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: