Domestic violence in 2010 has reached epic and deadly proportions in the territory. While V.I. statistics on domestic violence are almost nonexistent, the Source’s front pages have borne ample witness: a murder-suicide on St. Thomas (Feb. 10), a woman shot to death in Oswald Harris Housing Community by her boyfriend (Feb. 18), a St. Croix mother and daughter shot to death by a family member (April 25), and a woman who died four days after being viciously attacked with a fire extinguisher by her ex-husband (May 8).
While this year’s headlines paint a terrifying picture of domestic strife, there is an island of hope: a V.I. batterers intervention program that seems to be working. In keeping with the Source’s commitment to a better community through awareness and true story telling, we bring you a tale of two V.I. batterers on the road to recovery.
Rick and Larry
On Wednesday nights a dozen or more men, most of them court-ordered, meet with two co-facilitators to learn about life, conflict and resolution—things they missed in their upbringing.
Rick and Larry, two graduates from the program, spoke recently about what brought them to the Family Resource Center … and to their senses.
Rick, at maybe 5 feet 11, sports a green-yellow-and-red-striped herb hat over his short locks, and when he smiles, which he does often, he reveals a few missing teeth. He is dressed for our interview in a clean, pressed work shirt from his job as a parts specialist at a local car dealership.
Larry, who is currently unemployed, is dressed in a light-colored, loose-fitting, short-sleeved shirt and pressed dark slacks. He is slightly built with a shaved head and thin mustache and goatee.
Neither have the demeanor or aggressive nature one would expect from a batterer. Both men make eye contact when answering questions, and neither express any embarrassment over being part of the intervention program. While they acknowledge the incidents, both men remain vague about what they did to the women who called the police on them.
Throughout the interview, they tend to talk abstractly about what happened, never spelling out the details of their transgressions, as if they were more like engaged bystanders than deliberate perpetrators.
An encounter with a former girlfriend at her place of employment landed Larry, after a plea bargain, at the center’s intervention program. It was that or do jail time.
That was also the choice offered Rick after an altercation with his sister that ended up with her having a bruised face and him in handcuffs.
That was Rick’s first experience with jail, and it was enough to convince him to spend 24 weeks learning anger management with therapist Bonnie Roy and Pastor Neville Williams.
It was the same for Larry, who had already given 13 years of his life to the prison system. He took the plea and went to therapy.
Larry says he was "shocked" to learn he harbored hatred. "I am a fun guy," he says, grinning from ear to ear. But if someone "do me something," Larry said, he could hold onto a grudge until he had an opportunity to get even. "I didn’t know that was hatred."
And he didn’t understand that he was the one being hurt by it far more than the people he hated. "They don’t care. They’re out laughing, while I am just waiting for my chance."
Rick’s anger with his sister, he feels, stemmed from the stress of taking care of his mother alone for 17 months while awaiting help from his sibling who was in the states.
After she finally arrived on St. Thomas, Rick says there was trouble. When it escalated in December 2008, "my sister got hit" is the way he describes the incident that landed him in jail briefly charged with assault.
Larry says jealousy and anger led him to his then girlfriend’s workplace in January 2009, a month after the couple had broken up. Larry says he wanted answers about what had happened to end the relationship. In his frustration he "grabbed her." Through his work with Roy and Williams, Larry now knows he "was trying to control the situation." He laughs as Rick nods his concurrence.
Along with the group, participants are also provided with literature to read and study and discuss.
In order to graduate, members must show up and participate in the discussion. They must also pay a fee.
Few come on their own, though. Roy says a couple of men have shown up, hoping to change themselves, but they don’t last long usually.
The enthusiasm level seems to rise with the threat of a jail sentence hanging over their heads.
But after a year, both Rick and Larry seem genuine in their gratitude for what they have learned and for the life they now lead.
The group has rules, the two men say, piggybacking on each other to explain the parameters.
"No obscenity, no interruptions, no drugs, no alcohol, no violence at the meetings."
Rick particularly likes speaker meetings. Recently a lawyer came to talk to the 16 men crowded around the center’s small, oblong, beige, paint-chipped table. The men batted questions at the attorney for two hours. Roy says the lawyer talked about the law, child custody and support. But he also talked to the men about how to achieve harmony in the home—something in short supply as they were growing up.
Childhood Cause and Effect
Larry grew up watching his father physically abuse his mother. That taught him to abuse his girlfriend at 17, he says, "’cause that’s what I saw." Larry now also realizes that when he used to beat his oldest son, who was born when Larry was 17, often it wasn’t discipline. He was taking out his frustrations on him.
Rick grew up with only a mother. But she was tough. "If I got beat in school, I got beat at home," he says.
Rick’s mother often beat him, even with a fan belt. He makes light of it, saying he was a discipline problem. "She just used to do what she had to do."
And he’s ambivalent about it. On the one hand, he resents being beaten (on the hand with a wooden paddle when he was in school); on the other, he thinks that’s what kids need.
Larry had a different reaction to school beatings. While attending Ulla Muller School in second or third grade, he threw three rocks into the classroom after being punished physically. "I was like 6 years old or something." He then ran to get his uncle, who came back to the school brandishing a machete. He says this particular uncle was known to be violent, and that’s exactly why he ran to him.
While both men feel they were damaged in some ways by corporal punishment, they both are quick to say there’s a time and place for discipline.
Larry, who, along with working construction, is an artist, says he confides in a few people and that his family is supportive. But he mostly keeps to himself about his therapy.
"Before I didn’t like to talk to people," says Rick, the now-gregarious parts specialist.
Larry says when he first came to the group he didn’t open up right away. But eventually, after dragging himself to the weekly group "dirty and tired" after concrete work on St. John, he began to understand the benefits. "When I open up, I see more, too," he says.
The 13 years Larry has spent in prison were mostly due to violence. His changes today stand out.
"I had fist fights, knife fights and gun fights … but I now use self-control, that’s my weapon now."
Both men say they are willing to take their message to the street.
They believe their newfound tools for handling conflict could be a big help to young and old alike in the community. Referring to counselors Roy and Williams and the anger management lessons, Rick says, "This is the coolest."
"It’s OK to say I’m sorry," Rick says.
And for Larry, he knows, "When I’m wrong, I’m wrong." He adds, "I didn’t see that day that I was trying to control the situation. The only thing you can control is yourself."
Larry says the best part of his life is "being alive during this recession and knowing it will get better."
For Rick, he says, rubbing his tear-filled eyes, the best part is "my grandchild."
For more information on the batterer’s intervention program, call 776-3966 or the hotline at 776-7867.