Even though the abuse stopped for Vanderhoof, the questions didn’t.
“I always thought that I did something wrong, or said something wrong, or wasn’t smart enough,” Vanderhoof, 43, says. “My goal was just to get some closure.”
That’s why in 2009 Vanderhoof sat down in a Washington County Community Corrections building to talk with a man who had committed abuse in a violent relationship of his own.
“It was a little scary at first,” she recalls.
She asked him if he knew what he was doing to his family. And she asked whether she could have done anything differently.
He told her no.
“He was just very honest,” Vanderhoof says. “When you’ve been lied to for so long, and you finally have someone in front of you who is going to tell you the truth, that’s really empowering.”
The very idea that victims of domestic abuse could benefit from supervised conversations with recovering abusers has alarmed women’s advocates ever since Carrie Outhier Banks first thought of it in 2000.
For more than a decade, many reacted to the suggestion by Banks—then a grad student studying conflict resolution—as if she’d proposed treating shark-attack survivors by submerging them in a tank of hammerheads.
“I got yelled at,” Banks, 42, says. “I got screamed at. And asked to leave a conference: How dare I re-victimize them?”
Banks didn’t see it that way at all.
“To say they’re not strong enough—these are women who had the strength to get up and get hit every day,” she says.
Today, Banks carries out this unprecedented practice, and her nonprofit, Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue, has conducted more than 100 conversations between abusers and survivors.
In each session, a woman who was abused talks for about two hours with a man who was violent toward another woman. (Survivors are never put in the same room with their former abusers.)
The men and women are typically in counseling, and their therapists suggest they take part only if it might help them deal with their respective pasts. Four counselors are there to observe and guide the conversations.
It’s the only program of its kind in the United States. This month, Banks is trying to take the program national.
She’s produced a two-hour DVD showing two actors re-creating exchanges word for word from a session. Banks plans to mail hundreds of copies of the DVD to colleges and universities in Oregon and Washington. She believes the DVD provides a model that can help abused women get answers.
“They’re going to meet a guy in a bar on a Friday night, and they’re going to have the same questions,” Banks says. “In this situation, they can ask those questions in a safe environment.”
Banks, who holds a doctoral degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University in Virginia, now runs her dialogue program out of Portland, mostly using therapist offices as settings. Her nonprofit gets funding from her family as well as wine tastings and raffles.
There are no government grants: She’s ineligible for money through the federal Violence Against Women Act, for example, because her program helps abusers as well as victims.
The dialogue reflects the kind of restorative-justice programs made most famous in post-apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Liberia.
Many experts questioned whether the approach could be applied successfully to the ongoing and intimate nature of an abusive relationship.
“I didn’t want to put a client in a situation where a batterer gets triggered and becomes angry,” says Sheryl Rindel, a clinical program manager who started out skeptical of the dialogues. She changed her mind after watching sessions and is now a member of the program’s board.
“Neither party is pointing a finger, saying, ‘You did this to me,’” Rindel says.
Many offenders realize during a conversation just how much their abuse affected their own partners.
“I always compare it to the Grinch and the heart growing three sizes that day,” says Matt Johnston, a domestic-violence counselor in Beaverton, whose male clients have taken part in the program. “The defenses are down. Crying is not unusual on both sides.”
The DVD re-enactment contains emotional exchanges, but consists mostly of questions.
“Was there anything that she could have done differently?” the woman in the film asks three times.
The man admits no approach by his wife could have defused him.
Banks says that’s an important admission.
“I’m not really a touchy-feely person,” Banks says. “So I don’t go in saying, ‘Let’s talk about forgiveness.’ But 90 percent of the time, the offender will look at the survivor and say, ‘I am so sorry that happened to you.’ Their offender will probably never say that.”
Vanderhoof, when she took part, recalls seeing this stranger seated across from her and feeling as though “we had the same relationship, but didn’t know each other.”
She says the conversation changed how she viewed the relationship that she had survived.
“This might sound silly, but I learned it wasn’t love,” she says. “Love doesn’t hurt—that’s what I learned. I became a new person after I did that. I started coming out of my shell, and now you can’t shut me up.”