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 look out, 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 Me 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 closed 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 more angry, 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 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.
Troy grew up the only child of a single mother. He was polite, though he always liked to be the center of attention, and he hated when he made mistakes. The first time Troy tried alcohol, as a teenager, he drank so much he passed out on a neighbor’s couch. The next morning, he woke up confused about how he’d gotten there. He got wasted a couple more times in high school, on each occasion drinking until he was ill. Although he hated getting sick, he loved feeling cool and making people laugh, and he wanted to drink more and more.
Troy graduated from high school and got a job in construction. It was the late ’80s, and it seemed that everyone he worked with had a drug or alcohol problem. He started making a lot of money, more than he needed. It didn’t really matter what substance someone put in front of him — if it was there, he was going to do it.
Troy always thought that growing up with a single mother had given him a solid respect for women. When he was drunk, though, everything went out the window. In 1992, he got married and adopted his wife’s daughter. Soon they had another daughter together. He never hit his wife, but they argued all the time. Troy would pick fights to justify storming out of the house and going to drink; he wasn’t around for his kids, and he withheld money from his wife.
His marriage broke up in 2001, and afterward he lived on the street. A few years later, he began dating another woman, and he fought with her, too. She hated Troy’s drinking, and when she confronted him about it, he lied. During one fight, Troy began to choke her. What am I doing? he realized, and he ran out of the house. He made it only three or four blocks before the police caught him.
After his arrest, Troy felt that he no longer knew who he was. He felt sorry for himself, and angry that the public defender assigned to his case pushed him toward a plea deal.
Troy took it and went to prison for 22 months. His 9-year-old daughter wrote him a letter saying she must be the reason he couldn’t quit drinking. It broke his heart. He joined AA and kept it up when he got out: Drug and alcohol treatment was a condition of his early release. He found 12-step work to be moving, and when he reached the fifth step and sat across from his sponsor, Troy admitted to him “the exact nature of my wrongs.” Troy was used to talking about the things he had done — he’d had to recite them in court and to his probation officer — although in those cases he was thinking, What do I want to hide so that I don’t look bad? With his sponsor, he felt for the first time that he could be truly honest. “Alcoholism does a good job of isolating, making you feel like nobody knows your problems,” Troy said. When he read a list of his wrongs to his sponsor, a man who had hurt people and had made amends, Troy realized, Oh, I’m not all alone. We’re all dysfunctional. “It took the shame away,” he later said.
AA emphasizes completing actions on the path to recovery, and Troy took the approach to heart. Okay, he thought, I have to continually do something. That’s my medicine for my alcoholism. He asked the facilitator of his treatment program if she knew of any ways he could give back to the community, and she gave him a phone number for DVSD. Troy wondered if this thing called restorative justice was in some way self-serving. But what he wanted most was to stay sober, and he was willing to give anything a try.
CHERYL: I lived afraid for 38 years of my life. I didn’t know that people didn’t feel that way all the time. In the dialogue, that wounded part of me was fighting about being in a room with an abuser and opening up, but I was ready to go. It felt like coming to a crescendo.
TROY: Honestly, when I heard about the dialogue, I thought, If this is going to help keep me sober, I’ll do whatever it takes. To sit across from another individual and do this — if it helps them, and in turn helps me, then I’m okay with that.
Restorative justice is a modern interpretation of a very old idea: Its central principles resemble the conflict-resolution methods of Navajo and Maori people, among others. Its contemporary western form can be traced back to one spring night in 1974, when two teenage boys slashed tires and broke windows all through a Mennonite community in Ontario. A court officer named Mark Yantzi was handed the case. After the boys pleaded guilty, Yantzi noticed that the legal system offered no mechanism for them to literally repay their debt to the people whose property they’d damaged.
