Commentaries on Events in Our Society That Are Related to Anger, Abuse, and Violence
- The OJ Melodrama Draws Attention From The Real Victims (June 1994)
- Where Are We Headed? (March 1996)
- A Double Standard for Violence? (December 1997)
- The Loss of A True Leader (October 2002)
- A "Blast From the Past" (June 2006)
- A Little Less Violence, Please! (November 2007)
- The Shame-Blame Game (November 2011)
- Just Another Senseless Shooting In Our Country (June 2017)
- Donald J. Trump: A Classic Portrait of an Angry, Controlling, and Abusive Man Who Has Absolutely No Desire to Change (October 2018)
The week that the "OJ spectacle" began, a man completed our domestic abuse program. He had been in this therapy group close to 30 weeks. He had been violent and abusive with his wife and others for 30+ years.
In his final assessment of the progress he has made over the past seven and one-half months, he voiced his gratitude that he had become involved with the program (he was not court-ordered). He also mentioned that he had seen news accounts of the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a male companion who was with her at the time, at her home and was not at all surprised.
Months before, in one of the group's educational units on male socialization and how men learn to be controlling, abusive, and violent, he had read a newspaper article about OJ Simpson's brutal assault on his wife on New Year's Day in 1989. Statements by OJ and his attorney in this article offered the same sorts of well-worn excuses and rationalizations that I have heard from many of the abusive men with whom I have worked over the past 10 years. In a classic example of minimizing the domestic abuse, his attorney stated, "O.J. and Nicole were in an argument that 'got out of hand,' but neither party intended any harm to come to the other. Their marriage has been and continues to be strong." OJ commented, "My wife and I had a fight, that's it. We put it behind us."
He pleaded "no contest" to this beating and was not arrested again despite the fact that police were called to their home at least eight other times. His "consequence" for this single arrest was "telephone counseling," an apparently brief and meaningless intervention that had little or no positive effect on his deep-seated controlling and abusive attitudes and behaviors. Now, four and one-half years later, two people are dead, brutally murdered. OJ, the football hero, movie star, and successful businessman, has been charged with the crime.
What amazes me, however, is the huge outpouring of sympathy and support for OJ at this time and our national obsession with his every word, thought, and movement. Hundreds of fans, packing highway overpasses and waving and "urging him on" in his nationally televised "chase" on the highways in Los Angeles. Then there were the fans gathering at his home and erecting a "shrine" to him and wishing him well.
Where in this whole spectacle is a sense of anger and outrage that his abuse was allowed to continue long after that January 1989 beating that came to the attention of the national press? Where is the acknowledgement that he received no significant consequences, including no jail time that might serve as a message that violence, even when perpetrated by a wealthy and famous superstar, is not okay; and no meaningful therapeutic interventions that might have helped him address and change the controlling and abusive attitudes and behavior that appear to have led to these vicious slayings.
Why does it seem so difficult to see the real victims in this whole drama, the two human beings who have been murdered, the families of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the two young children who will carry the legacy of this atrocity to their graves?
When will we as a culture decide that "enough is enough?" When will be decide that the violence needs to stop and that the controlling attitudes that many males hold about their female partners need to change? Batterers do, in fact, "intend" to do harm to their victims. They do not batter because they "love their partners too much." They are not "out of control." They do make clear choices. And their choices involve intending to dominate and control their partners, sometimes at any price.
Marriages where battering is occurring are not "strong." It is an unending nightmare for the women who are being victimized. And, unfortunately for Nicole, that distant New Year's eve "fight" was not "behind" them. It was only a small step in a long process that escalated and continued over the years until it ultimately led to her death at the hands of the man who claimed that he loved her.
First we had OJ. He was indicted for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a friend of hers, Ronald Goldman. He was found not guilty last fall. More recently, OJ has made statements that he never hit his wife and that pictures of her bruised and battered face actually reflected her attempts to "pick at her pimples." Now, we have a new example of our society's attitude toward domestic abuse as the Warren Moon trial has drawn to a close. Moon was found not guilty of perpetrating misdemeanor assault. His wife, Felicia, served as his staunchest ally in the courtroom and ended up taking full responsibility for all the violence that occurred last July 18.
All of this can be very confusing. At least it was to one of the clients in a domestic abuse group that I was facilitating last month. He is a man in his 30's who came to our clinic with an extensive history of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse toward his wife of five years. He has been in our program for the past six months. He brought a local newspaper to group and, in his "check out" at the end of the group time, asked if other group members had heard about Moon's acquittal. He felt disgusted and disheartened by the verdict, clearly recognized the domestic abuse dynamics that were occurring, and said with a hint of both anger and sadness in his voice, "Well, I guess if you're rich and famous, the same rules don't apply."
This is not a man who is court-ordered to our program as a result of a domestic assault prosecution. Rather, he made the decision, albeit with pressure from his wife, to pursue domestic abuse counseling. He has made significant progress in acknowledging, taking responsibility for, and beginning to change his controlling and abusive attitudes and behaviors. But this has come only after a hard look at himself, his wife, and the culture in which he lives. It has also involved his being willing to learn some new ways to handle his disrespectful and explosive anger and his desire to control his partner. Why do we get the sense that Warren Moon hasn't done that and probably never will?
The pattern that the OJ and Warren Moon situations represent reflect an increasingly disturbing trend in our society. When Moon's violence last summer first came to light, he stated emphatically, "It was not a case of domestic violence. It was a domestic dispute." Granted, he later moved in a somewhat more positive direction at a news conference when he said, "I made a tremendous mistake. I take full responsibility for it."
