Washington City Paper
        by Annys Shin
        April 27-May 3, 2001
      Adele Harrell, director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy
Center, was one of the first researchers to find that conventional batterer
treatments are not very effective. She calls the Compassion Workshop "a
promising program" that needs further study.
      "[Stosny is] good at taking simple things and making them look
beautiful.... Most programs are not good at marketing." -Leila Becker,
clinical director of the Family Crisis Center
      "We don't know what the answer is. We deal with this big elephant that
exists in America, and we're all taking different sections of it and trying
to fathom the best way to do this. I'm not sure we're really there
yet." -Vic Bogo, coordinator of men's programs for Turning Points
      Few aspects of Stosny's approach get his critics going the way his
video, Shadows of the Heart, does. They offer the film as the ultimate proof
that his methods are not only wrongheaded but also irresponsible.
      "We're not naive enough to think everyone who goes through this
treatment will be cured." -Janet Dennis, a victims' advocate for Turning
      "Nothing in feminism isn't true. The feminist view is just too
superficial for treatment. It doesn't explain what is the motivation for
controlling someone else." -Stosny
      "I'm treating my kids better. The atmosphere at my house is much
calmer. I don't go from Level 1 to Level 10 in a second. I don't take off
like a rocket." -Bill, a batterer in Stosny's Compassion Workshop
      "Everything is not easy....We're trying to untwist a lifetime of
learned behavior. It's not simple." -Prince George's County District Court
Judge Patricia Lewis
      "That's certainly what the court system would like to believe-that
there's a magic bullet that can turn batterers into empathetic human beings,
and it doesn't cost anything. Stosny is feeding into that." -Louise Machen,
who runs batterer interventions in Baltimore
      At times, the gulf between Stosny, the tweedy therapist, and his
largely working-class pupils is obvious. For example, several protest when
Stosny tries to explain why corporal punishment never works.
      "Abusers have a sense of powerlessness over their emotions. They say,
'You can make me feel things I can't handle.' So they try to control your
behavior to regulate their emotion. That's the motivation for abuse. It's
more than negative attitudes toward women." -Steven Stosny
      Stosny is considered something of a maverick among batterer-treatment
providers and victim's advocates; his methods are highly controversial.
      According to Stosny's research, which is based on victim reports, 86
percent of the people who complete his class remain violence-free for a
year. But critics point out that that rate has yet to be independently

      Steven Stosny says he can break the cycle of domestic violence. So why
are victims' advocates some of his biggest critics?

      On a cold, blustery night last November, John, a 39-year-old, white,
divorced father of three, makes his way down Good Luck Road to Reid Temple
Episcopal Church in Lanham, Md. His destination isn't the sanctuary, but
Fellowship Hall I, a small, overheated cinder-block room that smells of
franks and beans from the nearby kitchen. He picks the table closest to the
door, puts his carry-out coffee down, and plops himself into a metal folding
chair. There, he reluctantly awaits his transformation.

      Around him are arrayed two dozen or so men and a handful of women.
Many don't bother to take off their heavy winter coats or make themselves
comfortable. After all, this is not an easy room to get comfortable in:
Nearly everyone here has been arrested for assaulting a spouse, significant
other, or relative. Nearly everyone is here because a judge or probation
officer ordered it. Everyone in the room is keenly aware of this fact, and
practically no one speaks or makes eye contact.

      First-night jitters are to be expected, especially tonight, the first
session of a court-ordered "intervention" for batterers. Authorities have
ordered these men and women to attend in the hope that, after 12 weekly
meetings, they will never again assault the ones they love.

      John is here because he argued with his ex-wife over the way he was
disciplining their son. During the argument, he says, she tried to brush
past him and he blocked her path and shoved her. It was the second time he
had been arrested on an assault charge against her. He was first arrested
almost two years ago, after they argued one evening in his car. Angry, he
had gone over to the passenger side and tried to pull her out, but she
resisted. When she finally relented, he yanked her out and threw her on the
ground. That incident landed him in a group similar to this one, but
whatever he learned there didn't help him contain himself the next time he
was "caught off-guard" by his ex-wife's reaction to something.

      Dr. Steven Stosny, the man whose job it is to make sure John doesn't
assault his ex-wife again, stands just a few feet away. Wearing a tweed
jacket over a wool V-neck sweater, he looks as if he's here to lead a
college symposium, not a batterers' treatment. And the room is arranged
classroom style, with Stosny speaking from a podium. He doesn't press his
new pupils about why they are here. Instead, he seems more intent on
assuaging their palpable sense of unease over having to attend his
"Compassion Workshop."

