It is maybe 20 years ago, and I am planted in front of the massive clear funnel at the New England Aquarium in Boston, hypnotized by the marine creatures of every form, size and color gliding by. I am most fascinated by the sea turtles which look prehistoric and are as elusive as the Waldo figurines in the Where’s Waldo toy tubes.
I am also fascinated by the humans in wetsuits and tanks who are strangely in there too, doing some kind of work. How happy and free they look. But covered head to toe in technical gear and freed from land and air, they seem as exotic as astronauts visiting the moon. I could never do that.
As soon as my divorce was final, I decamped to Trieste, Italy.
The easternmost city in Italy had beckoned ever since my newspaper reporter days in San Francisco. Trieste was the name of my North Beach neighborhood cafe, perched on a hilly corner, dark and cozy, with walls papered with photos of Beat generation poets, many of whom, like Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were customers still. I drank in the romantic atmosphere as eagerly as the cappuccino.
Trieste means “sad”. This fact hit me on my first day in the actual city of Trieste because in the vast piazza that seemed to merge with the Adriatic Sea and was swept by a trademark Bora wind, I was sadder, I think, than I ever was in my life.
In the Uber-stressful days of hammering out a divorce settlement, the alternative of a legal separation was floated.
I dismissed this out of hand. I wanted, needed, to be unbound.
Hours after I signed the divorce settlement with my lawyer in a Thomaston hotel conference room (his office was in Biddeford) I was at Primo, giddily clinking champagne glasses with Deborah Joy Corey, who had been my rock for the five crazy months since I left my marital home.
In a photo at a Rockland courthouse for the divorce ruling the next day the smile on my face is as sunny as my yellow sweater, on which is affixed a butterfly pin divorce gift sent to me by a dear friend in Australia.
But just days later, sitting in an elegant cafe on Piazza Grande in Trieste, with couples cooing, groups of friends laughing, children noisily kicking a ball around a statue, what filled my mind and soul was the one thought: “Now, I am completely alone.”
I was afraid. No, terrified. For 29 years, someone else made all the big decisions. I didn’t see, let alone pay, bills. There was staff to clear the snow off the front house steps, haul away the garbage, come and get me if my car broke down. When I crossed the street, a hand was on my elbow.
I kicked myself for not agreeing to the legal separation. Why was I so insistent on being all on my own? Why did I think I could do it all on my own?
In the first months of going from Mrs. to Ms. I did indeed make mistakes. I chose a divorce lawyer who had a face like granite because I thought he would protect me but he was nastier to me than to my adversary. I entrusted the money from my divorce settlement to a man who talked in an avuncular way about “Team Patrisha” but turned out to be slippery. I entered into contract for a series of houses that would never have felt like home. I got taken by souk merchants in Fez, Morocco.
Every one of these times, I made a decision after canvassing many opinions of people.
But then I decided to slow down, and listen to my instincts.
All on my own, I changed investment firms to an all-women team that explained the statements to me; I changed lawyers to one in my own town who values and respects my opinion; I found, negotiated, and bought, a house that I am as madly in love with as the day I first stepped across the threshold.
Not quite a year ago I decided I was going to become a scuba diver. I got certified at a resort in Cozumel, received my advanced certification on a boat in Egypt and now on a week’s vacation at the Buddy Dive resort in Bonaire, I got certified to dive with Nitrox (safer, but more technical, than the air in normal tanks).
Bonaire is “the home of diving freedom” because since the Caribbean island just off Venezuela is ringed by coral you can suit up and scuba dive directly from the shore instead of relying on boat schedules.
After four days of scuba diving-- I saw my first sea horse, and a bright orange one at that, tail curled around a coral frond, body waving in the current-- I decide I want to explore the various shore sites without cumbersome gear, so head out to snorkel.
I drive my cute little blue rental car past pink flamingoes and park on the beach at Salt Pier, opposite Cargill’s massive holding basins of water dyed pink and lavender and coral from the salt-making process, and huge, blinding white, pointed salt hills.
I wade past the surf, put on my fins and mask, and in the strip of astonishing turquoise before the bottom dips "down to China", I see one huge sea turtle rooting in the sugar-white sand, then another, then another and suddenly I am swimming with a dozen of these mystical creatures.
