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Monday, September 16, 2013

Psychologist: Some Domestic Abusers Want To Change — And Can

David Adams, co-founder and co-director of Emerge, has about three decades of experience working with perpetrators of domestic violence. (Emerge)

David Adams, co-founder and co-director of Emerge, has about three decades of experience working with perpetrators of domestic violence. (Emerge)

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Psychologist David Adams has made it his life’s work to help abusers change their violent behavior.

In 1977, Adams and a group of friends founded Emerge, the first education program in the United States for perpetrators of domestic violence.

“What we had in common was that we were friends of women who had started the first battered women’s hotlines or shelters in the Boston area, and they had been getting calls in their hotlines from men asking for help for themselves, and the women who were working for these battered women’s programs did not feel it was their mission to really help the abuser,” Adams told Here & Now.

“Why shouldn’t we expect the person who is causing the problem to take responsibility?”

So these 10 men, ranging from social workers to cab drivers, decided to take on the task and created a program to help the men who were willing to admit they had a problem abusing the women in their lives.

“We loved the idea — the whole idea of, why should the burden of change be on the victim, to disrupt her life and her children’s lives? Why shouldn’t we expect the person who is causing the problem to take responsibility?”

Some men who attend Emerge’s 40-week program are court-ordered to be there. However, “some of them are coming on their own accord and so, fortunately, I think it’s a good sign there’s a higher proportion of those men now too,” Adams said.

The men attend eight different classes that includes lessons such as “what is violence?”

Adams says the lessons help the men understand that even if they are not physically harming their partners, they may still be committing some form of domestic violence.

“Our definition of violence is anything that places someone in fear,” he said.

Adams says the long-term goal of the program is to help the men develop a sense of empathy. They may not get the most desired result the first time they go through the program, he said, but the seeds of change and understanding are planted.


  • David Adams, co-director of Emerge, the first abuser education program in the United States.



Well, we're going to spend a few minutes now on domestic violence. It's hard to believe that in the 1960s and '70s, scholarly studies blamed women for causing the abuse against them. Today there are shelters, support groups, crisis teams, new thinking about calculating how much a woman is at risk to try to prevent homicides and new thinking about treating abusers.

Yes, women can be abusers, but the preponderance are men, and many are now attending batterer intervention programs. The first one, Emerge, was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1977. It's led to over 1,500 across the country, and the thinking is that abusers can change.

David Adams is one of the founders and co-directors of Emerge, and David, you know, when there is a homicide, it's easy to see that someone is a batterer. But before that, it's harder. You say the reaction is usually gee, he seemed like such a nice guy.

DAVID ADAMS: That really reflects kind of the larger problem with abusers in general, which is the single I think most surprising characteristic is that they are not easy to identify, you know, that most abusers really lead a double life. And I would go so far as to say that many abusers are more likeable than their victims, and I think the reason is that they're charming, but also I think domestic violence affects victims more than it affects abusers.

So, you know, abusers don't lose their friends like victims do. They don't lose their jobs like victims do.

YOUNG: Because victims are keeping secrets and hiding bruises and...

ADAMS: That's right, they don't lose their sleep like victims do. You know, so they don't - they kind of just really go on their way. And because they externalize, you know, so much, they don't sort of suffer the consequences as much as victims do.

YOUNG: Well, I'm hearing you say victims are literally beaten down.

ADAMS: Yes, yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah, and so if you don't know why, they're not very appealing. Well, fascinating. Although you do say that about a quarter of the men you're talking about do fit a stereotype of hotheaded and...

ADAMS: That's right. I mean, there's just enough of those that that's what we keep looking for. So we keep looking for those guys, you know, those guys that come across as hotheads. And like I said, there's just enough that, you know, that it's perpetuated, the myth.

YOUNG: Some other factors, you say they just don't think that what they are doing is a problem, and if it's a problem, it's not theirs, it's caused by someone else.

ADAMS: That's right. They externalize. They blame, you know, others. They actually think of themselves as victims. So the average abuser, he thinks of himself as a victim, you know, and that's what makes him so convincing, I think, in manipulating other people because his head is full of things that have been done to him.

You know, part of what we try to do in our program is really kind of educate them about how their behavior actually impacts their victim. And yet in their minds, usually at the beginning it's all turned around. You know, one of the common complaints of many of our clients is she's never happy. You know, she's always complaining. You know, and we're trying to get them to see that, well, you know, the very things you're complaining about are actually the direct result of your abusive behavior.

YOUNG: So given that they don't even think that what they're doing is wrong, just like those early studies, when I read those, my blood ran cold, reading in the '60s and '70s these scholarly studies that pretty much concluded that the problem with battering was the women, that they were provoking it because they weren't happy, or they were irritating the men.

ADAMS: That's right.

YOUNG: That's just a few decades ago.

ADAMS: That's right, yeah, that's right.

YOUNG: Which means that the batterers today, in a lot of cases, grew up with battering that was "OK."

ADAMS: Yes, yes, in fact, you know, we have seen many sons of the men who originally - and we're actually starting to see the grandsons of some of the men who originally attended our program in the '70s.

YOUNG: Well, I want to hear more about that because they're attending even though their fathers and grandfathers attended. Presumably that would have broken a chain, but it didn't. So I want to hear about that. But what happens in the program, and how do people get in? You're still getting people who call you and ask to be let in.

ADAMS: So we were 10 men. What we had in common was that we were friends of women who had started the first battered women's hotlines or shelters in the Boston area. And they had been getting calls in their hotlines from men asking for help for themselves. And the women who were working for these battered women's programs didn't feel it was their mission to really help the abuser, and so they asked us, you know, as a group of men that they knew whether we would be interested in taking this on as an issue.

And we were social workers, some of us. There was one teacher. There was one community organizer. There was one cab driver. And so we really kind of loved the idea, the whole idea of why should the burden of change be on the victim to disrupt her life and her children's lives. Why shouldn't we expect the person who's causing the problem to take responsibility?

YOUNG: One answer might be that it's too risky. You know, if the woman physically moves and disrupts her life, at least she's safer. You know, people would say it's riskier to ask the man to change and believe that he does. So - but still you started thinking that he can change based on what?

ADAMS: Well, I mean, some of the men are court-ordered, and so there have been many changes in the laws, you know, since the '70s. And so the courts now, when somebody is convicted of domestic violence, they can and should be, as part of their probation agreement, be mandated into a program like ours. And so that's how a lot of the men come to us.

Some of them are voluntary. Some of them are actually coming on their own accord. And so fortunately, you know, and I think it's a good sign, there's a higher proportion of those men now, too.

YOUNG: Well, that's what you base your premise on, that more men are asking for help. And there are more success stories with these men. That's David Adams, one of the founders of Emerge, the first-in-the-country program for batterers. So, though, why can't you break the chain of battering from generation to generation? We're going to ask David that after a break.


Well, when we come back - or actually, I should say, Robin, other stories that we're following today on this very busy day, U.N. inspectors have completed their report on chemical weapons and the attack in Syria. They say they have clear and convincing evidence that gas was used on civilians, including children.

Also new poverty numbers about poverty in the United States come out tomorrow, but the number may not be the best way to measure how many people actually live in poverty in the country. These stories and others later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. But we will be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and if you've just joined us, welcome. We're keeping an eye on the news, including today's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in D.C. Several dead and injured there.

But at the moment, we're talking to David Adams about another violence: domestic violence. He's one of the founders and co-directors of Emerge, founded in 1977. It's one of the first batterer intervention programs in the country.

And David, you were just explaining that more and more men want to change and not be batterers. So how do you help them? When somebody's in the program, how does it work?

ADAMS: So, somebody comes - and it's a 40-week program, so it's quite a lengthy program - and there's eight different lessons. Now, one of the lessons is: What is violence? And what we're trying to do there is really kind of broaden their understanding of what violence is, you know.

YOUNG: How could you not know that a fist in a woman's face is violence?

ADAMS: Well, yeah, yes. So many of them will say that, but they say, oh, well, I've never done anything like that. So then our definition of violence is anything that places somebody in fear. I've never put my hands on my partner, some of the men will say, you know, but they've put holes in walls. You know, they've made threats. You know, so clearly, they've placed her in fear.

Also, we point out that once you have been violent towards somebody, you don't have to keep being violent to make that person fearful. I mean, many victims will say he - there's just a certain look, you know, that comes across, you know, that instantly places me in fear.

YOUNG: I'm hearing now the voices of men - as you say, this is the profile of the batterer - who, again, feel that they are victimized. What's wrong with a stare? And I'm sure you hear that in these lessons. What's the answer to that?

ADAMS: Right. Right. I mean, the long-term goal of our program is to actually have them develop empathy. And what we found over the years is that, you know, that is not something that you can sort of accomplish or even expect at the beginning stages, you know, because these are people that see themselves as victims. And so their heads are filled with their own grievances.

And so what really makes for a better sort of starting point is to help them to see how their behavior actually harms them. And so one of the exercises we do is called the effects of abuse on partners. And so we do kind of a brainstorm: What are some of the effects? Fear, distrust, anger, low self-esteem. And, interestingly, those are the very things that he is already complaining about: She doesn't trust me. She talks behind my back. You know, she's never happy, as I said before.

And we're saying, OK, so those things bother you. Guess what? Your behavior is causing those things.

