How a counselor finally confronted his own 16-year history of abusing women A VIOLENT PAST

June 29, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

You never forget your first time.

Rodrick Bingham was 22, the first in his family to graduate from college. It was a soft May evening in Tennessee, the night before his graduation ceremony, and he was looking for his girlfriend, Ina. When he saw her with his best friend -- they had been driving around together, trying to find him -- his imagination took over. Then rage took over.

What was he thinking, as he raised his right hand, a solidly built athlete, all of 6 feet, facing down a 5-foot-3 woman, a woman he loved? Nothing, Mr. Bingham says from a distance of 16 years, absolutely nothing.

But the lessons of a lifetime were always with him.

What was it the guys on the corner had said, back in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tenn.? "I beat that bitch up." "She deserved it." "She asked for it." "She wanted it."

He backhanded Ina, dislocating her nose.

Rodrick Bingham's story is not unusual, not in a country where one advocacy group estimates a woman is beaten every 15 seconds. What is unusual is his desire to tell it, almost compulsively, in painful and wrenching detail.

Now 38 and an addictions counselor with the state Department of Juvenile Services in Baltimore, Mr. Bingham spent most of his adult life denying that May night, as well as the nights and days of abuse that followed. Two years ago, arrested for battery and forced to go into counseling, he finally broke down and admitted he had a problem.

After completing his mandatory 22 weeks of group therapy at the House of Ruth, a local program for batterers and their victims, Mr. Bingham asked for more counseling -- a rarity at a center where 95 percent of the men attend under court order. With another man and the help of the House of Ruth's Karen Horsey, he started Men Against Violence, a voluntary group. In its first six months, it has attracted six members.

"Rodrick's not the only one. It so happens he's the most vocal, the one who's open to going and talking to the press," says Ms. Horsey, who oversees the batterers' program. "One reason is because of the issue. He really in his heart knows something needs to be done to stop violence, because he works with youth.

"The other reason is, he's a ham."

But, despite Mr. Bingham's willingness to talk, no one paid much attention to the fledgling Men Against Violence until O. J. Simpson roared into the headlines, charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and another man. Mr. Simpson, who pleaded no contest in 1989 to beating his wife, has sparked a national dialogue on domestic violence. Mr. Bingham wishes people could have shown interest sooner.

"It's too late to be listening to those 911 tapes," Mr. Bingham says, referring to the much-played recordings of Mrs. Simpson calling for help just last year, when her ex-husband was threatening her. "And we didn't need O. J. Simpson to think about domestic violence. We had our own case right here, with a guy who shot a police officer on I-95, then shot his girlfriend and himself."

Early days

Rodrick Bingham's childhood was, in a word, fun.

"We had basically a good life," he recalls. "A real disciplined household."

But the good life for Rodrick began when he was 7, after his mother had left his father. His stepfather -- a career Air Force officer, like his father -- was "a good model of a man."

His father was a good man, too, he hastens to add. Except for one thing: He beat his mother.

Fighting was strictly forbidden in his new household. When Rodrick got into fights, trying to defend his Panamanian-born mother against the taunts of neighborhood children, he was spanked.

He was 12 when his oldest sister, then 24, began dating a man who beat her. His stepfather was often away, so young Rodrick stepped in to defend his sister. The boyfriend beat him up, and his sister went back to the boyfriend, never pressing charges. His mother convinced him it was a lost cause.

"We basically washed our hands of it," he says. "I didn't think of it as battering. I thought of it as someone hurting my sister."

Flash forward 10 years. After hitting his own girlfriend, Mr. Bingham was overwhelmed by shock and shame. He burst into tears, promising never to do it again. But his biggest fear was being caught -- and, consequently, being controlled by Ina, who now had power over him. The power to turn him in.

"You're supposed to control her," Mr. Bingham says, explaining how he thought at the time. "She belongs to you. You wear the pants. That was the definition of what a man was."

But Ina protected him, making up a story about her injury at the emergency room and hiding in his house until her bruises faded. Her new-found power faded, too. Until the end of the relationship, Mr. Bingham could control her by intimidation alone.

"Sometimes, at the dinner table, I could raise my hand and she would jump," he says.

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