Attiya Khan woke up to her boyfriend Steve punching her, smashing her heart-shaped jewellery box against the wall and dragging her through the glass. As she cowered on the floor, Khan went numb: “This is how life is now,” she remembers thinking. The attack ended when Steve headbutted her on their bed and then strangled her unconscious.
The gruesome daily reality of domestic violence is the focus of Khan’s new documentary A Better Man. The groundbreaking film sees Khan sitting down with Steve, the ex-boyfriend who physically abused her when she was 16 and he was turning 18, to ask him why he did it.
Meeting Khan in a coffee shop 20 years on, Steve is jarring for his ordinariness: smart eyeglasses, neat, grey V-neck, a corporate security pass clipped to his slacks. As Khan reminds him of the worst attacks in their two-year relationship and asks him to account for the violence, he looks pained.
They travel back to their Ottawa high school and to the apartments where Steve routinely strangled her, a road trip that leaves her staggering and nauseous. For Khan, a counsellor who works with abused women and children, the difficult exchanges acknowledge what she survived.
For Steve, who agreed to do this with cameras in his face, there is the possibility of absolution, of leaving the abuser label behind him. As part of the film, he sees a therapist who writes out the slurs Steve used to call Khan on a large easel notepad. “I just want you to be okay,” Steve tells his ex-girlfriend. He seems to mean it.
A Better Man, which was co-directed by Lawrence Jackman, raises important questions about whether and why abusers should be involved in the rehabilitation process. Anticipation for the haunting film is high: it premieres at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival on April 30 and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation is considering showing it in high schools.
The Globe and Mail interviewed Khan via e-mail this month, as she recovered from an unrelated surgery to remove a tumour.
How did your work as an advocate for abused women affect your ability to do this face-to-face with Steve?
My experience working with survivors, and as a survivor myself, gave me the confidence and inspiration to make this film. I got to a breaking point in my career where I became very angry and disappointed with the violence I continued to see. I thought it was time for men who use violence against women to take responsibility for their actions. I wanted to show something that had not been seen before in previous documentaries about domestic violence.
Having worked as a counsellor also affected how I approached the conversations, which form the spine of the film. I know how important it is to allow people time to respond and react. I am comfortable with long periods of silence. Sometimes the most incredible things are said after a long silence.
How did you get to the point where you can look your abuser straight in the eye, ask agonizing questions and listen to the replies?
I had been running into him on the street in Toronto every few years since I escaped from him. The first time I saw him I almost fainted as we passed each other by. I was terrified. I had to stop, sit down on the sidewalk and take deep breaths.
After these encounters, I would have terrible nightmares. I walked through the world afraid for the next time I’d see him and I anticipated seeing him around every corner. This fear affected my body. I was constantly on alert and that made my whole body tense and sore.
Around four years after I left him my fear turned into a desire for revenge. I wanted him to feel pain. When I bumped into him I was very angry. He looked scared of me. I am not a vengeful person. I am glad these feelings did not last long. Revenge turned to feeling sorry for him. Our encounters on the street started to last longer: five minutes, sometimes 10.
There was one encounter in particular where I actually felt a change happen in me. I looked at him for the first time as someone other than the person who hurt me and that’s when I realized he was not doing well. He looked terribly unhappy. He looked like he was suffering. I also realized that I was doing really well compared to him. It was around this time that I also started to feel safe around him.
And then, the year before we recorded our first conversation on film, I became very curious about him. Who was this man who had affected my life so deeply, so negatively, for over 20 years? At first I felt guilty about wondering who he was and how he was doing, as if he didn’t deserve it. But I could not resist my interest in finding out how the abuse he inflicted on me as teenagers had affected his life. I also started to think that he could answer some of my questions about the abuse.
What did you see when you looked at him throughout this film?