YOUNG: And when you say just now, as you did, we say, there's feedback from the group.

ADAMS: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

YOUNG: Is it other abusers who are calling someone on the...

ADAMS: Yes. I mean, so that at the beginning, it's more like a class. And so, really, the group leaders, you know, are kind of teaching the class, and we expect the men to participate in the exercises. In the second phase, however, we really do emphasize that. We actually teach the men how to provide constructive feedback to each other.

So here's an example. So a person in - he was in week nine. So it was his first session in the second stage of our program. He reported that his wife had done something stupid, and what his wife had done was she had ruined a tire on the car by driving against the curb. And he said, but instead of being violent, instead of hitting her, I just yelled at, screamed at her and called her a name. And then he said, the program's working for me.

OK. So in his mind, he was presenting this as some sort of progress. And this man, his name was Bob - that's not his real name, but I'll call him Bob. We decided to ask the other men, and we call this giving him a turn. Please give Bob feedback about, you know, this interaction he just reported.

And so this older man in the group, he's African-American. He was raised in the South. He had this kind of very gentlemanly quality and this very kind of interesting, formal way of talking, even though he kind of worked with his hands. He said: Robert, I have a question for you. May I inquire as to the cost of that tire? And Bob said $187.26, like he remembered to the penny how much that tire had cost.

And the other man said, Robert, I have another question. When you had your episode of domestic violence, did you obtain legal counsel? And Bob said yes. And the other man said: May I further inquire as to the cost of that legal counsel? Bob said $100 an hour. He said: And also may I find out how many hours did you employ your attorney? And he said 12 hours.

And the other man said: Let me understand this correctly. Your mistake cost $1,200. How much did you say that tire cost again? OK. So that he was really engaged in a very clever strategy. He was really kind of doing a cost analysis of Bob's mistakes compared to the wife's mistakes. And everybody, like you said, everybody agreed that his wife had made an honest mistake, you know, whereas Bob's mistakes weren't even honest mistakes. He had deliberately engaged in destructive behavior, which had cost a lot more money, you know, ultimately than this tire.

YOUNG: Well, why do men abuse? We understand it's not mental illness, although someone with a mental illness may be abusive. But it's a learned behavior. So they might - it might have been perpetrated on them, or they might have witnessed it growing up. But is there something else?

ADAMS: Yes. So, OK. So that when we say it's learned behavior, there's two aspects to that. One is, you know, if you observed it - and the research does show that if you grow up observing a father abusing a mother, for instance, or one parent abusing the other parent, you are more likely to actually learn that behavior. So that's one aspect of social learning, OK.

The other aspect, though, is positive reinforcement, so that you engage in behavior that actually creates benefits for yourself. She yells at you. You yell back. She stops yelling. OK. So that, you know, there's a kind of an underlying logic to this behavior. I think one of the myths about abusive behavior is that it's irrational behavior, when, in fact, there's a real logic to the behavior, because it actually gives power and control to the person who's being abusive.

YOUNG: Do you have to have - in addition to what sounds like some toughness in the program, forcing people to see their behavior, do you have to have some sympathy for them?

ADAMS: Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, because we're trying to teach respect, you know, as a basic value, you know, we have to model that ourselves, because if we're treating somebody with disrespect, they're not going to take it out on us. They're going to take it out on their partner. Right?

YOUNG: Yeah, and they're going to relearn it, that that's what someone in a position of power does. But are you hopeful? I mean, you have a good rate of people succeeding and not re-battering. But there are many people who do go out and re-batter. And, you know, battering isn't going away. So are you hopeful?

ADAMS: Well, yes. I mean, you know, because I've been doing this so long, I continually run into people, just my rounds, you know, that have been through the program. And interestingly, you know, many of them have come up and thanked me, you know, because they maybe not have gotten it the first time around, but over time, it really kind of - in the same way that, you know, battered women, it may take a while for her to kind of leave her abuser.

You know, the first time she goes to a program, it's not that that information the program has given her is wasted her, you know, it's - seeds have been planted. And it's the same thing with abusers. I think that they, at some point, are ready, you know, to kind of integrate this information that we've given them.

YOUNG: That's David Adams, one of the founders and co-directors of Emerge, the first abuser education program in the United States, and it's still ongoing and has spawned others across the country. David, thanks so much.

ADAMS: Thank you.

YOUNG: So, have you gone through a batterer intervention program? Do you know someone who has? Do you think abusers are rehabilitatable? Your thoughts always welcome at or on Twitter. I'm @hereandnowrobin. Meghna is...


YOUNG: There you go, love to hear from you. And still to come @meghnaWBUR, we'll speak with an evacuee in flooded Colorado. That's after the news, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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