Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence — book review
Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence is not primarily written for women who are recipients of abuse. I do not recommend it for women who are living in abuse and longing for their abuser to change.
The author, Sara Elinoff Acker, says in the introduction:
If you’re a man who’s just admitted to yourself that you are abusive, this book is for you. …
When I first started working in the field of domestic violence, I didn’t believe that abusive men could really change. Now I know that some can. Sadly, men who’ve committed to change are only a small minority of men who are abusive.
The author recognises the risk of publishing stories by men who are reforming — the stories “might kindle an unrealistic sense of hope among women experiencing domestic violence.”
While the book is written for men who have admitted they are abusive and are wanting to change, there is one chapter for women partners. That chapter is titled “When the man you love is abusive”. The subheadings in that chapter are:
- Many abusive men do not become nonviolent
- Attending a domestic violence intervention program is essential
- If he doesn’t “own” his problems he can’t change them
- Substance abuse is a separate issue
- Couples’ counseling is inappropriate
- Keep your guard up; change takes time
- Two steps forward, one step back
- Your own experience matters most
- Signs he IS changing
- Signs he is NOT changing
- Healing yourself no matter what he does
- You deserve a supportive community
- Commit to an abuse-free life
I could see that the men’s stories in Unclenching Our Fists might give hope to men who were genuinely admitting their abusiveness and committing to change. Of the eleven men whose stories are in the book, some of them seemed to me more awake and more committed to change than others, but that is to be expected. It sounded to me like all of the men were changing their behavior and attitudes to a fair degree, but I had the sense that some of those men might not persevere and stick at the hard work of changing deep down into their hearts.
I personally know of less than a handful of men who were abusers who have changed into non-abusers. Two of those are men who were not Christians and are still not Christians. Those two abusers both attended secular Men’s Behaviour Change Programs in Australia and kept repeatedly attending and working on their stuff until they deep down changed. They are now both working professionally in the Men’s Behaviour Change movement. One is Dave Nugent who now runs the Heavy Metal Group and was involved in the film Call Me Dad; you can see Dave talking to a group of Jewish men here. The second is Ivan Clarke who tells his story here. [This video takes time to load. Editors.]
The only other case I know of where an abusive man seemed to reform, is Dave Weir. He tells his story on pp.118-25 of Unclenching Our Fists. While serving a jail sentence for domestic violence, Dave was convicted of sin. He doesn’t recount that any Christian spoke to him, he simply says that he felt this from God. It sounded to me like Dave Weir became a genuine Christian while serving the two-year jail sentence. He says that with the help of some books and a few courses he “worked his own program”. After he got out of jail, he went voluntarily to a batterer’s program. His wife never lived with him again. The most compelling evidence for me that Dave did genuinely reform is the way his ex-wife Leta responded at the close of his life. By the time the author of Unclenching Our Fists interviewed Dave, he had cancer of the throat and was having difficulty speaking. The interview was recorded, but Dave’s speech was so hard to understand that the author couldn’t transcribe it. After Dave died, his ex-wife Leta volunteered to transcribe the interview, saying she was proud of the work Dave had done on himself (pp.186-7).
When an ex-wife is sure that her abuser has genuinely changed, and she has remained permanently separated from him (she has not put back on the rose-coloured glasses), but she chooses to have a friendship with him, a friendship that is mutually enjoyable, and she voluntarily does something to help his story get published after he has died, that is pretty telling, in my view.
None of the men in Unclenching Our Fists were what I would call “pseudo-reformers”, but some of them seemed to be “half-hearted reformers” — i.e. men who have made and are continuing to make substantive changes in their behaviours, but who have not (or not yet) developed deep and lasting empathy for their victims…men who are doing genuine reformation in their head, but not deeply in their heart. Some professionals who work in men’s behaviour change groups may think I’m free with my opinion without having enough experience of reforming men. So be it. I can only share my impressions and gut feelings.
I think Unclenching Our Fists could be worth reading for a woman who has been abused by her male partner, IF she is separated from the abuser and well on the road to recovery and building an abuse-free life. If you are such a woman, this book might help sharpen your discernment about how to discern different degrees of reformation in men. It might be especially worth reading if you are a victim who is becoming an advocate.
The cautions that the author gives to women who want to read the book need to be taken seriously. If you’re anything like me, you can easily think “I have shed my illusions; I’ve dropped the rose-coloured glasses, I have seen the abuse for what it was! — but there are still illusions to shed and false concepts to be brought to the light of truth.
Note: I was prompted to write this post because someone tagged me on Facebook while writing about Unclenching Our Fists. See here. The link goes to a private FB group run by another survivor-cum-advocate.
Some of this post is copied from my post Chris Moles has a Play Doh understanding of salvation which was published in August 2018.