Yantzi proposed to the judge that they all try something new: The boys would knock on the door of each victim’s house and ask what the damage had cost them. A few weeks later, the boys would return, this time with money to repair the houses or cover insurance costs. One of the homes they visited was owned by a woman who had lived in it nearly all her life. Before, she had never locked her doors or felt unsafe. The house had a picture window, and the boys had thrown a brick through it. She told them that after the vandalism, she became so fearful that she couldn’t be at home alone. “But now I sit across from you,” she said to the boys, “and I see that I really had no reason to be afraid.” “You got a sense that they were making connections … that helped to kind of bind them back into the community,” Yantzi later said.
Yantzi’s early experiments unfolded alongside a growing awareness among progressive-minded activists that sending people to prison is a dehumanizing practice that answers violence with more violence, rather than with rehabilitation. As they searched for more holistic, less punitive ways to resolve criminal cases, community groups and allies in the legal system picked up Yantzi’s work and added to it.
Nearly five decades later, restorative justice encompasses many interconnected ways of resolving conflict, both within the traditional justice system and outside it. The idea, for example, of atoning for the destructive violence of slavery through reparations is rooted in restorative principles. Forty-five states allow some form of restorative justice into their criminal proceedings; a judge can divert a case into a restorative process — so that a young or first-time offender might avoid a conviction, for instance — or a victim’s family may ask for their case to be resolved this way. In other instances, those involved in a crime might turn to nonprofit restorative-justice programs long afterward to bring closure beyond what the courts could offer. And in cases of domestic and sexual violence, such processes could be a potential way of seeking justice in the many situations where prosecutors decline to bring charges.
The fact that restorative justice was an option available to Cheryl as a survivor of domestic violence was deeply controversial even ten years ago. In the ’70s, while Yantzi was looking for ways to resolve cases outside the courtroom, mainstream feminist activists were trying to get the legal system to take domestic violence and sexual assault seriously. The system had long told women who were abused that it was a private matter to be worked out with their boyfriends or husbands. Many activists thought that enacting laws against domestic and sexual violence would help survivors find justice and dissuade men from harming women. So they fought to pass legislation requiring arrests in domestic-violence incidents, criminalizing marital rape, and making it easier for women to take out restraining orders against men who harmed them.
The problem was this strategy mostly didn’t work. In 1995, the year after the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law, the National Institute of Justice noted that there was “little conclusive evidence” that criminalizing domestic violence actually discouraged offenders or protected victims. Even now, as more and more people admit that legal solutions alone aren’t enough, the question of whether restorative justice is appropriate in cases of rape and domestic abuse has not gone away.
“More police and more jails are never going to solve the problem,” says Beth E. Richie, who leads the department of criminology, law, and justice at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “There was never any illusion that we could arrest our way out of this thing.” As an anti-violence activist in the 1980s, Richie saw how cops used force with Black communities: It mirrored the violence many women experienced from their partners. She and her fellow organizers instead advocated for another approach, one that acknowledged patriarchal abuses of power. They did not want to simply remove offenders from their communities. They wanted their communities to work with offenders and help them figure out how to stop being violent, and they wanted women who had been abused to be able to express what they needed. In a lot of cases, it turned out, what those women wanted was not to be questioned by detectives or cross-examined in open court but to talk about what had happened on their own terms.
CHERYL: The majority of what I wanted was to be heard. And I wanted to hear the truth, and I didn’t know if he could tell me his real truth or not. I wanted to ask, “What do you believe set you off?” I could tell he didn’t know how to talk to me about what had happened. But I just went for it. I thought, This is my time to ask those questions that have been controlling me.
TROY: I am fortunate — or unfortunate — that I never blacked out when I was drinking. I know all the crappy things I did and how I treated people. When it came time, I didn’t leave anything out.
