The man in black who sees red
They see themselves as white knights, but others say the Blackshirts are just thugs, writes Peter Ellingsen.By Peter Ellingsen
December 20 2002
You don't notice the bitterness at first. Gliding out of his office, John Abbott exhibits a brittle charm. He offers a wan smile, a firm handshake and enough anecdotes to fill the Dane Centre, the rambling recording and rehearsal complex that he owns in Brunswick.
Men At Work honed their hits here, John Farnham mixed with the Little River Band and US acts Dr Hook and Hall and Oates dropped by. "It's been like a giant party," he says of his years in the music business. "We've had a lot of fun."
With his gold chain, gold rings and grey hair lapping his ears, Abbott looks more like Penthouse founder Bob Guccione than any of the rock icons hanging on the wall. In fact, he is the new and unnerving face of the men's movement.
A sometime keyboard player who found success renting equipment to the likes of Billy Thorpe, Abbott, 56, heads the Blackshirts, a group that dons masks and protests outside the homes of women they deem to be immoral. The mainly male, middle-aged group also heckles women at the Family Court and demands that divorce laws be repealed.
They are the most radical and outrageous expression of the frustration some men's groups feel with the Family Court, and what they see as its pro-women bias.
But theirs is not just a crusade to turn back the clock. By demanding adultery be treated like murder by the courts, the Blackshirts are seeking the creation of a law that does not currently exist in Western society.
"Adultery must be met with the greatest severity," Abbott says. "I'm very angry, but I don't yell. I just make a list of men and women to die."
The words are shocking, but Abbott does not seem to notice. He is consumed by what he sees as betrayal.
For Abbott, those who leave a marriage - and they are now mainly women - are evil. It is a sentiment that seeks to bypass the 1970s, when feminism first rocked the pillars of patriarchy. Then, women stayed home, and stayed in bad marriages. Now, they work and opt out of poor partnerships more frequently than do men. Some men, particularly those who are middle-aged and unskilled, have found this hard to accept. But, whereas many men's groups complain about it, the Blackshirts harass and intimidate.
Abbott is the force and money behind the group, and what he wants is a return to the days when divorce was a kind of crime, when private detectives gathered evidence of infidelity. He wants guilt and blame back in the bedroom. "Society has got it all wrong," he says. "Marriage is supposed to be forever. I was bought up with Christian values that taught marriage was not discardable."
His vigilante style is extreme, but his longing for what he sees as a more stable and - for men - less confronting, past, is shared with other, often more moderate, groups.
As Dr Jo Lindsay, a sociologist at Monash University, points out, there is a contemporary anxiety about families not needing men any more. The loss of men's traditional authority, the decline of the nuclear family and the fact that service jobs (women's work) are the fastest-growing sector of the economy, has left some men feeling uneasy.
On top of that, women demand more emotional involvement. "Women expect more than just a breadwinner role from men," Dr Lindsay says. "They want men to do the emotional, as well as other work, needed to sustain a relationship."
In a benchmark paper, British sociologists Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden cite studies that show some men are not capable of this. They say that on the whole, husbands and wives meet as intimate strangers.
"When the false romantic images which are part of 'falling in love' have been broken down, it turns out that couples seek incompatible emotional goals in marriage."
Their survey found most men seek a life in common with their wives, a physical base; while wives want a common life, an intimacy that makes them feel valued as a person, not just a wife.
They also point to the finding that some men, even though they share domestic jobs, are psychic celibates who fail to take emotional responsibility for marriage and fatherhood.
It is not something Abbott wants to contemplate. With resentment clouding his face, he explains how his wife left him 12 years ago and took up with another man. Because he refused to "change his attitude to his wife's new partner", he says the Family Court would not agree to him having contact with his two sons, both of whom are now adults.
He did not contest custody, nor, he says, did he demand that his wife return to him. He wanted the other man to leave, and when he did not, his mind turned to violence.
Swinburne University sociologist, Associate Professor Michael Gilding, says it is common for men who have been through the Family Court to be distressed. "If they haven't come to grips with the changes, they can have a lot of rage," he says.
"Women are more likely to see problems in marriage, leave and be happier. Men are more likely to be bitter and struggle to accept any responsibility."
Sitting beneath a yellowing photograph of the Beatles, Abbott seems to think he can force a change back to the '50s, when men made the money and marriage was forever. Just how serious he is about physical violence is not clear. He says his group is non-violent, but there are women who say he has terrified them by turning up outside their homes, or at court cases, with a mob of hooded men.
Paula Pope, who lives close to his factory in Brunswick, was so threatened she formed a counter-group, Diversity in Safe Communities (DISC), after a run-in with Abbott this year.
"It's very intimidating to have a gang outside your place or in court during an intervention order," she says. Pope, who has been off work because of stress since the encounter, says that while the Blackshirts are at the periphery of the men's movement, they have sympathy among some more mainstream groups.
She describes their tactics and goals as fascist. "It all comes from the one mindset. They want to control and own women and their children and they're ready to do it by force. It is a 1950s' mentality - the brutalisation of the other."
