This week I read a superb book called No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, by Rachel Louise Snyder. The book is divided into three sections.
The first looks at that most tired of questions — why do victims stay? In the final section, Snyder shadows the changemakers, the people on the front lines in the domestic violence sector.
But it was the second section that struck me the most, in which Snyder talks to the abusers themselves. She writes, “over and over I asked… whether a violent man could be taught to be nonviolent. The answers almost always fell along these lines: police officers and advocates said no, victims said they hoped so, and violent men said yes.”
Note: the book tends to use ‘he’ for perpetrators and ‘she’ for the victims because while men can be victims of domestic violence too, and violence also occurs in LGBTQ relationships, the statistics bear out that the majority of abusers are male, their victims female.
Hamish Sinclair, the founder of ManAlive, who is quoted extensively in the book, believes that “the fear of naming the real perpetrators is, itself, a sort of meta-violence; by refusing to call out men we are aiding and abetting this belief”.
It was in the late 90s that a prison guard called Sunny Schwartz began to see the sons of men she knew from her early days as a guard arrive in the same jail, and then the grandsons.
“Violence isn’t supposed to be genetic,” she thought.
While Sinclair’s ManAlive programme worked to break these cycles of intergenerational violence, Schwartz wanted to go one step further and introduced the concept of restorative justice.
This programme in San Bruno jail in California is called RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence Programme) and it is a year-long programme, 12 hours a day, six days a week.
It challenges gender norms, addresses addiction, child abuse, and mental health issues, and general domestic violence victims are brought in weekly to explain in great detail the trauma they have experienced as a result of being abused.
The results are remarkable — rates of reoffending dropped by 80% and ultimately, researchers found it saved the government money. But in the last 20 years since RSVP began, Snyder writes, it’s only been replicated in half a dozen jails.
Here in Ireland, Restorative Justice began in 2009 when the National Commission on Restorative Justice expressed its view that “victims, offenders, their families and communities could all benefit from a restorative approach to criminal behaviour” and it often takes the form of a meeting between the victim, offender and mediator where the victim tells his/her story so that the offender can address the real consequences of their crime.
Of course, restorative justice isn’t infallible.
Even writing these words, I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging victims to be in the same room as their abusers, as if we are putting the onus on victims to ‘help’ the abuser understand that his actions were reprehensible.
Having spent the last few months speaking to victims of domestic abuse in particular, I am aware of how chillingly skilled some of these men are at manipulating the system for their own gain, how they can seduce social workers and judges into believing that they, the abusers, are the real victims.
I know many people reading this will be repulsed at Schwartz’s idea that violence could be “reduced if prison became a place not to toss away and forget those who broke the law,” but became “a place to reform them”.
We don’t want to think that inmates, after committing such horrendous crimes, are now spending their days practicing meditation and yoga, talking about their feelings.
Our instinct seems to be that prison should be as brutal an experience as it possibly can be. I can understand that. There have to be consequences for bad behaviour.
But I also want to believe in the power of redemption.
There are some in our society who may be beyond that; there is something skewed with their wiring, they are what we would call psychopaths to their very core and society needs to be protected from them.
But what of the others? Innocent children, born into neglect and abuse? Raised in households of addiction and violence?
Or in communities where there is little hope or expectation, where cycles of poverty are almost impossible to break out of?
Can we believe that they are capable of meaningful change?
And while I don’t believe that it’s the victim’s obligation, nor their family’s, to forgive those who have violated them, I still think that restorative justice has an important part to play in our society.
We often complain that sentences for jail time that are handed down in our society are too lax, but how would we like that person to have spent those years?
Would we prefer that they leave prison even more hardened, angry, and resentful? Or would we rather they had spent that time confronting the impact their actions have had, listening to victims tell their stories, and putting their crimes into context?
When criminals re-enter society, how do we want them to behave moving forward?
No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder. This extraordinary book has had a huge impact on me.
It’s as compelling to read as a tightly-paced novel and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Metal Heart. This comedy about two warring sisters in Dublin suburbia has plenty of heart and charm, while also being laugh out loud funny.
Written by Paul Murray and directed by Hugh O’ Conor, it’s one of the best Irish films you’ll see this year.