#RoleModelReading: An interview with Mike Esler

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

I imagine this is true of most people, but I’ve never spoken with a person who deals with men’s behaviour change—who is on the receiving end of the men sent forth from family law courts with mandated rehabilitation in their future. In fact, the way that all violence in the home is cordoned off, stigmatised as something ‘real men’ don’t do, acts to keep the entire process of domestic violence, let alone men’s behaviour change, off the radar.

A couple of months ago Daily Life (specifically the excellent editor Jenny Noyes) was generous enough to publish one of my editorials. It was about how men, from their position of unique privilege, are best placed to critically and empathetically engage people with regressive politics. On the morning it was published, I received an email from a man named Mike Esler.

Mike, seen above with his partner and best friend Sally Ferris, was in his forties when he gave up drinking and went back to school to study family violence prevention—two moves that would entirely change his life. He’s a poster boy for the idea that it’s never too late to change, and he’s thought long enough and hard enough about men’s violence and masculinity that he can pinpoint exactly what resulted from those changes and why. What’s more, he’s gone right to ground zero with his work facilitating men’s behaviour change groups.

Mike not only reached out, though, he drove 800kms from Melbourne to Canberra for a chat. We sat outside the Front Gallery and Café in Lyneham, Canberra on a warm spring day and spoke for almost three hours. Mike is in his mid-fifties, neatly groomed, and speaks assuredly and directly in blokish tones. He has a small nervous tic that causes him to blink often, but his manner puts you at ease—the blokishness isn’t, as it can be, a distancing mechanism, but a settled personality.

I’ll stop writing, though, and let this conversation speak for itself, because people like Mike are exactly who Homer was created to shed light on. Meet Mike Esler.

Why did you come all this way?

Aw, selfish, mate. Go for a drive, promote myself, promote the work, talk to a bloke I don’t have to convince. A lot of my work, I’m in a room with angry guys, resistant guys, resentful guys, so I thought it’d be nice to talk to a bloke who’s got the same political affiliations as me. I don’t mind driving to Canberra for that.

Do you have many men of a similar mindset around you in Melbourne, where you work?

Mostly women. Family violence, the majority of the workers are women. Women at the bottom of the cliff with the ambulances. A lot of the men I work with are either sessionals or they’re from other agencies we get together with at conferences. But we do our work in a closed room. So I had a lot of women associates and friends and exes, but for the men, the friends I did have were based on grog. Pull the grog out, it all collapses.

It’s been a bit of a wakeup call that I don’t have male associates, and eighty to ninety per cent of the men I assess for group, when I ask them if they have other people they could talk to about this, they say no, because we’re not brought up to express ourselves emotionally to other men. So when we find ourselves in a crisis, we don’t know who to turn to, because unless there’s a slab of beer involved we don’t have connections to other men. Some do, and if we do, that’s gold—not a yes guy, someone who’ll say ‘she’s lucky she’s got you, buddy’—someone who’ll call you on your crap.

For you personally, how much was it society and how much was it family that shaped you as a man?

Had to be family because my dad was abusive. Emotionally, incredibly abusive, to me and my sisters and my mother. His excuse was he was a prisoner of war in Italy, so he suffered back then from what we would look at now and call post-traumatic stress disorder. He was in no way to deal with anything resembling a challenge. Why he went out and had five kiddies I dunno, but he despised my mother and she despised him and he couldn’t deal with life outside home.

I managed to have a fine-tuned antenna of where not to be when he was about to explode. From him I learnt how to drink and how to follow Carlton Football Club, and unfortunately very little else. But this is all in hindsight. At the time he was a hero and it was Mum’s fault for getting him angry. I wanted her to change. Looking back I know exactly how I had it arse-about.

That continues on, this complete sense of entitlement and selfishness. The idea that I’ve done this for you therefore you owe me. I still get it. The guys [I work with] come home from work expecting to be repaid with clean homes, quiet babies, massages. I’ve told them there’s been studies done where what a woman actually does in the home is basically valued around $100,000, so they’re probably coming in the door in the red, but you can’t tell them because you can’t pay a bill with child-minding. You can’t pay a bill with a woman’s chores, but if you want to value it, it’s been done.