But, what happened to this "full responsibility" during the actual trial? From the beginning of his trial, the defense strategy hinged on targeting his wife as the real "culprit" in this "domestic dispute" and the other violence that had occurred over the years in their marriage with one another. And she cooperated fully. She testified convincingly that, in fact, she was the one who started the "dispute" and that she was the one to blame. She even conjectured that it was her long acrylic fingernails that had most likely created the bruises and scratches on her own throat, neck, and shoulders. She was angered on the witness stand by the notion that what had happened was "wife beating" despite reporting to police immediately after the abusive incident that she had been struck in the head and choked to the point of near-unconsciousness by her husband.
Moon continued this line of testimony when he stated that "she went kind of ballistic" and contended that he "was only trying to calm her down," "get her under control," and that he "just wanted her to shut up." Those are very similar statements to those I frequently hear from men when they first arrive at our clinic. What did it take for Moon to "get her under control?" Only grabbing her around the neck and choking her to the point where she nearly passed out.
Felicia is convinced, and says, that "women do have rage." She plans to begin speaking about this issue rather than focusing on domestic abuse as she has in the past. And I certainly wouldn't argue with her about the idea that women can be angry. Women may feel rage about living in relationships with partners and in a culture where they often feel controlled, demeaned, harassed, intimidated, and frightened. Or their rage may have to do with many other factors, including a woman's own upbringing.
Of course women can be rageful, hurtful, disrespectful, explosive, and abusive in their relationships with partners. And their anger and abusive behavior need to be addressed directly, as they are in our clinic's women's program. There, women also have the opportunity to learn new and more effective ways to handle this anger. It is not "okay" for women to be abusive and violent either. Women's violence is also against the law. But this really isn't the point of what has transpired recently in the Moon trial.
Women becoming abusive and violent does not mean that we as men then have a "right" to respond with violence of our own to "calm them down." When we as men make the decision (and it is a clear choice) to "up the ante" to use physical force with our partners, in the vast majority of cases, we will then be completely "in charge." Men's violence is truly different from women's. Because of size (Moon was 210 pound and a professional football player; his wife weighed 120 pounds: sounds like a bit of a "mismatch"), musculature, hormones, and acculturation, we are going to be able to dominate a physical struggle. This was vividly demonstrated as the Moons' incident progressed. His wife was no longer "ballistic" when he stooped over her with his hands around her neck as she lay on the floor. That's an effective way to get her to shut up. And it worked.
Moon's attorney said in closing arguments that "(Moon) did not intend to cause these injuries... and he was not aware he was was causing injuries to her and consciously disregarding them and going on." That's the problem with violence. Once a decision is made to perpetrate physical abuse, it can end anywhere...even in death, as it does for 1400-1500 women each year at the hands of their partners according to FBI statistics.
Especially distressing in this entire process were some of the reactions of the jurors in the case. One juror, a nurse, stated "I'm sure all of us have some violence in our marriages that just hasn't come out." Another argued "(this) case was not spousal abuse...There were just some little scratches...He didn't beat her." Are we now as a culture moving toward acceptance of "some violence" and "some little scratches" in our relationships with partners?
I feel saddest of all for their young son, Jeffrey, who made the 911 call and told police that "my daddy is going to hit my mommy. Please hurry." This little boy thought his mother was in real and imminent danger (and, in fact, she was). This little boy was there and saw what was happening. Seven-year-old boys don't capriciously call the police to report concerns about their parents' behavior. Jeffrey was terrified for his "mommy," his "daddy," and himself. The twelve adults on the jury dismissed his fear and his reality.
What truly terrifies me is to think that we, as a culture, seem to be moving backward in many respects, but especially regarding violence in the home. It wasn't so very long ago when English common law gave a man, as the head of the household, "the right, nay even the obligation, to chastise his woman, his children, and his servants" (in any manner that he saw a "appropriate"). I don't much like the idea of returning to that way of looking at things. The thought of "a little violence" in my home or anyone else's doesn't sit all that well with me. How does it sound to you?
As a psychologist who has worked with issues related to anger, domestic abuse, and violence over the past 15+ years, I have been following recent events in the National Basketball Association with interest and concern. In a practice on December 1, guard Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors, a three-time all-star and the team's leading scorer, started the current "brouhaha" by choking and threatening to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. As if this wasn't enough, Sprewell then came back 20 minutes later and threw a punch at his coach, landing a glancing blow to Carlisimo's neck.
What was particularly surprising and gratifying to me, however, was the response of the team and the league to this brutish behavior. Initially, Sprewell was suspended by the Warriors for at least ten games without pay. The team then made the courageous decision to void his 32 million dollar contract, the first time this had happened for "insubordination" in NBA history. The league then followed up with their own well-deserved consequence for Sprewell, ruling that he was banned from the entire league for one year, knowing full well that there would be plenty of teams who would jump at the opportunity to sign him despite his violence, all in the name of winning. In addition, Converse, a shoe company, decided to drop Sprewell from a lucrative contract as a spokesperson for their products.
Sprewell's first public response the incident was to say that he made a "mistake," but he refused to apologize to Carlesimo, justifying his attack by claiming that he was "provoked" by the coach's "verbal abuse." Eventually, he got around to apologizing to Carlesimo more than a week after the incident and saying, "I know this conduct is not appropriate in society or in professional sports."
You're right, Mr. Sprewell, it's not okay to assault someone else. In fact, there's an epidemic of violence that plagues our society today. Domestic abuse is rampant, violence related to "road rage" incidents is escalating, workplace assaults occur more and more frequently, and we also have the old standard, murders, rapes, and muggings that are simply part of the nation's crime statistics.
How we respond to Sprewell's violence, in the context of all the societal violence, is an important issue. Now the focus of this assault has been shifted to the "punishment" he is to receive. Surrounded by a legal team at his public "apology," Sprewell stated that he wasn't given "due process." And, some of his peers, led by Charles Barkley, the Houston Rockets forward who is also not a stranger to assaultive episodes in public, are considering a boycott of this season's all-star game or the world championships next summer.
