By Gretchen Gibbs
He looks like the batterer that he is. Most of them don’t; they’re skinny and anxious to please, or short and worried, or anything but my stereotype. This one – we’ll call him Juan, though I’ve altered his name and anything that could identify him – approaches my stereotype. He’s big, both tall and heavy set. He answers my questions briefly and without inflection. His face shows nothing, his body never moves in the chair. He is a dark man – dark skin and eyes, black and navy clothes, a dark expression. He wears his worn black leather jacket throughout the interview in spite of the warmth of the small room. I’m not afraid of him, but I don’t like him. Maybe I’m a little afraid of him.
We start off with the incident that led to the court order for counseling. Not his fault at all, of course, all he did was push his wife after lots of provocation.
He’s from a Central American country, coming to the United States in 1996. “Your English is good.” A small smile. “Is there anything that you might have done wrong with your wife?” “I yell a lot.” (His English is not perfect.) I am glad to hear an acknowledgment of a little responsibility. We talk about his wife, the conflicts between them, his work.
“Tell me about your childhood.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What was it like for you growing up?”
“It was hard to live.”
The story comes out in short spurts. His father was the teacher of the local school, an alcoholic man who never acknowledged Juan and refused to help the family in any way. Juan was raised by his grandmother. The grandmother, her six children, and four grandchildren all lived in a single room. The grandmother ironed and cooked and cleaned for other people, supporting them all as well as she could. She would do anything for money. They were always hungry.
“There were no toys, no Christmas or birthday presents. Once in a while my grandmother would buy a towel, or a cloth for the table, for all of us and we would all be excited – that was the biggest present we ever had.” He couldn’t understand why they had to live as they did, why they were hungry, and he rebelled. He disobeyed his grandmother, ran away, and stole things. “My grandmother would beat me like an animal, hitting me with a stick across my back many times, maybe 50 times,” he says matter-of-factly. “But her love weighed more. I was a black sheep that had to be disciplined.”
When he was an adolescent, Juan could not continue in school without shoes or a uniform, and there was no way to obtain these. He decided to go into the Army as a way out of poverty and a way to help his grandmother. It was not what he thought it would be. As the memory returns, he gives a short snort of disbelieving laughter, his first sign of emotion.
He was still almost always hungry, and now he was exposed to terrible death and killing. Even today he has nightmares about the experience, he says impassively. At one point his unit, with losses due to fighting, disease and desertion, had only seven men left. They were in an isolated portion of the country, with no more food and no more ammunition. They were starving. They made a joint suicide pact, to shoot each other with the remaining bullets. Finally the Army helicopters came.
After four years in the Army, he returned to his village. He wanted desperately to emigrate, and eventually a relative in the U.S. sent him the money to make it possible.
Now, because of the domestic violence, he lives separately from his wife and children. How does he feel? “Sad. It is hard when you are used to coming home and have children to ask you how you are, to come home to a single room, where you are sharing a bath with other not-very-clean people.” He is having bad dreams. “What are they about?” He pauses and looks at the floor. “I dream of my grandmother almost every night. I do not ever go back to my country, and I do not see her for 15 years. My sister and I, we saved our money. We planned to go back to see her at Christmas, to give her things. She died right before we were going to leave.”
He looks up at me and begins to weep, silently, his body still motionless, the tears streaming down his face. I find I can’t speak the next question through my own tears.