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.