How does that go down?

Scoffed at. They want a maid who they have sex with. But it’s a really exciting thing to see young men coming into behaviour change work, the younger the better, although it’s a funny line between experience and intention. You wonder, do you have to have life experience and fall over a few times to actually get this stuff? I know I did. I used to say ridiculous things like, aw mate, I’ve got four sisters, I think I know how to deal with women. When the learning started I quickly realised I had four people who loved me unconditionally and were always picking up after me and making excuses for me and justifying me.

When did you start doing this work?

I studied at Swinburne for the grad certificate in social science, family violence, facilitation and men’s behavioural change groups in 2010 or 2011. I still struggle to listen to opinions that are different to mine, and I stand in front of fifteen guys three times a week who are very much that and I have to treat them respectfully, I have to validate their stories, because it’s the only way I can work with them. If I judge them, wag a finger at them, patronise them, I’ll have an empty room in week two.

It’s adjacent learning for me, as well. I’m flawed at the front of the room, and it’s important for them to know that. If people say how long have you been doing this work, I could probably say 56 years, but I’ve only had my head screwed on the last half-dozen or so, or certainly when the drinking went.

I was getting so fed up with my gender, which was mostly manifested in my own failures and these rusted-on entrenched ideas we have. So much of this stuff is tied to blokey stuff like gambling and grog. It’s a real crutch and it socialises us incorrectly, and that’s where I had been and you can hide there as long as you like. It can be so satisfying to see a bloke get it or start to get it and understand the consequences of his violent behaviour, and most of the times we’re not talking physical violence. If we hear good things from home, that’s excellent, but we’re talking thirty or forty years of violent thinking patterns against twelve weeks, two hours a week, and it takes years for it to be actual change.

Do you have allsorts in the group?

Guys in fluoros to lawyers and professionals. Family violence is everywhere. That’s one of the myths.

That it’s a working class phenomenon.

Exactly. And a lot of the guys in group are mandated by court. That often puts a layer of complexity on the work with them because they can resist and resent being there. They come in equipped with all their statistics—men are victims of violence, too. There’s no point denying that—they are.

You get that regularly?

Of course, but not because they care about men being victims of family violence. It’s a place for them to hide.

How do you work past it?

We talk about anger and how it’s separate from violence, talk about how violence is a choice, how you’re never more in control. If you can really talk about anger with someone, and the fear that is usually beneath it—see anger’s your secondary emotion, the primary stuff is underneath. Fear, sadness, disappointment, powerlessness, disrespect—if you’re shouting at someone they can’t deal with that, but if you’re telling them I feel sad, I feel disrespected, I feel left out, that’s something someone can deal with.

So much of it comes down to communication. The thing about listening is you tend to hear. Mind you, some of their relationships have gone, but I say to them, we’re not here to save your relationship, we’re not here to get you access to your children. We’re here to invite you to face the challenges of life without using violence and abuse. Every single kind of family violence comes down to emotional abuse, no matter what it is. You can break someone’s jaw and it’ll heal, but inside the trust is gone. But we’re nowhere until we get societal change.

What does that look like to you?

A move away from sexism, a move away from the incorrect nurturing of young men and women, the way we box them—princesses and little warriors. This is not new. But generalising is bullshit, it’s another place for people to hide. There’s good all over the place, little pockets, and we’ve gotta sew them all together somehow. Healthy relationships, anti-bullying, supportive counselling.

We’re heading in the right direction but there’s so many things in the way. Most of that is ignorance. You say the word ‘feminism’ and most men hear ‘anti-male’. It’s like when you hear ‘aw, this political correctness has gone nuts’. The only people who say it are the ones who are realising, shit, I can’t abuse people the way I used to. They see that as a loss. Us social justice warriors get abused, as if, for god’s sake, social justice is a bad thing. It’s all about fear.

