Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence

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For many years when people would ask about my work, they'd often say, "I've heard that abusive men really don't change. Isn't it frustrating and hard to work with men like that?

Unclenching Our Fists - Acker, Sara Elinoff/ Acker, Peter (PHT) - | HPB

But what I've seen is that some men who have been abusive do become nonviolent. I think that the transformation these men make is among the most underreported stories in the field of domestic violence. Domestic violence has been an epidemic in our society for generations. For centuries it has been shrouded in secrecy and, if acknowledged at all, kept private, a family matter.

Traditionally, since women were often seen as the property of their husbands and had significantly less power, politically and economically, those who experienced abuse in their homes were expected to tolerate the behavior. This remains true in many parts of the world today. Although great progress has been made in the United States in the last generation, domestic violence continues to be a deadly problem, with women as the primary victims. Department of Justice statistics from show that in the , cases of intimate partner abuse reported to law enforcement, eighty-five percent of the victims were women.

Book Review: Unclenching our fists: Abusive men on the journey to nonviolence

Seventy-five percent of the perpetrators were men. Although the number of men being assaulted is rising most likely due to an easing of the stigma around reporting , in women were still four times more likely to be the victim of intimate partner violence than men.

Most domestic violence incidents are not reported to the police; reported incidents of assaults represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most experts believe that only one in ten incidents is reported to law enforcement. This means that as many as twelve million individuals may be involved each year in domestic violence incidents as victims and perpetrators. Domestic violence is part of my own family's history. For more than sixty years, my grandmother was emotionally abused.

My grandfather ruled the roost. If my grandmother, my mother, and her two sisters didn't do as he wished, he verbally lashed out at them. He controlled every aspect of their lives. He was especially cruel to my grandmother, flaunting mistresses, never expressing affection or telling her he loved her.

Patrick Stewart on violence against women

Instead he was demeaning and critical almost every day of their decades-long marriage. My grandmother became depressed, would refuse to eat, and was hospitalized at different times throughout her life. My mother begged her to leave the marriage, but my grandmother was economically dependent and afraid to be on her own. There was barely any language to describe what my grandmother was going through—words like "domestic violence" or "emotional abuse" were not yet part of anyone's vocabulary.

She wasn't being beaten, so no one would ever see her experience as legitimate abuse. Her experience was simply understood as the way marriage is, something to endure "for the sake of the children. With the rise of the second wave of the feminist movement in the late s, things began to change. Feminist activists and domestic violence survivors started organizing for the right of women to live lives free of abuse. The silence surrounding family violence was finally broken.

Domestic abuse, activists proclaimed, is not simply an "anger issue. They defined it as a pervasive pattern of dominance and control in which one person in a relationship consistently uses intimidation, threats, control, and blame to manipulate the other. Physical violence is only one dimension of the problem and isn't used by all abusers. Domestic violence also includes emotional and economic abuse, sexual abuse, and the manipulation of children. Feminists argued that rather than looking toward psychological causes, domestic violence should be understood as a societal problem, reinforced by deeply held cultural beliefs rooted in sexism.

When you consider that for centuries women have been second-class citizens, that men are considered the undisputed rulers of their families, that violence is seen as an acceptable way to express anger or resolve conflict, and that power is defined by the amount of control one has over others, then violence against women inevitably follows.

To end domestic violence, feminists asserted, the status of women and girls must be transformed, traditional notions of masculinity must be challenged, and power must be redefined. The second wave of feminism gave birth to consciousness raising groups where women met together to explore the way sexism impacted their personal lives. As women talked about the violence in their intimate lives, they began to see just how widespread these problems were.

It was most likely the first time in history that terms like "wife abuse," "battering," "incest," and "sexual abuse" entered the national conversation and were taken seriously as social problems. Feminists established safe homes for women fleeing domestic violence. In , the first battered women's shelter in the U. Within three years there were nearly ninety shelters for battered women across the country. Today, more than two thousand shelters and support organizations for victims of domestic violence are operating in the United States.

These battered women's programs saved thousands of lives by providing abused women and their children with shelter, counseling, and advocacy. Despite many successes, too many women still continued to be brutalized, some killed, at the hands of their partners. It was clear that programs for victims were not enough. Activists realized that successfully combating domestic violence would require new programs to intervene with abuse perpetrators. Additionally, intimate partner violence needed to be criminalized. New laws were created so arrests could be made based on probable cause rather than a police officer being required to witness a violent incident.

Protective orders became easier for victims to obtain, and violation of those orders resulted in criminal charges.


Sara Elinoff Acker: Author of Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence

Police, judiciary, clergy, and health care workers received critical training. Primary prevention programs in schools and community education campaigns were established. Fundamentally, services for victims and their children became part of an overall web of response to the problem of domestic violence. Activists helped to keep the momentum going for this ever-expanding social change effort, in a coordinated community response. A critical component of this response was intervention with perpetrators. No matter how many battered women's programs were established, no matter how many women and children were helped, the plague of domestic violence would continue unabated until abusers stopped perpetrating their violence.

Somebody had to work with the men, to interrupt the violence and abuse and teach alternative behaviors. This is where programs like the one where I worked came in. In my early years working with battered women, if someone had told me I would someday be involved in trying to help abusers or writing a book like this, I would have been incredulous.

Like many other women working in domestic violence programs, I firmly believed that abusers could not change; that they would never voluntarily give up the benefits of power and control over their families that battering afforded them. I was convinced that the only way an abused woman could be safe was by leaving her batterer. I believed that if society really wanted to stop domestic violence, the best use of energy and resources was helping women escape from abusive relationships.

I considered it my duty to help abuse victims see this and help them get out of their destructive relationships. Over my many years in this work, my perspective on this has shifted. It remains true that some relationships are so dangerous that our efforts must be directed at keeping victims safe and getting perpetrators incarcerated.

It is also true that there is no hope of change if a perpetrator refuses to take responsibility for his behavior. But there are other situations when abusers can learn nonviolence by participating in abuse intervention programs. I have come to see that for some families, change is possible. To explain why my thinking has changed, I'd like to share a little of my own story. In I took a job at "Women Helping Battered Women," an agency in Burlington, Vermont, offering crisis intervention, counseling, advocacy, a children's program, and a confidential shelter.

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I was twenty-six years old, passionately committed to the movement to end violence against women. I worked as one of two crisis intervention coordinators for the program. My job was to answer the hotline, taking calls from women in danger. In addition to intervening in crises and training volunteers to do the same, I offered women individual counseling and ran support groups. All participated in violence intervention programs, some for as long as ten years.

To put a face on violence and to encourage other abusive men to face themselves, most of the eleven have allowed their photos and real names to be used in the book. She warns that only a minority of abusive men go the distance to make this kind of substantive change. Acker became a certified batterer intervention group leader in and ran groups for abusive men for over ten years. She now works as a psychotherapist in private practice. Leave a Reply Cancel reply Your email address will not be published.