I checked out the photo essay on domestic violence by Sara Lewkowicz that people were buzzing about. The images are impressive, a few masterful. But the main feeling I had was: “Oh no, not again.” And not for the violence, but for the physical appearance of the victim and the perpetrator.
A rage-filled boyfriend just out of jail and covered in tattoos. And a young woman with bruises on her neck and “victim" written as clearly all over her as her name “Maggie Mae” was dripped in thick black ink across his neck.
In 1991, Donna Ferrato published “Living with the Enemy”, a chronicle of men beating up girlfriends and wives, in gritty black and white, with a cover photo that three decades later is still the iconic image of domestic abuse: The face of a haggard woman with two black eyes.
The problem is that it is not only men who are covered in jailhouse tattoos who brutalize women, and the women who are brutalized are not all poor.
For instance, in my 20s I sat with him in the romantic Bird and Bottle restaurant in upstate New York, and at the table next to us sat an older woman, head down, tears streaming down her face while the man in a business suit across from her sadistically, chillingly, and relentlessly berated her. I was astonished. Decades later, at Francine's Bistro in Camden, that was me.
Smart, accomplished and dynamic women are terrorized by men who purport to love them, and successful and admired men do the terrorizing. But this demographic does not open their doors to photojournalists looking to expose social ills, and so we are stuck with the stereotype of a domestic abuser as a societal loser, and a domestic abuse victim as weak.
And that is a big part of why, as I have taken Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse around this year to Rotary clubs and public libraries and gallery spaces, women whisper to me afterward about the abusive relationship-- past or present-- and say, “I am so ashamed.”
At a domestic abuse support group in Bangor, I nodded my head while the homeless woman told her story, and she nodded her head while I, who when married called two mansions on each coast home - told my story. It was then I learned that the domestic abuser is always about getting and maintaining power and control whether he is living off his partner’s McDonald's paycheck or is a rich and famous singer. This is because domestic abuse is a deliberate series of actions that step by step pull you in so deep that by the time you realize you are in deep, you don’t know how you got there or how to get out. And it happens to every kind of woman.
Mary Lou, a 79-year old retired teacher from Scarborough, is one of the 20 women in my Finding Our Voices project, and last week the extraordinary Bill Nemitz devoted his Portland Press Herald column to this wonderful woman.
“The cover story appeared in Church World,” his article starts, "… it showed Dr. Charles Smith - college professor, transoceanic sailor; Navy captain - surrounded by his beaming wife Mary Lou and their four children… What the article didn’t say, what no one outside the picture-perfect family knew, was that Charles Smith also beat his wife."
When enough women across all socioeconomic levels step up, like in Finding Our Voices, to say "Me Too" about their domestic abuse experiences, it will become clear that even women in picture perfect families are terrorized by their boyfriends and husbands, and even picture perfect men do the terrorizing.
Rats are my big phobia, but right behind them for as long as I remember has been public speaking.
So taking around Finding Our Voices, with a talk by me always part of the exhibit or slideshow presentation, is a literal finding of my voice.
I have lived in Camden for more than 30 years and have deep connections to the community, and friends and family were coming from near and far for the launch of Finding Our Voices at the Camden Public Library on Valentine’s Day of this year. So I knew it would be a friendly and supportive audience.
I was writing drafts on my computer and scribbling notes on any paper within hand’s reach for months leading up to the day.
When the chairs at the Camden Library were all filled, and the clock told me it was time to start the program, I came to the microphone, and read straight from the script. I remember looking up two times. Went through the slideshow, fielded some questions from the audience, then dashed to the bathroom and threw up.
At a Pecha Kucha in Belfast, where presenters file by the stage for six minutes each, my heart was pounding so hard in the half hour leading to my turn to present that I thought it would jump out of my chest. I avoided passing out by clutching the hand of Maegan, a Finding Our Voices Survivor/Participant who was sitting next to me.
At the Camden Rotary Club, the casual conversation of the woman sitting next to me was like a train roaring in my ear. Afterward, one of the mostly male members of the audience came up to me and said, “I could tell you were talking from the heart, and it was much more powerful than the people who come up with slick presentations.” That was a mixed compliment, but it made me feel good.
The other night on Islesboro marked about half a dozen times that I have stood in front of an audience with Finding Our Voices.
The two pieces of paper with my speech were on the podium but I just followed the general outline as I remembered it, referring to it only once or twice. The rest of the time I was looking in the eyes of, and happy to connect with, audience members.
For three decades, at home, I staunched my opinions. I didn’t voice my hopes or fears, my dreams or nightmares. There were landmines everywhere of names and topics.
A dear friend, three years after my divorce, heard how afraid I used to be of public speaking. She wrote this to me.
"I remember at **’s wedding, you gave a short welcome speech. I remember seeing you anxiously rehearsing outside the tent before you spoke. You did a wonderful job, but I was surprised that a person like you, who is clearly completely competent, was so nervous about a short speech. Now I understand."
Now I understand as well.
* Photos by Rebekah Paredes, executive director of the New Hope domestic abuse agency
cars, on finding out why we were going to the island, told me about his granddaughter who just got a protection from abuse order against her boyfriend— they are both students from the Massachusetts Marine Academy and he tried to strangle her many times.
Then on the taxi ride from the VH boat crossover from NH, the driver told us about her abusive first husband.
A woman who lives on North Haven as we were hanging the show came up to me and whispered "Me too."
The lady who gave us and our bikes and heavy bags a lift from the thoroughfare-landing on Vinalhaven into town spent the 15 minute car ride telling us about her struggles with her abusive first husband.
At breakfast, a dear woman who I know from previous visits to the island revealed that the man her mother married after their father died (the mother said "who else would want a woman with so many kids") for more than a decade, regularly beat the mother up and sexually molested the daughters.
Every time I take this project around, and am privy to these heartbreaking confessions, I know that we 21 survivor/participants in Finding Our Voices, as hard as it is to stand up and speak out because of conditioning by the abusers and society to feel embarrassment and shame, are giving out the crucial message to other women that they are not alone.