Debunking myths around men’s behavioural change programs

Samantha Jones in conversation with Sophie Wiesner and David Nugent
Ahead of Call Me Dad’s screening at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Samantha Jones spoke to filmmaker Sophie Wiesner and facilitator of the Heavy M.E.T.A.L (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life) program David Nugent about the film and the journey through a men’s behavioural change program. 

Right Now: How did the idea for Call Me Dad come to you?

Sophie Wiesner: I was asked to interview some men at a fathers centre in Western Sydney about quitting smoking. It was just a short job for the Cancer Council. I went out there, did my job and asked some questions about quitting smoking but got very interested in what drew them to the fathers centre in the first place. In many of the men’s situations they said they had been violent in the past and many of them were at the fathers centre because they were trying to change the kind of person, the kind of dad that they were.

Why did you agree to participate in the documentary?

David Nugent: I believe that the more community awareness that is raised, the more we talk about it as a community and the more we discuss, we take away the myths about what behaviour change programs are about.

I have a lot of people that won’t come to a behaviour change program because they believe you have to be a certain type of person to be in one. So I was really excited about the idea of trying to open the door to the world about just your average person. Family violence doesn’t discriminate.

Family violence comes into any family. It doesn’t have to be whether you are rich or poor, or if you’re educated or not educated, blue-collar worker, white-collar worker. We’re all products of our environment and I thought this was an opportunity to break down some of those barriers and let people have a look inside at what goes on. And I think that is important.

Some women don’t want to get involved in the women’s program because they don’t want to be seen, or they think they have to be a victim of family violence. And a guy doesn’t want to get involved in the program because he doesn’t want to be connected with men that are wife bashers. Well there is a big chunk of people in my program that don’t physically touch their partner.

How did the idea for the program, Heavy M.E.T.A.L (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life) come to you?

David Nugent: I founded the organisation some 15 years ago. And before I founded it I was doing a lot of voluntary work and working with men on the men’s telephone services, and then training as a facilitator in community programs, and then went back to uni and studied.

When I was at uni I decided there seems to be something lacking for men. And one of the things I was really passionate about was the sense in the industry that men won’t change. Because I did the journey myself I believed that men could change. I felt that if there is a sense of men can’t change, then what are workers doing in the industry helping men trying to change – I felt there was a bit of hypocrisy there. I even wrote an essay about it at uni – I think that is what kind of gave me the brainstorm to think that there needs to be more.

What I also thought was, in my own journey I did the normal kind of behaviour change program. But once you get there, then what? There is nothing else really available. Normally services provide ten or twelve week programs. Men can’t change in just ten or twelve weeks. So what we did was develop our program that runs for forty weeks.

We find when we’ve got men in the second part of the program, they get so much out of it they don’t leave, they stick around. They sometimes spend over twelve months with us working on themselves. I think that is a better opportunity for men to change, rather than scratch the surface and then off they go. Because these things are a lot more deep routed than just going to a program, saying look, I got to learn how to not be angry. And people get caught up thinking they’ve got an anger problem but it is more about other deeper issues than that.

As a viewer, seeing the programs and the perpetrators is confronting but also really eye opening and closes the loop on a voice that is often unheard in the conversations about domestic violence. What was it like for you to see the programs and perpetrators behind doors that are usually closed?

Sophie Wiesner: I came to care about David and Jackie, and to care about the guys and their families as well. I became very imbedded in their lives for the several months I was filming it.

When the guys had successes or breakthroughs, or appeared to be making progress, it made me feel very buoyant and excited. But also when they had setbacks, either when they chose to be nasty to people they love, or even hurt them, that was very disappointing and upsetting. I felt I was really on the road with them, for better or worse.

You treat the men with a lot of respect, understanding and compassion in the program. How important do you think it is to treat people this way, regardless of how they’ve been treating others?

David Nugent: If I came across as judgemental it just becomes a battleground. It is really important.

If they don’t have trust with me they feel like I am looking down on them, like I’m superior to them. It’s never going to work. In my training and in my voluntary work, I got to see a lot of that. What I saw was power struggles between facilitators and men, and it doesn’t work. Those guys just come along for the elephant stamp, they just come along to say they’ve done the program – but they never change.

What I find with my guys is that I’ll have moments with them where when they do the transition, they get emotional, they drop the guard, they become vulnerable and they start to wear their heart on their sleeve. And that’s when we can make some difference. By not being understanding or showing empathy, what is the alternative?

None of us like being told what to do, none of us like being judged. Also, it’s not good role modelling. Because that is what they’ve been doing in their personal lives, that’s what their fathers have done to them when they were growing up. That is part of the problem. We’ve got to role model a positive, different approach to it.

