Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why Does He DO That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft

This is a book about abusive relationships. You will notice that ‘abuse’ is nowhere in the title. I suspect this is because everyone has their own definition of what constitutes abuse, and it almost never covers what they themselves are doing – or being subjected to – are seeing and are concerned about. So, with a title like “angry and controlling men,” they are more likely to pick up the book, thinking, “Hey, this might apply to the confusing situation I am facing.” Can a man abuse a woman without physically harming her? Yes. He can scream at her. He can throw things around the house. He can vandalize her property. He can routinely blame her for everything that goes wrong in his life, or he can constantly critique her and tear her down, or he can call her names that when I tried to put them in this review, got it banned from Amazon. This does not mean that just any unpleasant behavior earns the title abuse. Bancroft uses the word “abuse,” but he does not use it irresponsibly. For example, he says that if someone is angry all the time, “I would not like it,” but it is not necessarily abuse. Abuse is not a binary kind of behavior that is only invoked when the fists fly, but a deeply ingrained, unrepentant attitude of ownership, entitlement, contempt and resentment that a man displays, not toward most people in his life, but toward “his” woman (including past women). I have never witnessed physical violence, but I have definitely heard conversations similar to the ones you will read in this book. And that is disturbing. Does this sound hard to read? It is. Despite being written in a very readable style, this book is in some ways torture to read. The only thing worse would be to live it. I recommend that everyone who can stand to, should read this book, because it clears up so much of the confusion that prevails in abusive situations … confusion in the mind of the victims, the observers, and even (especially?) the professionals. Even if you only read the first three or four chapters, you will be far ahead. The very first chapter, titled “The Mystery,” begins with the confusion felt by victims (who might not see themselves as victims) and their friends, as they try to understand the situation and the abuser. “He says I’m too sensitive. Maybe I am.” “Have I changed or has he changed?” “Why does he DO that?” This confusion is created by the abuser himself, in his highly successful attempts to justify himself to himself, to his victim, and to the people around him. Bancroft did not did start out with this assumption, by the way, but came to it after years of working with abusers in mandatory counseling groups. When he started out, he believed what the abusers told him about how their behavior was caused by their wives’ failings, their traumatic childhoods, their unemployment, or the hurts done them by past girlfriends; that they didn’t know what they were doing; that they “lost control.” Only after several years did the author start to cotton on to the lies. Also confusing is the fact that many abusers can actually be kind (yes, kind) in between abusive incidents. Add to this the fact that the victim may indeed have some mental problems of her own (alcoholism, depression, etc.), either predating the abuse or brought on by it. If she has lived with abuse long enough, she may be barely functional. The abuser, meanwhile, is functional in his life at large (except when it comes to treating his wife well), and appears to be a sane, trustworthy person. To top it all off, he has told her many times that his behavior is her fault. (In fact, he may accuse her of abusing him … referring to her attempts to defend herself.) Small wonder, then, that the abused woman, her friends, and society at large cannot figure out what her problem is. If they start from the assumption that the abuser is a decent guy who means well, they will never figure out the situation. There are decent guys who mean well. This book is not about them. This book is admirably free of psychobabble. For example, in one chapter Bancroft examines in some detail a frustrating conversation between a whiny, controlling man and his wife, which ends with him insisting on walking home in the cold, even though she would be willing to drive him. The author then analyzes why the man chose to walk home and resent it. Of course, his main motive is to maintain the role of victim, to keep himself in the right and his wife in the wrong, so that he can tell himself (and tell everyone else later) how she “left him” to walk home in the cold. Bancroft then adds, “Also, deep down inside [the man] there is a human being who knows that what he is doing is wrong.” In another place, he says, “Most people, when you confront them about something they are doing wrong, get defensive and deny it at first. But later, when they have had some time to cool down, they will come back and admit you were right. Abusers do not do this. They use the passage of time to find additional arguments about why they are right.” One last note. There is a fascinating, counterintuitive warning (late in the book), that women in abusive situations should not seek couples’ counseling. “Couples’ counseling is designed for problems that are mutual.” Abuse is not mutual. It is unilateral. It is not the result of a communication problem. Furthermore, couples’ counseling can be dangerous (!) for the wife. The reassuring presence of the counselor might get the wife to open up and say things to, or about, her husband that she would never otherwise dream of uttering. Then, when they get home (or even, in one chilling case, in the car on the way home), she can face violent retaliation. This book will haunt you, but definitely read it. It might help you someday to help someone else, even if it is only by being the only person who believes her.

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