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In today's segment of our series, "The Hidden Sides of Abuse," KSMU's Jennifer Moore talks to the men who engage in domestic violence, and asks the question: Can a batterer really change?
It's a cold Tuesday night, and 26 men have gathered in a quiet Sunday School room in the Macedonia Baptist Church in Springfield.
Some are here by choice, others by court order. But they all have one thing in common: they are perpetrators of domestic violence. Welcome to the "Hit No More" program, which teaches batterers the relationship skills they need to stop their violent ways.
One of the attendees is Wesley Powell, a 29-year-old, university educated man from south central Missouri. He first raised his hand to his girlfriend three years ago.
"We'd just get into an argument and just bicker back and forth," he says. "It began to escalate further and further to the point that I wasn't able to handle and cope with it and crossed the boundary to the threshold of slapping her."
As he shared in his interview, Wesley was soon to learn that once one wall falls down, the next one is in line.
"I nearly killed her twice..."
"Both times was strangulation."
"Was that when you decided to get help?"
"After the second time that I had strangled her and nearly had killed her, I had to see her face and the blood vessels hat had burst and the spots all over her face for several weeks afterwards. And that forced me to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'This is what you've become, the monster that you are. The question is, 'What are you going to do about it?'"
So Wesley enrolled in the program. He has been coming faithfully for 72 weeks.
The Hit No More classes are taught by Larry Copelin. A former boxer on the Air Force Boxing team, Copelin is 220 pounds of "Don't mess with me," and he is the right guy for this job.
"I don't see these men as bad men. I see them as men with bad behavior," he says.
Copelin teaches the men that "abuse" is not limited to physical violence, and its root cause is neither anger nor alcohol, although both can make it worse.
Abuse is a range of methods used to maintain power over another person with the intention of controlling them. Some of those tactics include using emotional, financial and sexual abuse, as well as using male privilege, intimidation, threats, isolation, and possessiveness.
Copelin believes that men are not born abusers; it is something they learn. In some men, as it was in Wesley's case, it stems from a low self-esteem or feeling inferior.
For other men, however, controlling a woman is a way of life which has been instilled in them by family, culture, institutions, and peer groups.
"There's an old saying that we learn what we live," Copelin says. "John Wayne was one of my heroes. But I was watching an old John Wayne movie one time. And in that one, his partner was disappointed in him because he wouldn't fight her brother for her hand. So he finally fought her brother and took her hand and drug her across the yard and threw her in the house. And I thought, 'Wow. I never noticed this before.'"
Lundy Bancroft is the author of the bestselling book, "Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry And Controlling Men." He joined me by telephone to give the top warning signs that a man may become abusive later down the road. Single women, women just beginning a relationship, and fathers of teenage daughters: listen up.
"Well probably top of the list is jealousy and possessiveness," Bancroft said. "So if he, you know, has to know where she is all the time, seems really concerned about the attention she's giving to male friends or even female friends or relatives, that's a person to really stay away from."
Bancroft says other warning signs of abuse are: nothing is ever his fault, he speaks disrespectfully and bitterly about his former partners, he intimidates you when he's angry, he has negative attitudes toward women, he has double standards, and he treats you differently around other people.
Since abusive behavior is something learned, as Larry Copelin said, that means that men do have the ability to change.
"It is true that not every man is gong to change. It is not true that they cannot change. That's a myth. Men can change. They need motivation, and they need instruction, and they need it from someone they respect," Copelin says.
He should know. Coplein used to be a batterer himself. He adds, however, that if a woman is in violent situation, she should get out of that relationship, and stay out until her partner has changed.
As Wesley works on his car in his garage, he thinks about his future, and knows it will always be interlaced with his past.
"There are memories that are burned in my subconscious and conscious mind, and will be for the rest of my life. And I relive them often," he says.
Although it is rare for abusers to completely abandon their ways, he has taken the first step.
For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore in Springfield.