Abbott admits the dress and demeanour of the Blackshirts - a name that traces back to militant fascism in Depression-era England - is designed to create fear. "I wanted the attention and the fear," he explains, insisting his group has never committed any actual violence.
"The people who are perturbed about our actions have a guilty mind," he says. "We always tell the police about our protests. Our aim is to shame women, not intimidate them."
He claims to have 300 supporters in Australia, including Meret-field Sally-Brown, 56, a retired teacher of Highett, who says women have nothing to fear from the Blackshirts. Like most of the group, she has a gripe with the Family Court.
Linda Nicholls, 38, of Rowville, agrees, and says Abbott helped after her husband left her and their three children for another woman two years ago. "He offered moral support. I think he's doing the right thing. The Blackshirts are making people aware. Those leaving marriages say they've done nothing wrong, but they have. My kids are growing up without a father."
Attorney-General Rob Hulls brands the Blackshirts as gutless. "If they think they can pump around the place with their hideous cowboy masks and black shirts and take the law into their own hands, they've got another thing coming," he says.
He says the government will ensure women are protected from the violence and hate campaigns of vigilantes.
Police have set up a unit to monitor the Blackshirts after an Ashburton mother who had left her marriage was targeted by the group. Letters were sent to her neighbours claiming she had corrupted her children. The letters asked her neighbours to give her a message that enough is enough. There have been other similar incidents.
None of this seems to faze Abbott, who is about to put his business in the hands of his employees to work full time and without pay setting up Blackshirts' cells in every Australian city.
The aim is to generate enough pressure to repeal the 1975 law which introduced no-fault divorce and made marriage easier to end.
While some men's groups condemn the Blackshirts, others argue that the Family Court-child support system encourages vigilantes. On the website, Shattered Men, Malcolm Mathias, the president of Fathers for Family Equity Inc, says that while he does not condone the group's actions, he understands their frustration.
"Most men's groups certainly feel they have been done over by the system and some of them feel so done over and so separated from everything they grew up believing, that they end up committing suicide," he says. "Men face the double jeopardy of a system that doesn't seem to recognise fatherhood."
Kathleen Swinbourne, president of the Sole Parents' Union, disagrees, arguing that the Blackshirts have a warped sense of family. "Most divorced fathers care about their children and try to maintain a good relationship with them," she says. "Even those who have problems don't resort to this behaviour. Blackshirt members, and men who identify with them, are nasty, personal and vindictive."
While some church groups have long attacked the overhaul of the divorce laws by former Labor attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, groups such as the Blackshirts go much further.
Conservative cliques such as the US-based religious organisation, the Promise Keepers, talk up the family, (as long as men are at its head), and talk down gays. But Abbott, who insists that he is not aggressive, talks of revenge.
"I've tried to hold my emotions down, but I can't," he says. "Blood's thicker than water. All I want is for him (his former wife's partner) to leave. I'm not vindictive, but I am not going to let this go."
It is a significant move beyond the clubbiness of the born-again-blokeism that found a voice 12 years ago with US poet, Robert Bly and his book, Iron John. Bly believed that, because of unresponsive fathers, men had lost touch with their emotions. For some this turned into a search for male bonding through rituals like going bush, sweat lodges and hunting.
In Australia, psychologist Steve Biddulph urged men to heal by learning from women, and giving more attention to their own inner spirit.
The Blackshirts have upped the ante and, in theory at least, have a sizeable pool of disaffected men to draw on. It is not just that divorce (now initiated mostly by women) is at a 20-year high; about 15 per cent, or 770,000, of Australia's five million families, are sole parent. This is more than twice that of 1971, and of these, more than 640,000 are headed by women.
The share of residence (or custody) orders made in favour of men has risen from 15 per cent to almost 20 per cent in the past five years, but men's groups argue that this still amounts to gender bias.
The problem is that, while Abbott and his supporters say the system is unfair, and does not protect children, their response turns on threats.
Paula Pope says the estimated 100,000 victims of domestic violence in Victoria each year are mainly women and children, and suffer because of angry men.
Abbott says his campaign is all about the children, but does not explain how threats will help. He admits he is angry, but prefers it to what he calls weakness. He has attended other men's groups, but found them passive. Like the counselling he tried, they wanted him to admit his marriage was over.
"I was expected to cry on someone's shoulder, but a man's not supposed to do that," he says. "It achieves nothing."
There is an unsettling sense of unreality and inflexibility about Abbott's claims. Though he has long been divorced from his wife, he says it is only she who is divorced; he is still married.
"I'm not a divorcee," he says. Since the break-up in 1990, he says he has not had another relationship. "Women have continuously tried to hit on me - I'm fairly attractive - but I've not made myself available," he says. "Sex is not to be taken lightly. And the needs of my children are far more important."
He now lives with his parents, attends church and plans Blackshirts' campaigns. He quotes the Bible, laments the loss of his children, but defends his decision not to see them. They will be reunited in heaven, he says. "The whole family will be reinstated. That's what heaven's about; there there's no pain."
Copyright © 2002 The Age Company Ltd.