No Way to Treat a Lady: Victims Get Busted, Too

Krystal was getting ready to go to her weekly batterer class when her husband threw a glass of water in her face, called her a slut and took her car keys away from her. No wife of his was going to be counseled about domestic violence--not without a fight, anyway.

When the cops arrived, husband Mark told them that his wife was crazy, a dumb ex-stripper who was always making up stories about him. The female officer tried to get Krystal to calm down, but every time the cops turned to talk to her, Mark made faces at her behind their backs--rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue. Finally, Krystal lost it.

"Stupid, stupid me, I threatened to kill him," says Krystal, who asked that her real name not be published. "I don't know why I said it. I knew it was stupid as soon as it left my mouth. I'd just promised my five-year-old daughter that I wasn't going to jail."

Krystal spent the night in jail. Mark was arrested, too. But because Krystal was already on probation for a previous domestic-violence arrest--an incident in which Mark assaulted her, she says, but one in which the physical evidence made her look like the aggressor--she wound up being fined $135 and sentenced to a 36-week batterer treatment program, to be commenced after she finished the 36-week program she was already attending. Mark, on the other hand, was free to attack again.

Krystal's two consecutive, court-ordered treatment programs is one of the stranger examples of the unintended consequences of Colorado's war on domestic violence. In many cases, the process of mandatory arrest and treatment has made it more difficult to sort out batterer from batteree. Although more men are still arrested than women, at a rate of at least eight to one, the number of women being arrested for spousal assaults is rising, too.

Not all of the women arrested are self-defending victims; one recent study of male batterers found that two-thirds of their female partners admitted "being physically aggressive toward their partners prior to the initial arrest." But Krystal's story raises questions about what happens when the system treats victims as perpetrators--and whether all the "treatment" the state can dole out over eighteen months does any good when it's directed at the wrong party.

Now in her early twenties, Krystal ran away from her frequently divorced mother when she was thirteen. At sixteen she was living with a man whose idea of a good time was to invite a few buddies over, empty a case of beer and pummel Krystal when she got uppity. "I took it and I took it and I took it because I had nowhere else to go," she says. "I told myself, 'Just keep your mouth shut. Tomorrow will be a new day, and he'll be nice.'"

She met Mark when she was eighteen and stripping in a local club. It was love at first sight, she says. "I laid a big ol' kiss on him and said, 'You are the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life. I hope that you will come back and see me.' The first words out of his mouth were, 'Don't hustle me.'"

Mark came back to see her three days in a row. Then he told her he had a girlfriend. Krystal was devastated. ("I started to cry--me, crying over a guy.") But they soon discovered that they'd grown up in the same neighborhood and that Mark had had a crush on her when she was a little girl.

"There were some awesome connections between the two of us from the second we met, and that just kept getting stronger and stronger," Krystal says. "Twenty days later he was living with me. Six months later I was pregnant with our son."

Krystal gave up stripping to be a full-time mom. Her new husband wasn't a drunk, but he was possessive; she estimates that she's gone out on her own a total of four times in the past four years. A few months ago they argued, and he tried to take her son and leave. The Wheat Ridge police found a calm Mark and a hysterical Krystal. Although she claimed he'd assaulted her, he pointed to a chair she'd thrown. "He kicked me in the crotch and pushed me in my face, and I went to jail," she recalls bitterly.

Krystal pleaded guilty to a single charge of harassment and received a year of probation, a $550 fine and 36 weeks of domestic-violence classes. The water-throwing incident occurred a few weeks later; this time they both went to jail. But Krystal's threat to kill Mark, made in front of the arresting officers, was considered a more serious offense than her husband's behavior, since it amounted to a violation of the conditions of her probation. She received another year of probation, another fine and more classes; this time, she'd also decided to try to keep Mark out of the system.

"I talked a good game to get him off because I knew that if he had to go to classes or pay a fine, it was going to be hard on me," she says now. "I was afraid if he didn't get off scot-free, he'd be angry with me."