The message is loud and clear. "We as professional basketball players are 'different' from everyone else. We don't have to play by the same set of rules that other people do. We make a lot of money, we're famous, we're popular, and we're entitled to do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it."
This sense of entitlement has always been a part of the angry and violent men with whom I have worked in therapy. They always, at least in the beginning, find a way to justify or explain away what they have said and done. The victim of their attack "wouldn't stop nagging me," "cut me off on the highway," or "'dissed' me at the party." The other person "provoked" them. That's supposed to make the violence understandable and, in some very real ways, "okay." That was the first strategy that Sprewell tried. Fortunately, up to this point, it hasn't worked too well.
But what if it does mean to our society if this strategy does work, and Sprewell becomes the "real victim" in this episode? What messages are we giving to other people in this society who feel entitled to control a situation they don't like with violence, especially the young people who buy the Converse shoes that Sprewell used to promote? How many of us could physically assault our bosses at work and remain employed because we said we were "provoked" by them? How many of us could be violent with anyone in a public setting and not get arrested and experience legal consequences as a result of the violence? The issue of the illegality of what he did isn't even getting addressed in the current furor.
These are the sorts of questions that are absolutely critical to ponder and, hopefully, ultimately answer. The reality is that consequences are one of the most important factors in helping angry, abusive, and violent people begin to realize that disrespectful and abusive behavior will not be tolerated. Very few of the hundreds of men with whom I have worked came to therapy "because I knew there was a problem and I really wanted to do something about it." The vast majority come because someone else pointed out the problem to them. It might be a spouse, it might be an employer, or it might be the court system. Someone gave them the strong message that their behavior needed to change. And, for those who really make the effort needed to change how they experience and express their anger, this starts the change process.
I hope the team and the league hold their ground. I hope the arbitration hearing reinforces their stand. There are plenty of examples where those with money, notoriety, and power "beat the system" and are held to a set of standards that are very different from the rest of us. Let's not let it happen this time around. Let's communicate clearly to Sprewell and others that violence is not okay and won't be tolerated. What a surprising and positive message for professional sports to be sending to our society.
Minnesota, our nation, and our world lost an outstanding leader and human being in the small plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign aides, and the plane's two pilots. But it seems more personal to me. The wrenching reality is that I lost a friend on Friday.
I didn't know Paul Wellstone personally. I never met him face-to-face although I was fortunate to meet his wife, Sheila, in my work as a psychologist related to her efforts to address the issue of domestic violence. But from everything I have heard in the news reports of his death and life, and from everything I knew about him related to the reasons that I strongly supported him as Minnesota's senator for the past 12 years, this was an extraordinary man.
This is a time in our history when cynicism and fear abound. It has become crystal clear that terrorists and murderous snipers, greedy and dishonest corporate executives, selfish and self-absorbed multimillion-dollar athletes and entertainers, and slick and unprincipled politicians and leaders have very little regard for those of us struggling to live our everyday lives. Yet, in the midst of all this, Paul Wellstone seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a man who, at his core, really did care very deeply about the people around him.
He worked with untiring zeal for the principles and beliefs that he felt were important to our society. His unbridled and infectious enthusiasm and optimism to change the things about this nation that he felt were wrong and unfair and to do this with a smile and a laugh and a hug were unusual, refreshing, and courageous. And all this was done in the shadow of his personal medical problems that most likely would have slowed or stopped even the strongest among us.
He leaves a legacy of honesty, integrity, genuineness, energy, passion and commitment that make him a role model and a hero at a time when genuine heroes are few and far between. Thank you, Paul Wellstone, for your efforts to make our state, our country, and the world a better place for everyone, no matter what their station in life. I (and our country) will miss you!
The men in the domestic abuse group that I facilitated were incredulous. Several had seen an article in the local newspaper the previous day about a "brand new" mental illness called Intermittent Explosive Disorder. One of the men stated his interpretation of what he had read when he said, "I guess they're telling us that we aren't really responsible anymore for our angry and abusive behavior."
Most of these men have been in the domestic abuse program for anywhere between six and twelve months (the program can last up to 60 sessions and more). What they had been learning since their first intake session was that they were, in fact, making clear choices anytime they became abusive with their partners, their children, at work, and when they were driving (although they may not have been very aware of these choices in the past prior to coming to therapy). They were surprised that someone (i.e. some highly esteemed educational institutions) seemed to be offering them a "way out" when they were learning and finally truly understanding and accepting that they were, in reality, completely responsible for the frightening and sometimes horrific decisions they had made in the past to be abusive with those around them.
Sadly, I wasn't as surprised as they were that researchers at Harvard and the University of Chicago had decided to resurrect a "mental illness" diagnosis that has been with us for decades. As a psychologist who has been working with anger, abuse, and control issues since 1985, leading batterers' groups, and, in addition, counseling thousands of angry men and women in workshop and therapy settings, I remember that diagnosis from the time I first started working in this field.
In fact, I used this diagnosis briefly early in my career to try to understand what was happening in domestic abuse and road rage situations. I quickly started to have misgivings about using it, however, because it didn't make much sense in terms of the actual people with whom I was working. After my clients had begun a counseling process, the vast majority of them became much more clear about how they escalated in the situations they described and how they had made decisions throughout that escalation process. They were not "out of control," which is a major criterion of this diagnosis as it appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the "bible" for psychologists and psychiatrists in attempting to describe what they see in their clients.