I notice you’re wearing a White Ribbon pin. On White Ribbon Day, I can rely on my Facebook feed to display two things. One will be people displaying solidarity with the movement, and the other will be feminists saying it tends to whitewash the sins of people who have no actual desire to rehabilitate. Where do you stand on it?

Absolutely. I have guys in my room say ‘Hey, I’m a feminist’. It’s another place to hide. I don’t call myself a feminist. If I have to call myself anything, I guess I’d call myself an advocate for women’s rights, and my job as that is to shut up and listen to what women say, to stop judging, to stop limiting myself by saying ‘yes, but’. It can be such an unsophisticated level of conversation around feminism, expecting women to do things—like the tennis, five sets, three sets. Or opening a door for a woman and she doesn’t say thanks. We’re a way off turning the Taliban around, but little steps.

The fear of something different—if you don’t know what it is, kill it off because it scares the shit out of me. It’s shameful. I’m the same. How d’you think I felt, my first three months not drinking? It was terrifying, the scariest thing I ever did. How am I gonna sleep with a woman? What about when we go out? How am I gonna be me? You come around to it but it’s a steep learning curve.

Do you face ostracism for that, for not drinking?

No, not at all. I’ve never been questioned once. Maybe it’s the circles I don’t move in. If someone called me on it the poor bugger’d probably find me having a deep and meaningful conversation about the new bloke that you can be. But you gotta pick your targets, pick your fights. Not everyone even wants to engage the first thing about this sort of stuff.

So what are your relationships like now, with men and with women? Did they change a lot after you stopped drinking?

Yes. All my male friends disappeared, through my own choice, because I could see what they were built on. I looked at those relationships and thought, I’m not saying I don’t like that person but I don’t like my part in it. You lose yourself. I’ve lost me in relationships, too. So now I have to live this work. You have to live the work, because you can’t talk bullshit. Everything you’re saying in group you have to believe. I’m probably too much of an advocate. I’ll find a feminist issue in two ants crawling up the wall. It gets wearing. Zealots can be really dull. I need a bit of life–work balance.

What about the guys in your life now?

The guys in my life now are mostly in the sector. I get angry at arrogance, sexism, misogyny, people who don’t care, people who aren’t interested in other people.

That limits your capacity to make friends.

Sure does. In fact, right now, Ash, I think you’re my best mate. [Laughs.]

One of the scariest things to me about Homer is how easy it would be for me to run it from a closed room.

It’s easy to do. Social media is a form of withdrawal. And we fear how our children are doing this stuff, why they’re doing it. It reflects on us—are we bad parents because it’s all our children seem to want to do? But how would I have been if I was his age and this stuff was around? I’d be doing exactly the same thing. I liked Foghorn Leghorn and Bugs Bunny, animated violence, now I didn’t turn into a monster. But we need to look at the positives of this stuff. There is networking, they do talk to other people, they do learn skills. This is the future, it’s not going to be books and pencils.

There is the bogies in there like pornography. That’s almost a rite of passage in Australia. There’s another change I’d like to see. Aside from sexual pleasure, you can’t take a positive from seeing a woman be used for whatever a man wants to use her for on a screen. There can’t be a positive from seeing that. Sexual gratification—the end.

I’d never heard someone really phrase it that way but I think that’s true. People often make more cerebral arguments about the pros and cons.

She was paid for it, no one made her do it.

Right, but I think you’re actually spot on.

And access to it at a younger age. These films are going to have a much greater impact than finding a girlie mag under the bed. There’s a lot more brutal stuff, a lot more painful stuff. It’s basically a woman being used. And again, men will say, but that’s our right. Is it? Is it your right to learn to treat women like that?

How aware do you find the men in your groups to be to the fact that there are deficits to behaving like an alpha male? Do you find them aware at some level that they’re losing something by being that way?

