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NCFM Public Relations Director Steven Svoboda reviews “Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse”

February 6, 2012

By Steven Svoboda

Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse.  By Linda G. Mills.

New York: Basic Books, 2008.  298 pp.  $26.95.

With Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse, New York University Social Work and Law Professor Linda G. Mills has published her fourth book and her second book focused on domestic violence (DV) issues allied with men’s rights.  As with her previous book on this topic, Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse (Princeton University Press, 2003) Mills calls herself a feminist but positions herself as sympathetic to true gender equality without actually writing exactly the sort of book one of us might produce.  As I mentioned in my review of Insult to Injury, such movement-aligned books may actually provide us with more insight than a book authored by an actual activist as it can show us how sympathetic outsiders see our movement.  Violent Partners continues the program Mills began with her previous book of presenting a blueprint on how we should be treating DV, a plan that markedly differs from the currently prevalent approach of putting the male in prison first and asking questions later.

Violent Partners recycles large portions of Insult to Injury, reading like an updated and expanded version of the earlier book. Many of the same human interest stories from Insult to Injury reappear more or less verbatim here.  As the earlier book is flawed in places but generally outstanding, this is not necessarily a problem, but probably should have been acknowledged somehow as it could mislead readers reasonably expecting a volume of fresh material.  The stories themselves are engaging and instructive as they reveal to us the truly complex and three-dimensional aspect of DV, teaching us as no abstract theory could how off-base such simple man-bad, woman-good concepts are.  Mills devotes an entire, wonderful chapter to her extremely sensitive and wise retelling of Brenda and Rick Aris’ complex, violence-filled life together—and Rick’s ultimate death at Brenda’s hands.

The first chapter starts the book off with a bang, telling the reader some great stories regarding the author’s personal encounters with DV in her personal life.  There may not be any other writer who can truthfully, and with such a wondrous combination of objectivity and insight, discuss her own personal experiences in such an enlightening—and even at times moving–manner.

Mills tirelessly points to such examples as her personal experiences and the Arises’ marriage to back up her position that real life is complicated and not subject to easy blanket characterizations such as feminists love to apply to DV.  “Often both men and women initiate and participate in… low-level violence” that arises in certain situations rather than “as part of an overall attempt to control the other partner.”

The author adroitly comments that although high profile violent relationships that turn into court cases can occupy the headlines for weeks or months, “the most important questions—Why did this happen? Could it have been prevented?—often go unanswered….  But after the trial comes to an end and the media moves on to other stories, we usually have no better understanding than we had before of what caused this terrible violence to erupt.”  Mills helps contextualize such theoretical statements by providing detail-packed human examples.  These examples lend psychological and emotional context to a seemingly “simple” legal case and can help us appreciate the reasons behind acts of violence–and the paths to helping stop it–without thereby excusing or condoning it.

The author usefully tabulates conditions that increase the likelihood an individual will resort to violence—insecure attachment to one’s mother; witnessing DV as a child; child abuse and corporal punishment; and being “coached” to be violent by a significant non-parental adult.  Interestingly, boys who witness family violence show “extremely similar behavior to boys who had been directly abused by their parents.” (italics in original)

Mills notes that our difficulty as a culture acknowledging that women can be violent harms the victim as well as the perpetrator and indeed, as well as society as a whole.  “We all need to realize that women, just like men, can be extremely violent both physically and psychologically, and that this can have enormous repercussions for themselves, their partners, and their children.”  (italics in original) When discussing the shortcoming of the court system, for example, the author admirably practices the very abstention from blame that she advocates: “Violent couples desperately need some sort of intervention, and the criminal justice system—which necessarily functions in terms of guilt and innocence, crime and punishment—is simply not properly equipped to deal with the underlying questions that [violent couples] need answered. (“Can he kill me?” “Can she change?” “Am I somehow complicit in the violence?”)”

The author profiles some intrepid toilers in the DV field who, in contrast to the limited feminist perspective, are treating couples in violent relationships without blaming anyone and with the goal of providing options to both partners and helping them to live happier, more productive lives.  One of these therapists comments, “What seems clear is that the feminist movement’s fear of complexity and ambiguity in violent relationships has been a real inhibitor in the development of complicated kinds of treatment that might actually have a chance of addressing the problem of DV.”

One fascinating section tells the story of Jade Rubick, founder of the leading gender-equity DV organization (and a group with close ties to NCFM), Stop Abuse for Everyone (SAFE).  Mills’ description of the work of Violence Anonymous (VA), the violence-oriented offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous, shows how VA empowers and frees participants through its “policy of accepting the humanity of the person but never the inhumanity and destructiveness of the behavior.” (italics in original)  In fact, “The principal thrust of the program for its participants is not evading responsibility but assuming it—often for the first time in their lives.”  Chapter 11 goes on to provide memorable in-depth profiles of similarly oriented, innovative, family-system-oriented DV programs in New York City, Virginia, and Washington state.

Mills convincingly argues that mandatory prosecution of accused batterers is an idea that causes harm virtually to all affected parties—accused perpetrators, victims (among other things, by often ironically escalating the levels of violence), the extended families, and society. The author shows us that such policies themselves represent a form of institutional violence whose features such as forcing women to testify against their partners “could be as coercive and terrorizing as the batterer’s behavior.”

Not content with critiquing without offering possible solutions, Mills is working hard to promote a “restorative justice” model consistent with the principles she outlines in this book.  Mills expands on her proposal in Insult to Injury to addressing DV via an Intimate Abuse Circle (IAC), in which a group of people from a couple’s community—friends, family, even children—collaborate with a couple in understanding violence and in the healing process.  “What we know is that without giving the offending person an opportunity to be integrated back into the community—and a chance to air his or her concerns publicly—he or she will probably continue to harbor those hostile feelings and harm someone again.” The author provides us with a few extended tales illustrating how IAC’s can help resolve problems to the benefit of all parties involved.

The book is not without minor flaws.  Her attempts to parallel trauma caused by DV with the September 11, 2001 tragedy never really come across as either appropriate or enlightening.

But in the end, Linda Mills has written an awe-inspiring, potentially paradigm-shifting book that outdoes her earlier book.  Highly recommended and simply not to be missed.

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