Attiya Khan is about to have the hardest conversation of her life. She didn’t sleep last night and woke up this morning covered in hives, little red spots that invade her body when stress runs high. Her breathing is shallow as she cycles through motivational mantras in her head: You can do this. You have the strength. You’ve come this far.
It’s December 2014, and she’s about to speak on camera with the man who abused her on a daily basis more than 20 years ago. The conversation is part of her documentary A Better Man, in which Khan and her ex-boyfriend, Steve, talk about his violent behavior. They met when she was 16 and he was 17 and began living together almost immediately — first with her mother, later on their own or with Steve’s father. Just as quickly, Steve began punching her. It was two years before Khan escaped the relationship, with the support of her friends.
Now, in a Toronto studio with big windows and brick walls, they sit an arm’s-length apart and face counselor Tod Augusta-Scott, who will facilitate the discussion. Khan’s long career working with survivors of physical and sexual assault has mentally prepared her to talk about the abuse. But with the studio lights hot on her face, she searches for the courage to relive one of her most traumatic memories.
Khan begins to describe a day full of brutality in which Steve had smashed her heart-shaped jewelry box, dragged her over the broken glass shards and started to punch her repeatedly in the face.
“And then what happened in this incident?” asks Augusta-Scott, in a careful whisper.
Khan swallows hard, exhales deeply, and smiles uncomfortably at Steve.
“So our faces were really close,” she says, holding a hand up in front of her eyes, “and I remember just being done. I felt bruised everywhere. I felt limp. I had no energy and I’m lying there and I’m thinking please stop. Just please stop. Stop. I don’t think my body can do this anymore. And, um, then I just remember — VOOM!” She mimics hitting her head with her left hand and looks directly at Steve. “And you head-butted me. And then that’s when I think I was unconscious.”
Steve’s eyes widen at the words “head-butted.” He shakes his head in shame, tucks in his lower lip and looks down at the floor.
Khan remembers that when she regained consciousness Steve cried and said how sorry he was. But his apologies never lasted long.
“What are you hearing in what Attiya is saying?” asks Augusta-Scott.
Steve swallows hard, looks at Khan and shakes his head. A moment of silence passes and he lets out a deep breath.
“You don’t remember, do you?” Khan asks. She stares at him with a straight face: She can’t believe that to Steve, the punches and blows so deeply etched into her mind are simply a blur. She wants him to corroborate the trauma she’s been carrying alone for her entire adult life.
A Better Man, which runs until May 6 at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival (and again at a Toronto theater between June 9 and 15), follows Khan’s personal mission to heal as she bluntly confronts her trauma. The mediated conversations with Steve are interspersed with trips to their old high school and apartments — landmarks of their abusive past — and glimpses into how the violence still haunts her personal life. Though the film, which Khan also co-wrote and co-directed, is not an explicit work of activism, she ultimately hopes that her talks with Steve could help persuade counselors, experts, and advocates in the domestic-violence field that engaging with abusive men could actually help to keep some survivors safe — a process known in the legal world as restorative justice.
It works like this: A victim and offender have a facilitated dialogue, either between themselves or with a larger group that includes friends, family, and other members of their community. During meetings a survivor describes the crime and its effect on their life; the others who might be present talk about their experience as witnesses. The offender takes responsibility for the behavior and commits to an accountability program that often includes ongoing counseling, addiction treatment if necessary, community service, a formal apology, and in some cases, financial restitution. While the criminal system aims to punish an offender, restorative justice has the broad goal of healing a survivor, whether they want to stay in their relationship, leave, or hear the person who assaulted them own up to the abuse years later. Khan’s case isn’t typical — the violence happened decades ago, she and Steve spent time together without a facilitator, and they didn’t develop an ongoing plan. But their taped conversations still follow the basic restorative-justice formula.
Countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Austria, and Finland have restorative-justice programs that handle cases of intimate-partner violence. But while hundreds of mediation and group conferencing programs exist in the U.S. today, these processes are typically only used here when dealing with juvenile crimes. Only recently have advocates and legal experts begun to consider them as options for survivors of domestic or sexual violence. In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced for the first time ever a grant for restorative-justice programs that deal with sexual assault and domestic violence on campuses. The federal government’s Office on Violence Against Women recently sponsored a national roundtable on the topic.
The American legal system first began to incorporate restorative-justice practices in the late ‘70s for civil cases and juvenile crimes. (A number of Indigenous groups have long used a similar process, often called “peacemaking circles”, to deal with crime.) And, at first, domestic-violence advocates tended to strongly oppose any form of mediation. After fighting for decades, they had finally convinced the legal system to treat intimate-partner violence as a serious crime instead of a personal feud; they were understandably wary of alternative solutions that might undermine that progress.