      "Some of you will say, 'My case has nothing to do with family
violence,'" Stosny says, twirling his reading glasses in one hand, leaning
over the lectern. "Some of you are not here because of family violence. But
the person who referred you asked for a specific treatment. The other
treatment available is more confrontational and a lot more about treating
you like a criminal," he says with an odd chuckle. "Here we try to treat you
with dignity and respect.

      "This is a greatly accelerated course," Stosny continues. "Thirty-six
weeks of material is crammed into 12 weeks. You won't share your experience
or problems in this group. It would have to last a year for that.

      "We're going to teach you skills. If you practice them, you're going
to end up feeling more empowered than you do now," Stosny tells the class
enthusiastically. "Your well-being isn't going to depend on somebody else
when you're done with this course."

      For the rest of the 90-minute session, Stosny does most of the
talking. John listens intently. His coffee goes untouched. He sits holding a
pen poised over a pad of paper. For a while, he doesn't take any notes.

      Ever since shelters for battered women first opened their doors more
than a generation ago, there have been programs that have tried to
rehabilitate people who batter. As more jurisdictions began to require
arrests in domestic-abuse cases, judges and prosecutors- reluctant to fill
precious jail space with men who typically faced only misdemeanor assault
charges-searched for ways to give abusers a chance to reform themselves.
Ironically, advocates for battered women were the first to answer the call,
often devoting scarce resources to batterer interventions. They did so
because they reasoned that domestic violence would never end unless
batterers could learn to change their behavior. Such interventions try to
reach the roughly one-third of abusers who domestic-violence experts
estimate are not reformed by a brush with the law.

      Over the years, those who have worked with batterers have tried
numerous approaches, incorporating anger management, individual talk
therapy, and even 12-step-style meetings. Today, the most widely used
program is based on the idea that domestic violence is just one of a range
of ways that men try to subjugate women. Created by the same people who
pioneered the first coordinated law enforcement response to domestic
violence-known as the Duluth Model-the program involves 26 weeks of
intensive encounter-group sessions that seek to change abusers' attitudes
about gender roles as well as teach them different methods to control their
anger. Each year, hundreds of cities and counties around the country send
domestic-violence offenders to programs based on the Duluth Model
intervention for batterers.

      Duluth-style programs are grounded in a feminist analysis of domestic
violence. In his book Violent No More, Michael Paymar, a Minnesota state
legislator who helped develop the Duluth Model intervention, argues that
"men batter women because they believe they are entitled, on account of
their gender, to call the shots, end disputes, and control relationships.
There are variations in this thinking, but belief in male superiority and
authority is a central theme for many men, and especially for men who
batter." As a result, an integral part of Duluth-type treatments involves
breaking through abusers' denial about their abusive behavior and
challenging their beliefs about gender roles.

      Few take issue with the Duluth Model's prescription for a
criminal-justice response to domestic violence. Yet there are a growing
number of researchers who disagree with the model's treatment for batterers.
They argue that the theory behind it doesn't explain domestic violence among
same-sex couples, or child abuse. And despite such treatments, along with
overall tougher responses by law enforcement, domestic violence remains

      According to the July 2000 National Violence Against Women Survey,
conducted by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, one in four of the 8,000 women interviewed said she
had been assaulted, stalked, or raped by an intimate at some point in her
life. On the basis of this figure and others, the researchers estimated that
the 141 million women who live in the United States endure about 4.9 million
rapes and physical assaults by intimate partners every year. The 135 million
men who live in the U.S. suffer approximately 2.9 million such assaults.
It's not surprising, then, that a recent Urban Institute study of crime
statistics in the District of Columbia revealed that one of the most common
victims of violent crime in Washington is a woman battered in a domestic

      Thus, researchers and clinicians are increasingly searching for more
effective ways to treat batterers-a quest only hastened by the results of
several large-scale experimental studies of Duluth-style programs, which
have suggested that such treatments may not be any more effective than no
treatment at all.

      "Abusers have a sense of powerlessness over their emotions," argues
Stosny. "They say, 'You can make me feel things I can't handle.' So they try
to control your behavior to regulate their emotion. That's the motivation
for abuse. It's more than negative attitudes toward women.

      "Nothing in feminism isn't true," he says. "The feminist view is just
too superficial for treatment. It doesn't explain what is the motivation for
controlling someone else."

