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


    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."