When I first met Steve I fell in love with him immediately. He was really funny, stylish and had great taste in music. We were teenagers when we met so these things mattered to me. The violence started very early on in our relationship so when I looked at Steve, it was generally through a lens of fear. I saw someone who could at any point hurt me. Now when I look at Steve I see someone who is trying really hard to be accountable for what he did to me.
It’s apparent Steve was in love with you in high school: he recalls your “saucer eyes” the first day you met and he cries speaking about the fact that you’re not together today. Culturally, we are told that abusers do not love their victims. It’s hard to process the reality that of course they do: these are complex long-term relationships. Can you tell me about this disconnect?
Many people who use violence against their partners do love them. A key moment in the film for me is when Steve explains that he used violence against me because he was afraid of losing me. He used power and control to keep me at his side.
It’s important to remember that even though people’s behaviours can be bad, this does not make them a wholly bad person incapable of love, caring and tenderness. What I learned from Steve in a recent conversation is that he did not want to be using violence, he just didn’t know how not to.
One night after you end a shift at a bar, he stalks and attacks you. It’s 2 a.m. and you have school in the morning. Can you tell me about this experience for abused women: the numbing exhaustion of having to pull yourself through work, school and daily obligations as you fear for your life at the hands of an intimate partner?
There is so much strategy involved when you live with violence. From the moment I woke up I was trying to manoeuvre in a way that would not cause Steve to explode. That said, I could not control when Steve would become abusive. At times it seemed random and at other times I knew it was coming, like if he saw me saying hello to a male friend in the hallway at school or if by accident I crinkled one of his record album sleeves. I was constantly aware of where I was looking, how I was walking, what I was wearing and where Steve was in relation to my body.
Going to school after being beaten up is brutal. I remember Steve and I putting foundation on my bruises together before school. School was very important to me, but being a good student became impossible while I was with Steve. The exhausting part is pretending with everyone that you are actually okay when you are very much not okay.
I remember coming home from work and taking my earrings out before I got home because I was afraid they would get pulled out of my ears during the violence. I would try and take off my café work uniform as I walked into the apartment because I didn’t want it to get ripped or ruined. At work I knew there was always a possibility that he was watching me so I had to make sure not to be friendly with people I was serving at the coffee shop.
All of this made me feel not like myself. Most of the time, I thought that I deserved the violence. It is all so exhausting, mentally and physically. I couldn’t be curious about people or interested in things. I lost my dreams, my passion for life.
How did this abusive relationship influence your future ones?
I learned what I did not want in a relationship, what I would not accept in a relationship. While dating in university it only took one inappropriate comment from someone I was dating and I would end the relationship. I remember being really proud when I ended a relationship if I was not being treated well.
In terms of communicating in my relationships, up until recently one of my go-to responses to conflict would be to go silent. And I could go silent for days. This has been very frustrating for people I’ve been in relationships with. I’m at a stage now where I consciously make an effort to say how I’m feeling as conflicts arise instead of holding it all in.
There are certain things you can’t ask Steve about, painful things he said to break you down. Long-term, are words sometimes worse than hits for abused women?
Many women I have worked with have expressed how the words their partners used were more painful than the physical abuse, that the words stay with them. I think it depends on the woman. Verbal abuse is minimized. It can be just as damaging and it should be taken very seriously. There are things that Steve said to me that I will never forget, a lot having to do with how I look. It’s hard to shed some of those words, especially considering how much emphasis society places on women’s bodies and expectations around beauty.
Sometimes he is unable to articulate why he did what he did to you. How did this make you feel?
At times it really frustrated and angered me. It was so important to me for him to remember and to provide me with some details of what he did to me and why he did it. At other times, I was more empathetic. It became clear to me early on that he had not talked about the violence he inflicted on me with anyone before.
Off-camera, did Steve discuss what happened to him in his own life before he met you that laid the path for his violence toward you?
He told me a little bit about it back when we were teenagers.
Why was that point not pushed on camera?
