“Do you remember the frequency of the abuse?” Attiya Khan asks Steve X, her lips pursed and her head cocked to one side. She sits across from him at a coffee table. In a cafe in Canada, Attiya and Steve are at their first meeting together in over 20 years. Steve’s head is bent down; his spectacles rest on his nose.
“No,” he says in between gulps. “I just know that it wasn’t good.”
More than 20 years after Attiya, now 40 years old, escaped from her abusive relationship with Steve, she decided to revisit her trauma through film. She stars in her new documentary, A Better Man, with Steve, her former boyfriend. They reflect on painful memories, their previously shared apartment in Ottawa and their high school. Those were places were Steve continually abused Attiya while they dated as teenagers.
Watching the film and hearing Attiya’s story is painful. Attiya recounts her past experiences in gruesome detail, in the presence of a domestic violence counselor, Todd Augusta Scott. The film explores themes of trauma recovery, skewed relationship dynamics and deep-rooted insecurities. More than anything, Attiya’s story centers on reconciliation and justice. What does it mean for victims to achieve peace with former violence?
“In a world where we see narrowly defined justice as what happens in the courtroom,” said Todd Scott, the therapist from A Better Man, in a conversation with the Politic. “We often ignore what victims want and just arrest and criminalize.” “The criminal justice system assumes that women are scared and vulnerable and that what they want is conventional punishment.”
In Scott’s view, current legal systems handles abuse by reacting, not working towards reformation, or trying to understand victims’ needs. A Better Man pushes viewers to take a closer look at how a victim can begin healing after reporting abuse. Scott said that most of his patients report receiving a “hollow sense of justice” after they report incidences of abuse. What is the best way for victims to achieve closure, if possible?
“Women most commonly want an explanation and an apology,” Maura Crossin, the Executive Director of the Victim’s Right’s Center of Connecticut told The Politic. Survivors of intimate partner violence are plagued with questions after abuse.
Crossin lists the types of questions that haunt survivors: “Why did those who loved them beat them? What provoked their anger? Are the victims, responsible [for] triggering the abuser? Did they deserve it?” Finding answers to these questions isn’t easy. At one point in the film, Khan expresses her exasperation and rage over Steve’s selective memory of the abuse. “How could you not remember abusing me every day in that house? I needed you to be the one to say it.”
The abuse was gruesome. Attiya recalls Steve’s repeated use of a type of abuse called the “sleeper.” Steve choked Attiya until she was unconscious and “literally held her life in his hands.” Steve’s face is drained of colour as he silently nods in memory of this.
“I am the worst thing that happened to Attiya,” Steve admitted.
According to Scott, what some women may want is for abusers like Steve to admit that the decision regarding what is just, should be in the hands of the victims. The approach of bringing the abused, abuser, and mediator together to discuss the impact of violence is known as “Restorative Justice (RJ).”
Proponents of RJ believe that the process encourages the abuser to reform themselves and aids the victim in his or her recovery. Scott uses this approach in his clinic. Crossin, too, is an advocate of RJ. Crossin emphasises the relativity of victims’ experiences. The Restorative Justice approach isn’t necessarily suitable for everyone but, in an ideal case, according to Crossin, it involves a “collaborative effort with both involved parties, social service providers and lawyers.”
The documentary doesn’t give viewers clear answers for why Steve inflicted abuse on Attiya. Some critics find this lack of explanation of Steve’s motivations troubling. Though Steve remains taciturn for most of the film, viewers do get a glimpse of his emotional turmoil. At one point he claims that he beat Attiya to make sure he didn’t lose her. When Scott asks where Steve learned the abuse from, Steve withholds information but implies that he was abused in the past. Steve’s reserve and insecurities bring to light another concern: Perhaps some men are afraid of being afraid.
Zulfiqar Mannan ’20, who works at the Yale Women’s Center, grew up in Pakistan and often heard that “real men don’t have emotions.” Generally, societal gender norms mandate that men should not share their emotions because they must always be in control –of situations and themselves. The actions of abusers are never justified and must be prevented. In order to do this, perhaps society needs to tackle the abusers’ motivations for inflicting pain on victims.
“Our first priority, surely, is the rehabilitation of women in such cases,” Mannan says. “But, we also need to be rehabilitating men, and trying to dissolve the reasons which drive their detestable behaviour.”
Mannan argues that society should work towards destigmatizing emotions for men to allow them to find nonviolent channels to release emotions such as anger or sadness.
There exist several concerns with the efficacy of restorative justice. The approach would not work for every pair of victim and abuser. Every person’s experience is unique; Attiya’s own experience as a counsellor meant that she was probably better able to display self-control in her interactions with Steve. Attiya also had the support of a loving family (husband and child) and friends during the process which others may lack. Steve did not give viewers exactly the clear answers for which they might have hoped.Though “A Better Man” portrays a unique case, the film still elucidates underlying concerns for victims.
The film concludes with a celebration of Attiya’s twenty-third year away from Steve. Her family and friends celebrate Khan’s courage in confronting Steve. By showing Attiya’s celebration, the film is shifting viewers’ focus from punishment to reconciliation: to giving women the ability to have closure, and to trying to understand why men abuse women, and most of all, to return power to the women who feel as though they have lost it.
Although the title, A Better Man, suggests a focus on the man, or more generally, the abuser, the film highlights the path to recovery for the abused. The film introduces the idea that for some victims, engaging in conversation with their abuser may lead to the possibility of healing.