Book review: Why Does He Do That, by Lundy Bancroft

The best part of Why Does He Do That? was the description/definition of abuse, which he doesn’t give formally until very late in the book.  Abuse arises from a miscalculated sense of entitlement.  Anger and substance abuse issues may influence how someone expresses those entitlement issues, but are completely orthogonal to its existence.  This is, according to the author, why conventional therapy is useless as a tool against abuse.  Modern therapy is explicitly aimed at helping patients meet their own goals.  Anti-abuse treatment is aimed at teaching someone their values are wrong and changing them.

The difficulty with this definition is it requires knowing *everything* about a situation before you can decide if abuse took place.  Someone telling a partner “Don’t go on that hike with your friends, your knee will hurt for days” could be an abuser isolating their victim, or an abuse victim trying to prevent pain their partner will take out of them, or a genuinely concerned partner in a healthy relationship.   You just don’t know until you know the state of the person’s knee, how they usually act after long hikes, whether there’s a pattern of isolation attempts, support of other endeavors…So you can’t help but come out of this book seeing abuse everywhere.

Given how wonderful the book was in understanding the psychology of abuse, I was extra disappointed to see the author so dismissive of female-on-male abuse.  He acknowledges that men can be abused (by other men), he acknowledges that women can abuse (other women), he acknowledges that men and women can be abused by people physically smaller and weaker than them (because no one tolerates physical abuse until emotional abuse has broken their defenses), he acknowledges the role of various privileges (money, citizenship, education, etc) in same -sex abuse, but he insists that there is no way a man can ever be abused by a woman.  In fact, he says a man accusing a female partner of abuse is a sign that he is abusive. I don’t doubt that most accusations of female-on-male abuse that this guy hears are false, because he’s hearing them in a program for male abusers.  And I suspect that the kind of entitlement he’s describing is more prevalent.  But categorically denying the possibility of the reverse is dangerous and damaging to male abuse victims and ultimately, because it constrains our conception of what abuse can be, female victims.

I am also really uncomfortable with the book’s title and associated goals.  It doesn’t actually matter why a person is abusive (which Bancroft agrees with).  And in many ways, it doesn’t matter if it’s entitlement leading to official Abuse or a sick system, because either way you have to leave.  But I acknowledge that the descriptions of abuser-types could be helpful to victims who think it can’t be abuse because he’s not throwing a lamp at you.

Overall, I think this book has some really good points and brings a lot to the table.  It also propagates some really toxic ideas.  I would absolutely listen to this author if I wanted to treat abusers.  And if I had a friend in a bone fida abusive relationship, I think this book could be helpful.  But it is the last thing I would use as abuse prevention, and especially the last thing I’d give to a young person starting to date. For them, I want a model of healthy relationships,  teaching in how to maintain them, and the self esteem to leave when they can’t.