One of the assignments in the domestic abuse group asks men to go through what is described as an Abuse Inventory, in which they write out and present a history of all their threatening and abusive behavior toward others. On scores of occasions, when men were describing violent incidents with partners which often involved grabbing, pushing, and slapping, I have asked them, in the midst of their presentation, "Why didn't you just haul off and punch her in the face as hard as you could." To that question, they have, to a man, stopped "dead in their tracks," looked at me, and responded, "If I had done that, I could have really hurt her." This has provided, time after time, crystal clear evidence to me (and to the men themselves) that, even in the midst of the rage they are experiencing and what they researchers call "uncontrollable anger attacks," these men were acutely aware of what they were doing and had drawn "lines in the sand," beyond which they would not cross. This has also included situations where men threatened their partners with weapons but did not actually use them and perpetrated even more serious violence toward their. partners (which has included occasions of actually using weapons). Even men who murder their girlfriends and wives often take very clear steps and make clear choices to reach that ultimate horror.
Much has been done over the past two decades to help men and women understand how they reach the point of acting out their anger in hurtful and destructive ways. It is truly disturbing to me, as a professional, that some people are attempting to "turn back the clock" to the time when domestic abusers, road ragers, and angry people in general were "out of control" and "didn't know what they were doing." Our society does not need more "victims" (of their brain chemistry, their upbringing as children, the culture in which they were raised, our historical legacy of victimizing women or anything else).
We sat in the group and talked about the article for several minutes. I felt grateful that these men, at least, did not appear to subscribe to what seemed to be the gist of the research and the information presented in the article. They understand themselves and their anger and abuse issues far better than the researchers seemed to really give them credit for. Their lives and the lives of their partners and children have the potential to be significantly better and more healthy as a result of their learning about the decisions and choices they are making that bring them to their ultimate abusive and violent actions.
It was with consternation and just a wee bit of despair that I picked up my hometown newspaper on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to find the front page covered with "vital" information about a relatively new phenomenon called "mixed martial arts." With the headline screaming out, "The Baddest Sport In America," this form of sport fighting combining boxing, wrestling, kick boxing, jujitsu, and other martial arts is our country's "fastest-growing professional sport" according to the article. It is currently experiencing huge popularity among many of our citizens, especially males between the ages of 18 and 49, notably labeled by the newspaper as advertising's "golden-goose demographic."
I think that we are still engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a battle against global terrorism, a presidential campaign that is heating up, a national health care fiasco that continues to plague our society, the current housing crisis, the prospect of global warming, an ever-increasing gap between the "rich" and the rest of us, and volunteer efforts like Habitat for Humanity and other truly noble endeavors undertaken to improve the condition of humankind. But I guess that these "secondary" issues that affect our country and the rest of the world are probably not as important to the general public according to the notoriety afforded to this new "sport" by the editors of the paper.
This newspaper that I usually read had decided to highlight on its front page, for three consecutive days, a tale of grown men and women perpetrating significant violence against each other toward the goals of becoming famous, making money, and "being the best." I guess there are no other sections in this newspaper where they could have placed these stories.
As a psychologist who has been working with issues related to violence perpetrated by men (and, at times, women) in family and other settings for over 25 years, this was especially disturbing to me. You see, I have actually been trying for a long time to decrease the level of violence in a variety of places in our society.
Part of my current volunteer time is spent visiting nursing homes with my therapy dog, Nikko. In a visit to one such facility on the third day that these articles appeared, one resident, a former corporate executive at 3M in his 80's, expressed his disgust about the "brawling" and violence that the articles seem to glorify. I could only nod in agreement as he expressed his concerns.
I myself have come upon this form of "sport" at times while surfing channels on my own TV. These men and women may indeed be "finely tuned athletes." But to the "untrained" eye (including myself and probably most of the population), what I have seen looks disturbingly like what many of my clients have described in detail over the years when discussing incidents where they have perpetrated violence at home, in bars, in their neighborhoods, at sporting events, and in road rage incidents.
The combatants in these televised contests throw punches, kicks, elbows, and knees, all in the hope of knocking out their opponent or forcing the other person to "submit" with what is called the "rear naked choke." Ironically, this is not all that different from the goals in domestic abuse or any other physical altercation that occurs between two people. I guess there are rules in these MMA matches but it can be hard to figure out exactly what they are as you watch the "mayhem," blood, and injury on the screen.
When will we have enough of violence in this culture? I can only scratch my head and wonder. I will continue to work in my small corner of the universe to try to stem the tide of destruction that abuse and violence create in the family, in our communities, and in the world-at-large. But it seems that there are a myriad of influences including, as the newspaper put it, this "violent and bloody sport," that teach boys and girls and men and women that violence is an effective way to be successful and to feel good about themelves. I sometimes imagine myself, working with violent people in my office on a daily basis, simply treading water and waiting for the deluge of violence to overwhelm me and the rest of our society.
Our current president has, at times, called for "regime change" in other countries across the globe when he doesn't like what they are doing. Maybe it is now time in my own little sphere of influence to call for "subscription change" when I don't like what my hometown newspaper apparently views as the priorities that we ought to be reading about and attending to.
As a psychologist who has worked with the issue of domestic abuse since the mid-1980's, I very much appreciated columnist Gail Rosenblum's perspective in one of our local newspapers on Viking Chris Cook's recent felony domestic assault charge on Sunday. As she aptly noted, it is very easy, in that situation, to make a "rush to judgment," apply the "blame game," and simply write Cook off as "just another one of those 'bad guys'" who do this sort of thing.
But, in fact, the situation is much more complex. The shame she discusses does not just involve what we do to abusive men when they are arrested for domestic violence. It is also what they do to themselves, long before they ever come to the attention of the legal authorities. We rightly have concerns about how domestic abuse affects children in families where this is occurring today. But people rarely think about where current abusers learned to look at their partners and the world around them in the skewed way that leads to controlling and abusive behavior. It's probably no surprise that they learned it in their childhood, from their families and from the culture-at-large.
