Can face-to-face meetings between a victim and an abuser—a form of restorative justice—help a society overwhelmed with bad behavior?
New York magazine|July 19 - August 1, 2021
What Set You Off? Didn’t You Care About Me? What Did I Do to Make This Happen? Have You Learned Anything From This? Will You Ever Change?
By Amelia Schonbek

LATE ON A FALL afternoon ten years ago, Cheryl and Troy walked into a room and shook hands. It was a small space at the Justice Center in Portland, Oregon, almost entirely taken up by a conference table and chairs. Beads of rain covered the room’s one long window. Cheryl sat next to it so she could lookout, which helped remind her to breathe. She had barely eaten that day, just enough so she wouldn’t be sick to her stomach.

Cheryl and Troy were strangers, though, in one sense, they knew each other well. For years, Cheryl had been in a string of violent relationships, and Troy had a long history of getting drunk and abusing his partners. In 2005, he went to prison for 22 months for choking his girlfriend. Cheryl and Troy met that afternoon because both of them wanted desperately to change, yet nothing had freed them from the destructive patterns they were in. By this time, Cheryl, who was then in her 60s, had tried therapy and found it isolating to sit opposite someone who hadn’t lived through violence. And Troy, then in his 40s, attended Alcoholics Anonymous, though he sometimes struggled to accept the pain he had caused others without making excuses. After years of trying to move on from their experiences, they both discovered restorative justice, a form of conflict resolution that brings together survivors and offenders with a focus on repairing the damage done, rather than punishing the person responsible. They each agreed to participate in a practice called a surrogate dialogue.

The question of how to respond to incidents of domestic and sexual violence has never had a particularly good answer. The criminal-justice system has long been the only option, and the tiny number of people whose cases even made it to court had to choose between reliving their trauma and not seeking justice at all. In 2017, when I Too broke open the collective rage and grief that had been building inside survivors after decades of being dismissed and disparaged, the question became impossible to ignore. The more these stories— which fell on a whole spectrum of abuse, from workplace creepiness to rape—were told, the clearer it became that the existing options for resolving the instances were seriously limited. The accused were called out, a few were convicted of crimes, and some were fired or divorced. Then what? “If we want the #MeToo movement to be about more than just which celebrity will be the next to fall, or whose comeback must be stopped—if we want it to lead to real, lasting, and widespread cultural change—we need to talk,” wrote the journalist Katie J.M. Baker, “about what we do with the bad men.”

A lot of people weren’t ready to have that complicated conversation right away. It was thrilling to be able to speak out about the experience of harm and feel heard. It was possible, finally, to see men like Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby, who’d assaulted dozens of women and girls over years and years, convicted of their crimes. Sending them to prison looked like an acknowledgment of all the pain they had caused and a warning to other men that they couldn’t get away with abuse. It felt like something to celebrate. But that warning hasn’t stopped more stories from surfacing. And after being sent to prison, Cosby’s conviction was overturned on a technicality—even the catharsis of seeing the most egregious cases closes didn’t last. So now, nearly four years on from Me Too, we’re left looking forward, trying to untangle the intricate issue of what the consequences should be for people who have caused harm and to figure out the harder thing: how to welcome them back into society while also caring for the people they have hurt. Practitioners of restorative justice think their approach is one way to navigate it all. Their work focuses on what survivors need to recover, and the process is designed to benefit the larger community as well: If you help people understand the impact of their choices, the thinking goes, they may change how they act in the future. Though it’s often used to resolve cases involving young people or low-level crimes, women’s advocates are divided over whether to apply restorative justice to domestic- and sexual violence cases. And only a handful of programs have ever done it.

When she first began to consider a surrogate dialogue, Cheryl was apprehensive. Long ago, she had learned you should never give an abuser ammunition because he would use it against you. What if she met with a guy and then afterward he tried to track her down? Still, she had some questions she badly wanted to ask all the men who’d hurt her: Didn’t you care about me? Have you learned anything from this? What are you doing to keep from doing it again? Cheryl didn’t know whether the dialogue would be meaningful or whether she would be able to get through it. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the question that had stuck with her the longest: What did I do to make this abuse happen in my life?

