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‘Private Violence’ dismantles domestic abuse myths

Courtesy of Cynthia Hill

When her ex-husband would beat her, survivor Deanna Walters says her family used to ask her "Why don't you just leave him?" 

If only the answer were simple. And for long-time advocate for domestic abuse survivors Kit Gruelle, if only no one would ever ask that question. 

"For one thing, it's a victim-blaming question," Gruelle said. "And we don't do it with any other type of crime. When a bank is robbed, even if the bank has been robbed four, five times, when they're done with the investigations, they don't go to the bank president and say 'Why did you keep all that money here, didn't you know somebody was going to show up with a gun and rob this place?'

"And yet for some reason we, as a society, just reflexively blame women when they're physically and sexually assaulted. And what we do when we blame women is we, in essence, let the offender off the hook."

Gruelle and Walters are the two main heroines of the film Private Violence, a harrowing and intimate look at the lived experiences of domestic abuse survivors, and an official selection of the 2014 True/False Film Festival. I had the pleasure and honor to chat with Gruelle about the film. Through Private Violence, Gruelle hopes shed light on the lives of women who are so often failed by the system.

Q: In the film, there was a scene where you talked to a county prosecutor, and she said that this abuser who had almost killed this woman wouldn't get more than 150 days in prison for that.

"We have a system that for some reason diminishes crimes when they're committed against women and children. The problem that I see with that beyond the obvious is that we ultimately pay for it, because when families become acclimated to violence like this, when children grow up thinking violence is normal, they take that experience with them to the streets."

Gruelle said she had the idea to document the experiences of abuse survivors more than a decade ago. Gruelle had difficulty getting funding until she met Cindy Waitt, the executive director of  Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention. Waitt was also executive producer of Bully, a 2012 True/False selection. 

Why did you think it was so difficult to find funding for this kind of project? 

Part of what's difficult is for one thing, people think that a film about domestic violence would just be grim and depressing. That was another thing that I wanted to do with this project: To call attention to the fact that we get to watch women become survivors and these women, in my estimation, are heroes, because they deal with abusive partners, they deal with systems that often times are abusive and oppressive. So when they make it all the way through... It's just so amazing after all these years of doing this work, I'll see and talk with the women that I worked with a long time ago, and now they;re doing well, they're teachers, nurses, or, whatever... And they have managed to leave the violence behind, raise their kids in violence-free homes. There's nothing more profound than helping women secure a safe environment.

Private Violence was directed by Cynthia Hill. The film's stars will be this year's recipient of the True Life Fund, an award dedicated for subjects who bravely share their stories for documentary films. 

Harum Helmy started as KBIA's Health and Wealth reporter in January 2013. She has previously worked at the station as a news assistant, helping assign and edit stories by student reporters. Harum grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia and graduated from MU with degrees in journalism and anthropology in 2011. She's trying to finish up an MA in journalism.
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