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"Beit Noam-ize" America's Batterers?--Kit Gruelle

"Beit Noam-ize" America's Batterers?--Kit Gruelle

by Suzan Mazur
March 4, 2014


KIT GRUELLE

"One of the programs I'm most turned on by right now. . .is at Beit Noam, a residential treatment center for male perpetrators of domestic violence situated just outside Tel Aviv at Ra'anana." -- Kit Gruelle

[CLICK HERE for Amit Goren's Dangerous Children film trailer on Beit Noam]

I've been thinking about domestic violence partly because of the film Private Violence recently shown at Sundance and other film festivals and now scheduled for an October run on HBO -- featuring women's advocate Kit Gruelle, among others, and with Gloria Steinem as one of the film's executive producers.

Kit Gruelle has since the mid 1980s served as an inspiration for women surviving abusive marriages, having experienced her own ordeal 34 years ago that ended with the death of her husband in an oil barge accident offshore Louisiana. Gruelle suffered through three years of domestic terror prior to the tragedy.

I've also been a human rights activist/ journalist through the years, chairing the first major benefit for battered women in Manhattan in 1985, which was endorsed by many of New York's political leaders, its Jewish philanthropies, and sponsored by the National and New York coalitions against domestic violence. I've covered the nightmares of war for Newsday and The Economist, as well as the polygamy issue out West for the Financial Times.

So I decided to phone Kit Gruelle and have a chat:

Suzan Mazur: Your personal ordeal, Kit, is the classic American domestic violence story. Your husband was trained to kill by the U.S. Marines, was sent to Vietnam, and he then turned his aggression on you.

The use of force, violence, the fist continues to be America's philosophy. It's key to US economic and foreign policy. If we had a more gender-balanced government, force would not be central to US policy. That means getting a critical mass of women in public office.

You've said your husband liked to strangle you the most, that it made him feel in control. Your life was in his hands. Please say more about this tactic of control.

Kit Gruelle: One of the things important to understand about controlling tactics abusers use is that often it doesn't look to the outside world like the violence that it is. It plays itself out in ways that do not require a law enforcement response. It happens in subtle ways. I mean, females are raised to be loving, forgiving, understanding and supportive.

Suzan Mazur: Yielding.

Kit Gruelle: And yielding. When an abusive man has had a "hard day," he walks in the door and expresses his displeasure with how the day has gone. He then taps into his need to control. Or to his sense of entitlement and his (society's) belief system that tells him he is the "master" of his family.

He wants a particular kind of meal. Or he wants the kids to go to bed an hour early. Or he's mad because the house isn't clean in the way he thinks it should be. Or that he thinks his partner has not responded to him in the way that satisfies him.

He's playing out behind closed doors what he feels is his own lack of power in the larger world. Behind closed doors is a place where he feels entitled to exercise that power.

Suzan Mazur: You're talking about a man who is relatively normal emotionally, not psychologically damaged.

Kit Gruelle: The thing about psychological damage is difficult. Because a lot of times these demanding, controlling guys are considered mentally ill.

We need to start asking this central question: Why does the man conduct himself in nonviolent, non-threatening ways in public but in a distinctly different way behind closed doors? It always amazes me that after a domestic violence murder or murder-suicide, the neighbors seem to always report that he was "such a nice guy."

If he has the ability and capacity to behave like a nice guy in public and yet he's not a nice guy behind closed doors, then that indicates to me that he's making a choice to be violent when he's at home. He's making a choice to be controlling. And he's making that choice because he feels entitled to make that choice.

Suzan Mazur: Control is the goal.

Kit Gruelle: Control is the goal. When you look at the dynamic of these guys and their belief systems about themselves, they have messianic, godlike images of themselves. They're prepared to do everything to reinforce that belief and they expect their woman to reinforce it as well.