Our facilitator Tod Augusta-Scott did try to ask Steve about his past but Steve made it clear that he was not going to say too much. Before we started filming we made an agreement that we would not talk about anything he felt uncomfortable with. His past is his story to tell and I wanted to respect that.
Talking, listening and revisiting the past with Steve: what was the most important result for you?
I am starting to heal. I really did not expect this. I thought I would get some sense of relief by telling him what he did to me and how it has affected my life. But it was much more than that. I feel like I am finally being repaired after decades of being broken.
Would you recommend this process to other victims?
I would recommend the option if a few conditions are met. It must be safe. There should be a skilled facilitator present. The survivor must be interested in this approach. Finally, the person who committed the harm must be willing to admit that what they did was wrong and be accountable before sitting down with the person they harmed.
This is a slow and careful process and it’s not for everyone. It can offer survivors an opportunity to have some of the harms inflicted on them to be repaired. In a world where very few survivors get justice, this can be an incredibly healing process.
It also can be a good alternative to the criminal justice system especially for those of us who fear being retraumatized or victim blamed. When I was with Steve I remembered thinking that I didn’t want him to go to prison, I just wanted the violence to stop.
I do think there are times when prison may be the only option in terms of keeping women safe. If this is the case, I can see this approach being beneficial in the prison system too.
Your physically abusive relationship was an open secret among the teachers at your high school: Steve’s teacher knew, your guidance counsellor knew and another teacher saw bruises. It seems completely negligent. Today, are schools any better at helping students who are being abused in their relationships?
I hope so. From what I understand there is a lot more emphasis on what healthy relationships look like. I would like more discussions about what unhealthy relationships look like. It’s important to be clear about what behaviours and attitudes are harmful. I also wish the people who worked at our high school had understood that Steve and I both needed help.
It seemed like there were no adults in your life throughout this horror. A neighbour drew the curtains closed when you ran screaming down the street in Ottawa. Why do people turn away? Do they think this is “private?”
Many people still see domestic violence as a private issue. This has to change because people’s lives are at stake. As a community we need to keep each other safe. Conversations are starting to happen in a public way, especially on social media. Most people don’t know what to do when they witness violence and some people are scared that they will get hurt if they intervene, which is a valid response.
Whether it’s a loved one or a stranger, how do we help those suffering from domestic violence escape it safely?
Let them know that you are there for them, that you are concerned for them, that you care for them. Letting them know it’s not their fault and that you believe them is very important.
Instead of telling them what you think they should do, it is often a lot more helpful to just ask them what they need. You can offer your home as a place to store an emergency bag with important documents like birth certificates, health cards, bank cards, emergency money. Or perhaps you can offer them your home as a place to stay. If they have financial barriers you can provide childcare while they access resources, offer to pay for therapy or rent for a new place if you are able.
It’s important that once someone decides to leave, they not tell their partner that they are leaving or where they are going. The Assaulted Women’s Helpline is a great number to find information about shelters and other resources. It is anonymous and confidential and can accommodate many different languages.
Involving the abuser or at least learning about the abuser, will this curb domestic violence?
If we want to prevent and ultimately end domestic violence, we have to talk to those who are choosing to use violence. We must figure out how to help them learn to be in healthy, caring relationships. For younger people, I think watching the film and hearing from Steve will encourage them to make different choices. Programs and services that help men curb their abuse can be a crucial support, not just for those men, but for the people they’re hurting.
Can abusive men be rehabilitated?
Some men can be rehabilitated. It is a very long careful process and once you have used violence (including verbal and emotional abuse) it is a lifelong commitment to use non-violence. A person who has been abusive must admit what they did was wrong and not blame their partner before change can happen. This can take a very long time.
People who are trying to be accountable and are committed to wanting a life without violence need a lot of support along the way. They need to learn the necessary tools to de-escalate abusive incidents. We need to hear successful stories of people who have been abusive who have changed, or have begun to change their behaviour. These stories can inspire others to want to achieve a life of non-violence, resulting in a safer society for women and children.
This interview has been edited and condensed.