When they ascend (to gulp in air) they actually fly— their scaly fins turning as graceful as bird’s wings. I swim with them, swooping down and then zooming up, and I am actually laughing as much as it is possible to laugh underwater and not lose your snorkel.
I am flying. I am free. It is the best feeling in the world.
I don’t know where I found this 1972 book but I have devoured it at least half a dozen times in the 20 years it has occupied a prime spot in my bookcase. "Gentleman of Leisure: A Year in the Life of A Pimp" is about Silky and the seven girls working for him, in their own words and with terrific black and white photos by Bob Adelman in the classic 1970s photojournalism that I love so much.
Not long after my husband was arrested for domestic violence, I happened to pick it up again. I was astonished at how much I related to the voices.
Now that I understand domestic abuse, I can give a name to what so resonated with me, and it is “Power and Control.”
The parallel with domestic abusers and pimps (pimps maybe being different from sex traffickers because pimps forge an emotional relationship with their victims) was reinforced when I interviewed Milli for my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse project.
Milli, serving a prison term for drug possession, was a prostitute and then a madam. She said that as a madam she was the abusive one in the relationship, in how she controlled the girls working for her.
This is what she said about her first boyfriend at the age of 15: “Everything was peachy at first. Once I realized I couldn’t go home that’s when things took a turn for the worse. Just like with whores and pimps. Make them believe you’re going to be there for them, you’re going to take care of them. And he made me feel like that at first.”
In Finding Our Voices, an architect, a nurse, a journalist, a prison guard, and a prisoner all basically go through the same thing because the men they have the misfortune to give their heart to are all about using a set of deliberate tactics that are in the pimp's playbook, and revealed on the Power and Control Wheel, in order to get and keep power and control.
“Power and Control” is the very definition of “pimp.” And weird to think that if you are living in a 15-room mansion on top of a hill with multiple credit cards as the wife of someone who is widely-admired, or walking the streets and giving all the money you make to someone who is reviled by society, the same damned thing is going on.
Here are some quotes from “Gentleman of Leisure” from the pimp and three of his girls. For anyone who has been, or is, in an abusive intimate relationship... Can you relate?
Silky | The Pimp
“Styles have changed in pimping. You don’t just leave a girl in a closet for eight hours because she makes you mad. Modern pimps use psychiatry.”
“My girls decide to share my life themselves. It’s their decision. A girl might leave and I might go get her. But usually I’m real, show her my charming self, and she chooses to stay.”
“I just try to make myself important to her. The only way she can be with me is my way. When I feel she’s swept, I make my points.”
“I ask her to gamble her life for me. She takes an oath to dedicate herself to me.”
“If my emotions got the best of me, if I couldn’t control myself, it would be dangerous. I must treat all my girls equally and with cool. I’ve got to control them.”
“Not many men are capable of being completely in charge. I am. If a woman complains I do not respond in a sympathetic fashion. I treat her like a child. I might even beat her up a bit. It gives me no pleasure, but sometimes it works. Really we should be able to discuss a problem and eliminate it. But if she acts like a child I have to treat her like one. I have to be a man— three hundred sixty degrees.”
“A girl makes a sacrifice for me. The only greater sacrifice would be for her to jump out of a window. A girl gives up her home, her relationship with her family. I become her whole life. That means our relationship is more passionate and romantic than most.”
Kitty | One of Silky's Prostitutes
"I say to myself ‘Silky, the money I give you is what’s making these things possible for me.' But he puts it in my head that I can’t make it without him. I’m really believing him.”
Lois | One of Silky's Prostitutes
“A boyfriend or husband would not have the same strictness. He wouldn’t say, ‘If you don’t do this, you’ll get punished.’ With a square guy you have equality and you do what you want.”
“I am constantly quiet around Silky. We’re all supposed to be. He does let you speak freely— to a certain extent. Until you start giving your opinions.”
Sandy | One of Silky's Prostitutes
“Now [Silky] doesn’t have to tell me. If I have a problem I think it out. His way.”
