A new documentary probes domestic violence in America via the gut-wrenching story of one survivor seeking justice.
“Why didn’t she just leave?” Instead of just answering the question often asked of domestic violence victims, Lilly Hartley hopes to eradicate that line of thinking all together. On Monday, HBO will premiere the powerful documentary Private Violence, executive produced by Hartley and feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Debuting during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the film explores the societal and legal nuances that prevent many victims from making the seemingly easy choice of walking away from abuse. The viewers follow an impassioned advocate and recent survivor as they support one another and try to bring an abuser to justice while grappling with our society’s insidious tendency to blame the victim.
Aside from high-profile domestic violence cases recently in the media, Private Violence’s viewpoint is as relevant as ever. Though one in four American women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, few will report it, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Moreover, a third of women murdered every single year in the United States are killed by their intimate partner.
“It’s a terrifying subject to be talking about because it’s so heart-wrenching and children are involved frequently. Family histories are involved,” says Hartley. “And there’s certainly no easy answer for it except that we should certainly talk about it and help get survivors vocal about their experiences and help others.”
Private Violence shadows one such survivor, Kit Gruelle, a North Carolina victim advocate. Gruelle’s multifaceted work—with survivors in women’s shelters, with victims trying to press charges, and with law enforcement officers who must respond not only to the obvious cries for help, but to the subtler signs as well—demonstrates just how complex the fallout from family violence can be. Gruelle knows firsthand what these survivors are going through, and advocates for them fiercely.
“Our criminal justice system requires that [a woman] be beaten enough to satisfy the system,” Gruelle says bluntly in the film. “And by the time it gets to that point, she’s already been so worn down psychologically, physically, and emotionally. That’s when it’s time for advocates to step up and begin to treat her like she has some value. Because she’s been told now systemically that she doesn’t.”
Photos of Deanna Walters after she was rushed to the hospital by police
Poignantly illustrating Gruelle’s assertion is one woman she advocates for, Deanna Walters, whose shy presence lends the film its moral heft. Along with her young daughter, Walters was kidnapped by her ex-husband and dragged across the country in a horrific, violent road trip of sorts. When a police officer finally pulled their tractor-trailer over, Walters was rushed to the hospital but her ex-husband was not charged with a crime and returned to North Carolina a free man. Because the abuse occurred from coast to coast—with Walters near death, unconscious, and unaware of her whereabouts on more than one occasion—prosecutors had a difficult time building a case to be tried on the state level. Private Violence follows Gruelle and Walters’ legal team as they try to elevate the charges to federal status.
“[Walters] sharing her story is really powerful, and she continues to evolve,” says Hartley. “She has made such an amazing journey in her life, and to be open enough, sharing it and telling other people—I think that it is difficult for people to talk about. Part of what’s unique about the film is that it’s such an intimate portrait of one story... You’re emotionally involved in her story but it also deals with the issue on a broad level.”
Deanna Walters testifying against her ex-husband
Though awareness is building, domestic violence is still a pervasive part of American culture. Boys who witness domestic abuse in their childhood home are twice as likely to abuse their partners and children when they become adults. The sexist reflex that Gruelle points out, which accommodates abuse up to a point when it’s deemed bad enough to prosecute, also stigmatizes both women and men reaching out for help before anger turns into violence and arguments turn into beatings. It allows for the burden of action to be placed solely on the victim, and causes people to wonder why women like suspended NFL player Ray Rice’s wife Janay “didn’t just leave” rather than pondering (and addressing) the various machinations that may have kept her beholden to her abuser. Domestic violence is difficult to understand for outsiders, but Private Violence hopes to start a conversation among women and men.
“I think it’s an entire family’s responsibility to discuss the topic,” says Hartley. “We also need to make sure that we’re educating boys about what’s right and how to treat women. Men can get involved in the community and be advocates also. I hope that they can watch the film and think about how to empower women. And how to be good fathers and good husbands.”