On a hot summer night 22 years ago, 18-year-old Attiya Khan ran through the streets, frightened for her life. She was fleeing her ex-boyfriend Steve, who’d been abusing her on a daily basis.
Now, all these years later, Attiya has asked Steve to meet. She wants to know how he remembers their relationship and if he is willing to take responsibility for his violent actions.
This emotionally raw first meeting, filmed by Attiya with Steve’s consent, is the starting point for A Better Man. The rough footage also marks a new beginning in Attiya’s own recovery process—as well as an important starting point for Steve. For the first time ever, he speaks of the abuse and cracks opens the door to dealing with the past.
A Better Man offers a fresh and nuanced look at the healing and revelation that can happen for everyone involved when men take responsibility for their abuse. It also empowers audience members to play new roles in challenging domestic violence, whether it’s in their own relationships or as part of a broader movement for social change.
It has been over two decades since the relationship with Steve ended. What made you want to tell your story now? What were your thoughts on choosing a documentary as a way of telling your story?
I had been coping with the pain and trauma from Steve’s use of violence against me for over two decades. Not a single day went by without remembering what he did to me. I had questions that only he could answer.
I had been running into Steve every few years since I escaped from him. I went from being afraid of him to feeling sorry for him to becoming curious about him. When I asked him to participate in the film, I was no longer afraid of him. I knew that a lot could be learned by capturing on film our conversation about our past relationship and the violence he inflicted on me.
I have dedicated my professional life to preventing violence against women. I was a counsellor and advocate, before I started working on A Better Man, specifically for women and children who have experienced domestic violence.
I decided to tell my story in documentary form because I knew how impactful films can be and wanted to create an accessible educational tool. I wanted audiences to see and to feel what an incredibly difficult conversation looks and feels like. I wanted audiences to experience something different by witnessing Steve being accountable for the harm he created. I also wanted people to witness how healing it was for me to have Steve take responsibility in such a public way.
As many other perpetrators, Steve has a very different recollection of your relationship and the violence you experienced at his hand. Many victims of violence have a strong desire to see their pain and experience acknowledged by the perpetrator. When, after years, there is still minimization, what kind of an impact does that have on the victim? Were you prepared for this? How did you deal with it?
Steve and I remember very different things from our past relationship. When we sat down on camera for the first time, Steve remembers very little about how he treated me. At first, this really bothered me. I wanted him to remember more. I found it hard to believe that he didn’t remember some of the incidents I remembered vividly. But it makes sense to me now: he buried some of those memories deep inside. There are a lot of feelings of shame and pain when we harm others. It became clear to me that Steve had not talked about the violence he used against me with anyone until we were sitting together on camera. I was forcing him to confront, to remember and to acknowledge our past.
I remember how Steve minimized the violence when we were in our relationship. I remember people not intervening when they could have, which made me feel like I deserved the abuse. I remember how after Steve and I broke up, I would talk with others about the abuse I experienced, and they would minimize the violence. It was incredibly hurtful.
The restorative process that Steve and I undertake in the film was so healing for me. The process allows Steve to take responsibility for his past abusive behaviors. He listens to me. He starts to remember. He never blames me for his use of violence. He does not minimize it. The process also allows me to tell Steve how his use of violence has impacted my life. I asked him questions that used to keep me up at night. It was very satisfying for me to tell Steve exactly how he had hurt me in so many different ways.
I was not expecting to heal by making this film. Steve agreeing to talk with me about our past has impacted my life significantly. I no longer have nightmares about Steve. My panic attacks have decreased. I don’t fear running into Steve anymore. I can leave the house without always thinking I’m going to be hurt.
You were only 17 when you moved in with your boyfriend and the violence you experienced was severe. After many years and having a family of your own, how do you feel about the reaction of the adults that were around you at the time (e.g. parents, teachers, etc.)? What was your family like and do you think they realized what was going on?
I was 16 when Steve and I moved in together. Steve was 17. The abuse started right away and escalated quickly. One of the forms of abuse was isolation. I stopped seeing my friends and family. I was not allowed to see them that often. I also did not feel comfortable asking my family for help. I didn’t really see them as a form of support that could help me.
I quickly began to believe that violence is something that happens to women in relationships and I just had to learn how to live with it. Steve told me over and over again that I deserved to be hurt. When adults (teachers, neighbours) noticed bruises or saw me screaming and yelling for help and did nothing, this reinforced to me that I deserved the violence. If I didn’t deserve it, someone would say it was wrong or try to help me. It made me feel alone, invisible and uncared for. I still feel so much anger towards people who looked away and did nothing. As an adult now, I can’t imagine a person not helping someone who is experiencing violence – especially teachers. There was an opportunity and responsibility for them to intervene and provide help to both Steve and me. This could have reduced the violence that I experienced. Because we were teenagers and in school, it would have been the perfect time and place for us to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
If you know someone who is in a relationship where abuse is taking place, at the very least acknowledge it. This would have made a huge difference for me.
Had you been in touch with support services before making the film? What were your experiences?
When I was with Steve, I did not have any support services. I did not know they existed. This is why it’s so important to raise awareness about services for people experiencing violence or using violence. I wish I had known about shelters, crisis hotlines and support groups.
Only recently have I started to see a therapist specifically to talk about the abuse I experienced almost 25 years ago. It’s never too late to try and get help for past trauma.
Do you think there were some advantages in the process of restorative justice that you chose? What are your feelings about more traditional avenues of justice (e.g. criminal proceedings)?
I want restorative justice to be an option for people who have been harmed. For me, the restorative process changed my life in an unexpected and beautiful way. It restored a feeling of safety for me and it shed the weight of trauma and darkness.
So many of us have experienced abuse and we will not all want the same path to justice and healing. The truth is, most people who have experienced domestic violence don’t get justice. I didn’t want Steve to go to prison and be punished, even if that was an option. I did however want the violence to stop. I wanted Steve to get help and learn how to have healthy caring relationships.
The criminal legal system doesn’t ask the most important question: what does the person who has been harmed need to move forward? The criminal legal system encourages those who have harmed others not to take responsibility, to deny what they did even if they know they hurt someone. Navigating the criminal legal system has also proven traumatic and painful to many people who have experienced violence and have the courage to come forward.
Is there anything that didn’t make it into the film you would like (potential) viewers to know?
Thank you for asking this. My team has created an interactive website called It Was Me. https://abettermanfilm.com/interactive/
On this site, you are introduced to 6 men who have used violence against their partners. They are now part of an intervention group to help men choose non-violence in their relationships. It is important for more men, who are taking responsibility for their harmful behaviors, to speak up about their experiences. There is far too much silence surrounding the issue of domestic violence. We need to create spaces to hear women share their stories of surviving abuse and create spaces for men to talk about their abusive behaviours so we can all learn from each other. It Was Me offers important stories that need to be heard if we want to end violence against women.
My team has created many materials to accompany the film which can be found on our website, https://abettermanfilm.com. We did this because we felt a responsibility to care for our viewers after going deeply into such a difficult conversation. You will find a discussion guide to help unpack the film. There is a men’s viewing guide to encourage groups of men to have discussions after the film about how to engage in preventing violence against women. You can find resources to help start conversations with people in your life who may be experiencing violence or using violence. There are tips on how to intervene and help people in a relationship where there is abuse.