“They read [restorative-justice advocates] as saying ‘Well, let’s just sit down and talk about it with these guys who are going to choke us to death,’” says Sujatha Baliga, a former lawyer who works at a restorative-justice research center in Oakland. Today, she says, “there is an openness to something other than the singular approach we’ve taken to domestic violence.”
By the mid-’90s, victim-offender mediation had been endorsed by the American Bar Association and was more commonly used in criminal cases. More importantly, though, women’s-rights activists had become frustrated with the criminal system’s response to domestic violence and wanted alternatives. They felt policies such as mandatory arrests and protective orders ignored survivors’ individual needs, and that incarceration only exacerbated the issues of poverty and discrimination that lay at the root of much abuse. So a small group of advocates with backgrounds in the shelter movement, social work, and academia decided to see whether restorative justice could offer solutions.
Between 1998 and 2008, these experts launched short-term pilot programs in North Carolina, Arizona and Minnesota that used group conferences or “circles” to deal with cases of domestic abuse (including child abuse) and sexual violence. The results were promising: rates of PTSD among sexual-assault survivors went down by 20 percent; the group conferences, some of which separated the victims and offenders, lowered rates of domestic violence and child abuse; there were no violent incidents during the sessions or in the follow-up period that ranged from 6 to 24 months. While the programs helped some women stay safely in their relationships, it helped others feel empowered enough to leave. One participant in the Minnesota pilot left her abusive partner, saying the restorative-justice process “gave me the guts and — it give me back my sense of self-worth.” Over 90 percent of participants said that they felt the group sessions were successful.
While there is limited data on restorative-justice programs that deal with domestic violence, these findings mirrored research in other countries: A South African report found that none of the women were abused after going through victim-offender mediation. In a Canadian study the number of survivors who showed symptoms of domestic violence, such as feeling “fear and anxiety” near their partners, dropped by 60 percent after the group conferences. Other findings were more cautiously optimistic: an Austrian researcher concluded that mediation was helpful, but only in situations where both the offender and survivor wanted the relationship to change.
“A lot of women say ‘I just want the violence to stop’ and ‘I don’t want to end my relationship with them’ and ‘I don’t want to destroy my family,’” says Augusta-Scott, the facilitator in Khan’s film who works as a counselor for domestic-violence offenders. He points out how the criminal system fails to accommodate a spectrum of situations that range from occasional, non-life-threatening attacks to constant physical and emotional abuse. “We’ve geared all our services around [the assumption that] if women don’t want to leave they should want to leave. We’ve just missed the mark for so many women.”
While many survivors may want their cases to end up in court, others are dissuaded by the fact that judges and lawyers continue to blame victims and that conviction rates remain stubbornly low. They would rather hear their offender acknowledge the crime than navigate a criminal system that seems stacked against them. “Think about a trial — nobody says [to victims], ‘Now we want to hear from you for 15 minutes in your own words without a defense attorney interrupting you,’” says Mary Koss, a public health professor who ran the pilot project in Arizona for sex offenses. “Many victims say, ‘I want to tell my story to him, to the person who did this to me, and I want my family and friends to be sitting there so they can understand I am a legitimate victim.’”
Khan herself has worked as a counselor and coordinator for domestic-violence programs and she’d come to feel that the standard assumption in her field — that all survivors should call the police, leave their partners, and go to a shelter — wasn’t actually working for many of her clients. “We didn’t have enough services to accommodate the ways that women wanted to be either during abusive situations or after,” she says.
Khan knows she is different from many survivors, who might be drawn to a nonpunitive approach out of desperation (seeing a partner jailed can come at the cost of child support or rent). “I am healing and doing better and overall I’m in a good place,” she says. “I am so lucky and privileged.” Today, at age 43, she does work that she’s passionate about; she’s married, with a 10-year-old son; in person she’s warm, often referring to people as “love,” and she exudes a sense of hypercompetence as well as physical strength. Still, she’s been diagnosed with PTSD; she has panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares about her time with Steve. She thinks constantly about safety, especially in enclosed, crowded spaces like movie theaters — a common PTSD symptom.
“For the first few years I just wanted revenge, to be quite honest,” she says. Even so, “it would have helped me to actually see [Steve] in a controlled environment at that time and talk to him.”
