his girlfriend of more than four years on, of all days, Father's Day.
"I will not bring a child into this," he remembers thinking. "I was very clear that I needed to find a new way to move in the world because the way I was moving wasn't working and wasn't healthy."
When he stood before the court, he quickly agreed to stay away from her for a year. He didn't want her to have to sit on a stand and recount all he'd done.
He says he wanted to protect her feelings. But to be honest, Dylan didn't want to hear it.
'Lucky to be alive'
The story she tells is less sanitized and more haunting. Isabelle says on the day of "the incident," she thought she'd die.
She hadn't been on the phone late at night, as he remembers it. No, she'd escaped to a hotel to crash with visiting friends and had stayed up late with them.
Back home that Sunday morning, Isabelle was jolted awake from a nap when he grabbed her. "He called me a whore," she says, and began "ragdolling me around the house."
That vase of flowers he spilled over her? He intended to break it over her head, she believes, but she was able to push his arm away. He tried to snap her cell phone in two and asked her which half she'd want.
She tried to close a door between them, which only enraged him further: "Never shut the door on me!" Then came that punch to her chest, which sent her 5-foot-4, 110-pound frame flying into a heap of laundry on the floor.
The world, she says, fell silent. And then "the universe said just play dead, and so I did."
He was sufficiently freaked out and backed off long enough for her to crawl into the bathroom and lock herself inside.
He peppered her with apologies through the door. He offered her Advil. She laughs at the absurdity of that suggestion. As if Advil could make things better?
"You need to leave," she says she told him. "And I suggest you take an overnight bag."
She's grateful there was no weapon in the house.
A friend came over to help her. She called a locksmith to change the locks before she left the house. She wore a turtleneck to hide the growing bruises. She pretended she was OK. But in the restaurant where the two friends went, Isabelle could barely breathe.
Her friend took her to the hospital, where "the doctor said, 'I don't know how you're alive.' " One inch to the left, she was told, and the direct blow to her chest could have killed her.
"I'm very lucky," she says. "I have angels on my shoulders."
Owning what he'd done
Dylan promised the court he'd stay away. No contact. No phone calls. No showing up at her door. He paid restitution, covering some expenses such as the cost of changing the locks in her house.
He then set out to change himself.
He camped out in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. He armed himself with books, including "Anger Management for Dummies."
When books could only take him so far, he sought out more and came across Men Stopping Violence, a national training institute committed to creating safer communities for women and girls.
The 32-year-old organization conducts trainings in churches, corporations, community groups, government agencies and schools. The primary aim is prevention, to help society understand and change the social norms that create violent men -- and thereby prevent the abuse of women from even starting.
Only a small fraction of batterers get busted, explains MSV Executive Director Ulester Douglas. It's better to engage all men before they abuse -- whether they are black, white, rich, poor, young or old.
"If we rely only on intervention, we miss the mark," Douglas says. "Prevention is what we need, and this must be a systemic approach."
But there is an intervention arm of MSV, and Dylan signed up for its 24-week educational course to learn alternatives to controlling and abusive behavior.
The Atlanta-area course, which teaches about 220 men a year, draws those who've been sent under court order and men, like Dylan, who self-enroll -- oftentimes because they feel they have too much to lose. Maybe a wife has threatened to leave unless they get help. Or protective services has required their attendance before they can see their children again.
Dylan learned to let go of his definition of manhood, the image society drills into boys. It says tears are for sissies, vulnerability is a sign of weakness. It teaches that the only manly emotions are anger and rage.
He owned what he'd done and who he'd become. Only then could he change.
He found out how to be intentional and thoughtful. He became versed in what Men Stopping Violence calls "The Arc of Choice," a path lined with "speed bumps" to stop knee-jerk attacks -- verbal or otherwise. He learned to take deep breaths and think about his choices. He learned to honor his true emotions and not hide behind others. He learned to listen to his body and catch himself before acting. He learned to, as he put it, "center myself in a spirit of patience, respect, peace, love and empathy for what the other person is feeling."
'It has to be hopeful'
Today Dylan sees himself as a better man. He went on to work in the field of social justice, dedicating his time to the protection of women. And he volunteers with Men Stopping Violence.
He says he's had healthy relationships and is in one now.
He calls Isabelle his best friend.
That gives her pause. She cares for him deeply, sees him as a sort of brother and believes that he's grown and changed. She doesn't believe for a second that he would hurt another woman. But best friend? Sometimes she feels that way; other times she struggles to go that far.
Do you need help?

