This post is cross-posted from the Private Violence team email. It’s authored by our longtime advisor, Kit Gruelle.
In January 2014, Private Violence premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Many people who watched the film were stunned and appalled by what they saw on the screen: Deanna Walters, rescued after her estranged husband kidnapped and terrorized her from one end of the country to the other, lying like a corpse in her hospital bed, every inch of her bruised and battered. Viewers were equally appalled by how little regard North Carolina’s criminal justice system had for prosecuting Deanna’s near-death assault. Deanna, it turns out, was lucky: her abuser was ultimately brought to justice in federal court and sentenced to 21 years in prison.
For the last three years, I have traveled throughout the country with the film, including spending a great deal of time in the South, both in small towns and big cities. After the credits roll and the lights come up, a Q&A session usually follows. The general feeling in the room is one of outrage. Again and again, people ask, “How can this be happening now in the United States? Aren’t we more evolved than this?” Sadly, the answer to that question is a definitive no. No, we are not more evolved than this. This sort of violence is a too-oft occurrence in homes all across this country.
At screenings, after the Q&A session ends, a line forms. People want to share their personal experiences. Many approach with tears in their eyes. Even more talk about how afraid they are to “say it out loud.” Too many are afraid to call the police. Some have lost loved ones to what we still call “domestic violence,” but what should be called “intimate or misogynistic terrorism.”
The stories are cut from the same cloth. I hear the same narratives, on repeat. Over and over, women say, “He seemed like such a nice guy when we first got together! The nicest guy I ever met!” They wonder what they missed, and often, they blame themselves for the abuse. They take their cue from larger society, and also, our criminal justice system. With deep, lasting, devastating consequences.
It is our addiction to victim-blaming that allows the abuser to carry on, almost completely unchecked, until there’s one or more dead bodies on the ground, and way too many children left to live with the legacy of family-based terrorism that alters their world view forever. I tell people that the abuser commits the act, but the system drives the getaway car for him. And we all pay for it in spades.
What will it take for this country that gives so much lip service to caring about women and children to actually start caring about them? When will we connect the dots between the abuse and violence that is used to control, coerce, and intimidate family members and the criminal conduct we read and hear about in our communities?
I wish I could say that the issues presented in Private Violence have been addressed and rectified, but they have not. Not by a long shot. The (reported) numbers remain the same: One in three women in the U.S. will experience intimate partner terrorism at the hands of their husband or boyfriend. Many abused women who attempt to leave their abusers will be hunted down and murdered in cold blood. Domestic violence murder/suicides are on the rise. Firearms are the weapon of choice. Over 50% of mass shootings have some connection to domestic violence. These are the hard truths, no matter how hard we try to turn away. It is now 2017, and a new administration is in place. And despite these dismal numbers, there is talk about doing away with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a bipartisan law that was passed in 1994. It seems that it’s now open season on women and children in the United States.
In the three years since our Sundance premiere, Deanna has graduated from college and is ready to move on to the next phase of her life. But most importantly, she is safe. Living a life free of violence. But thousands upon thousands of Deannas wake up every day in the most dangerous place in the world for them: their very own homes. How is that acceptable in a so-called “free society?” It isn’t, and sadly, Private Violence remains as relevant today as it did at our premiere, and as relevant as it was 10 years ago when we started this project. If VAWA is done away with, it will send an even louder signal to abused and terrorized women and children that what’s happening to them is just fine with the government. In my mind, I can see the lines of women I’ve spoken with around the country, and I think about how nice it would be to say to them “your elected officials care about this and want to make sure you are safe at home.” At this juncture, in too many cases, that would be a lie.
Until we prioritize this crime and deal with it like we should, we will continue to simply play catch-up. Feminist icon and our Executive Producer Gloria Steinem suggested that, rather than lining up ambulances at the bottom of the waterfall, it might be a good idea to build a partition at the top to stop families from cascading over the edge. That would be the more humane and proper approach. Lives and money will be saved (the economic costs to domestic violence are staggering), and we’ll all be able to sleep safer at night. Until then, the work continues. We work until we #EndPrivateViolence.