Frisky Q&A: “Abusers” Co-Creator Tami Outterbridge

Last week we learned about a potential new show that made our jaws drop: “Abusers,” a reality TV show about domestic abusers and their victims. There were few details about the proposed show beyond a press release online and few details about the show’s co-creators, Tami Outterbridge, a writer, and Albert Harris, Jr., a former aide to New Jersey ex-governor Jim McGreevey.

On Friday I spoke with Outterbridge, who said the show (currently called “Abusers Intervention,” as Harris told me in an email) is being shopped around to several networks. She explained that “Abusers Intervention” will not depict physical violence onscreen but will instead “show and identify the patterns of red flag behavior” of abuse. “Domestic violence never happens in a vacuum or a void,” Outterbridge said. “There’s a pattern that delivers you there.”

“We want to begin to show and identify the patterns of red flag behavior. Even before you get to physical violence — which is where we don’t want to go — domestic violence never happens in a vacuum or a void. There’s a pattern that delivers you there.”

Although we have a far more complete picture of the proposed show after speaking with Outterbridge, we still have reservations about “Abusers Invention.” Educating the public about all types of intimate partner violence — physical, emotional, etc. — is certainly a worthy goal. But I’m skeptical of whether it’s possible, given the self-righteous and denying nature of those who abuse. I also have questions about the co-creators: neither appears to have worked on television programming in the past, although according to an article that appeared two weeks ago in the New Jersey newspaper The Trentonian, both are at work on a documentary about Jo Jo, a notorious convicted sex offender in New Jersey. Harris was quoted in the article as saying the film would “allow people to make up their own minds” about Jo Jo.

In any event, my interview with Outterbridge is below. It’s long and her answers about “Abusers Intervention” can speak for themselves.

How did you come to be interested in doing a show like “Abusers”?

I am myself a domestic violence survivor, of a very extreme situation. If the person in my life had had it their way, I would not even be talking to you today. I have probably a very extreme personal experience, so for that reason, I decided I really wanted to do something after I processed my own experience and got on the other side of it. I remember so clearly what I experienced and all of the fog and confusion that comes along with that. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat if I could be part of something, do something to help other people?” In doing different writing projects and beginning to connect with different domestic violence organizations for the work I was doing personally, Albert [Harris, Jr.] and I intersected. It was awesome that we discovered that we had a common passion.

A lot of people have concerns about putting people who commit domestic violence on a reality TV show.

I can understand people saying when they hear the name “Abusers” — it’s a dramatic name and we want it to be that — but when you hear the name “Abusers,” it does tend to create a word picture. You see some horrible thing. … “Cheaters” or Jerry Springer or as you said, “Cops”, [those shows aren’t] the direction we’re going in. As I’ve said, I have a particular sensitivity to the issue. I want to see that we handle the topic, which is very sensitive and one people tend not to talk about, with real integrity. Albert feels the same way.

So what you’ll see [on “Abusers”] is an aspect that I think is very important: friends, family members, loved ones, reaching out and saying, “Hey, we have someone that we care about that is experiencing a problem. We realize and recognize that they need help. We want to do what we can to bring them that help.” So you’re going to hear about what’s happening and why it’s concerning people: first from the outside perspective of people that know them intimately.

“Intervention” style?

“Intervention”-style. Eventually you do meet the abused person and you hear from their own perspective of what they’re experiencing. Then that intervention piece is offered to them: counseling, resources, therapy. Again, we want to send a message with every episode that there is a way out [of abusive relationships]. There is a way out. Whether it’s emotional abuse, mental abuse, threats, physical violence — when a person is in the middle of that it can be so confusing. Oftentimes [victims] can feel as if there isn’t a way out. So we want every episode to demonstrate whether you reach out to help yourself, or other people around you offer it to you, you’ve got to accept the help. That’s one of [the] first steps of getting out of this situation.

In each episode you do meet the abuser. And this can be male or female. Because realize it can be males oftentimes that are the abusers, but there’s also [women who abuse]. You meet the abuser and again, people in his or her life who are saying, “Hey, we think he or she has a problem. We’re concerned about this.” You see the same situation play out in terms of friends and family saying, “We don’t like the direction where this person is heading. We think he or she needs help.”

Then you see the abuser being presented again with the same intervention opportunity: “Hey, here’s an opportunity for you to redirect your behavioral patterns and the direction your life is headed in.” Sometimes we’ll be showcasing stories where there may not be physical violence. Sometimes we’ll be showing a relationship which is teetering on the brink of it: demeaning threats, mental abuse, emotional abuse. Again, the abuser may not have directly hit someone or dragged someone up and down the hallway. [It’s] not always physical violence. But maybe doing things that are very “violent,” but non-physical. We know that [behavior] can escalate sometimes. It’s very dangerous.

