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:

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….

If you’re a man who’s just admitted to yourself that you are abusive, this book is for you….

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 behaviour 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 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. 118-125 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.

[October 3, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to October 3, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to October 3, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to October 3, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (October 3, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

Abuse and Empathy: How Abusers Flunk the Empathy Test

8 thoughts on “Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence — book review”

  1. I appreciate your observations on this book, Barb, and the quotes you give of the author lend confidence to her realistic views and empathetic views for survivors. I also love the “further reading” post “How Abusers Flunk The Empathy Test”, for the quotes of the author of the book referred to on abusers, and the lists of comparative behaviours regarding signs of empathy and signs of an abusers lack of it.

  2. Barbara,

    Great review! My sister had an interesting observation. Your summary was more valuable than actually reading the book. Nothing is to be gained by actually reading the book, only risk, risk of planting suggestions in the mind, that an abuser could change after all. She thinks the author wrote the book to make money. And really, who’s more likely to buy the book, an abuser who wants to change or a victim looking for a morsel of hope? As both you and the author noted, only a few men want to change. So by definition she’s written a book to appeal to an almost nonexistent market, right? Unless the real market is their victims that is.

  3. The “rush to judgement” is bad because it skips over the details (facts) of the crime.
    The “rush to forgiveness” is worse because it skips over the details of the crime and it skips over the details of the remedy.

    To live without the exposure of the crime and without the remedy for the crime is to live in Denial; in darkness without truth.
    Denial = Lies
    Lies = Delusion
    Delusion = Mental Illness
    Mental Illness = Destroyed Lives
    Destroyed Lives = the Unseen Holocaust – going on in the dark in countless “homes” today and every day.

    The Light of Truth is the only answer to the darkness.

  4. I liked this post, and it sounds like a book I would enjoy reading. But, I won’t read it, at least not at this time….much as I want to hold out hope that my husband will genuinely change, I need to be realistic and help my son be realistic.

    I have read 2 of Don Hennessy’s books that were recommended on this site (“How He Gets Into Her Head” and “Steps to Freedom”). “Steps to Freedom” I have read and re-read a lot: I’m re-reading again right now. It’s an awful book and a hard read, but he is surprisingly spot on for my situation. I have tried to teach my son some of the things in the book; and I have seen him go from doubting to understanding. Understanding what is going on is wonderful; for us, it’s the first step in finding a path forward. As I’ve told my son, “The book says your dad will sometimes be very wonderful, and sometimes be horrible, for his own reasons, on and on and on, as long as he lives. It has nothing to do with us. It is right for us to find ways to have a happy life without him.”

    But I do hope and pray that things will change at home. I have a picture in my mind of how my husband would act if he did genuinely change; he would recognize, and regret, his past difficult behavior; he would show respect and appreciation; he would not ignore what his wife and son want…. Until I see some, or perhaps all of these changes, I will be very cautious. Actually, that book has caused me to rethink all of my relationships.

    1. Hi, Momtomyson, I relate to what you wrote here:

      I have a picture in my mind of how my husband would act if he did genuinely change; he would recognize, and regret, his past difficult behavior; he would show respect and appreciation; he would not ignore what his wife and son want….

      When I was with my first husband, I would often imagine what he would have said in a conversation if he had been interacting with me respectfully. I would be remembering the words he had said, reliving the pain….and to soothe my pain or to create an alternate better reality in my head, I would craft the words which I wish he had said. I remember doing that so many times while I was washing up.

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