The assistant district attorney cleared the courtroom, while two sheriff's deputies searched the defendant. He was known to own 13 guns. Word had reached the sheriff's office that there might be violence.
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I stood between my client--the plaintiff--and the man she had lived with, and been abused by, for 13 years. Three nights before, when he had held a gun to her head until daybreak, she decided it was time to come to court for a restraining order. Like most of the women I encountered in my work as a court advocate, she had suffered for years under a reign of terror and humiliation.
After the proceedings, the defendant approached me in the corridor outside the courtroom, anxious to tell me his side of the story. Most of the partners of my clients found a way to speak to me, in the courthouse or out in the parking lot. I have heard some interesting tales. But I have also witnessed the pain of men who seem truly sorry for their violence, who grieve the loss of seeing their children, who tearfully recount the abuse that was done to them as children.
A few months ago, I decided to leave my court job and begin co-facilitating an "anger management group" for men who batter. The therapist who convenes the group has had extensive experience with men who have a history of domestic violence. I mostly wanted to learn what he knows.
My interest seemed consistent with my history. Since the day I was 13 years old, living in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and witnessed the riots in nearby Harrisburg after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., my life seems to have been about crossing the barriers that divide people. My first step into Harrisburg that summer led to another into Harlem a few years later, and then one into inner-city Washington, D.C., that lasted 15 years. For much of my life, racial and economic divisions have been a primary concern.
But walking into a room filled with men who have done violence to their partners has felt like crossing a barrier of a different sort. I sat last week across from a man who had just been released from a month in jail for beating his wife; when she went to court, her face was still swollen with the bruises. Among other things, he had videotaped himself raping her. One night he had beaten her, told her "Men beat their dogs," and forced her to sleep out on the porch with the family pet.
In his presence, I felt a fear more raw and intimate than I had ever known. It was stronger than the apprehension I encountered while vigiling in Nicaragua's war zones or being interrogated by security police in South Africa. This was a far more personal fear.
I have come to understand the privilege that comes with being white, educated, middle-class, and from the United States. These facts were all protection for me in other settings. To the extent that I felt fear in those places, it grew out of the same reality that I confront every Tuesday night in that room full of men: my vulnerability as a woman. This is the first barrier I have crossed from a position of weakness.
I FEAR RAPE, and humiliation, and the physical power of men who batter and bruise-and sometimes kill. I don't know any woman who hasn't at some point in her life had to face the truth of her vulnerability.
But I also consider it a great privilege to be allowed in to the thoughts and feelings of the men in that room. Somehow, it seems to me, we are all-women and men-entangled in this brokenness together. And we need to find our way out together.
I often encounter women-both survivors of domestic violence and justice advocates-who believe that forgiveness is absurd, and reconciliation impossible. Often I have shared their rage and despair. I understand that such feelings are a natural reaction to being told, as most battered women are, that the first step in healing is to forgive.
I believe it is possible to create a world in which reconciliation is possible without sacrificing justice. Forgiveness is certainly not the first step. But perhaps it could be the last. We need to keep crossing the barriers and listening to one another.
JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, worked as a court advocate with survivors of domestic violence in western North Carolina. She is currently in the master's of divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).