      Stosny's Compassion Workshop was one of the first departures from
Duluth-style interventions to be accepted by local courts. Stosny starts a
new group at Reid Temple every three months. Two other groups operated by
his organization, CompassionPower Inc., run at the same time in other
locations. Stosny also licenses the Compassion Workshop to other treatment
providers, which run groups across the country and abroad. Duluth Model
programs, however, are still more widespread. Baltimore and Washington, for
example, direct domestic-violence offenders to Duluth-style interventions.
As a result, Stosny is considered something of a maverick among
batterer-treatment providers and victims' advocates; his methods are highly
controversial. But the Compassion Workshop, Stosny says, has had some
impressive outcomes. According to his research, which is based on victim
reports, 86 percent of the people who complete his class remain
violence-free for a year.

      His critics counter that there has yet to be an independent evaluation
of the Compassion Workshop-a point that Stosny and his supporters concede.

      "It's a promising program, but he's open to criticism until he's had
more rigorous testing," says Adele Harrell, director of the Urban
Institute's Justice Policy Center, whose 1991 quasi-experimental study was
one of the first to find that conventional batterer treatments are not very

      Even without definitive data showing that Stosny's methods work, some
clinicians, judges, and prosecutors who face the everyday dilemma of what to
do with batterers have been willing to take Stosny at his word and adopt his
Compassion Workshop.

      "Everything is not easy. Life isn't a 22-minute situation comedy with
a resolution," says Prince George's County District Court Judge Patrice E.
Lewis, who heads the court's Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and
sends batterers to the Compassion Workshop. "We're trying to untwist a
lifetime of learned behavior. It's not simple."

      "My take is: whatever works," says retired Prince George's County
Circuit Court Judge Theresa Nolan, who was the first judge to send Prince
George's defendants to Stosny. "If we can change this man's behavior, it's
worth a shot."

      Two weeks before Christmas, Stosny is poised before his class, face to
face with John, who has volunteered to let Stosny demonstrate a key concept
of the Compassion Workshop.

      "Think of a time you got angry recently," Stosny instructs John.

      "When my wife called the police when I was trying to discipline my
child," John replies.

      "It was a shock to you when they came to the door, wasn't it?" Stosny
asks. "The initial reaction is, 'What's going on?'"

      John nods.

      "When did you realize why they were there?"

      "I knew right away," John replies. "I talked to my wife about a
problem with my son, and we had an altercation."

      "Feel that anger just for a moment," Stosny says. "Feel it in your
neck, your shoulders, your stomach."

      Stosny turns to the class. "When you get angry, you can feel it. It
starts at the neck and goes down." He demonstrates, lifting his shoulders up
slightly, clenching his fists and his teeth. "You get into revenge mode when
you want to bash something-not that you would, of course."

      Stosny relaxes his body and faces John again. He is about to
demonstrate the cornerstone of his workshop, something he calls "HEALS."

      To combat their feelings of powerlessness, Stosny believes abusers
must learn to empower themselves by valuing themselves and their loved ones.
"If they don't, they will empower themselves self-destructively with alcohol
and drugs, and antisocially by abusing their loved ones," he explains.
Abusers can empower themselves, he contends, by learning to regulate their
emotions. On the Web site for CompassionPower, Stosny describes HEALS as a
"new technology of emotional regulation skill [that] allows subjects to
replace focus on injury...with instant focus on healing and improving."

      "HEALS" is a mnemonic. The H represents "See HEALS flash four times";
the E stands for "Experience your core hurt"-or the pain that you are using
the anger to avoid; the A means "Access your core value"-or get in touch
with your compassionate side; the L stands for "Love yourself"-or make
yourself lovable by feeling compassion for whoever is making you angry; and
the S stands for "Solve the problem."

      Stosny demands that each participant in the Compassion Workshop master
the technique by going through the steps of HEALS 45 to 72 times a week, for
a total of 720 times by the time the course ends, so that it will become
automatic whenever anger threatens to overcome a potential batterer. ("It's
like shooting foul shots," Stosny explains.)

      "See the word 'HEALS' flash across her face four times," Stosny tells
John, flashing his fingers in front of John's face four times like a
magician casting a spell.

      "Feel your deepest core hurt," Stosny continues. "In your case, it's
powerlessness. Now, let all your defenses down. Really feel it. Say, 'I feel

      1"I feel powerless," John replies in a monotone.

      Then, with the gusto of a Method acting coach, Stosny declares: "She
is living in your head rent-free, controlling your head." He scans John's
face for evidence that the message is getting through and then says in his
normal voice, "You're resisting it. You want to go deeper."


      "Now go to your core value, to the part of you that would save a child
in the desert, the part of you that loves your children," Stosny says. "You
can choose not to feel angry. Now expand that. Love yourself. You can do
that by feeling compassion for her core hurt. What do you think that is?
It's the same one, right? Powerlessness. You can sympathize with that. You
just felt it."

      John nods.

      "Now, are you going to solve the problem better feeling anger or

      "Compassion," John replies.

      "Do you feel it?" Stosny asks.


      Stosny shakes his hand. Both men take a step away from each other and
face the class, which applauds.

      Stosny believes his HEALS approach has applications far beyond
abusers, so he has turned the Compassion Workshop into a full-time business
called CompassionPower. ("'Power' comes out of the word 'compassion,'"
Stosny likes to point out.) The organization's Web site describes
"CompassionPower" as "Emotional intelligence for Eating Control, Parenting,
Work, Love, Health, and Self-Esteem." Stosny has designed nine interventions
using HEALS for everything from reckless drivers to overeaters and angry

      It may all sound excessively trendy and even New Age touchy-feely, but
some of these spinoff workshops are even being championed by public
officials in the Washington metro area. Virginia and Maryland are testing
Stosny's aggressive-drivers' intervention on people arrested for reckless
driving; D.C. is about to adopt it as well. Stosny also recently met with
officials from Lockheed Martin Information Management Systems, which has a
contract with the District to move people from welfare to work, to discuss
incorporating aspects of the Compassion Workshop into job-training classes.

      Stosny is also a sought-after speaker and has trained people to run
Compassion Workshops in about a dozen countries. For such engagements, he
typically charges $200 an hour. The workshops themselves don't break even,
he says, because at least half of his clients can't afford to pay for them.
(He doesn't turn anyone away for financial reasons, he says, because to do
so would send the wrong "social message.") But he's able to draw most of his
income from speaking and consulting and now sees only a handful of private

      Growing up in Camden, N.J., in the '50s, Stosny says, he could not
have guessed that he would one day build a business working with abusers,
especially given how he got the dent in the back of his head.

      When he was a child, he relates, he upset a pile of roofing shingles
his father had stacked while making repairs to their house. In a fit of
rage, his father threw one of the shingles at him so hard that a surgeon
later had to remove a piece that had gotten lodged in his head. Stosny makes
a point of mentioning this to workshop participants. What he doesn't tell
them is that besides the hole in the head, his father knocked out several
teeth. And, he adds in private, "There's a small scar on my neck from a
hurled glass."

      His late mother, however, bore the brunt of the abuse. "The pain of
witnessing her abuse surpassed the pain of [my] being abused," he says.

      Both his parents were alcoholics. And both, he recalls, were abusive
when they drank-although loving when they were sober. The police came to
their door about once a month; an ambulance, two or three times a year. By
the time he was 11, Stosny says, his mother had left his father 19 times.
She would have gone back the last time, too, he says, but his father found
another woman.

      A few years later, his mother remarried, this time to a man Stosny
describes as "wonderful and compassionate." The two experienced a religious
conversion and stopped drinking. His mother's newfound faith awakened her to
the idea of compassion for herself and others-an idea that would become the
basis for Stosny's treatment. "My mother's intuition and recollections were
invaluable to developing this theory," he says.

      It would be years, however, before Stosny had any professional
interest in domestic violence. He originally pursued a career as a
playwright. But he eventually grew tired of the theater, and when he was
nearly 40, he decided to switch tracks and go for a master's degree in
clinical social work.

      In graduate school, Stosny agreed to fill in for a friend who had to
back out of a domestic-violence research project. As he read the literature,
he says, he became intrigued by the problem of abusers resisting treatment.
In 1990, two years after he'd begun to work with batterers himself, he sat
in on a Duluth-style treatment group at the House of Ruth in Maryland and
walked away unimpressed. "It was obvious that invoking guilt and shame in
people who could not value themselves would only lead them to blame and
punish all the more," he says.

      So one of the first projects Stosny undertook was to find a better way
to engage abusers, most of whom are usually court-ordered into treatment. He
created a video called Shadows of the Heart, which he tested in 1994 in a
randomized experiment with 106 spouse abusers drawn from seven different
nonprofit agencies. His results indicated, he says, that the film "greatly
increased participation in the group-treatment process."

