24 July 2015
After physically and emotionally abusing his wife for 15 years — the entire time they had been married — the most frightening thing James Collins had ever done was to sit down with his wife and let her speak her mind.
"I actually felt that I was going to die," Mr Collins told the Royal Commission into Family Violence on Friday.
He thought he would collapse from fear. "I sat there through that, I breathed, and I listened to what my wife had to say ... I was amazed that I didn't die."
After two weeks of hearing from experts and victims of family violence, the commission turned its attention to the perpetrators of family violence, and the role men's behavioural change programs can have in helping men to stop their abuse.
Mr Collins (not his real name), a physically-imposing but softly spoken man, told the hearing he had changed his ways after seeking help.
In often halting testimony before a crowded room, Mr Collins said he had grown up in a small country town where he did not have many friends.
"[I was] quite insecure in myself", he said. "[It was] quite a lonely existence ... I'd used standover tactics and been a bully at school".
Emotional interactions terrified him, and violence had defined him: "It's the whole story of my existence [and] my relationship with my wife."
Mr Collins said when his wife had tried to talk to him about their problems, he would fly into violent rages.
"I would burst into an outrage, carrying on with hitting walls, yelling and screaming, anything to avoid what was going on," he said.
Finally, she had enough and left him, and he decided it was time to act.
Mr Collins booked into a men's behaviour change program at Kildonan UnitingCare. While he waited three months for a place, he read literature about family violence and it resonated.
Once he started the program, he said, he looked around at the other men and knew he wasn't alone.
Mr Collins told the hearing that before he learnt about the cycle of violence and how it repeats, he would try to fix himself after a violent episode, and tell himself it wouldn't happen again. And then he would fall into the same old patterns of behaviour.
Mr Collins said the most confronting part of the therapy was when counsellors asked the men to put themselves into the role of their wives and partners - and play the victim.
Since then, Mr Collins said, his marriage had recovered to the point where he didn't have a better friend than his wife.
Asked what advice he would give to other men in the same situation, Mr Collins said they should remember that abusing their partners was not "the end of the world".
"Don't be scared," he said. "You can change. It's not the end of the world ... you've done something wrong. It's not the end of the world."
The commission heard that across Victoria, there are about 2000 funded men's behaviour change program places, and about 1000 more men are on waiting lists for places.
Earlier, the commission heard from Katreena Scott, an associate professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, who leads a men's behaviour change program in Canada.
Giving evidence via videolink, Dr Scott told the hearing that it was essential to understand the role of men's mental health and previous trauma played in their violence against partners.
"One of the things that I remember coming to recognise at some point is that we need to understand that the more traumatised he is, the more dangerous he is ... we need to recognise that the more damaged men are more damaging," she said.
"So when we start to make that connection then I think that we are able to engage in a way that is respectful, understanding of that ... trauma, but yet continuing to put victims' safety at the centre.
"I just don't see why acknowledging trauma needs to then somehow translate to excusing behaviour. I think acknowledging trauma means that we have a more keen appreciation for the level of danger and the safety strategies that might be needed."
Hundreds of people have given evidence to the commission through community consultation and submissions processes, including direct victims of violence and family members of homicide victims.
A commission spokeswoman said it could not hear from all individuals who had been affected by family violence, but some individuals had been invited to provide specific evidence about their experiences to highlight some of the key system-wide issues being considered by the Royal Commission.