Abusers don't just experience shame in the present related to their violent behavior and the consequences it brings. In reality, the vast majority of abusive men developed their own shame through witnessing or experiencing abuse in childhood homes where they grew up; they were the children we worried about 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
Shame underlies all abusive behavior and is a powerful feeling of inadequacy, powerlessness, and unworthiness, literally "a hole in the heart," that develops in childhood and takes on a life of its own, creating a destructive "life script" that damages the person himself and everyone around him who tries to be close to him. If we are truly going to intervene in domestic violence, this is one of the core issues in treatment that needs to be identified and addressed.
This does not mean that abusive men should simply be "let off the hook" regarding legal and other consequences. Their shame, depression, anxiety, adult Attention Deficit Disorder, or anger are not excuses to justify violent actions. Assault committed toward other human beings, whether they are family members or strangers, is illegal, and it should be. Generally, consequences of some sort are the initial motivator that brings men into my office to look at their abuse. But consequences alone will not bring about real and lasting change. Getting arrested may, for some, stop the violent behavior temporarily, but it is unlikely to address the controlling attitudes and other forms of abusive behavior that ultimately have the potential to fuel an escalation to violence.
Effective domestic abuse programs treat men as people, not merely as objects of scorn and derision (which only adds more shame to the bucket of shame they already carry around with them). Important elements of these programs include things like the following:
1) recognizing what controlling and abusive behavior is and working hard to intervene in the attitudes and behaviors that are part of it;
2) creating awareness of his internal emotional process and how he is reacting to people and situations around him;
3) understanding that he is continually making clear choices about what he does (and that he can make better choices than he has been making up until now);
4) accepting full and complete responsibility for his controlling and abusive behavior and for the impact it has on those around him;
5) addressing historical and cultural issues related to abusive and violent behavior;
6) opening himself to experiencing emotions besides anger (especially the "softer" and more vulnerable ones) and learning to share them honestly and respectfully with other people;
7) recognizing his shame and victimization in childhood and understanding how these relate to his own abuse and violence in the present; and,
8) working at raising his self-esteem and increasing his empathy and compassion for his partner and others.
Real change is possible when it involves more than the "shame-blame game." Abusive and violent men can actually change when there are programs designed to help them do this and if they are willing to make the commitment to themselves and the people they love to work hard at changing the parts of themselves that have been hurtful and destructive in their lives. It is well worth the effort!
Sadly, we here in the United States have just experienced another horrendous shooting incident when Republican congress members, their staff, and security were targeted by a man at a park in Alexandria, VA. The Republicans were practicing for the annual charity baseball game between Republicans and Democrats that was to be played the next day. Allegedly, the shooter asked a Republican congressman who had already been at the baseball practice and was leaving the scene whether the participants were Republicans or Democrats before he started his shooting rampage.
As a psychologist who has worked with anger, abuse, and violence issues for over 30 years, this incident was deeply disturbing to me. But, at the same time, I also reflected back on a Republican presidential candidate who, at a rally on January 24, 2016, told his crowd of supporters, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue (in New York City) and shoot someone and I wouldn't lose any voters." I would probably be labeled as "politically correct" by the person who uttered these ridiculous sentiments, but I don't think it is such a good idea to talk about perpetrating violence (very similar to what actually happened with the Republican congressmen) even if it's just bluster, "macho" bravado, or a "joke."
Violence is not funny and "violent talk" (even though it may be protected by the First Amendment, with a few exceptions) is not helpful in having a constructive dialogue about anything, including the many difficult and contentious issues that now divide this wonderful country of ours. Physical violence in the home begins with demeaning and derogatory comments, put-downs and name-calling, swearing and cursing, and verbal threats. Words are powerful and important and have an impact, in the family and in the broader culture.
Also interesting to me was the powerful condemnation of the shooter by Bernie Sanders on the Senate floor (the shooter was alleged to have been a Sanders supporter and volunteer in the 2016 Democratic primary). This stood in stark contrast to another incident by that same Republican presidential candidate in a primary contest who told a crowd after one of his supporters had just "sucker-punched" a protester at a rally that he would "look into paying" for the assailant's legal fees.
That Republican candidate just happens to be the President of the United States at this point in our history. He is, whether he takes it seriously or not, a role model for his "base," the rest of the country, and the world-at-large. If we as a society are truly going to effectively intervene in the abuse and violence that plagues our country and the world in which we live, we need to think about our words and our actions and how these can contribute to or decrease the potential for violence to occur. And actually, when you come to think about it, hopefully this will include the man who currently occupies the Oval Office as well.
By David J. Decker, MA, LP
I was deeply disappointed (and a bit frightened as well) when Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States in November 2016. My fear about this outcome had a great deal to do with Trump's long history (including during the campaign itself) of angry, disrespectful, and abusive attitudes and behaviors which appear to be "hard-wired" into who he is as a human being. I am a psychologist who has worked with angry and abusive men (and some women) since 1985. I have written two books on domestic abuse and one on anger management. For over 30 years, I led domestic abuse groups for men who have been abusive with their partners. It has been very disturbing to see his behavior from his bully pulpit (literally) manifested in all its glory.
Trump attempts to justify all these sorts of behaviors by saying things like he "is not going to be politically correct," that he "is going to tell it like it is," and that these are just examples of his right to "free speech." He's certainly accurate in stating that many of his attitudes and behaviors are not politically correct. Trump has been called sexist, misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic by many. And all of those labels appear to describe many of his words and actions. But there is another label that may be the foundation for all of those. In the end, Trump, from my perspective, seems to be a man who is simply angry, controlling, and abusive. The sorts of comments he often makes and the actions he takes are cruel, mean-spirited, harsh, vulgar, condescending, disrespectful, and, ultimately, abusive.