      Over the years, Stosny has not been shy about criticizing conventional
batterer treatment. And that, combined with his entrepreneurship, has earned
him his share of critics, who accuse him of coddling abusers and of being
little more than a slick salesman.

      "He's good at taking simple things and making them look beautiful,"
notes Leila Becker, clinical director of the Family Crisis Center in
Hyattsville, Md. "He's a good statistician. He's good at making it look like
he gets good outcomes. Most programs are not good at marketing. They're
limping along, doing activist work, victim work, and batterer work."

      "There are a lot of people who would like to believe there are
shortcuts," says Louise Machen, who has worked with batterers in Baltimore
using a Duluth-style intervention for the past 15 years. "That's certainly
what the court system would like to believe-that there's a magic bullet that
can turn batterers into empathetic human beings, and it doesn't cost
anything. Stosny is feeding into that."

      Few aspects of Stosny's approach get his critics going the way Shadows
of the Heart does. They offer the film as the ultimate proof that his
methods are not only wrongheaded but also irresponsible.

      The film opens with the image of a teddy bear dropping to the floor
near an empty rocking chair. The production values are low, the lighting
daytime-television bad. The acting, it turns out, isn't much better:

      A tall, slender man in his 30s, wearing too much eyeliner, sits
impatiently in a waiting room. He's greeted by a doughy counselor with a
broadcast-news announcer's voice: "Hi, Brent. I'm really glad you could join
us tonight."

      "I didn't exactly have a choice, did I?" Brent sneers, trying to
hammer the counselor into submission with hyperenunciation.

      Unperturbed, the counselor leads him to another room where Tyrone, a
peer counselor, sits waiting for him. Tyrone and the counselor try to get
Brent to confront the pain he feels-pain that he has surrounded with an
"electric fence" of anger. The pain can be healed by rescuing "the child

      As Brent goes through the rescue of his inner child, a small boy with
jagged teeth appears sitting in a rocking chair with a teddy bear.
Presumably, he is a young Brent. The boy hears crockery shattering and feet
running up the stairs. A woman, presumably his mother, suddenly enters the
room and picks him up. A drunken man, presumably his father, stumbles in
after her. The father pulls the boy away from his mother and roughly puts
him down on a bed, where the child gets a front-row view of his father
whacking his mother several times.

      "He needs you to take him out of here. You're his only chance," the
counselor implores in voice-over as the adult Brent enters the room, picks
up the little boy, and carries him out.

      The end.

      "Looking back into the past and rescuing your inner child?" asks
Machen, who saw the video several years ago. "[Stosny's treatment] doesn't
focus enough on holding these men accountable for what they've done."

      Machen doesn't necessarily disagree with Stosny's theory that
deep-seated feelings of shame are at the root of abusive behavior: "He may
well be right. Many of the men were certainly horribly abused as children.
Nobody gets to a stage like this growing up in a healthy house. But OK-so
what? That sounds cavalier, but that's just not where I'd start in working
with them. These are very manipulative folks.

      "You have to get them to the point," Machen concludes, "where they
understand there's a reason for them to be [in treatment]. I don't think
you've done anything with them if you send them out believing they're
victims, because they already believe that's what they are."

      Stosny says Machen and other critics misunderstand his methods. "[The
video] is just a setup to make them feel compassion," he says. "The
knee-jerk reaction of advocates comes because they do not read the
instructions for processing the video that come with it. They take the
'child within' material literally."

      In his manual for Compassion Workshop group leaders, Stosny explains
that no one is actually supposed to do the rescue described in the film. Or,
as he tells me later, "It's just so I can say [to the class] afterwards,
'Which did you prefer: Feeling anger or compassion?' And they say,

      Though Stosny's program is designed not to alienate abusers, he still
runs into his share of resistance. When he lectures, he likes to bombard
classes with insights gleaned from studies about everything from differences
between the sexes (men most fear shame; women most fear physical harm) to
the reason people tend to get into fights at funerals (they're avoiding
grief via anger). Stosny sometimes dishes these out with humor ("The hard
part isn't breaking up-it's waking up!") but always with an air of
confidence that seems to suggest that psychology has solved all these
mysteries of the psyche with complete precision.

