On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I attended a training for the Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue program here in Oregon. The program takes on a restorative justice model, by creating a space where surrogate victims and offenders of domestic violence can speak to each other about their experiences. The facilitated dialogue allows for victims to ask offenders why they committed the acts of violence to their former partners, and also what kind of steps they’re doing to change. I decided to take the training to not only hopefully volunteer as a facilitator for these conversations, but also to challenge myself to look at a traumatic past that I’ve been harboring for the past 10 years.
When I decided to pursue the peace and conflict studies graduate program at my university, I knew that the mediation portion of the program, a very big chunk of the program, was going to be an obstacle for me. Not that I’m averse to conflict, but rather, I knew that there would be certain types of conflicts that I wouldn’t feel comfortable mediating. In particular, conflicts that involved acts of domestic violence and sexual abuse were triggers for me. Being a survivor myself of a violent and sexually abusive relationship, I felt, for a long time, no empathy for offenders. I couldn’t care less if all offenders were shipped to an island to live out their days in exile.
But gradually over time and with therapy, I started to slowly increase my capacity of empathy for people like my ex. Even though he had spent years hurting me and tore down bits and pieces of my soul with every act of abuse; I could no longer use the word “hate” to describe my feelings towards him. I’ve known for a long time that contacting him and even having a conversation with him would be out of the question, because in the past when there were opportunities to connect again, it was the same old song and dance of deny, deny, deny. Although it’s been a little more than 10 years since the relationship ended, to connect again and to see that nothing has changed on his end, would be a complete waste of time. I may be at a place where I can extend empathy, but I lack the patience to see if he has finally accepted accountability for his actions.
When I found the DVSD program almost a year ago, I knew that I wanted to be involved. More than closure and peace of mind, I most of all wanted answers. Why does an offender commit violence? Was there a pattern in their past? Was it something I did that if I had just changed my behavior, I wouldn’t have been treated so badly? And, could change have occurred while in the relationship? I also wanted to see if an offender was able to change their behavior. I, until attending the training, have never met another offender since my ex. Was change possible, and if so, what did that work look like?
The first day of the training started with discussions of what restorative justice is, how it’s being applied to domestic violence work, and what kind of power it has to change the lives for both victims and offenders. It was comforting for me to see a workshop lead by one of my professors, whom I know is also a survivor.
But it was the second day of training that was the most difficult to handle. We watched an hour long video of a simulation of a facilitated dialogue. Actors were used to play the victim and offender, but the transcript was taken from a real dialogue. Because I knew that the video was just a simulation, I felt that the dialogue wasn’t as moving as I expected it to be. There were parts that resonated with me however, such as towards the end where the offender had to read out loud their statement of accountability. Hearing the exact details of the offender’s acts of violence toward their ex-wife and acknowledging that they were remorseful for their actions moved me to tears. For me, this is something that my ex will never feel compelled to do.
Afterwards, we heard an offender and victim speak at different times. Of course, hearing the survivor’s perspective of the dialogue and their abuse is always a moving and transformative experience because it’s as if it reaffirms my own experiences. But the offender participant was an entirely different experience of its own. When the offender entered the room, I didn’t know how to feel. He was youngish, probably in his mid to late thirties. When he began speaking of his participation in the dialogue and sharing broad information about his previous domestic violence situation, I suddenly began humanizing him. Just moments before he started speaking, I felt extreme apprehension at believing that this man could recover from being violent. But there he was, speaking articulately about what happened in his relationship, why he committed those acts of violence, and what he’s doing now to try to change. I was, for lack of a better description, blown away.
I’m thinking now that before I start facilitating dialogues, which my original thought was that that’d be enough to complete my healing process, I’m considering doing a dialogue as well. I think it’s time for me to face the harm that was done to me and to begin the journey of fully forgiving him and myself.