Two years after Khan left Steve, when she was 19 and in college, she saw him in Toronto, walking toward her. She became faint and speechless. But over the next six years they bumped into one another a handful of times, and as they did, Khan’s fear and anger began to dissipate. While her life continued to improve — she earned a degree, got a job, fell in love — Steve seemed stuck and unhappy, his eyes hollow. Gradually, instead of ignoring him, she’d say hello and exchange a few minutes of small talk.
In 2001, on one run-in, Steve asked if they could sit down. She did a quick safety gut check before agreeing. “I’m so sorry,” he said, once they were seated. He repeated the apology a few times before breaking into tears.
Khan thought about that conversation often in the years that followed, and wondered how talking more with Steve might help her deal with the lingering trauma. If she could tell him the graphic details of the violence that had haunted her for so long, maybe she would heal. If Steve better understood the roots and consequences of his own anger, maybe he would be less likely to hurt another woman. She wanted to capture dialogue on tape so it could be a resource for other survivors and offenders.
She made her pitch in 2013: Would Steve be part of a documentary exploring their abusive relationship? Khan remembers that she could feel her heartbeat as she waited for a response. After a long silence, Steve said he needed to think about it. Six months later he texted her back: “If you’re ready to listen I’m ready to talk.” Two days later, they sat down in a coffee shop for their first recorded conversation. Khan used the footage of that meeting, shot by a friend, to persuade a producer and co-director to sign on to her project.
Using a restorative-justice model to take on domestic abuse is contentious even among restorative-justice advocates: “Domestic violence is probably the most problematic area of application and here great caution is advised,” wrote Howard Zehr, known as the “grandfather” of the field.
But part of the reason so few programs exist in the U.S. lies in a misunderstanding of what restorative justice means: The practice is often conflated with traditional mediation, which treats both parties as equally complicit in the problem rather than acknowledging a clear victim and offender. In fact, a few states, like Colorado and Vermont, have laws that explicitly preclude restorative justice from being used in cases of domestic violence; Title IX guidelines prohibit any process that resembles mediation in cases of sexual assault; and it’s usually excluded from grants for government-funded programs to prevent violence against women. (The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence plans to develop a restorative-justice pilot program in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Corrections and a few other groups in 2018, which means they will have to lobby the government to change its law next year. )
Another reason victim-offender and group conferences are seldom used for domestic violence is that many women’s-rights advocates have traditionally opposed them. Critics worry that any contact could lead to more violence, and that facilitators who aren’t trained in the complexities of intimate-partner violence will allow abusive power dynamics to go unchecked. “The victim may feel unsafe presenting any kind of challenge to the abuser, fearing that he will retaliate afterward by hurting her and/or her children,” write restorative-justice experts Alan Edwards and Susan Sharpe in a research paper. “This power imbalance may not be evident to the person(s) facilitating the victim-offender dialogue.” In a culture where victim-blaming too often prevails, women’s advocates also worry that group-conference members are likely to excuse an offender’s violent behavior rather than support the survivor. Then there’s the issue of accountability: Does restorative justice send the message that violent abuse should be met with a slap on the wrist?
Experts in the field have worked to address these concerns. Domestic-violence professionals help to develop any program and train facilitators to spot coercion during sessions. Most restorative-justice organizations have some connection to the legal system for safety reasons: the most common model is that prosecutors or police recommend certain cases be diverted from the courts, but only if a survivor is willing to participate and an offender has admitted guilt. Other experts think restorative justice can happen in addition to criminal justice (and offenders who violate the terms of their accountability plan can face a criminal sentence). In the Arizona pilot program, sex offenders had to pass a psychosexual assessment during which time a stay-away order was issued. Conferences took place in a police station. Some programs limit cases to couples with children, juvenile, low-risk or first-time offenders to be extra cautious. According to Barbara Hart, the former director of law and domestic violence policy at the University of Southern Maine, the older a man becomes, the less likely he is to be changed by restorative justice. “We can work with young men … at the beginning of their relationships with young women,” she says. “[But] I think if you are a 30-year-old living without kids and you are still battering … restorative principles are not going to make a difference in your life.”
Baliga trains restorative-justice facilitators and she says that, if done right, the process should help survivors realize that they aren’t to blame for the abuse. “I would say that the girls definitely have a feeling they deserved it somehow,” she said. “What I’ve seen is [that a] young man eventually breaks down and says ‘Help me not be like my father,’ and you see her eyes get big and she’s like ‘Oh, this isn’t about me.’”
Augusta-Scott estimates that 98 percent of the men he works with “have experienced violent childhoods” in which someone told them they were “ugly and not worth anything.”