      People in the group usually seem most receptive when Stosny talks
about the physiological dimensions of anger or strategies for avoiding power
struggles with people. But at times, the gulf between the tweedy therapist
and his largely working-class pupils is obvious. For example, several
protest when Stosny tries to explain why corporal punishment never works.

      "Ask [your kids] about the last four times you spanked them," Stosny
says. "Ask them what it was for. Research shows one out of four remembers
why; the rest only remember the spanking."

      A man in a Verizon baseball cap immediately begs to differ: "Even the
Bible, in Proverbs 22:15, says, 'The rod will drive foolishness out of the
heart of a child.'"

      "Why does that mean spank them?" Stosny counters. "Biblical scholars
have argued that the rod stands for authority. It doesn't mean you have to
spank them."

      "You give us the opportunity to say things, but you don't let us
express ourselves fully," the man in the cap replies huffily. "You say if
this were interactive, [the program would take] 36 weeks. So you say it's
not interactive. Fine. But I spank my kids and they know why."

      "Ask them why," Stosny says calmly. "Tell us next week what they say."

      It's hard to tell whether the man in the Verizon cap is in the
majority or the minority in the group. During a break, he tells me the class
      is "bullshit."

      But about half of Compassion Workshop participants seem to actually
enjoy being in the class, which I have signed on to attend to try to
understand how it works. The table where I sit each week is probably the
most pro-Stosny clique in the entire group. It includes a guy whom I'll
refer to as Gary, another fellow whom I'll call George, and an older couple.
The husband in the couple has already been through the class once; graduates
can return whenever they want for free, alone or with their partners. Gary
shares his Ice Breaker gum with them. He's also a bit of a class clown. When
Stosny asks class members what they will do the next time they are angry, he
grins and pretends to break a window with an imaginary hammer. George breaks
into chuckles. Stosny takes all this in stride. To him, it's a sign that
they are paying attention.

      After several weeks in the class, John says he's practiced HEALS only
a few times. "It's not practical," he says. "I'm not an angry person to
begin with. It's not like I fought with every person I met or [I get angry]
in traffic, in lines, or at shopping centers-not me. I know very
specifically what makes me angry. Experience your core hurt? I didn't have
enough material [to practice with]. I had to bring up the same bad things.
It's too unrealistic."

      John is not the only one having trouble with HEALS. At the end of the
third class, a burly guy with a mustache and glasses hovers by the podium to
speak to Stosny. "I'm just not getting it," he says.

      I remember him from the first night. I was sitting next to him when he
turned to me and said abruptly, "I've been married 23 years, and I'd like to
keep it that way!"

      His name is Bill. Unlike most of the class, he is not here on a court
order. He is a volunteer. But his path here wasn't really much different
from the others'.

      One evening a few months earlier, Bill says, he got into an argument
with his wife, Rosa. During the argument, Rosa got up on the couch and
started flailing at him. "She's yelling, 'What the hell are you doing? Get
out of the house! I want a divorce!'" he says. "I grab her arm because she's
wailing about my head, and my hand ends up around her throat. In the heat of
everything, I realize I'm squeezing her throat, so I broke off and locked
myself in the bedroom so she wouldn't come after me. And I was afraid I was
going to go out of control and going to be incarcerated for a long time."

      Rosa didn't call the police. Instead, the couple went to counseling.
Bill says he had never hit Rosa before, but he had been arrested twice for
assaulting others. He started taking medication for depression. Therapy,
however, wasn't helping him control his anger, which he and Rosa say
continued to be a problem. So Bill volunteered to go to batterers'

      "I knew I had some kind of a problem," he says. "I didn't know how to
handle it."

      Back in Fellowship Hall I, Bill tells Stosny after class that he's
already tried the audio tape of the HEALS steps that Stosny has either lent
for free or sold to participants for $5. (You're supposed to play it in your
car so you can practice whenever you're getting pissed off in traffic.) But
it hasn't worked. Stosny roots around in his bag and comes back with a
CD-ROM. He's just finished making it, he tells Bill. It flashes the steps of
HEALS on a computer screen; maybe visualizing HEALS will help, Stosny
suggests. Bill shrugs, tucks the CD under his arm, and goes on his way.

      As the weeks roll by, a 12-foot Christmas tree appears in the corner
of Fellowship Hall I for several sessions. After New Year's, it disappears.
Stosny starts showing up wearing stubble. By February, he has grown a full
beard. Most strikingly, however, the number of students dwindles from a peak
of about 30 to about a dozen. Some of the original participants have
transferred to sessions in other locations or time slots. Others have
dropped out.