From my "What Trapped Me: What Freed Me" talk at the Holocaust and Human
Rights Center in Augusta, Maine | October 10, 2019 | From video by Pam Maus on Vimeo.
On Thanksgiving evening, when the red-haired sprites were settled in their beds and the rooms quiet of their beautiful babble, I was lounging on the couch with the latest issue of my favorite magazine The Sun. An interview with the author Barry Lopez mentioned his 2013 essay: Sliver of Sky: Confronting the Trauma of Sexual Abuse.
The essay relates how he was raped by a family friend named Shier for four years beginning when he was seven and Shier 56, how he broke his silence over it at 17 to his stepfather, and how the stepfather did nothing.
Quoting from the Harper Magazine essay: “The conclusion I eventually reached about my stepfather’s refusal to pursue charges against Shier was that he did not want the family to be embarrassed by a trial. He was unable to understand that the decision to face cross-examination in a courtroom was not his to make. He could not appreciate that the opportunity to stand up in a public forum and describe, with Shier present, what he had done, and what he had forced me to do, was as important to me as any form of legal justice.
Not to be allowed to speak or, worse, to have someone else relate my story and write its ending was to extend the original, infuriating experience of helplessness, to underscore the humiliation of being powerless.
…People seem to think that what victims most desire in the way of retribution is money and justice, apparently in that order. My own guess would be that what they most want is something quite different: they want to be believed, to have a foundation on which they can rebuild a sense of dignity. Reclaiming self-respect is more important than winning money, more important than exacting vengeance.
Victims do not want someone else’s public wrath, the umbrage of an attorney or an editorial writer or a politician, to stand in for the articulation of their own anger.”
In a recent New York Times article about the spread of online child sexual abuse, reporters Michael H. Keller and Gabriel Dance ask a teenage survivor referred to as E.: “What is the biggest burden right now?”
Her answer, out of all the terrors she must be enduring: “What sucks is you almost get your voice taken away too. If it were up to me, if it weren’t so dangerous, I would love to just say my name, put my face out there and say what I want to say.”
When the 911 operator answered at 2 a.m. on January 18, 2016, I said everything was OK. At the callback a very short while later I said the same thing.
When the Camden police officer who showed up at the door anyway asked me to fill out a police report, I said no.
This is the same playbook I followed after a 911 call 20 years earlier.
It is what many women do every time the man who purports to love them almost kills them: Protect the abuser, because of indoctrination and shame, sometimes literally to the death.
But a strange brew was concocted in 2016, with media busting out the secret, two friends Deborah and Marcie scooping me up and staying close, and being afforded thinking space by bail conditions of no contact. And I crossed over.
My voice had been staunched, my throat constricted, for a long, long time. I wanted to talk, and ached to talk, in a safe legal arena. But the law conspired against it.
My divorce lawyer was Gene Libby of Biddeford. In the swirl of civil and criminal legal proceedings around the domestic violence charges and my divorce filing, every time I told Libby that I wanted to testify he made it clear that my voice had no value, but worse than that, negative value, because my voice could harm me in court.
While the criminal case was stymied at every turn by delaying tactics, the divorce was over and done with in three months.
In the last frantic weeks of negotiation over the divorce, two different paragraphs slipped into the agreement without my lawyer saying a word to me about them, and then my lawyer backed me into a corner so I had no choice but to accept the settlement with them in it.
The first was a Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA.
The New York Times reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse story pointed to NDA’s as enabling Weinstein, and other highly-placed sexual predators, to keep abusing for decades. The victims are pressured to sign by their own lawyers: The victim gets some money, the victim’s lawyer gets some money, and the abuse and the victim’s voice are forever buried.
The MeToo# movement is many years old now and has seen the outing of countless celebrity sexual abusers. But there is a glaring absence of reporting and confessionals about high profile domestic abusers. My theory is that powerful, rich and famous domestic abusers use Non-Disclosure Agreements the way powerful, rich and famous sexual abusers do.
The other stipulation slipped into my divorce settlement agreement was my dropping the right to seeking a claim for civil damages resulting in physical, emotional, psychological or financial injury.