An organization called Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue had paired Cheryl with a mentor named Marci who would help her prepare for the exchange and be present as her advocate. Cheryl learned that the framework for the dialogue gave her complete control over the situation, the length of the meeting, how deep the questions went, and what the goals of the conversation were. Later, they planned how Cheryl could respond if her dialogue partner said something inappropriate or frightening. They set a code word that Cheryl could use if she needed Marci to speak up in her defense or stop the conversation entirely.

In the room that day, Marci sat down beside Cheryl, with Troy and his advocate across from them, and a facilitator took a seat at the head of the table. Marci conferred quietly with the facilitator while everyone else sat still and silent. Inside, Cheryl panicked. When Troy sat down, she wondered what would happen if he got mad, if he reached across the table and hit her. She remembered how she had learned to keep herself calm during performance reviews at work: She placed her hands on the table, very quietly, and looked Troy straight in the eye. Troy had walked into the room feeling calm, sure that he would be able to handle whatever came up. If I want to stay sober, he told himself, I have to do this.

CHERYL: I was willing to do this because I didn’t want to carry this fear, guilt, shame, responsibility anymore. I had done my best to get rid of it by my own means, but I still had it.

CHERYL GREW UP in a middle-class neighborhood outside Portland during the 1950s and ’60s in a house that overlooked fields and orchards. In the summer, she would often sleep in the backyard with friends. She knew not to invite them in because her dad could lose it at any moment. When Cheryl was a baby, her mother took her to the basement when she cried to keep her father from hitting her. Cheryl doesn’t remember much about growing up, but she remembers the night her father said to her mother, “I’m going to take this gun, and I’m going to kill those kids and then kill myself.” Her three brothers would run out of the house when their father was enraged, but she often stayed to try to negotiate between her parents. When Cheryl was 19, her father died. I’m so glad, she thought. Soon after, the whole family got together to celebrate. (To protect her identity, Cheryl asked that only her first name be used.)

After her father was gone, Cheryl’s life didn’t change in the ways she had hoped it would. She had a boyfriend who drank too much and hit her. When they split up, she began seeing a man she met through a co-worker. Soon he began to ask her to list everyone she had talked to while they’d been apart. Cheryl was taking karate lessons, and her boyfriend didn’t like all the time she spent away from him. “What’s more important?” he asked. Crap, Cheryl thought. She felt herself being pulled back toward a familiar dark place, where the need to make a man happy blotted out everything else. She called her boyfriend and told him it wasn’t going to work out. After they hung up, he came over and beat and choked her until her eardrums ruptured.

The next day, Cheryl called her mother, who called the police. “You tell him everything,” Cheryl’s mother instructed her when the detective arrived, and she did. The detective listened, then Cheryl remembers him saying, “We can arrest him, but the laws on this are pretty weak. You’ll have to come and tell your story, and he’ll say you’re a liar. It might just make him angrier, and he might kill you the next time.”

From the outside, it was usually hard to tell that anything was wrong in Cheryl’s life. She worked at a big corporation, and people around her would say, “You’re so good at your job, you’re so confident.” Yet, again and again, Cheryl’s boyfriends turned out to be controlling or abusive, just like her father had been. Maybe I am broken, she thought. Maybe all this is my fault. Some days were so hard that she would think, I just can’t do one more day like this. She thought about ending her life.

When she was 37, Cheryl began to see someone new. The man didn’t hit her, but there were signs. “Are you going to wear that?” he’d ask. “You don’t know how to make good decisions.” Cheryl saw what was happening and said to herself, You cannot do this again. It took her a year to end the relationship. Six weeks after the breakup, the man drove up to her house, stepped from his car, and shot himself in the head in front of her. As her neighbors rushed him to the hospital, Cheryl stood outside her house and waited for the police to arrive. She had reached the bottom. “I am either going to die,” she realized, “or I am going to stick around and do things differently.” This is how Cheryl wound up in a room with Troy, a man she didn’t know who had been violent with his girlfriend, to try to understand why he had done what he did.

TROY: I fly by the seat of my pants. I’ll jump into anything feet first. When they asked me to do the dialogue, I didn’t go into it like, “Okay, let’s get this over with.” It was, “Okay, I belong here, this is what I need to do.” It was a relief, I guess: I’m doing the right thing.

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