The cycle of violence is a really great template to give the guys some sort of understanding of the pattern.

The documentary highlights the cycle of violence that occurs. Is this always the case in your experience, that the men have learnt the behaviour and have no other known way of coping with difficult situations or emotions?

David Nugent: The cycle of violence is a really great template to give the guys some sort of understanding of the pattern. And it isn’t until they see the pattern that they go “oh my god, that is my life” and they can connect with it.

The emphasis around the cycle is that it is also about choice. So they do have other ways of coping with it – they just choose not to. For example, they can be in the middle of really losing it with their family, or cracking it with their partner or child, and then there is a knock at the door and suddenly they snap out of it. Which emphasises that they do have control, they’re not out of control – because if they’re out of control the knock at the door wouldn’t have done anything to stop them.

For example: I’m losing my cool with my wife, and then my best friend, or someone I have a lot more respect for, knocks on the door and my attitude changes completely. All of a sudden that mask gets back on. So that is a lot about power and control, a lot about wearing masks and having precautions about being abusive.

And that is a message I push about that cycle. Because guys will come to me and say, “Dave I can’t help it – I’ve got a short fuse”. And that cycle emphasises on the point that they don’t have a short fuse, they have the same fuse, they just choose to light it when their needs aren’t being met.

You say in the documentary that in reality, the abuse may never end … what would you say is the success rate of the program you run?

David Nugent: That is the thing about it. We’ve had lots of guys come through and make change, and everything is really fantastic. And then six, seven years later they’ve come back to me.

Like at the moment I have two guys in my program that did the program five years ago and they’ve slipped backwards. Then I’ve got others that I’ve never heard back from, or what I’ve hear back from is “thank you, things are fantastic”.

I think it’s really hard to say there is a percentage or a specific success rate. Every case is different. I don’t know of any particular statistics because it is over time. You can change this year, you can change next year … but what about the year after? It’s got to be ongoing.

I think one of the things we are proud of is when guys recognise that they are kind of slipping up, they’re quick to make contact with us and come and see me for an individual session or a counselling session, or they might come back with their partner and do a couples session. I call it fine tuning it, like servicing a car and we get back on track again.

I think to set that up and have that sort of relationship is more helpful than to have just done a program. We are more than just a program. We try to offer that support, ongoing support and ongoing counselling.

And what sometimes we find is that the man and the woman have made positive change, but now their teenager is beginning to show similar behaviours to what his father was doing maybe four or five years ago and then saying – “My son is turning out like I was. You helped me, can you help my son”. We kind of take on the next generation.

Do you think the camera has an effect on the way the men present themselves? Sophie Wiesner: I think the guys were very open and quite sort of naked really, in the way they presented. But I do think the camera changes things. And what I noticed on this project was that it seemed to amplify the experience the subjects were having.

If one of the guys was feeling really proud of something they’ve done or feeling really close about their relationship with their son or daughter, then I think that sense of pride was really amplified. And again, if one of the guys messed up and chose to be unpleasant or hostile, then again his sense of shame was really amplified.

So really, the camera doesn’t distort reality, but it does turn the volume up on it. And it brings a stress into a situation that needs to be managed.

How important do you think behaviour change programs are for ending domestic violence?

David Nugent: They’re not the answer to resolving it completely. It is just part of the process.

I think as a community, as a whole, we have to change the culture. We need to change the attitude towards equality between men and women. And I think once we do that it’s more associated with a whole community process or look at it, not just behaviour change programs.

Behaviour change programs are just kind of a small percentage of some of the work. It is much bigger than that. It is the attitude we role model to younger boys, how men start to show younger boys attitudes towards women.

How do you think films like this can help the conversations about human rights and domestic violence?

Sophie Wiesner: The public conversations we have had and are having about family domestic violence, I felt then and still do now, that the perpetrators of that violence are pretty absent and they’re stuck in the shadows, and cast as monsters and screw ups really.

I think what film does is show light on those people – who are usually men, but not always – but throws light on a group of those people who are not in denial about what they’ve done and who are working to take responsibility for their action, and working to be better.

I think we can all learn from that. I also think that it means we have a better understanding of the issue if we watch the work of these men and we listen to their stories. We can understand the forces that actually drive family and domestic violence, which are very complicated. But at least we can talk about this. I think it brings their voice to the discussion and I think it needs to be there.

Call Me Dad screens at the 2016 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival on 15 and 16 May in Melbourne.
Read Right Now’s review of Call Me Dad.
A screener’s kit developed by a domestic violence educator is available on the Call Me Dad website.
View the trailer for Call Me Dad.


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