Monday 13, 2009
A new video being distributed throughout Michigan this week shatters the myth that alcohol causes men to be violent. Four survivors of domestic violence willingly shared their experiences on camera in the hope that other women will not accept alcohol as an excuse or be less likely to seek help because of the dangerous illusion that, if the drinking stops, so will the abuse.

In reflecting on her three-year abusive marriage in the video, “Mary” concedes, “I always thought his drinking caused a lot of problems we had. I realize now alcohol was just a copout so he could do what he wanted and say things like, ‘I’m sorry about last night; I was trashed.’ I guess getting away from it and detaching completely from the situation was when I realized it wasn’t just because he drank that he abused. There were periods in our marriage he didn’t drink and I would still feel the same about how he treated me or the kids.”

The documentary – Alcohol and Men’s Violence Against Women – was produced by Northern Michigan University with a $78,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation. The survivors’ compelling stories are supplemented with comments from front-line professionals representing law enforcement, a substance abuse unit and a domestic violence shelter. All reinforce the fact that alcohol may be a contributing factor, but the root cause of abuse is a man’s need to control.

“Nothing like this has been done before that we can find,” said Ira Hutchison, the head of NMU’s sociology/social work department and the project director. “Instead of addressing the broader issues of alcohol use or domestic violence, this project has a very specific purpose. And we’re making the point with women who’ve been directly impacted because victims of abuse will relate best to those who’ve had similar experiences.”

Hutchison said the real test will be whether it changes attitudes or at least plants the seed in some minds that alcohol only heightens predispositions and diminishes inhibitions. “You can sober up an intoxicated spouse abuser, but you’re still left with a sober spouse abuser,” he added.

Shawn Hatch, director of clinical services for Marquette General Hospital’s Behavioral Health makes a similar point in the video: “I ask women in these situations if they’ve been around a lot of men who drink. They say, ‘Why, yes I have.’ It might be fathers, brothers, uncles, friends at school or at work; lots of men. When I ask how many of them were violent toward them, it’s one or two. You see the wheels turning when they say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re right. It wasn’t the drinking that made him abuse me. I was involved with a man with a drinking problem who also happened to be a perpetrator of domestic violence.’” 

Two prevalent themes emerge from the video: men often blame their abusive behavior on alcohol to avoid accepting personal responsibility for their actions; and many female victims turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, despite the fact it makes them more prone to physical harm. One of the survivors, “Sarah,” endured two abusive relationships and slipped into alcoholism.

“The only way you can actually numb yourself is to drink or use some other substance,” she said. “To me, drinking was the best. You’re more flexible. If you’re going to be thrown down the stairs or something, you’re not tense so you don’t tend to hurt as much. That was just my way of self-medicating. The more I drank, the more he beat me up. It was just a vicious cycle. I couldn’t imagine going through some of the things I went through sober. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

The DVD includes the 30-minute documentary and 30 minutes of special features offering advice and information on learned behavior, substance abuse therapy, success stories and responses from law enforcement and ER nurses. It can be viewed in English or Spanish. Copies will be sent to every residential or outpatient substance abuse unit, women’s shelter and four-year nursing program throughout Michigan. The video is the culmination of a two-phase project at NMU that began with preliminary interviews with 20 victims to flesh out common themes about alcohol and violence.

“I’ve done a lot of publishing on this topic, but that information only reaches my peers,” said Hutchison. “I’m at the point in my career when I have started to ask, ‘Does what I’m doing really make a difference and have practical applications?’ I’m happy to be involved in this project because I’m confident it will make a difference.”

According to the DVD, American women experience five million incidents of domestic violence each year. The four survivors who agreed to be videotaped for this project did so with their faces in full view, but their names were changed to protect their identities. At the time they were interviewed, all reported that they had escaped their abusive situations and moved on to “healthy” relationships.

Also appearing in the documentary are Jane Richards, former program director at the Marquette Women’s Center, and Greg Zyburt, chief of the Chocolay Township Police Department. The project co-director was Kerri Schuiling, NMU professor and associate dean of nursing. The documentary was directed by NMU sociology professor and filmmaker Michael Loukinen, with videography and editing by colleague Grant Guston.

Kristi Evans
News Director