I thought about writing this commentary shortly after he was elected to the presidency, but I sincerely hoped that he would rise to the occasion and change who he had been over the course of his life. Sadly, he has been completely unwilling or unable to do this. Instead, he has brought a heightened level of uncivil discourse and overtly abusive behavior to the the presidency that has rarely, if ever, existed in my lifetime. He actually appears to revel in his ability to do this. Various aides and supporters of his have described him as a "counter-puncher," enthusiastic in his willingness to sink to any level to hurt, punish, demean, humiliate, intimidate, and control anyone who has the audacity to disagree with him and see the world differently from the way he perceives it to be.
Sadly, for us as Americans, Trump fits into a number of specific categories of abusive behavior that are part of the work I have done since I began to see angry and abusive clients. The first of these is emotional abuse. This is defined as using behavioral or non-verbal actions to hurt, punish, demean, humiliate, intimidate, or control partners or other people. It includes mocking or mimicking others, using a sarcastic and dismissive tone of voice, sneering at or acting disgusted and contemptuous with others, and yelling or screaming. We saw a clear example of this when Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, a journalist, at a campaign rally where he flailed his arms and made distorted facial expressions to insult Kovaleski. Kovaleski is a person who has who arthrogryposis (a congenital disorder) and who had apparently written something that Trump did not like about the then-presidential candidate. Another more recent example is the dismissive tone of voice he used at a recent presidential rally to describe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony to the Judicial Committee of the Senate. He blatantly mocked her difficulty recalling specifics details related to her allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee. Kavanaugh was eventually allowed to assume a seat on the Supreme Court after a contentious struggle between members on the committee and Kavanaugh's angry, paranoid, and highly partisan rant on his final day of testimony. Ironically, Kavanaugh seemed to be taking a page from Trump's playbook. This fiasco only divided our parties and our nation even further, giving Trump another win, the only thing that he really seems to value.
A second category of abuse that Trump has perpetrated continually, through his infamous tweets and his uttered statements, is verbal abuse. Verbal abuse is defined as using words and statements to hurt, punish, demean, humiliate, intimidate, and control. This includes ridiculing and belittling put-downs and insults; derisive and hostile name-calling; harsh, cruel, and condescending labels and judgments; swearing and cursing; and blaming others "when things go wrong." There are examples aplenty when it comes to what Trump likes to communicate about other people.
…He called Mexicans "drug dealers, criminals, and rapists" at the outset of his presidential campaign.
…He used derisive labels and judgments with his primary foes and other politicians including "Lyin' Ted (Cruz);""Crooked Hillary (Clinton);""Crazy" Joe Biden; and "Low Energy Jeb Bush."
…He called Rosie O'Donnell "disgusting, both inside and out" and stated, "If you take a look at her, she's a slob."
…He said that no one would vote for primary rival Carly Fiorina because of her facial features, commenting, "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"
…He called Megyn Kelly "a bimbo" and said that her direct questioning of him about his abusive statements relating to women in the primary debate she hosted was a result of her menstruating ("You could see blood coming out of her eyes; blood coming out of her wherever").
…He called Mika Brzezinski, co-host of the "Morning Joe" show, "low IQ Crazy Mika."
…He called NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem, "sons of bitches" and said, "they should be fired."
…He repeatedly mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren by calling her "Pocahontas."
…He has called the news media "Fake News," "the enemy of the people," and "lunatics."
…He referred to African countries as "shitholes."
…He referred to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as "Mister Magoo," a bumbling cartoon character from the 1940's.
…He referred to Rod Rosenstein, his Deputy Attorney General as "Mr. Peepers," a character from a 1950's sitcom.
…He called Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress and one of the many women with whom he has allegedly had sex outside his marriages, "Horseface,"
…He has called multiple women over the years, "fat," "pigs," "dogs,""slobs," "pieces of ass," and "disgusting animals."
A third category of abuse that Trump has frequently used involves threats (both violent and non-violent). This is defined as communicating an intention to do something that is designed to create emotional distress, indecision, insecurity, and fear in other people or to somehow control their behavior or the situation. Examples once again abound in Trump's communications and actions.
…He threatened to sue all the women who made sexual misconduct allegations against him prior to the 2016 election.
…He directed threats toward protestors at his campaign rallies where he proclaimed, "I'd like to punch him in the face."
…He threatened (both before and after the election) to investigate and jail Hillary Clinton for her alleged misdeeds, best represented by his own statements and his partisan crowds screaming the words "Lock her up" at his rallies.
…He stated during the campaign that he could "stand in the middle of 5th Avenue" (in NYC) "and shoot someone and I wouldn't lose any voters."
…He made threats to rain down "fire and fury" (i.e. nuclear devastation) on North Korea, which was probably frightening not only to North Korea, but also to South Korea, the United States, and the rest of the world.
…He threatened to withdraw US troops from South Korea over trade issues.
…He threatened to release tapes of his conversations with former FBI Director James Comey.
…He made threats to shut down the government in order to get his border wall built.
…He directed threats at the media about revoking broadcast licenses.
…He threatened to starve the Affordable Care Act unless Congress passed a replacement program to his liking.
…He directed threats at our country's business leaders about an import tax.
…He threatened to sue his former advisor, Steve Bannon, over Bannon's comments that appeared in the book Fire And Fury.
…He threatened to sue the NY Times for publishing the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
…He directed threats at European Union member countries and other allies about instituting tariffs.
…He made threats about the need for "some form of punishment" if a woman has an abortion.
Also similar to many controlling and abusive men, Trump generally fails to actually follow through with these threats in the hopes that the threats by themselves will allow him to intimidate the person or control the situation. In fact, he has not followed through with that threat to sue all the women who made sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Two other categories of abusive behavior that Trump has clearly demonstrated are physical and sexual abuse. Physical abuse can be defined as using using any physical actions or force to control a person or situation. This includes grabbing, pushing, wrestling with or restraining, and slapping or punching a partner or some other person. Sexual abuse can be defined as objectifying women and viewing them as beings who exist primarily to satisfy men's sexual needs and wants; any sexually inappropriate and disrespectful verbal statements and comments; having sexual affairs when a man is in a committed relationship with a woman; any physical or sexual touch that is forced on another person; or any non-consensual sexual act. Sexual abuse also often includes physically abusive actions. Many examples and allegations of these types of abuse (especially sexual abuse) can be found in Trump's life, including the following.