The high value of the tort claim for me was not the payout, but the chance to testify in a public trial. Libby insisted to me that I would get the chance to testify in the criminal proceedings.
But then of course the Knox County District Attorney, who had something like a one percent rate of prosecuting domestic violence cases, offered a deferred-disposition plea deal to the defendant, preempting a public trial.
I dropped Libby as soon as my divorce was final, and moved over to Christopher MacLean from Camden who respected and valued, and respects and values, my voice.
Through the flurry of legal proceedings that followed the divorce, I checked in with him over and over again: “Will I get the chance to testify?” His answer was always “Yes.”
But it was never to be.
In the Rockland, Maine courthouse, a contempt charge we had filed was dispatched with through a deal forged with my lawyer, the opposing lawyer and the judge. So no court hearing, no testifying possible.
In the Ellsworth courthouse, over a Protection From Abuse (PFA) bid, I was pressured by both my lawyer and the advocate at the Next Step Domestic Abuse Resource agency to accept the agreement instead of taking my chances with the judge:
“You came here to get a PFA, and you are being granted it with every condition you requested” was their argument. I didn’t have the wherewithal to tell them that as important as the restraining order was to me, the chance to speak out in an open court about why I needed it was at least as important, and maybe for my emotional well-being, even more important.
My last time in court was this spring for an extension of the PFA. I was seeking an extension of 10 years, which all cautioned was an overreach. My lawyer assured me that I would be able to have a public hearing.
Before the hearing could commence, all of our terms were accepted. But this time I held out for a court hearing. And this time, my lawyer argued for a court hearing in front of the judge. But the judge accepted the opposing lawyer’s argument that there was no need for a hearing because I was getting everything I asked for. Case closed, and with it, once again, my voice.
But now there is Finding Our Voices.
Finding Our Voices is a chance to, like the child-sexual-abuse survivor referred to as E. says In the New York Times article, put our faces out there and say what we want to say, and, as Barry Lopez writes in Sliver of Sky, get out from under the infuriating experience of helplessness, and overwrite the humiliation of hopelessness. All in the comforting embrace of a sisterhood. And all to help other victims of intimate partner violence avoid what we went through.
For the 20 impassioned survivors who have stepped up with me in showing their faces and using their voices, and for the many, many people who are every day stepping up to provide support and lend their myriad talents, energy and time, turning Finding Our Voices from a social justice art project into a human rights movement, I am truly thankful.
Last night at a terrific presentation of Threepenny Opera by Everyman Rep at the Rockport Opera House, one line jumped out at me: "She spoke badly, but free."
I remember the first time I spoke publicly about my experience with domestic abuse. It was this past Valentine's Day at the launch of the Finding Our Voices project at my hometown library in Camden.
I was very, very nervous. Maybe I spoke too fast, because I tend to do that. I read from a piece of paper when I wanted to speak extemporaneously. I remembered later things I wished I had said. But I was free to tell my story and I spoke my story freely. I spoke badly (so I thought), but free.
Finding Our Voices' first ever Survivor Speaks panel was on October 10 at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in conjunction with the exhibit there running until December 13.
In the one other domestic abuse panel discussion I have seen, I think there were four professionals from the domestic abuse field and two survivors. The survivor presentations were polished.
When I was putting together the October 10 panel discussion I wanted only survivors on it because it is survivor voices that are the crux of this project. Three of the five panelists had never before spoken publicly about about the domestic abuse in their lives. Regina Rooney of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence moderated.
When the panel discussion ended, I invited all the Finding Our Voices survivor/participants in the audience to join us on stage for questions from the audience. Betsy leaned over to pat the shoulder of one of the panelists who had broken up every time they talked about their personal situation and in the gentlest and most loving way imaginable told that person: "The quiver in your voice lessens the more you talk about it."
The next morning one of the panel members told me in an email they were embarrassed they could not keep their emotions in check. Another said they didn't do as well as they wanted to because they were so nervous. To their minds they "spoke badly". But they spoke free, and I cannot imagine words delivered or received in a more powerful way.