Learn more about...
Men Stopping Violence

Other resources for those in abusive relationships:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline:
1-800-799-7233

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Network to End Domestic Violence

"I forgave that day because I choose to forgive," she says. "But some of my life got stolen."
She's proud of his success, the career he's built, but knows -- 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.
For her, the ripple effects still linger. Call it PTSD.
If a man takes her arm unexpectedly, she flinches. A critical comment, no matter how small, can set her back to a different time. A scream, even at a television during a football game, might leave her rattled.
While he can cut out the ugly details of the past, she doesn't feel she can. This old relationship still shapes how she relates to men, no matter all the therapy she's had.
Her radar is on for bad things to come, and sometimes she worries that she'll miss the signs. When a man says something nice to her, she may wonder if she's being manipulated. She doesn't love as freely.
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.
Isabelle is only willing to share her part of the journey because she wants women to see their value. She wants to give hope to those in unhealthy or dangerous relationships.
"I want our story to encourage women to get out -- and men to get help," she says. "It has to be hopeful. Otherwise I'd rather keep this chapter in the past."
She knows there are those who can't understand the friendship she's built with Dylan. Cutting ties, though, isn't easy when there's history.
Isabelle will be the first to admit that letting Dylan into her life was a gamble. But she chooses to see the good in him. And she knows he's unusual.
He's taken responsibility. He's accountable. He is so in tune with the patterns of men that she benefits from his advice. "It's like getting counseling without paying for it," she says. And she's not afraid to dole out her own feedback to keep him in line.
"I found my voice," she says, "and he learned to listen."
Glimmer of understanding
The story of Dylan and Isabelle moves me. It also terrifies me.
They are beyond unique; that's clear. I mean, how many men who've battered really go on to build a career dedicated to protecting women? How many women who've been abused can safely befriend their abuser?
I lose sleep wondering if it's too good to be true.
It's a Friday afternoon when I stroll in to the DeKalb County Courthouse for a reality check. Around me are men who've recently been arrested for misdemeanor charges related to domestic violence.
They are only here because the court made them show up at this afternoon class as a condition for bond. No one is happy to be here. Some are outwardly mad.
What about when you've got a woman beating on you?
What if a girl likes it and puts up with it?
I don't like the idea of getting locked up for something I didn't do. What if she wanted to get me in trouble and knew if she called the cops the system would be on her side?
These questions are tossed at the facilitators of "Tactics & Choices," offered by Men Stopping Violence. They have a little more than three hours to engage men, shift thinking and, hopefully, protect women. If they're lucky, some of these men will later land in their 24-week course, the type that helped Dylan.
"I know we don't live with angels. I know we don't live with saints," a teacher says. "But the only person in the world I can control is myself."
The conversation is steered toward the importance of building partnerships based on respect and equality. Men are reminded that if a relationship isn't healthy for them, they should get out. This talk about equality, though, doesn't fly with everyone.
If I make more money, then I have the last word.
We are designed to fill certain roles in relationships. It's biblical.
Why is man's role being so feminized? In a minute, we're all going to be wearing dresses.
I want to learn how to be successful in a relationship without being sensitive.
"I want you to hear this: The world is changing," warns an instructor. "Begin to change your thinking, renew your mind, grow into a new possibility."
During the last hour of the course, as instructors guide the men through exercises, I see a few light bulbs go off -- but I wonder, once they leave the room and return to their environments, will the glimmer of understanding fade?
Can they, like Dylan, 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?