…In total, at least 19 women accusing Trump of sexual misconduct between the 1970's and 2013 which included allegations of ogling and leering at women; sexual harassment; grabbing, groping, and fondling; and sexual assault. Trump has categorically denied all of these allegations and calls all of the women making these allegations "liars."
…Ivana, Trump's first wife, alleged (from her 1990 divorce deposition in a 1993 book entitled Lost Tycoon by Harry Hurt III), that she had felt violated by Trump in a physical and sexual abusive encounter here she said that Trump attacked her after he had undergone a painful scalp reduction, done by a doctor recommended by her. She stated that he ripped her clothing, grabbed and pulled out a chunk of her hair, and forced his penis inside her for the first time in 16 months. She later commented that, "the love and tenderness that he normally exhibited towards me was absent."
…Jill Harth, in a 1997 lawsuit against Trump, alleged that Trump assaulted her several times, including in a 1992 visit to Mar-a-Lago dinner when Trump attempted to put his hands between her legs and at a 1993 contract-signing celebration where he pushed her against a wall and "had his hands all over me." She said that his actions were "unwanted and aggressive, very sexually aggressive."
…Summer Zervos, a contestant on the fifth season of Trump's reality TV show, The Apprentice, contacted Trump in 2007 about a job, and alleged that he was "sexually suggestive" during their meeting, and "kissed her open-mouthed, groped her breasts, and thrust his genitals on her."
…Trump bragged in an Access Hollywood recording , made public in October 2016 and originally shot in 2005, about forcibly kissing women and grabbing them in their genital areas. He stated that he was able to do this because he is a "star." He initially said that this was "just locker room talk" but later even tried to deny that what he had said was actually his voice.
…There have been numerous alleged affairs with other women when he was married, including:
…an affair with Marla Maples, who eventually became his second wife, during the time he was married to Ivana, news of which dominated the tabloids in the early 1990's;
…a sexual encounter with adult film actress Stormy Daniels (in July 2006), a year after he married Melania and within months of Melania giving birth to their son (Daniels was allegedly paid $130,000 to keep her from speaking about their sexual rendezvous just before the 2016 election);
…with Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who started an affair with Trump in June 2006 which allegedly continued for several months (her story was bought by American Media, a company that owns the National Enquirer, for $150,000 but then was not published, which is a common tactic used by media companies to "kill" a story).
…Trump was accused by several former Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageant contestants, both of which were part of the Miss Universe franchise, which he owned, of entering the dressing rooms in 1997, 2000, 2001, and 2006, and then staring at the young women who were partially or fully undressed. Trump stated in a Howard Stern Show in 2005 that he "could get away with things like that" because he was the owner of the franchise.
In addition to the specific examples of disrespectful and abusive behavior mentioned above, Trump also has many other clear similarities to the abusive men with whom I have worked in terms of his characteristics, attributes, attitudes, and behaviors. Many angry and abusive men manifest this kind of behavior in a variety of settings, most often at home but also in other parts of their lives. Trump has engaged in many angry, volatile, and explosive rants, both in public and allegedly "behind closed doors." His rants address a variety of topics and people, including the "Fake News" media; the women who accused him of sexual misconduct; his cabinet members, White House aides, and federal employees; and senators and representatives from both parties. These rants often occur when other people don't do what he believes they are supposed to do. In reality, these rants can happen with just about anyone who disagrees with him about anything. He appears to be an equal opportunity abuser.
One of the strong motivators and a first step in actually changing, for many abusive men, involves experiencing consequences (e.g. losing a job, losing relationships with partners through separation or divorce, losing time with his children, getting arrested, being incarcerated). Trump appears to have experienced no significant consequences that might have actually motivated him to look at this unhealthy and dysfunctional part of himself. When men do not experience consequences related to their angry and abusive behavior, they often believe that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. He is currently on his third marriage but that fact doesn't seem to bother him at all.
Most angry and abusive men have a strong sense of entitlement, including a subset of this called "male entitlement." Trump appears to have an overwhelming sense of entitlement, probably related to his childhood and his upbringing, to his success in how he perceives that he has made his way in the world, and to all the money and material things he has accumulated over the course of his life. He also appears to feel a strong sense of male entitlement, which is defined as having an attitude that conveys male dominance, a general disrespect for women, and the idea that men are naturally and undeniably more capable and competent than women. This attitude can be represented by the statement, "I, as a man, have the right and even the responsibility to shape and control how my partner (and other women) think, feel, and act and to make her (them) into the person (people) I think she (they) should be."
This desire to control a partner and others underlies all disrespectful and abusive behavior. Trump articulated a classic example of this attitude in statements that childcare is women's work and definitely beneath him when he told Howard Stern in 2005, "I like kids. I mean, I won't do anything to take care of them. I'll supply the funds and she'll take care of the kids. It's not like I'm gonna be walking the kids down Central Park." In a 1994 interview, he seemed to be saying that his marriage with Ivana ended because she was too successful as a career woman: "You know…I don't want to sound too much like a chauvinist, but when I come home and dinner's not ready, I'll go through the roof, OK?"