Below: Parastou Forouhar: "Portraits" | 2014 In the exhibit on Iran's exiled women artists
Eve sent me a link to a newspaper article about how the media are becoming more aware of their responsibility to not re-victimize the victim when it comes to domestic abuse.
With the relentless slaughter of women by their boyfriends and husbands-- just last week three domestic abuse murder/suicides in New York City and one in Maine---- everyone needs to do their part to stem the bloodbath.
Here is part of what Shenna Bellows, director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta, Maine, said in her extraordinary introduction of me at my Finding Our Voices slideshow presentation and Survivor Speaks panel discussion there:
“We must act break down the barriers that silence domestic violence victims. To see domestic violence not as a personal matter between two people but as a public issue of human rights. And in every human rights issue let us take the side of the survivor, not the abuser.”
The media seems to be is paying attention to this with sexual abuse, after it came out that journalists were among the "everyone" in the everyone who knew but did nothing about the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, allowing their power and control, and thus victims, to accumulate. The two New York Times reporters who broke the story of Weinstein call their book on that journey, "She Said."
With domestic abuse, media can break the stereotype and help to end the stigma, thus wiping away the shame which along with fear of the perpetrator is what keeps us silent. Or it can keep us quiet, or decide to stop speaking out.
What fairness is appropriate to the victim and perpetrator? What is necessary for the publication to stay on the right side of the law as regards to libel, and what is gratuitously hurtful to the victim?
These questions can be considered with the three articles that appeared on my project Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse in the last week of October.
Ellen Barry of The New York Times had a half hour phone conversation with the perpetrator. Mary Pols of Maine Women's Magazine and Charlotte Lytton of the Telegraph in London as far as I know did not reach out to or speak with the perpetrator. I agreed to a phone interview with Charlotte Lytton from the Telegraph after reading a sympathetic and sensitive book review she wrote on the rape victim Chanel Miller.
Now the description
of the case against the perpetrator in the NYT first then MWM then Telegraph:
Common tactics domestic abusers use to get and maintain control over the woman who loves them -- featured on the Power and Control Wheel that is a central feature in the Finding Our Voices project -- are "minimizing" and "denying" and "humiliating". Abusers do this day in and day out when you are living with them, but usually behind closed doors. When a woman finally escapes her domestic abuse situation, if she is lucky, there are bail conditions or a Protection From Abuse order so he cannot contact, i.e. abuse, her even through a third party.
But when the media reaches out to an abuser for "their side of the story" they give the abuser a platform to minimize, deny and humiliate -- only now, to the entire world.
The New York Times gave a worldwide platform to the perpetrator in the excerpt below to minimize and deny, but even worse to me, humiliate, in the last two paragraphs. Charlotte Lytton of the Telegraph, in the second excerpt below, helped to rectify this in her subsequent coverage and I particularly like and appreciate the word "understandably" in the second paragraph.
I am wary of going on the record to the media. Unless it is with Maine journalists (excepting the Associated Press out of Portland Maine who for some reason slanted toward the perpetrator, especially in the headline, every time they covered the story). Maine journalists have consistently made it clear in their coverage of the criminal case, and Finding Our Voices, who is the victim and who is the perpetrator and they did not provide a platform for re-victimization -- shout out to Reade Brower, Alice McFadden, Will Grunewald, Brad Rogers, Chris Wolf, Rob Caldwell, Dan Dunkle, Andy O'Brien, Bob Keyes, Bill Nemitz, Lynda Clancy, and Mary Pols. One more reason why, when I got my divorce and because my kids were grown I could have settled down anywhere in the world, I am glad I chose to stay in Maine.
Sarah was the photographer Ellen Barry told me I should look for on October 10, the night of the slideshow and Survivor Speaks presentation at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, as she was the person assigned to take my portrait for her New York Times article.
Sarah was younger than I expected, and I was surprised when she told me she had been shooting for that paper for more than 20 years. She was also more aloof than I expected, considering we are both photographers and that we both live in Maine. In our very brief small talk she did not ask about the project or say anything about it.
She photographed me. I liked the way, after an initial session in the waning outdoor light, when the evening's presentation was over she asked if I would step out into the dark for some more photos and posed me under the dramatic light of a streetlight. As a photographer, I too usually have my best ideas after the initial session.
