‘Domestic violence is a man’s problem’
Men such as Patrick Stewart, David Challen and the Hart brothers know the devastation abuse can wreak. So why is it seen as a women’s issue? By Anna Moore
Patrick Stewart was five years old when his father returned from the second world war to wage his own war on his wife. On weekend nights, Stewart would lie in bed, alert, awaiting his father’s return from the pub, ready for his rage, braced to throw himself between his parents to protect his mother.
Two years ago, Luke and Ryan Hart’s father shot dead their mother, Claire, and their 19-year-old sister, Charlotte, before turning his gun on himself. This happened days after Charlotte and Claire had left the family home in Lincolnshire in a bid for freedom. Until then, Lance Hart had exercised total control over his family.
These men have gathered for a panel event organised by the domestic violence charity Refuge. They are here for themselves and for other men. “Because domestic violence is a man’s problem,” Stewart tells me before the event. “We are the ones who are committing the offences, performing the cruel acts, controlling and denying.
It’s the men.”
And yet – as always – the people listening are almost entirely women. Among the journalists, activists and supporters in the packed audience, I count five men.
The Hart brothers, who have told their story in a book, Operation Lighthouse, and are now seasoned public speakers, confirm that this is the standard gender ratio. “I’d like to talk to more men, but there isn’t that forum,” says Luke. “Men still don’t understand the problems well enough and they don’t come to hear.” Ryan adds, with a wry smile: “Recently, one man from the handful in the audience had only come to say: ‘Yeah, but what about all the male victims?” (Recent UN figures showed that more than eight out of 10 victims of homicides by intimate partners are female.)
It is a problem. Domestic violence is still seen as a “woman’s issue”. For obvious reasons, women run the charities and staff the refuges. The all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse comprises mainly female MPs and peers. When victims speak out, they tend to be women. (And here we are in the women’s section of the Guardian.) But this should not give men reason to look away.
The US educator and speaker Jackson Katz has made this message his life’s work. The author of The Macho Paradox, Katz teaches the “bystander approach”, in which communities are encouraged to take ownership of the problem of relationship abuse and men are encouraged to challenge sexist comments and unacceptable behaviour. His programme has been delivered in the military and at colleges, sports teams and businesses across the US.
Katz’s TED talk on the subject in March 2013 went viral. It is weirdly powerful to watch an ordinary middle-aged man with no personal trauma ask a silent audience why so many men abuse women.
“Five years on, I still get emails about that talk, mainly from women, saying: ‘Oh my God, I’ve never heard a man saying this,’” says Katz, who began studying domestic violence as a 19-yearold student journalist covering a campaign for better lighting on campus. “Better lighting – such a basic safety intervention,” he says. “I was impressed by the women’s campaigning – their leadership was incredible even back then – but I remember thinking: ‘Why is it only women here?’ Women were doing all the work, creating the batteredwomen’s movement, the rape-crisis movement. It seemed obvious that the missing piece was men’s activism, men’s accountability.
“When people ask why I do this, they always assume I must have some kind of personal story,” Katz continues. “My response is that if a personal story was all it took for a man to speak out on domestic abuse, we’d have millions of male voices – fathers, sons, friends and partners of women who’ve experienced abuse. But that hasn’t happened. So, the bigger question is: why haven’t more men come forward? What are the reasons, in 2018, that this hasn’t become a mass movement among men?”
One obstacle, Katz believes, is men’s fear of judgment from other men. “They worry that they’ll be seen as soft or insincere or ‘not a real man’.” Another is a lack of role models. “There haven’t been a whole lot of men in a public space who’ve spoken out,” he says.
Stewart’s journey into this public space has not been easy. “For decades, I was silent,” he says. “I was ashamed and embarrassed – and that embarrassment went all the way back to being seven or eight. At the time, our tightly knit community knew what my father did to my mother – they could hear it – but it was absolutely not talked about. Even with my brothers, we didn’t discuss it. I think we tried to pretend it wasn’t there.”
Over the years, certain acting roles brought it to the surface – Stewart remembers looking in the mirror before going on stage to play Macbeth. “I had the uniform, the cap, the AK47, and I’d grown a moustache, although I didn’t know why,” he says. “Then I saw my father’s face staring straight back at me. I remember feeling that night that I couldn’t give the performance.”
During his Star Trek years, Stewart lived in California, which is where he discovered therapy. “I began unravelling this and finally acknowledging it had been part of my life. We would do regression therapy ...” His eyes fill with tears and his voice falters. “It would be my mother and father sitting in the room of my childhood home. And I would be given permission to say whatever I wanted to say.”
In a 2006 interview, Stewart made a small mention of his father’s violence, which was spotted by the CEO of Refuge, Sandra Horley. She invited him to speak at a fundraising event at Chequers. “I’d never spoken
‘Our tightly knit community knew what my father did to my mother, but it was absolutely not talked about’
about it in public and I remember it vividly,” says Stewart. He opened with a reading, then said: ‘Now I’m going to tell you why I’m really here.’” The room was packed with powerful men. Horley says you could hear a pin drop.
“Talking about this has been so constructive for me,” says Stewart, who is now a patron of the charity. “It’s made me a more contented person – and if there’s a value to others, I’m extremely grateful.”
For the Harts, public speaking has been equally transformative. “For the first year after it happened, it was Groundhog Day,” says Ryan, an engineer who took a year off work after the murders. “Wake up, walk the dog, eat some food, go to bed. We were waiting for time to heal – and it doesn’t.
“Then Surrey police asked us to speak to them about coercive control. We were quite nervous, but found that speaking gave us a purpose. For our entire lives, Mum and Charlotte had been our purpose – freeing them from our father, moving them away and giving them a good life was all we wanted. When we lost them, each day became meaningless. Now we’re creating something in their name, living a life that would make them proud.”
Before long, the brothers moved beyond recounting their personal experiences to addressing its causes. “To tackle domestic abuse, you need to look at masculinity,” says Luke. “Our father’s need for control came from his beliefs on what it means to be a man. I think most men – like me, before this happened – don’t realise how dangerous it is.”
Another campaigning voice is David Challen, the son of Sally Challen, who killed her controlling husband in Surrey in 2010 and is serving a life sentence for murder. (She won leave to appeal in March; her case will be heard in February.) “I felt very alone until I met Luke and Ryan,” says Challen, who has no intention of stopping campaigning whatever the outcome of his mother’s case. “It’s a sense of duty to do as much as I can. You can’t just care about one woman – otherwise who would have helped her?
“I’ve been called a snowflake and a man hater,” he continues. “It riles a lot of men, as they think they’ll have to realign what’s right and wrong. I don’t want to bash men, because they’ll just switch off – but I would like to get them thinking and speaking about how we treat women in our society.” Katz believes ending men’s “collective silence” is the only long-term solution to domestic violence. “We need men to speak out,” he says. “We need men to say to other men when they cross a line, when they say or do something unacceptable: ‘That’s not OK.’
“There are all these influential men in politics, education, business, religions, sports, and men in mentoring roles – fathers, uncles, coaches. But, for whatever reason, they stay silent,” says Katz. “To think to yourself: ‘I don’t beat women, so it’s not my issue,’ is just not enough. We need to raise the bar a little higher.”