Carrie Outhier Banks, who founded the Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue program Cheryl and Troy participated in, began working at a women’s crisis shelter in the 1990s. She soon realized that all her clients blamed themselves for how their partners treated them, no matter what anybody else said. She saw how it kept many women from leaving violent relationships: “ ‘If I had just tidied the kids’ shoes,’ they’d say, ‘maybe he wouldn’t have hit me.’ ”
Outhier Banks had read about a program in Canada that arranged conversations, called surrogate victim-offender dialogues, between unrelated rape survivors and perpetrators who had taken responsibility for their actions. The surrogate approach was experimental, intended to meet the needs of victims for whom a direct dialogue with those who had harmed them was impossible. “The survivors were able to ask the perpetrators the question that everybody asks,” Outhier Banks told me. “ ‘What did I do wrong?’ And the perpetrators were able to say, ‘Nothing. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ That’s exactly what the survivors I worked with need to hear: ‘It wasn’t your fault.’ ”
Outhier Banks finished a Ph.D. in conflict resolution and became one of only a few facilitators who were willing to use restorative dialogues in cases of domestic violence. At the time, most feminist advocates were highly skeptical. They felt that the particular power dynamics of gender violence made it near impossible for victims and offenders to engage in any kind of balanced conversation.
“Men can’t change — that’s a lot of what I heard,” Outhier Banks remembered. Through the early aughts, when she told stories about her work to other domestic- and sexual-violence-survivor advocates, a lot of people got angry. “We were hated,” she said. Some feminist advocates responded that supporting restorative justice meant you cared more about perpetrators than about victims. Others told her they were concerned that survivors couldn’t handle sitting across from batterers. “I was like, ‘Really? I think these women are pretty strong.’ ”
Outhier Banks was under no illusions that the approach was right for everyone. She had friends who had left violent relationships who told her they had no interest in meeting an offender for a dialogue. “I don’t need some man telling me he was wrong,” they said. “Of course he was wrong.”
“Justice means different things to different people,” Outhier Banks said. “You can never fully have justice, right? Something’s been taken. For me, it’s about what we can do to make a victim as whole as possible.” The survivors she worked with generally had clear and unique ideas about what they wanted out of the process. One woman told Outhier Banks that all she wanted was to walk into the room, face someone who had committed violence that was similar to what her ex had done, and be strong enough to walk out. Another was ready to end her dialogue incredibly fast, as soon as the man she was paired with admitted to wrongdoing. “I wanted to hear someone take responsibility because my ex never will,” she said. “I just needed to know that there are men out there who can change.”
DVSD’s dialogues didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes men said they would be able to take responsibility for their actions, and when the time came, they couldn’t. Outhier Banks remembers a dialogue in which a man didn’t own up to a lot of what he had done to his wife, and the woman on the other side of the table called him out. He tried again to admit the ways he’d manipulated and hurt his ex. Often, the man said, when his ex came into the room and started a conversation, he would turn around and leave while she was mid-sentence because he knew it got under her skin. The woman paused. “Wait, what?” she asked. “Did your ex ask you if you did that on purpose?” She did ask, the man said, and he told her she was crazy every time. That was familiar to the woman: Her own ex-husband had done the same thing. “You aren’t crazy,” the man assured her. “He did that on purpose, and I can tell you that because I did it, too. Because it keeps you off your footing, it keeps you in the relationship.” Outhier Banks remembers that, afterward, the woman kept saying, “The mind games … I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
Though there are now hundreds of restorative-justice programs across the country, only a handful work with victims of domestic and sexual violence. Even established programs like DVSD have struggled to overcome resistance to the approach: After losing crucial funding in 2019, it stopped offering surrogate dialogues altogether. Because each restorative-justice program uses slightly different methods, it’s hard to assess how well they work and make the case for their existence beyond participants’ feedback. What research there is points to its value. A 2014 study found 49 percent fewer cases of post-traumatic-stress symptoms in crime victims who went through a dialogue process compared with those who did not. And recent studies have routinely found that offenders who participate in restorative processes are less likely to be rearrested than those who move through the traditional justice system.
Underneath all the back and forth about whether, and when, to use restorative justice, there are bigger, murkier questions: If a man has been violent in one relationship, or several, will he ever be capable of acting differently? Whose responsibility is it to accompany him through the process of interrogating his thoughts and actions? What do we do about the men who are unwilling or unable? And if a man is able to meaningfully change, and the woman he abused doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, how should the community respond?