      Stosny says the dropout rate for the Compassion Workshop is about 30
percent, which is slightly better than average for groups that deal with
batterers. At the Family Crisis Center, the rate is about 45 percent,
according to Becker. And at Anger Domestic Abuse Prevention and Treatment in
Fairfax County, which has switched from Duluth-style interventions to
Stosny's, the dropout rate is about 50 percent, according to program
coordinator Sam Bachman. Participants who drop out or don't even show up for
the first class may face penalties such as jail time, but that depends on
the judge-a situation that leads many who work with batterers to note that
an intervention is only as good as the response of the criminal-justice
system that goes with it. Stosny, by contrast, believes whether the judge
throws the book at them or not is irrelevant; people don't come back when an
intervention isn't reaching them.

      Those who stick with Stosny to the end must complete the final and
most difficult leg of the course: reading a "statement of compassion." The
statement has certain requirements. First, you have to describe what you did
in explicit terms. Then you must relate how your abusive behavior affected
your victim, your family, yourself. Finally, you have to lay out what you
are going to do to make sure you don't abuse or control anyone again.

      The reading of the statements is the climax of the Compassion
Workshop. Short of tracking the progress of each participant over the next
year, this is, for all intents and purposes, the most concrete indication
you're going to get of whether these batterers have learned to mend their

      Just as they did on the first day, the group members sit in tense
silence. One of the first to get up is Gary. Everyone has come to know Gary
as the guy whose jokes have made the class tolerable, the one who always
shares his gum. And now, for the first time, everyone knows Gary as someone
who knocked his mother down after they argued over some repairs to the house
they shared.

      His voice chokes up as he describes the incident. He and his mother
had a mutually verbally abusive relationship, he explains. He's since moved
out and hasn't seen her in more than a year. "I think I can keep the fangs
retracted," he says, his voice growing steady. "I now have compassion for
others. I can understand where they're coming from. It keeps me from getting
upset. Since I've taken this course, it's helped me out so much. I think
everyone should take it."

      With few exceptions, the experience of getting up in front of the
group and baring their souls proves to be just as emotional for the rest of
the participants. One man has brought his wife along for the first time. As
she sits in a chair looking up at him, he recounts how the couple tussled on
the way to pick up their marriage license. Both were arrested, but he was
the only one who landed in the Compassion Workshop. Nonetheless, he says, he
shared what he learned with his wife. "Now when she gets mad, I say, 'HEALS,
baby, HEALS,'" he says, drawing a few chuckles.

      One of the last to read his statement is Bill. The CD-ROM, he tells me
later, did the trick. "It's very visual. I played it on my computer every
day, sometimes over and over and over. It started sinking in. It started
calming me down," he says. "I'm treating my kids better. The atmosphere at
my house is much calmer. I don't go from Level 1 to Level 10 in a second. I
don't take off like a rocket."

      When I ask Rosa if she's noticed any difference, she confirms Bill's
report. "He's able to stop and not react right away and take in more
information than he used to," she says, although there seems to be a note of
caution in her voice. "His relationship with the kids is better. Before, he
was a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type person. People were scared of him. We were really
scared of him. I think it got to the point, we were so frightened, he needed
help or we were out."

      "We've got our heads together more; we're working in tandem," Bill
says of Rosa. "Hopefully, I'll be with her another 23 years."

      After an hour, everyone has spoken, with one exception: John. Stosny
doesn't press him. He simply gets up and starts to hand out certificates to
everyone else. They're green-bordered affairs, the kind you get at
junior-high graduations. They declare that each participant "has completed
the requirements of the Compassion Workshop." There's a little gold seal
embossed with the words "Emotional Regulation" and "CompassionPower."

      A week or so after the final class, John agrees to a phone interview.

      "My expectations [for the Compassion Workshop] were low," he says. "I
learned so much in the first [court-ordered treatment I went to], I couldn't
learn much more on this topic that would help me in everyday life. I learned
that altercations, whether you've initiated them or not, are not going to
solve problems, and you can't make anyone do something they don't want. I
forgot that for half a second."

      John says he will continue in the Compassion Workshop. (According to
Stosny, those who don't finish the last assignment have to start over.) John
knows he will probably have to read a statement of compassion at some point,
especially if he wants the course to count in his favor when he appears at
his upcoming trial on assault charges. But he says he just couldn't bring
himself to do it the other day. He told Stosny so before the last class.