It's a male supremacist thing where they truly believe they're superior to women. They treat women with contempt -- like property, like a chess piece. Complete disregard. They expect women to be slaves. To be compliant and grateful at all times. They are prepared to use everything from coercion and intimidation to actual violence to enforce their control.

And there are many ways in which society colludes with them, whether it's through traditional fundamentalist religions which see women as subordinate or our outdated laws that fail to treat crimes committed against women in the name of relationships -- love and marriage, whatever. As if those crimes are less significant than other crimes.

Suzan Mazur: You've also said in a recent interview with Democracy Now! -- by the way they did an excellent job promoting your documentary Private Violence at Sundance. And congratulations to Gloria Steinem, one of the executive producers, and all who participated in the making of the film. You said in the DM! interview: "I recognized that it wasn't just the abuser that the victim had to deal with, it was also these oppressive systems that would marginalize her and judge her and stigmatize her and make her feel like she was doing something wrong."

How can we encourage more women to come forward to challenge this "oppressive system"?

Kit Gruelle: The system reflexively blames women when they are beaten up or sexually assaulted. We don't do it with any other kind of crime. . . .

It's the abuser who has serious control issues. When we blame women for the violent acts of men, we let men off the hook. We basically say to them keep on doing what you want to do, we're (society's) not going to hold you accountable. As a consequence, we continue to give them a green light to further abuse the woman they're with or to move on to the next victim. They think no one's ever going to stop them or say no to them.

Suzan Mazur: It's been almost 30 years since the first major benefit for battered women in Manhattan, which I chaired. Maria Cuomo helped promote it. Mario Cuomo gave his speaker's honorarium to it. Brooklyn DA Liz Holtzman spoke. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Phil Donohue et al. were on the host committee.

The 1985 benefit event was a prelude to domestic violence legislation on the state and national level. We now have the federal Violence Against Women Act plus the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which the US has signed but not ratified. We have domestic violence courts in place all over the country now. What other progress can you cite?

Kit Gruelle: A lot of money has gone into training criminal justice professionals and to supporting shelter programs. When I first began doing this work in the mid 80s, funding was seriously lacking. When I talk to battered women today in the shelters and sit cross-legged and listen to them, often the stories they tell are very similar to the stories back then and society still blames them as a matter of course.

We have not tackled the fundamental belief systems, which are the underpinnings of our social response to violence against women. Until we challenge that basic premise about the male-female dynamic and what society considers acceptable and unacceptable and decide we're not going to leave it up to just the criminal justice system -- the danger and oppression for women will remain the same.

It takes a much, much broader response addressing violence against women. It takes men doing the work too, at a grassroots level.

That's where some of the big change has happened. More and more men have decided: This is my responsibility. This is not a women's issue -- this is everyone's issue.

Suzan Mazur: But we still don't have the right gender balance in government which also hurts women and the rest of society. There's been progress over the past 30 years, but we're nowhere near critical mass.

Kit Gruelle: There are some very hostile women out there too, lawyers, prosecutors, the Phyllis Schlaflys, Sarah Palins. . .

Suzan Mazur: I'm talking about women committed to building a healthy, egalitarian society.

Kit Gruelle: Right.

Suzan Mazur: What's not working? You comment in the film that "Our criminal justice system requires she be beaten enough to satisfy the system." How badly does a woman have to be beaten for authorities to take it seriously? Assault, I understand, occurs once the attacker's arm comes forward, even if it doesn't strike.

Kit Gruelle: It depends on the prosecutor. Here in North Carolina we have a law that is commonly used in domestic violence cases called Misdemeanor -- Assault with a Deadly Weapon. That means that a man can shoot or stab his wife or girlfriend and unless it involves some serious or life-threatening injury, more times than not it's going to be charged as a misdemeanor. Misdemeanor often means no jail time.

Think about the ripple effect of that. You've got a neighbor and her husband or boyfriend has stabbed her in the leg or nail-gunned her to the floor. The courts consider that nothing more than a misdemeanor crime.

Suzan Mazur: Are you kidding?

Kit Gruelle: That happens all over the country. In California they take these crimes much more seriously.

Suzan Mazur: Apparently in Washington State as well. Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle and author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose' of the Dark Side of American Policing, told me that the state of Washington is fifth in the nation in effectively dealing with domestic violence.

Kit Gruelle: People are working very hard to get the courts to take domestic violence seriously. But I don't think jail is necessarily the answer. It shouldn't be all or nothing.

One of the programs I'm most turned on by right now, and I'm going to try to find a way to get to Israel to see it, is at Beit Noam, a residential treatment center for male perpetrators of domestic violence situated just outside Tel Aviv at Ra'anana. [CLICK HERE for Amit Goren's Dangerous Children film trailer on Beit Noam]

The facility was privately established in 1997 by the Beit Noam Association and is now run by the Israeli government's Ministry of Welfare.

[Note: Orna Rosenberg, a therapist and former manager of Beit Noam, advises that the annual budget for the facility is roughly 1.3 million shekels (US$372,600). The facility houses 13 men at a time.]

It was decided that rather than see women revictimized by various existing systems and have to pack up their kids, leaving behind schools, jobs, friends, pets to hide in a shelter for a few months, that the batterers would instead be transformed at a facility, a hostel in Ra'anana. The men don't go home from Beit Noam until they "graduate" from the four-month program.

This gives men a chance to learn to relate to family in a nonviolent, nonthreatening, noncoercive, respectful way. This should be the wave of the future in America. At Beit Noam men are employed during the day to make enough money to cover the cost of their stay there and to provide for their families.

The program involves group therapy and art therapy with a focus on family relationships, sexuality and cognitive self-control. Men who are mentally ill and/or with a substance abuse problem are not eligible for treatment.

When a batterer has completed rehabilitation, he's learned healthy ways to interact with family. The statistic is that roughly 50% of marriages do not survive following the resocialization.

Suzan Mazur: Better than a family member not surviving.

Kit Gruelle: America can build women's shelters from North Carolina to Los Angeles and back, but then we are always going to expect women to run and hide. We have to now say to the abuser: You have to stop being coercive, abusive and intimidating.

[Note: The UN Secretary-General's database describes the Beit Noam treatment as follows:

"-- Creating a structure that simulates a home atmosphere -- The therapeutic work transmits experience in running and participating in equal household rights and obligations. The household is run cooperatively by the residents, requiring them to share tasks, co-exist with the other residents, and exert mutual effort to resolve conflicts in a non-violent way.

-- The therapeutic approach is based on a combination of dynamic and cognitive behavioral techniques. The therapists view violent behavior as a result of emotional blocks, and navigate the residents through a multi-level process that leads to their taking responsibility for their violent actions, understanding the consequences thereof, and creating alternative communication means, i.e., assertiveness and honesty."]

Suzan Mazur: The batterers' programs that Vice President Joe Biden and baseball's Joe Torre have gotten behind in America, those programs seem to be drop-in programs for a few hours a day. Apparently, such drop-in programs in the past have only had a 25% success rate in the US.

Kit Gruelle: Correct. Most men who wind up in abuser treatment programs in the US are court-ordered. They go for two hours a night for about six months or a year.

But there are many counties in America that still don't even have shelters for battered women. Utah has only 13 programs in the whole state. That means when women have to run and hide in Utah, they may have to go hundreds of miles to be saved. And yet every county in the nation has a shelter for animals.

Suzan Mazur: Would you please touch on your efforts to get negotiators to understand that battered women are "benign hostages" and explain what a benign hostage is?

Kit Gruelle: The way we think about hostages in the United States is: A guy's in a bank and he's got a gun and he wants a bag of money to go to Mexico, etc.

But with domestic violence hostage taking, it starts gradually where a woman is more and more isolated, more and more intimidated, and she's learning how to cope with his violence. How to pacify him. And so she's starting to do things that he requires her to do with the understanding that if she doesn't do these things that there will be dangerous consequences. The consequences will be physical or sexual violence, or perhaps both.

Again, abusive men see women as personal property. They believe they have the right to control every aspect of their lives. Slowly but surely a woman becomes so controlled by him, so dominated by him that she becomes almost completely isolated, even if the couple lives close to others. Isolation is a state of mind as much as anything.

Suzan Mazur: A woman becomes a captive.

Kit Gruelle: One woman told me that whenever she got on the phone her husband would put up one of those little hourglasses, and once the sand ran through the glass (after two minutes), she had to hang up the phone. Even if she was in the middle of a conversation.

Another woman's husband gave her a cell phone, and she had to snap a photograph whenever she changed aisles in the grocery store and email the photo back to him so that he knew precisely where she was. If she didn't snap that photograph, then he'd beat her up when she got home. That's what it means to be a benign hostage.

When you have no capacity to interact with people outside of him or the family. When you can't go to the grocery store for longer than 15 minutes. When you have to account for every single penny you've spent. When he's checking mileage on the car. That's what it means to be a benign hostage.

Suzan Mazur: Drs. Steve Bergman and Janet Surrey who interviewed 20,000 people for their classic book We Have To Talk, have noted that the gender violence issue has already surfaced by pre-school. Bergman and Surrey have also said that "we all come into the world with a basic desire for connection, and that if there's a way to tap into that, we'll embrace it and change."

Dennis Kucinich while in Congress advocated carving out a cabinet level Department of Peace from the Defense budget. I see that you sent your own sons to a Quaker school to encourage them to grow up nonviolently. What are your further thoughts?

Kit Gruelle: I wanted my sons to grow up to be whole people and they are. They are kind, thoughtful and nurturing and they're comfortable with those emotions. My oldest son has two daughters and a son and is such a loving father -- equally to the children. And he's a big, strong athletic guy.

I remember when Jack, my late husband, had me by the throat and was dangling me off the house. I was grabbing onto his arms because I was afraid he was going to throw me off the roof. I was looking into his eyes. And what I saw in his eyes -- it was like looking into this deep, dark thing. There was so much pain in his eyes.

So many of these hyper-masculine guys are enslaved by what society expects of them rather than what they really are: complex human beings with many feelings that, sadly, they are disconnected from.

A big part of why Jack was so consumed with rage and the need to control was because he felt so out of control and controlled at the same time himself. And this came from this process that we do to men.

We expect that they are going to live by this very tightly formed definition of what it means to be a man. That they're allowed only to be happy or pissed-off and filled with rage and in complete control of the women in their lives.

Suzan Mazur: How soon did the violence set in in your marriage to Jack?

Kit Gruelle: When I first met Jack he was the most thoughtful charismatic man I'd ever met in my life. Very attentive. Made me feel beautiful. Said he was able to talk to me like he'd never been able to talk to anyone else.

The violence started about three months into the marriage. Came in out of the blue one day. He grabbed me by the throat and said, "I want you to understand that I was trained by the United States Marine Corp. to hunt people and kill them. And if you ever try to leave, I'll hunt you down."
I thought what so many women automatically do, well he just needs to be loved. . . But that just wasn't the case.

Suzan Mazur: What about other women?

Kit Gruelle: That was a huge part of it. He would go into town and pick women up and bring them back to the house and want me to sit upstairs and listen.

Suzan Mazur: NO.

Kit Gruelle: Then he'd take the women back to town. Come home at 2 o'clock in the morning and get me up out of bed and want me to fix a meal for him. And then he'd sit in the kitchen and tell me about how these other women were so much better than I was.

Suzan Mazur: How crushing.

Kit Gruelle: And that is why I have such empathy for battered women, because there is just no limit to what the abuser will do.

*************

Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr@aol.com

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