By the time they get into our room they’re in crisis. Police, courts, loss of family, sleeping on a couch, they’ve got a community order, they’re in jail. So they start to get it, that something has to change. But to be aware that you’re an alpha male, you have to be aware of comparisons. What do they compare themselves to? They know they’re getting what they want and I think they realise there’s a cost to what they’re doing—and that gets them even madder. They try the ‘it takes two to tango’, half her fault, half my fault. No, there’s only one side of the communication that’s putting fear into the other. Some get it, some want to get it, some never will.

What’s your perception of the degree of complicity of women in the creation of the patriarchal norms that you find manifested in the men in your groups?

Women, they’re brought up on the receiving end, they’re brought up to think this is your lot, this is what is expected of you. You talk to a woman at a football game and she’ll give you all these horrible ideas about why she’s there. But because a woman wants to go out with a footballer doesn’t mean she wants to be raped by a footballer.

That’s another thing about institutions of power. Australia hangs its hat on sport to a sickening degree and sportsmen get away with hell. Cover-ups, pay-offs, because they’re good at doing something with a ball. It’s starting to break down but it’s gotta be smashed to pieces. Unfortunately that stuff is generational and you’ve gotta grow it out. Your Wayne Careys and your Sam Newmans—you’ve gotta grow them out like a weed because they’re never gonna change.

But you’re right—I’ve worked with a partner who was at a corporate level and she got ahead, but she only got ahead a certain way and to a certain level.

How do you feel about those guys, the Sam Newmans? Do you resent them, pity them?

I’m just angry at them. And I’m even angry at the people who say oh, but he gives a lot to charity. You don’t know the real Sam. That’s what they say. Well I know the one that’s causing damage. I get to the end of an article by Clementine Ford and the first cab off the rank is someone saying ‘what about the men?’ Every time, some men’s rights activist. It used to take twenty or thirty comments. No one’s saying you’re part of the problem, you are part of the patriarchy, but look at your behaviour—are you? It’s like John Howard refusing to apologise. He was saying, ‘I didn’t do it, it’s not my fault’, and that’s what all these blokes are saying.

How responsive do you find these guys’ partners to the work you’re trying to do, the conversations you’re trying to get them to have?

A lot of diverse responses. Often the relationship’s already gone bust, or it’s going to and I know it is but he doesn’t. Or his control is such that he’s desperate. I keep telling them, if you want to have the first chance of getting back with this woman after what you’ve done to her, back away. Because control is all about getting access to her, making her do what you want, and if you can’t do that the panic is amazing, the frustration is incredible.

When these guys say they miss their partner, what they’re saying is they miss controlling them. When that’s taken away, that’s the most dangerous time, because he is desperate. And that’s when she’s most at risk—just before leaving, leaving, and just after. That’s when we know the homicides happen. I would suggest the stats are up to about two a week now—from an ex-partner or partner. I can’t have you, no one else will.

We have partner contact workers who deal just with the ex-partners. Some say I don’t care if he drops dead tomorrow, I never want to see him again. Others say I’m glad he’s doing it, I hope he does well but I’m not interested. Others say I’m willing to support him. And others have what so many victims or survivors of family violence have, and that is endless hope. Hope, hope, hope. So when men come out with glib comments like ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’, endless hope is one reason. Love is another. Fear that she’s going to be killed is another. There’s a lot of reasons why a woman wouldn’t leave a relationship.

For the men, the one emotion that underlies all of it, the one big one is fear. Another big one is guys don’t know they’re doing it. They’re completely oblivious to the consequences of their behaviour. You bring these guys to a certain level of awareness and they go, I never had any idea. You’re damn right you didn’t have an idea. You didn’t need an idea. You’re only here because you can’t see your kids any more.

It’s not comfortable but we’re not here to comfort you, we’re here to support your discomfort. We’re not here to shame you, but we’re here to work with your shame. But you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. Gee, it’s hard to retrofit this stuff.

How does that affect you personally?

I always say that my optimism has to be above my skepticism at all times. There’s a certain pride in the work, but you won’t be acknowledged for the work we help you do. Because no one’s asking you to be Superman, they’re asking you to be a respectful person. I say to the blokes in the group, what do you want thanks for? We’re just asking you to stop hitting your wife.