It sounds like you’re hoping to teach others about what domestic violence is from a psychological standpoint, rather than merely depict it.

Particularly when you’re in the throes of those very passionate, early relationships that are so emotionally explosive, when [abusive behavior is] happening, oftentimes there can be miscues there and red flags can be missed. We want to begin to show and identify the patterns of red flag behavior. Even before you get to physical violence — which is where we don’t want to go — [DV] never happens in a vacuum or a void. There’s a pattern that delivers you there. We hope with each episode, we’re showcasing different sides of it and people begin to identify different behaviors. We realize a great deal of people who will be watching will either be experiencing these behaviors in their life or will know someone who is. Can you imagine if people began to pick up the phone and dial the 800 numbers?

I remember when I didn’t see a way out [of my abusive relationship]. As brilliant as people thought I was in my career (laughs) and as accomplished as I may have looked on the outside, I didn’t see a way out. We want to help people through that confusion that doesn’t make sense to anyone else around you. They don’t understand why people in [a domestic violence situation] seem to be stagnant or just stuck in a situation. Sometimes it’s hard for people on the outside to see: ‘Why doesn’t she get it? Why doesn’t he get it?’ So we want to explain why that happens and if you see that happening to someone you love and care about, maybe it’s you who needs to pick up the phone.

How will “Abusers” get the access that a reality show needs? I wonder how willing people — both abusers and the abused — will be to appear on TV, especially if they themselves deny there is a problem.

Albert and I are both on the streets talking to people, meeting with people. Right now we’re sourcing a lot of the initial stories from a grassroots level — meaning, people are outreaching to us. We have family members that are already willing and ready to launch into this time of a format on behalf of a loved one. We have people who are experiencing this issue themselves who are reaching out. We feel really good right now about hand-picking the different stories that we want to work with. We have people that are coming to us right now, so we’re not concerned [about not having access].

The interesting thing is we feel like we have so many stories to tell. The market is young women, particularly ages 16 to 24, which we know experience the highest rates of domestic violence. I see a direct correlation with the beginnings of those very passionate, first-tier relationships. That’s a huge story to tell because we realize so many of them will be watching and we want them to say, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s happening in my own relationship.” But the more we talk to the different DV organizations, there are males who are very much experiencing being abused. So much domestic violence also affects the children in the home. A lot of the times people want to isolate it and make it a women’s issue: wrap a pink ribbon around it, tie it up nicely, and say it’s a women’s issue — and that’s so far from the truth. That’s why some of our language [on press releases] says “women, children and families.” It’s a cycle abuse that affects men, women, family members — even co-workers get involved in these kinds of things.

How many people have you heard from about being on the show?

We’ve heard from a lot of people. Particularly from the internet, we get a lot of emails of people saying, “Hey, this is happening to my sister” or “This is happening to my co-worker.”

Can you give me a number?

I’m kind of just guessing, because we haven’t counted. We’re just getting so much outreach. We’re almost overwhelmed by the number of people who are responding. I would say 50 or less right now. And again there are several from that … we’re beginning to hand-pick whose stories we want to tell.

What sort of considerations for different races and classes do you have for representing the full spectrum of all the people domestic violence affects?

I think it’s important to show diversity. There can be a mis-perception that [DV] is happening in a particular community or a particular economic group; people tend to think it’s lower-income people. We want to really show a variety of different kinds of communities that this is happening in, maybe even different cultural cues that are playing into some of the stories. We really want people to see stories they can relate to.

Will you be working with local domestic violence organizations who will the counselors? Or will it be more of a “Celebrity Rehab” set-up, in the sense that Dr. Drew is the one main counselor who talks to everyone on the show?

A little bit of both. There will be some personalities that you seen consistently attached to the show and we’ll be making some announcements in terms of those personalities. However, we realize that every story is different, so even the [rehabilitation] program that’s put together for a particular story or episode, we want to be able to customize that. Some people need different types of support. We want to be able to showcase the variety of support that is out there and the different people that are passionate and involved in this issue.

Some people don’t believe domestic abusers can actually be changed. What would you say to critics?

First of all, I want to say I love all the diversity of the opinion regarding the show. I love it. To me … whether you love the idea or you hate it, it shows people are passionate about this issue. I think a lot of times if people have heard about [the show] but they haven’t read anything about it yet, they’ll think, “Oh, this is going to be exploitative in some way.” But that’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do. I think the fact that we are working with abusers is one of the most powerful aspects of the show. I believe people can change if they want to and if they have a powerful incentive to do so. If something occurs in their life that shines a light on their behavior and makes them want to change, I think people can change. But if they don’t want to, they can’t. We can’t force people to accept help, either. We can offer it to them.