By the time Me Too unfolded, Sonya Shah had been thinking about these questions for a decade. Shah facilitates surrogate dialogues in the Bay Area for those who have committed and survived sexual harm. Like Outhier Banks, she has often been asked to justify her focus on the rehabilitation of bad men. “Understandably, everybody is so pissed at how little attention gender violence has gotten, at how much victim blaming and silence and shaming there has been,” she told me. “That needs to happen. After hundreds of years of silence, it’s okay to be angry.” Shah is herself a survivor of sexual assault. She long ago realized that her healing could not be dependent on another person’s suffering. “It is very difficult to hold that we can be furious, but that doesn’t mean that people who have committed this harm are irredeemable,” she said. In Shah’s work as a facilitator, keeping both of these ideas in mind at once is critical. “For men to be able to break the silence of their most horrible secrets, they have to believe you’re not going to judge them,” she said.
If a person has beaten or raped someone, moving past judgment is among the hardest things to do. What Shah and other restorative-justice practitioners advocate requires a huge amount of trust — from individuals and society — that men who are given a second chance won’t take advantage of it. It makes sense that survivors and their supporters would hesitate to offer a potential out to someone whose motivations may be self-serving — say, reducing a prison sentence — rather than sincere. And when punishment is framed as closure, as a way to acknowledge and value a victim’s pain, it might feel impossible to turn down. “We go to the punitive because we don’t know there’s any alternative,” Shah told me.
Revenge is also exhilarating. The desire to see a person who has inflicted violence suffer as a result is very old and very human. It’s present in progressive circles — where the public shaming those accused of wrongdoing is routine — just as it is among law-and-order conservatives. In the years following Me Too, Shah has often thought about the impulse to pathologize the perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence, to label them monsters. “Do we do that because they’re everywhere? Because they’re our fathers, our co-workers?” she wonders. A common refrain in conversations about gender violence is the need to reform the toxic culture that allows men to physically and sexually assault women with little consequence. If one way into that cultural shift requires moving past judgment and extending hope for change to the bad men, will we be willing?
CHERYL: I talk to people who say, “People who break the law just need to be punished until they figure out they’re not smarter than the rest of us.” When they say that, I hear the fear in their voices that the world is out of their control and they don’t feel safe in it. Lord, that was me for a long time. We do the same thing we know until we know something different.
TROY: I was told numerous times it’s very important to forgive yourself. I tend to have low self-esteem. Maybe I’m not worthy of being forgiven. But at some point in time, I actually started looking at the work I’ve done. That was when it started clicking. Okay, you’re not Old Troy. This is the new guy. I’m not the a-hole that my head tells me I am.
The road to getting a survivor and an offender together for a dialogue is usually long and uncertain. Over the course of a decade, DVSD facilitated only around 200 of them. Though the process has a lot in common with therapy, it’s more narrowly focused, and ideally the two work in tandem. Most people who haven’t been through it “have a very naïve view of what it takes for someone to be accountable,” Shah told me. “They don’t understand what it actually means to look at yourself, your trauma, privilege, and gender socialization and to unpack that and change it.”
Cheryl sometimes spoke to groups of men who had harmed their partners, and she started to notice that a lot of them had stories that began similarly to hers, with fathers who abused them. She began to wonder if abusers and survivors were two sides of the same coin: people who had experienced horrible things but responded to them very differently.
Troy struggled with the complexity of recognizing the circumstances that had shaped his life while also fully owning the way his actions hurt those around him. He had learned that addiction is a disease, one he surely had. And he knew that many people were alcoholics but did not choose to come home and choke their partners. “I still try to justify my actions,” Troy told me. “I have to say, Okay, this is what I did, and leave it at that.” The lasting impact of incarceration made it harder. “It keeps getting brought up and brought up and brought up,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to move on and be better, yet you’re reminding me about a really crappy time in my life.’ Even if I make amends, I’ll still have this label. When is my debt to society paid?”