The photos that appeared in the paper were sensitive and beautiful. I emailed the NYT photo editor asking to be able to buy some, and they said it was OK with them but to deal directly with Sarah.
The last time I dealt with a NYT photographer was when the newspaper covered my daughter's wedding in their Vows section (Ellen told me when research for her article on Finding Our Voices unearthed this 2013 feature that mothers-of-the-bride kill for this coverage). The photographer in that case was reluctant to even sell his photos to me because he was so busy, and if I remember correctly charged me a few hundred dollars for each.
Sarah emailed me back: "Sure." And she wrote that she would give them to Finding Our Voices as a gift.
After maybe two weeks, I checked in with her about them. She apologized profusely for the delay, saying that she was just off the road on assignment and heading right back out on another one, and also that she had been hit by a garbage truck. A few days later, she sent me the link with the high-res digital files of the nine photos I had requested, all toned, all mine to use as I wanted.
That is when I discovered that a GoFundMe site had been set up in Sarah's name. She is battling her third bout of brain cancer. Her medical bills are drowning her in debt and the garbage truck destroyed her car, so now she needs to travel on assignment around the country without a vehicle.
After I got in touch with her about this, she emailed me that covering the Finding Our Voices presentation was her first photography session after undergoing radiation. She agreed to take the assignment because photographing women speaking out about the domestic violence in their lives is the kind of work she wants to be doing these days.
So many lessons from this swirling in my mind. Do not take things personally. You never know what another person is going through. There are angels walking in our midst. Open your eyes to them.
Olivia speaking at the Finding Our Voices Survivor Speaks panel discussion at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center. On her left is Amber and on her right,
Mary Lou, and Eve | Photos by Sarah Rice for the New York Times
That is what I felt when a “journalist query” email turned out to be from the New York Times a couple of weeks into the Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse exhibit at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta.
The possibility of amplifying the voices of the twenty survivors in the exhibit to that newspaper’s audience seemed like a gift from heaven.
But as a casual phone conversation with Ellen Barry led to a precise and increasingly intense phone interview of more than an hour, and people related to the project kept tipping me off to also being interviewed by her - FOV Survivor/participants, the publisher of our local newspapers, director of the library where the project launched, executives at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence - excitement turned to anxiety.
Part of this was being triggered by the trauma inflicted on me by the world-wide media three years earlier when my ex-husband was arrested for domestic abuse.
The reporter Stephen Betts uncovered the statement I wrote out for a protection from abuse order, and the deep secrets of my 29-year marriage were splashed across the front page of the Bangor Daily News, then picked up by media as far away as Fiji.
In the months that followed, every time there was a development in the criminal case, i.e more domestic abuse criminal charges added, I was walloped with tsunami after tsunami of worldwide media coverage, always including defamatory statements about me from the defendant without editorial comment or an effort to include my response. Newspaper editors and reporters paved the way for revisionist history, and gave the abuser a way to get around my protection order of not even third party contact with "abuse by media".
It was "He Said" reporting all the way, and so traumatized me that it was two years before I could open a newspaper, when before the arrest I was in the habit of reading three or four a day.
The press redeemed itself to me with local and statewide coverage of my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse project. Reporters from Alice McFadden with the Camden Herald to Bill Nimitz of the Portland Press Herald and Mary Pols of Maine Women's Magazine wrapped me in a warm blanket of validation, empathy and neighborly care.
But when the New York Times came calling, it was different. Ellen Barry was cool and inscrutable. I had no idea if she believed me, approved of my project, or even thought domestic violence was a bad thing. Some interview questions felt like challenges, and put me on the defensive: Did I vet the stories of the women in Finding Our Voices? Was not getting justice in the courts why I started the project?
When Ellen told me she was interviewing my ex-husband, my anxiety level ratcheted up. By participating with her story, as maybe she would not have done it without my cooperation, I had made myself vulnerable to another blasting of abuse broadcast to the entire New York Times readership. What would be said? What of this would be printed? What was going to be the slant of the article?
As the projected publication date kept getting extended, Ellen pinning the delay on meticulous review by the newspaper’s legal team, my stress level approached the level of the months of hell from the arrest to the finalization of my divorce.
Finally, when I was in Naples, the article popped up online. My heart pounded as I took it in, in one very big (it was a loooong article) gulp.
The story was better than I feared. A beautifully-written passage that broke the stereotype of the domestic abuse victim, which is one of the goals of Finding Our Voices. A dignified photo of me by Sarah Rice. With the article taking up an entire page, a hitherto unimaginable boost of exposure for the project.
But the gratuitous quotes by the person convicted of domestic abuse delivered a solid punch upside my head. They were straight from the abuser tactics outlined on the Power and Control wheel: Minimize, deny, humiliate. The story minimized what I had endured. A sub-headline in the on-line version said "I accused" rather than "He was charged and convicted". All of this together gave the article a She Said/He Said slant.
The queries that followed from all kinds of people and places included an interview request from Charlotte Lytton, a reporter with the Daily Telegraph in London. I agreed after reading her article on a college rape case where, astonishingly and refreshingly, she eschewed journalistic neutrality to express disdain for the rapist and empathy for the victim, Chanel Miller.
Charlotte Lytton repeated this stance in her article about me and my project. “She is understandably horrified” she wrote about my reaction to the revisionist history-quote in the New York Times, the word “understandably” being key here, and then proceeded to set the record straight. The article contains no evidence that she interviewed, or attempted to interview, anyone charged and convicted of domestic abuse against me.
Yesterday, a Finding Our Voices friend tagged Ellen Barry and I on Facebook with an article by Neiman Reports headlined: “Domestic Abuse is NOT a crime of passion: Reporters increasingly are covering abuse by intimate partners as an urgent social crisis, not a private family matter.”
The article states, “Journalists are finding ways to elevate reporting on domestic violence, while also advocating for more sensitivity…in how it is covered.”
Chanel Miller in her book, “Know My Name,” points out “society’s failure to have systems in place in which victims feel there’s a probable chance of achieving safety, justice, and restoration rather than being re-traumatized, publicly shamed, psychologically tormented, and verbally mauled.” She is writing about the court process, but could just as well be writing about the American media - outside of wonderful Maine.
How about American journalists, when covering domestic abuse stories and when court records back up a woman’s assertions, resolving to not give the abuser a platform to further abuse the victim, by minimizing, denying and humiliating.
Instead of “He Said" and “She Said/He Said”, like what Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey did in the New York Times through the Weinstein story for sexual abuse, for the sake of encouraging and supporting victims in speaking out, and finally cracking a national emergency of men killing their wives and girlfriends, finally, just this:
I am blissfully strolling the sun-dappled cobblestone streets of an elegant shopping area in Rome. Suddenly, a man with fashionable stubble and clothes rushes the doorway of one of the boutiques, and I see the frightened face of the saleswoman who appears to be in the boutique alone.
It looks like a mugging or a store robbery.
But the way he pushes into her with his puffed-out chest is very familiar to me, and I know he is not a stranger to her.
I take a few steps toward them.
He gives me a threatening glare and snarls something in Italian. She says to me in a trembling voice, “It’s my boyfriend. It’s ok.”
I shout out, “IT'S NOT OK!”
I say, “I was in a relationship like that, and I know what you are going through. He should not be doing that to you.”
After the outrage, I start to tremble. I take out my notebook and approach the first woman I see, who is standing on a corner typing into her cellphone. I tell her what I just saw. She says “That does not happen here a lot, but it is up to the woman to stop it!” As for the woman in question: “Maybe she just likes to be dominated.” I say, “So you don’t have any woman friends who have ever been in an abusive relationship?” “No!” She says firmly.
Why is being terrorized or brutalized OK if it is your boyfriend who's doing it?
How is it less serious, and less of a violation, when the person who is violent toward you is not a stranger, but someone you love and someone who purports to love you?
Why, when it is a "romantic" relationship, do the proverbial doors close to interference when it is obvious something is wrong?
When it comes to domestic violence, when will people -- and most egregiously women -- stop blaming the victim?