I’m saying that, again, as a survivor of domestic violence and again, an extreme case [of DV]. At one time in my life, I was very bitter about [the abuse] but now I look back on it and I, too, believe if people want to change, they can. I don’t know that the person in my life could have. He may have been one of those people who was unreachable. But I don’t know if that’s the case with everybody who is a quote-on-quote abuser. And sometimes we’re dealing with issues [such as emotional abuse] that aren’t directly prosecutable, but, again, are escalating patterns of behavior.

As I go speak with different DV organizations and get feedback, it occurs to me we’re all on the same team; we’re just playing different roles. The thing that is so awesome to me and encouraging is they light up when we hear that. Because of course we want to address the person who has been abused. That’s a given. You hear this phrase “breaking the cycle of violence” — a major component of that is looking inside out at [the abuser]. Why are they acting out? What behaviorally is going on with them, inside out, that is making them perpetrate onto another person emotional, physical [violence] whatever it is?

Some instances you may see the person needs to be prosecuted. We’re going to let each story tell itself. We don’t assume what the outcomes will be, but we know what our format is. Each story involves individual people. We can’t control how they’re going to respond but that’s what you’ll see play out in the episode.

How long do you expect to be filming individuals? Will you be following their lives for a year, or six months, or what?

We won’t be necessarily hanging out with people that long. Part of it will be coming back to them at a particular point that is determined by whatever [rehabilitation] program we’ve had them go through and following up after that time. Each of those will be decided based on the program that is designed for them. The program for filming with be before and after.

How are you going to screen candidates for the show? Aren’t you concerned the abusers, for instance, could be emotionally volatile and dangerous?

We can do our vetting in advance to make sure we understand as clearly as we can the pre-circumstances to each story, but you don’t know how [the show] is going to play out [or] how they’re going to act out. But we will have law enforcement people involved in terms of people who are part of our vetting process. We feel that we’ll be well-supported to let those situations play out. And again, I want to be careful to underscore the beauty of [the show’s premise] is that each one of these is an individual situation. We can predict what we can predict, but we’re going to see how each story plays itself out.

So “Abusers” is not intentionally trying to cast the craziest people you can find, or the people who might make for the best TV?

No, not by any means. We’re not looking for “Wow, he’s super-crazy, we need to put him on camera.” That’s not at all what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the people who want to find a way out and want to change. I want to identify that step clearly in the pattern of domestic violence: People stay in it because they don’t know what to do and they don’t see a way out of it. So if that person can’t reach out for help, because sometimes they can’t, we want to show there can be people around you who love [you] enough to lift you up out of the situation. And that might be whether you are the abused. It may be that you are the abuser — and there are people who care enough about you to say, “We need to arrest this pattern of behavior.”

Again, I know shows [that cast crazy people] are popular and I’m not intentionally bashing them. We know what their brand is. But with “Cheaters,” or Jerry Springer, or something like that, you can see the set-up and that is not at all [our intention]. When I use the word “integrity,” that is what I want you to hear. That is not our brand at all: the intentional confrontation where their security guard can’t get there in time to pull them apart. That kind of thing is very obvious and is exploitative. It’s not what we’ll be doing at all.

I want to be clear that we’re not showing very dramatic images. We’re not showing people being dragged down the hallway. Or somebody being pummeled right in front of the camera. We don’t need to demonstrate the actual event in order to tell you something dangerous has happened here and we want to intercede.

So are you saying there won’t be any actual physical violence depicted on camera?

That’s not the element we’re trying to show. We’re dealing with the issue, but we don’t even need for that to play out on camera. When you ask, will some people occasionally act out? Maybe they will. If that’s part of how someone responds, that may be demonstrating this person has extreme reactions — but we will not be putting people in situations where you’ve got somebody trying to strike out at the abused. It’s not necessary to do that. We want to say, “We know this is happening and we want to intercede because we know this is happening.” We want to point out red-flag behaviors.

Has it started filming yet?

No. We’re shopping the show right now.

A network will have to be on board with this particular vision.

Yes. As you can see, it’s a very specific format that we’d like to do. The word that you used [in your blog post] was “nuanced.” With our vision, it is very nuanced. We definitely want to see the issue handled with integrity. And the networks we’ve approached, that’s definitely the model of what our show is. It’s not that sensationalized type of format. So yes, it would need to be that type of entity.

So you’ve been taking meetings with networks?

We’re very encouraged. I don’t want to say too much. We’ll be making the proper announcements at the proper times. But we’re very encouraged right now at the support that seems to be out there for the exact model that I’m talking to you about. The name “Abusers” is perfect because people immediately, viscerally react to that title. But the format is integrity-based, issue-based, and with our title, we’re very encouraged that the interest is there.