Angry and abusive men have great difficulty taking responsibility for themselves, their words, and their actions and then making amends for their hurtful behaviors. Trump appears to have little interest in taking clear responsibility for himself, his statements, and his behaviors. He seems to constantly seek to blame others and to look for scapegoats for what he has said and done and what has happened around him. In addition, he seems to feel proud that he rarely, if ever, apologizes for things that he has said and done. His response to questions about this stance involves statements about his believing that "I don't do anything wrong." Other abusive men (and Trump) often use psychological defenses like denial (i.e. saying something didn't happen), minimizing (i.e. making something less than it really is), and justifying (i.e. making excuses for what they have said or done) to avoid taking clear responsibility for themselves and their actions. This, for many of my clients (and probably for Trump as well), has to do with the "win at all cost" mentality and a strong aversion to appearing vulnerable, "weak," or anything like the "losers" they seem to disdain.
Angry and abusive men tend to be narcissistic, self-absorbed, and self-centered in their way of looking at their partners, other people, and the world around them. Trump mirrors this same attitude with the exception, perhaps, of his children. For Trump, this has led directly to an inflated sense of self-esteem and an arrogant and grandiose presentation style with the idea that "the world revolves around him." If others do not treat him as he believes they should, accept and approve of him unconditionally, and agree with his every word and deed, he appears to take this very personally and react accordingly. This can lead directly to harsh, disrespectful, and abusive attitudes and behaviors. He appears to be completely lacking in genuine empathy for others, which flows out of this narcissistic attitude and makes his abusive behavior that much easier to perpetrate. And again, he feels completely justified in treating other people in this way. It seems that he is not plagued with feelings of guilt or remorse that might actually help him really look at what he is doing. This lack of empathy is an integral part of the mind set that many abusive men hold.
An interesting corollary to Trump's arrogance and grandiosity is the fact that, with many angry and abusive men, these attitudes are simply a facade that they carry with them to attempt to appear powerful, confident, and "in charge." In fact, after working with many professional and successful men, what I have come to see is that, underneath this facade, there exists an overwhelming sense of self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. The arrogance and grandiosity merely serve as a "cover" and a defense against these significantly more vulnerable feelings. In the end, men who truly feel good about themselves and experience a genuine sense of self-esteem do not have a need to become disrespectful and abusive in order to assume power and control over people and situations.
A final similarity between Trump and the men with whom I have worked has to do with the dishonesty with which he seems to approach almost any situation. Angry and abusive men often have great difficulty being honest about what they say and do with their partners and others. For Trump, if the facts do not fit with his life experience and his rigid way of viewing the world, he appears to have no difficulty creating his own set of facts to address whatever the issue happens to be. His aides have sometimes referred to to these as "alternative facts." This dishonesty he exhibits is also an attempt to create an "alternative reality" and it often ends up feeling intensely confusing and crazy-making to the person or people at whom it is directed.
There is a term called "gaslighting" in domestic abuse situations where the abusive man attempts to systematically manipulate a partner by creating in her a sense of doubt about her memories, her perceptions, and, sometimes, even her sanity. This term arose from a 1938 Patrick Hamilton play called Gaslight where a man attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating their reality and insisting that she is mistaken, remembers events incorrectly, or is delusional when she attempts to identify the discrepancies she sees in what he is saying about her.
Trump appears to use this powerful mechanism in all sorts of situations, both as president and in his personal life. His statement that his administration "runs like a finely-tuned machine" flies in the face of numerous reports about the chaos and dysfunction in the White House. His constant denials about his alleged sexual affairs and the many sexual misconduct accusations leveled against him begin to sound hollow with the sheer number of events that have been reported.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for the men with whom I have worked who have been willing to address and work hard to change their controlling and abusive attitudes and behaviors. It is, in fact, a myth in our society that angry and abusive men (and women) can never change. But, the process of change is a difficult one and takes ongoing and sustained effort "one day at a time" for the rest of their lives. Angry, controlling, and abusive men can, in reality, change. This positive change, if it is made, can make an enormous difference in the man's life and in the lives of his partner, his children, and all the others in his life who interact with him.
Unfortunately, it's all too clear that Donald Trump's disrespectful and abusive words and actions don't seem to bother him much at all. He appears to have little concern about the impact of what he says and does on individual people, on our country, and on the larger world. In addition, it seems like he has little interest in changing this dysfunctional part of who he is and has been throughout his life. Why should he want to change, considering his over-inflated sense of self and his clear belief that he is a success and a real winner?
Equally disturbing about Trump's angry and abusive words and actions is that through them, he gives license to others in our society to be outwardly disrespectful and abusive themselves. This includes, most notably, the white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and the "alt-right." But this also includes other people who may not actually be part of these fringe hate movements, people who feel disenfranchised and angry themselves about their personal situations or about the direction our country is heading. Whether he likes it or not, Trump is a significant role model for how we as a nation discuss difficult issues, handle conflicts that arise, and resolve disagreements that exist between us. As an angry and abusive man himself, Trump sets an incredibly poor example for anyone who listens to or sees his abusive behavior.
In addition, it is also distressing to me why his colleagues in Congress and the Republican party, many of whom have been directly disrespected and abused by Trump, don't seem to care very much about his words and actions either. His words and actions are dramatically affecting the level of discourse in our politics and our country at the present time, and in the rest of the world as well. Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and abusive behavior are not healthy or helpful in addressing the many important issues that are absolutely critical to our nation and to the world around us. We desperately need a commander-in-chief, not an abuser-in-chief.
In the end, is this what we really want, need, and deserve as a nation? Is this the kind of man who should hold the most powerful position on earth, the Presidency of the United States? I guess these are the sorts of questions that "we the people" will need to answer for ourselves as we move forward in Trump's presidency. The elections in 2018 and 2020 will tell us a great deal about ourselves as a nation, that "shining city upon a hill whose beacon of light guides freedom-loving people everywhere" which Ronald Reagan envisioned and espoused. I hope and pray that we as a society decide that we have the right to expect much more from any person who is supposed to be the leader of the free world. I imagine we'll just have to wait and see what happens.