Restorative justice is built on the assumption that people who have done violence don’t want to keep doing it, that they want to change. Even when they do, the process can be excruciating. And, of course, many people have no interest in acknowledging bad behavior or acting differently. Restorative justice will never be a solution for men such as Cosby and Weinstein who have unapologetically wielded their power to evade consequences. There’s no clear path by which to rehabilitate them as long as they deny or minimize what they’ve done. For restorative justice to take off — and for society to figure out how to diminish the overwhelming amount of bad behavior — it will depend on the very cultural shift it hopes to create, and it will need to unfold alongside many other interventions in order for that to happen.
In a courtroom, many stories are told, and the task is to winnow them to a single true story: Someone is guilty of a crime, or they aren’t. In a restorative-justice dialogue, every story, or history, can be true at once, even those that seem to contradict one another. Inevitably, these dialogues mean different things to each person who takes part, and each person remembers them differently.
Cheryl had been sitting across from Troy for 15 minutes when she realized that he might be just as scared as she was. The room was small, and the table and chairs where they sat took up most of it, so that everybody felt physically close. She watched Troy’s expression as he talked about his relationship with his ex. She could see that he didn’t know what she wanted or how exactly to tell her what he had done. She realized that Troy was there for the same reason she was: “He couldn’t move on from it alone.”
Troy doesn’t remember feeling afraid. Because he had done so much work in AA on accountability, his preparation was quicker than most; and only a few weeks had passed between his first meeting at DVSD and his dialogue with Cheryl. When he told people about restorative justice, most of them asked him, “Why would you do that? Why would you relive what happened?” The way Troy understood it, he wasn’t reliving it if he knew that talking about it would help someone else. It was a step that took him “that much farther away from potentially doing that sort of thing again.”
Sitting across from Cheryl, he told the familiar story: how he began drinking as a kid, about his marriage and the arguments and the different forms of abuse, and about the night when he choked his ex-girlfriend. As he spoke, he had a feeling he knew well from his time in AA, which was that he wasn’t alone in his experiences. Feeling that gave his memories less power than they’d had before. “I guess this is making my peace with it,” he said later. “A kind of agitation that doesn’t exist anymore after a while.”
Cheryl watched Troy as he told her what had happened, and hearing about his life made her feel less alone, too. At the end of her story, she told Troy about her ex-boyfriend who had died by suicide. Oh my gosh, Troy remembers thinking. She’s carrying the guilt of this guy killing himself in front of her. He wanted very much to tell her that she wasn’t responsible for what had happened that night.
After an hour, Cheryl was ready to ask Troy the question she had turned over in her head for years: “When you were fighting with your ex, when you were hurting her, what were you thinking about her?” The question threaded through each of her relationships, all the way back to her father. When she asked it, Cheryl remembers that Troy looked right at her and said, “I wasn’t thinking about her at all. I was just thinking about how angry I was.”
Cheryl asked to take a break, and she and Marci stepped outside. It wasn’t raining anymore, and the air was cool and tasted clean. “I knew at that moment that it wasn’t my fault at all, the way I had been treated by all the men in my life,” Cheryl said. “I had been told that over and over, but until this abuser could look me in the eye and say it, I didn’t believe it.”
They went back inside, and Cheryl talked to Troy for a while longer. She wanted to make sure he knew that violence “was a broken path for him,” that he was doing the things he needed to do in order to make different choices. He told her he was sorry for everything she had gone through. She believed he was sincere. Then she left, feeling, for the first time, that she wasn’t carrying around the entire weight of everything that had happened to her.
The dialogue didn’t fix everything Troy or Cheryl struggled with in their lives. Troy was still an alcoholic, and staying in recovery was hard. It took Cheryl many more years to really figure out how to live differently with the knowledge that the abuse she’d experienced wasn’t her fault. A couple of years after the dialogue, she ran into a woman she’d been acquainted with for a long time. The woman said to Cheryl, “I know you don’t know this, but the man you sat with is my son.” Since then, Cheryl has occasionally seen Troy when she’s over at his mother’s house. They sometimes sit down and talk a bit, catching up.