      "I'm not an angry person to begin with," John says. "I told [Stosny]
this from the beginning-that in all my years, I've never gotten in a fight
with anyone. I seldom get angry or lose my temper. I don't yell in
arguments. I'm not sure why that's the case with me, but the two times I've
gotten in trouble, I was surprised. I was basically caught off guard. I'm
not sure HEALS helps in those situations where you're caught off guard."

      Unlike Brent in Shadows of the Heart, John says, he did not grow up in
a violent home. "Maybe we should've yelled more. I wasn't as well equipped
to handle it." When they married 16 years ago, he says, his then-wife "saw
me as a gentle person," he recalls.

      Their kids are the main reason they still see each other even though
they divorced six years ago.

      John attributes their divorce largely to differences in religion. His
ex-wife, however, says a bigger factor was his abuse. "At first, his anger
was not directed toward me," she recalls in a separate interview. "When it
was, it was few and far between at first. Then the cycles got shorter and
shorter as time went on, particularly during difficult periods."

      The incident John was arrested for, she says, was not the first time
he had become violent with her. It was just the first time she had called
the police.

      "Even if it was not a happy marriage, I probably would've dealt with
it indefinitely," she muses. "People like me who end up like this are very
willing to love their partners, so willing to overlook way too much. It
wouldn't take much for people like me to want to continue the relationship.
Stopping the abuse would be all it took. You think that would be a small
thing, but it's an impossible thing. To this day, he'll say he barely
touched me. Ask him where the bruises came from. He doesn't answer."

      Indeed, John doesn't mention any past incidents of violence, only
recent close calls. "I did go back at one point" to the first batterers'
program, he says. "I had gotten angry about something with my ex-wife, and I
went back to talk to them."

      But he doubts he will keep in touch with Stosny after he finishes the
Compassion Workshop. He doesn't feel the same affinity with him. "I got the
feeling [Stosny] is good at this, but I didn't think he was doing this to
help us, because we were helping him with his research and his statistics.
In the other group, I felt connected to the people running it."

      His ex-wife, however, says she has seen more results since John has
been in the Compassion Workshop. "I don't think [the first class] reached
him. I think its target was a different kind of person, someone who's always
very overtly violent," she says. "[The Compassion Workshop] does appear to
be doing a better job. I see instances that in the past would have escalated
that [now] seem to be checked. I definitely see better work happening here
than in the previous class." But, she adds, John may also be on his best
behavior because there is a trial coming up. She isn't so sure he will never
be violent toward her again.

      Though John says he can keep himself under control, he doesn't sound
completely sure, either. "For all these years and all the ups and downs in
our marriage, I was able to handle everything except being completely
surprised by a reaction from my ex-wife that I couldn't have expected. It's
the 1 percent of things I have a hard time with. That's hard to prepare

      By Stosny's estimation, this Reid Temple group was a success. Yet the
14 percent recidivism rate he boasts of still applies. It means that at
least a couple of the participants who completed the class will likely abuse
their partners again within a year, though according to studies of batterer
programs, those who re-offend usually do so within the first three months.
Whether John is likely to be among the recidivists, Stosny doesn't hazard a
prediction. But, he says, if he does suspect that one of his pupils is
dangerous, he makes sure to warn that batterer's potential victim.

      The victims, after all, are why Stosny and the others who work with
batterers do what they do. And why they aren't likely to give up anytime

      "It's similar to substance abuse," says Janet Dennis, a court advocate
for domestic-violence victims with Turning Points, a battered women's
program in Dumfries, Va., who used to run batterers' groups as well. "We're
not naive enough to think everyone who goes through this treatment will be
cured....I can never tell you if they're cured. They're probably never
cured. We just hope we're keeping people a little safer and that these men
take some of those skills and change their lives."

      "I'm not saying any of these programs are right or wrong," echoes Vic
Bogo, Turning Points' men's groups coordinator, who has worked with
batterers for 25 years and runs both Duluth groups and Compassion Workshops.
"They're just different ways of getting to the same thing: to change the
behavior and make it safer for the abused.

      "We don't know what the answer is," Bogo continues. "We deal with this
big elephant that exists in America, and we're all taking different sections
of it and trying to fathom the best way to do this. I'm not sure we're
really there yet." CP

Copyright © 2001 Washington Free Weekly Inc.

For information on the Compassion Workshop programs, training of trainers, outcome studies, etc click here.

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