My dad was only a hero to me when he was a war veteran. He showed me how to be scary, and how to get what you want. In the group we talk about the costs and benefits of using violence. The guys’ll say, there can’t be any benefits, it’s all bad! Well, why do you use it? Because there’s benefits. You win, you get what you want, you shut things down, you get peace and quiet, you’re a hero, you’re the cock of the walk, your reputation’s intact—all these perceived benefits. But they can certainly list the costs. They’ve gotta put up with me for two hours a week, and then there’s the financial costs, loss of family, loss of everything. The benefits are very short-term, and mostly only perceived.

When we talk about the costs and benefits, the tough one there is the costs of not using violence. What do you have to give up? You’re not going to be able to force your opinion, you’re not going to always be right, you’re going to be vulnerable. That could be seen as a cost until a change happens. Being vulnerable—fucking terrifying. But it’s such a strong place to be if you can deal with it.

What does progress look like?

You take the little changes. It might be a minor thing. Might’ve settled down, stopped the jitters, the foot-tapping, the nerves. Shut up from talking. Show more reflection, support of someone, said something positive about his partner. You take these tiny wins because you have to, because so much of it’s loss. Particularly if you think a guy’s doing well and you hear from home he’s as bad as ever.

Blokes say to me, ‘ask anyone at work, I’m the most popular bloke there’. I tell them what a nice guy Ted Bundy was. Tell them he murdered thirty women, but lovely guy, workmates loved him. So don’t tell me how you’re perceived at work, tell me how you’re perceived at home.

You don’t become their friend but you don’t become their enemy either, because making me an enemy is another place to hide. Anger, denial, minimising, all these places to hide. You shut door after door after door after door, until hopefully there’s just one door left with a fuckin’ mirror on it. That’s the hope. You use shame, but not too much of it. To think you’re not good enough—I had that from my mother. It can shut down a person—[claps].

I read a couple of books on shame this year. They helped me a lot, because I realised that I was internalising shame. I wasn’t ashamed of a particular moment of behaviour, I was ashamed of myself, inherently. And how can you flourish when you’re ashamed of yourself?

I don’t know about you but I’ve always been waiting for the knock on the door. Someone to point at me and say, you’re a fucking fraud, and what you’re doing is wrong and I know that you’re bullshit. You’re not good at it and you never will be. That’s me knocking on my own door and me answering, and if that’s ticking away at the back of your mind, it’s the most damaging unhealthy toxic thought you can have. To not shame a child is possibly the most important thing you can ever do. And most of the guys in the room are full of it, but if you’re feeling that it means you’re not a sociopath, because we can’t help sociopaths. Bad enough having narcissists.

Do you see yourself in this work for the rest of your life?

I would say yes. I’ve never felt more worthwhile as a man, and I’ve never felt more a part of a team. I’ve always felt on the outside, and for the first time I don’t. I’ve got contemporaries who appreciate and validate me, people who give a shit. There’s a lot of beauty in this work, there’s a lot of horror in this work, but we’re all looking in the same direction, we all want the same thing: safety for women and children, and by extension for men. One of the strongest aspects of the work is children, because you can say to guys, how did you feel when you faced that? And they say scared. And you can leave that right there, let it hang in the air.

And for you, what comes next?

What I’m looking to do is work with men who want to come and see me.

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One Comments

  • Tracey Wisdom

    January 26, 2017

    Congratulations on such a wonderful interview! I have had the opportunity of working in this sector and have been privileged to work with Mike. It is easy to assume that responses to interviews like these are orchestrated but whilst reading this article, it was as if Mike was talking with his usual passion for this work. We need to educate children that family violence in any form is not on and to create attitudinal change so that there is equality in every aspect of life. In this field of work it is vital that the facilitators provide the men with an ideal role model and Mike does that so well. For the women who are victims of family violence, and those of us who are jaded by some of the horror that goes with the women’s stories, it is indeed heartwarming to know that there are men like Mike out there, who do care and are so committed to create an environment where change can be achieved.


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