Deanna Walters was beaten so badly that her abuser — her then-husband of nearly nine years — almost broke his fingers. Her face was bruised and broken beyond recognition, and she was held hostage for several days while he drove her across the country and routinely tortured her throughout the trip. Her young daughter was there watching every moment of the abuse as it happened. Attorneys told her that under North Carolina law, all that her husband would most likely be charged with was a misdemeanor for his crimes.
One in four American women experience domestic violence in their homes, and the issue isn't a cut-and-dried one — it's extremely complicated. Survivors and advocates are trying to change the conversation about abuse, starting with the first question people inevitably ask about these cases: "Why did she stay?"
Private Violence, an HBO documentary that follows the stories of several domestic violence survivors, is challenging the stigmas and stereotypes that surround the topic of domestic violence and, through intimate and often disturbing storytelling, details the intricacies of an issue that most people don't fully understand.
The documentary focuses mainly on the story of Deanna Walters, a North Carolina woman who left her abuser, and a victim's advocate and fellow survivor Kit Gruelle, who worked with her through the process. "We wanted to connect the dots between what she's experiencing behind closed doors — what that means for her and for her child — and then ultimately what it means for our community," said Gruelle about the film.
Kit Gruelle herself was a victim of domestic violence for years, and after her husband died, she began working with battered women. "Domestic violence is never, ever just about physical violence, and if we can start to illuminate all of the tactics that he uses, everything from the 'oh babys' and the red roses and the perfect date and the perfect little black dress to the fists, and the hands around the throat, and the gun, then we'll start to have a clear sense of just how complex the tactics are that he has at his disposal to maintain control over her," she told us.
The heart of the film is the parallel between Walters's and Gruelle's stories; the two survivors are a generation apart. Many scenes in Private Violence are hard to watch — from photos of Deanna's brutal injuries to hearing graphic recordings of a respected doctor physically and verbally abusing his family, then witnessing the infuriating (lack of) response from judges when presented with the case.
Cynthia Hill, the film's director, spoke about the cycle of violence victims typically experience and why she felt that this documentary was an important — even essential — movie to make. "I really wanted to be able to get this out there and in a meaningful way so that we can talk about it differently, understand it, and then we can take action to make it so that women and children are safe. . . . The thing that really blew me away was when I finally understood that the most dangerous thing a woman can do is leave. We look at this issue as something that is so black and white, and we put all of it on her, even when it comes to her leaving — she's the one who has to flee, she's the one who has to find shelter — instead of ever really thinking about 'hey, let's put some of this on him, he needs to leave, he needs to seek help' and we need to help him do that. I feel like we, as a society, have allowed this issue to stay behind closed doors in private because we don't want to deal with it."
Deanna's account of abuse, combined with Gruelle's personal and professional experience with the issue, helps the viewer navigate through the difficult legal, societal, and psychological aspects of domestic violence cases. Through Hill's careful and revealing storytelling, those who watch the documentary will find it difficult to swallow but impossible to ignore.
"This is sadly the crime that keeps on giving," Gruelle said. "I just think as a country that likes to lay claim to the notion of freedom, that when you have at least one out of every four women that go home at the end of the day, close the door, and their home is the most dangerous place in the world for them to be, that says something pretty grim about our society, and think we need to change it."
Deanna, whose harrowing story drives the narrative of the film, said that she wanted to be a part of the documentary so that victims like herself could know that they are not alone — that there are others out there who can help them. "I hope that people understand not to ask why, because that's where the victim-blaming comes in, and I hope that victims can understand that they are not alone and there's places that they can go to, people that they can talk to," she said.
Behind the difficult realities of domestic violence also lies a fervent hope — for survivors and for society. With high-profile cases like Ray Rice's and the subsequent responses from survivors on social media sparking conversation nationwide, advocates of the movement hope to use this momentum to bring about real change. "We've got to keep this out in front so that we can make those changes. The timing is crucial," said Hill.
HBO will air Private Violence on Monday, Oct. 20, at 9 p.m. Watch the trailer below.