And, what I can't stop thinking about: If this man in Rome is such a thug to this young woman in broad daylight when there are people everywhere, what is he doing to her at home, behind closed doors?
She gave me a beautiful, opened-face smile as I walked onto the plane in Portland that was heading to New York, and as I was settling into my seat she slipped into the one next to me, and gave me that smile again. Her skin was a glowing brown/black, set off by a vibrant yellow shirt.
It was the first leg of my trip to Europe.
“Do you live in New York City?” I asked. No, she was visiting a friend in Bangor and on her way home to Canada. She said she is a nurse. “And what do you do?”
I told her I was a photojournalist. Then I reached into my bag and handed her that day’s Portland Press Herald, opened to a large photo of me and feature on my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse project. She read a bit. Smoothed it out on her tray. Looked straight ahead. A few minutes passed. Then she said, “That happened to me.”
She said her family was killed in the 1994 mass slaughter in Rwanda. She grew up with her boyfriend. “I thought he would be good to me because he knew what I had gone through.” After their baby was born he started hitting her. In Rwanda, “That is the culture. The government does not do anything about it. There is no one to go to.” He moved to Canada, sent for her, told her he would change. The first time he hit her there, she called the police.
He didn’t hit her again because now he knew there would be legal consequences. But, “I always walked on eggshells.” He didn't let her work outside of the house. She wanted to become a nurse to have a profession and make her own money, but he told her she would never be able to understand the lessons or pass the tests. After they had a second child, she left him again, and when he cried and begged and promised to change she told him she would come back to him only after she got her nursing degree. “It was very hard,” because she had to work and study and look after her children all at the same time.
When she graduated, she did go back to him. Then the abuse started up again. “I said, ‘Enough is enough!’" and she left for good.
“They don’t change: They hide [their abusive behavior].”
On my New York to Rome flight, I read Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life by the Chicago Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg. In a drunken rage, Neil calls his wife the “C” word, and with an open-handed slap knocks a phone she has picked up to call 911 hard against her face. The police officer driving him to the courthouse “...says he understands troubles with the wife.” On probation for the domestic violence, Neil runs into an executive with the company that owns his newspaper, who tells him: “Everybody has something like this happen. It could have been me, with one of my wives or girlfriends.”
The author passes right over the fact that two men, police officer and boss, are condoning and minimizing his criminal violence toward his wife.
In the 29 years that I was married, I don’t recall someone ever telling me that they were in an abusive relationship. And I don’t recall ever picking up on allusions to domestic abuse (as opposed to when domestic abuse is a central theme) in books, movies, poems, or plays. (Both Hamlet and Petruchio in the two Shakespeare Company productions in Camden this summer were violently abusive to Ophelia and Katherine respectively, but still considered sympathetic characters).
Why is it that now I see and hear it all the time?
Domestic abuse has always been going on all around me, but now my eyes and ears are opened to it. Open yours, and you will see and hear it everywhere too.
My keynote talk for Independence House’s annual community breakfast on Cape Cod Friday was sandwiched by two very powerful events.
Survivor Jeanne Merritt in a knocks-the-socks-off talk made a rallying call for a national registry for domestic violence like they have for sexual abuse: “These guys who act so tough don’t want everyone to know that they beat up women.”
And then, in front of life-size cut-outs of the 10 women, one male, and three children domestic violence homicide victims in Massachusetts this year, each life story was read, and a purple candle lit.
At noon, CJ Kenna and I took the ferry to Nantucket for a weekend retreat to work on Phase Two of Finding Our Voices.
On a (not quite around the island) bike ride this morning I stopped at the Old South Market for a coffee. In the outdoor foyer, next to a bulletin board with business cards of yoga instructors and auto detailers was one of these very cut-outs.
Inside, the cashier had on a yellow T-shirt with the words “Be Kind”.
I complimented her on it. She told me she had the T-shirts in various colors. I assumed she liked it so much because it was an admonishment to her customers. “Oh no," she said. "It’s to remind me that no matter what kind of day I am having, be kind to people.”
When she finished checking me out she said, “Bye sweetheart, have a great day.”
As I got back on my bike I thought, “That’s what this — domestic abuse— is all about."
They are kind, or they are not.