“They often come in with ‘This is just the way I am. I’m bad. And I’ve always been bad. I’ve been abused because I’m bad and now this is more evidence that I’m bad,’” he says. While there is no comprehensive research on the recidivism rates of domestic-violence offenders who go through restorative-justice programs versus the court system, advocates of the former take the position that demonizing offenders can actually fuel the cycle of violence. “The RJ model leans towards people’s redemption,” says Baliga.
Back in the Toronto studio with Augusta-Scott and Steve, Khan continues to recount her most horrific memory of the abuse.
She describes passing out after Steve head-butted her and trying to run away once she regained consciousness. She was too weak, though, and Steve grabbed her. “Then you turned me around and that’s when, you know, you gave me ‘the sleeper,’” she says.
“Steve, do you remember that?” Augusta-Scott asks.
Steve looks at Khan solemnly and nods.
Khan’s eyes tear up and her face forms a pained expression. She looks down, breathes in deeply, and looks at Steve. “It’s strangling until you pass out,” she says in a choked voice. She exhales loudly and whispers to herself, “Oh god.” “My neck was so swollen and used to it that you would just go like this,” she says, putting her right hand up to her neck, “and I would faint, you know?” Khan wipes tears from her eyes with her left hand.
“What’s it like to recall that?” asks Augusta-Scott.
“Fuck, I hate that one, I just hate it,” she says, bringing both hands to her face to wipe away more tears. She lets out a deep breath, shifts in her chair and collects herself. “It’s the form of violence that I feel like, it’s very symbolic, you know? Like when someone has their hands around you, your life is literally in their hands. And I always thought, ‘Fuck, this is the way I’m going to die.’”
Khan turns to face Steve and tilts her head to the side with a sympathetic expression. “I always thought someone must have done that to you, you know, to do it to me.”
Steve’s eyes pool with tears and he nods.
“You don’t have to answer,” she says softly. “It’s always something that I’ve wondered.”
“Steve, do you remember that?” asks Augusta-Scott.
Steve swallows hard, clears his throat, and pauses for a few seconds.
“I do now,” he says, his voice trembling. He turns to face Khan. “My recollection was I tossed you off the bed and you passed out. You cut your knee. I carried you to the hospital. It’s much worse than that.” He looks down at the ground. “What you’re reminding me of is the level of anger — not quite hate but anger.”
“When you look back at it as an adult, what were you taking out on Attiya?” asks Augusta-Scott.
“Absolutely everything,” Steve says.
“And what was everything?” Augusta-Scott asks. “Had you experienced violence?”
“Mmm-hmmm. Yeah,” he replies while nodding, knots of worry forming between his brows.
Augusta-Scott asks whether there’s a relationship between the violence he experienced and the abuse he inflicted.
“Definitely,” Steve says. “It’s an incapacity to deal with your own feelings in a productive way. It’s just explosive. And it always happens to the one who’s closest to you.” Khan looks at him with complete focus, like she’s searching his face for more answers as she processes his words. He meets her gaze and says: “It’s more about my experience before I came to live with you.”
Steve and Khan shot together for eight days over the course of a year and a half and even visited their old apartments. The process would have been intense enough off-camera, but being on film added another layer of anxiety. At points, Khan became depressed and exhausted. “For me things are physical and I’m heavy,” she said last March, after a long series of shoots. “I [keep] saying ‘I just want someone to take me by the feet and hold me up and let me float and let me drain.’”
Once the major filming ended last spring, Khan started to feel a new lightness — as if she were physically shedding the trauma from her body. Steve had helped answer questions she had been harboring for years. “I was so desperate to be in a supportive relationship, I used violence to keep you beside me,” he told her in one session. “I was just obviously going to do anything to keep you at my side regardless of how manipulative that was.” Now, he says, he consciously monitors his anger and slows down when his emotions flare up instead of resorting to violence.
The more they talked, the more Steve began to remember details of the abuse, which helped validate Khan’s trauma. “Sometimes I would question myself like ‘Did it happen and was it that bad?’” she told him during a shoot. “And now I can move past it to think about the big story.”
But the most powerful part of the process was recounting the details of Steve’s abuse to his face. “The feeling of being able to tell him ‘You hit me and you strangled me and you dragged me on the floor. You [are] the reason my knee has a scar’ … It was huge,” she says. She doesn’t think every survivor will benefit from a dialogue with their abuser, but does want every woman to have the choice.
Now that the filming is over, Khan thinks about the abuse less often and has fewer flashbacks and nightmares. Not long ago, when she went to see Moonlight, she didn’t immediately think to sit near an exit. “I directly relate that to seeing Steve and being in front of a place he hurt me,” she said. “Confronting that, and leaving that behind.”