Can He Ever Be a Better Man?

This week we got in a really interesting documentary called A Better Man (DVD 14907) directed by a domestic abuse counselor who was herself a victim, Attiya Khan. It’s not Home Use, but I’m still really curious about it because the way it was made sounds so interesting.

In the film, Khan and her abuser, who is identified as Steve, meet to discuss and come to terms with the two years of abuse Khan suffered while dating Steve twenty years prior. They sometimes have a facilitator, and also revisit their high school. It’s a little hard to explain the background, so just read the Wikipedia article.

The project itself is asking a question about justice. Typically this type of engagement is thought of as a form of restorative justice, which has been explored in a variety of types of offences, and reduces relapses to crime. It’s usually claimed that both the victim and perpetrator come away feeling better about the process and results than when the offender is merely fined or sent to prison. It’s worth reading a bit about the history of this type of justice, as many people have never considered an alternative to what is called retributive justice (basically, our prison system).

Here’s the trailer:

At one point in the trailer, Khan talks about running from the house screaming and no one on her street coming to help her. There’s a lot of isolation and terror involved in abuse like this. One of the reasons I’m curious about this documentary is that in some form or another, forgiveness is an ongoing negotiation in domestic abuse even as it occurs. Society forgives the abuser by un-seeing victims. Victims forgive their abusers by going back.

In the current #metoo movement, one of the most depressing things is the amount of un-seeing uncovered by these incidents that basically everyone knew about. (I mean, jesus, conductors??) Part of the reason domestic violence is so heartbreaking is that the victim and the victim’s social environment often becomes collaborators in concealing the crime. And, it’s kind of problematic to talk about restorative justice here: in many ways, abusers are intermittently “better men.” They feel shame, even as they cause grievous injury, but that shame is often somehow divided from their “true self.” The process of restitution is shallowly engaged every time a promise or an apology is made. Even victims of horrible abuse are capable of believing that their partners can and will be “better men.” People who live outside abusive relationships sometimes imagine them to be constant, epic battles waged behind closed doors. Often, they are relatively normal relationships with an element of violence that has simply become normalized, be it daily, weekly, or even much more infrequently.

I’m curious what the takeaway presented actually is. You can celebrate the conversation here, but when this type of abuse is current and not an issue twenty years in the past, what is the relationship between the resolution in the film and the resolution needed for current abuse?

I don’t know! Gotta watch the movie.

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