After reviewing the file on Mark, she says, the prosecutor "looked me right in the face and said, 'I don't feel this is domestic violence.' I looked right at her and said, 'Neither do I,' but in my heart I knew this was the stupidest bitch I'd ever met in my life. What if I don't even get to go to this class because I'm dead, because they let him walk?"

Last month Krystal and Mark had another argument. Krystal had been invited out by a girlfriend; Mark called her a barfly and took off with their son, forcing her to stay home. He called her frequently during the day, came home for dinner and watched boxing on the tube. She emerged from the shower to find him leaving again with her car keys and her son. When she protested, Mark decided to adjust her attitude.

"He lunged toward me, and I picked my fists up," she says. "If he'd come any closer, I would have punched him right in the mouth. That pissed him off, that I'd raised my hand to him. He put his arms straight back behind him and lifted his head up and rammed straight into me. He's 220 pounds, 6-4, and here I am, 5-5 and a hundred pounds. He pushed me clear through the screen door. I hit my back on the knob on the outside."

Clad only in a towel, she pursued him outside. He backed up their truck through the neighbor's yard to avoid hitting her in the driveway. The spectacle drew the attention of the neighbors and resulted in another call to the police. She says she was sitting at her vanity, trying to put her makeup on--"hard to do when you're crying"--when the cops came in and pointed a gun in her face.

Once again Krystal tried to minimize what her husband had done, but the ripped screen told the cops all they needed to know. This time Mark was arrested, fined and ordered into his own 36-week treatment program. Although he hasn't attended a single class yet, Krystal believes the experience has already made a new man of him.

"No matter how big you are, no matter how tough you are, being in jail scares the shit out of you," she says. "It completely changed him. It was like, 'I'm never again going to yell at you or talk shit to you, I'm never going to touch you, because I'm not going to jail.' We haven't even had one argument since then. But I haven't asked to go out yet. I'm okay until that happens."

Her own domestic-violence classes haven't done much to alter Krystal's view of her marriage. "Sometimes I feel like I'm getting something out of it," she says. "Other times I feel like it is such a waste of time and money."

Most of the women in her group are much older and struggling with alcohol and drug problems, and every time a new member arrives, the group has to go back over the basics "and you hear everything you've heard twelve times already." She's seen parts of the same movie in three different classes, a movie about spousal abuse among drunken Maori tribesmen. "Maybe I'm naive or stupid, but people don't live like that," she says. "Why are they showing a movie about people who tattoo their faces and dance funny?"

Victim advocates have quizzed Krystal about why she chooses to stay with a man who hurls her through doors and takes off with her car keys and her son, a man who's twice let her take the rap for his actions. "It really wasn't much of a help," she says. "Basically, they say, 'Do you want us to put you in a shelter?' Well, hello, I have a home. I wouldn't take my kids to a shelter. The state needs to look at the big picture."

But the big picture is a messy one. Too messy, perhaps, to fit into the neat categories fashioned by domestic-violence laws: victim and perpetrator, crime and punishment. Assist the victim to make "empowered" choices, contain and monitor the perpetrator. But what happens when the lines blur?

Therapists say their role isn't to patch up or destroy bad marriages--but once a couple finds themselves in the system, a great deal of none-too-subtle pressure to "re-examine the relationship" is exerted on both sides, bringing additional strain on what may already be a highly volatile situation. Yet many victims choose to stand by their men, out of emotional need, financial necessity or a dozen other reasons. One recent study of male batterers in treatment programs found that at the time they started treatment, half of them were still living with the women they'd abused, a figure that declined to forty percent a year later.

Ironically, the treatment requirement may have contributed to the victims' decision to stay. Many of the women believed that it was "very unlikely" that their men would assault them again while they were in treatment, and a whopping 94 percent believed that their guy would complete the course, despite the high dropout rate of such programs.

Even if Mark's conversion isn't as profound as she hopes, Krystal plans to stay with him. "We have such a strong spiritual connection that even when the going gets tough, the tough don't get going," she says. "When there's one or two bad things and the rest are absolutely beautiful, you don't give up.

"We've gone through a buttload of stuff. He loves me. He buys me whatever I want, whatever I think I need or don't need. We do a lot for each other. There are just a few things that make us absolutely crazy."


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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast