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UC grad pulls back curtain on “Private Violence”

HBO documentary aims to expose domestic abuse, while associate producer, a JD/A&S alumna, engages audiences

by Deborah Rieselman

After nine years of enduring violently physical abuse, Deanna had finally separated from her husband, Robbie, and took their precious 2-year-old daughter with her. But in 2008, during one of her favorite holidays, Halloween, she began to consider how much Martina would enjoy having her daddy trick-or-treat with them. It should be safe to walk together through neighborhood streets crowded with children and their parents, she thought.

The word “kidnapping” never entered her mind. But it did enter her life.

Deanna endured a horrifying cross-country trip in the cab of an 18-wheeler, where her estranged husband nearly killed her while his cousin drove. For four and a half days, Robbie hit her with his fist, bit into her flesh, beat her with a Maglite flashlight (particularly her knees, presumably so she couldn’t run), strangled her so hard that blood vessels burst in her eyes and held her ears while he frequently urinated in her face. All of this done in front of Martina’s pathetic eyes.

Yet getting the abuser prosecuted wasn’t going to be easy because this was a case of “Private Violence” — also the name of the HBO documentary that is airing through November 2014 and via HBO on Demand plus HBO Go. “This means ‘private violence’ is going public now,” says executive producer Gloria Steinem. “This film will literally save lives.”

Helping make sure that happens is the film's associate producer Un Kyong Ho, MA/JD ‘10, who graduated from the country's first interdisciplinary, feminist study of law and social justice, UC’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her role in the film is getting people engaged. The “Private Violence” website features a web-based educational outreach toolkit, lists ways for people to get involved and maps “matchups” across the country so people can find others with which to watch the film.

On Oct. 3, the alumna was on campus with director and producer Cynthia Hill, who had made three previous documentaries, and Kit Gruelle, a domestic-abuse survivor who now works as an advocate and served as an advisor on the film. The three took part in the first “Private Violence Summit,” jointly conducted by the College of Law and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

During the day, nearly 60 specialists, educators and concerned activists previewed the film, then brainstormed ideas for putting their emotions into action. That evening, a public screening took place at a packed theater in the Cincinnati’s National Freedom Center. After the film, the audience got to discuss questions with the same group.

The movie attempts to answer one of the biggest questions of all: “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”

Why doesn’t she just leave?

The was the first question the local prosecutor asked Deanna when she returned home to North Carolina from the cross-country torture trip. The answer is far more complicated than those in the audience had expected.

Deanne may never have made it home, if Oklahoma police had not pulled over the tractor trailer. Folks back home, who had received mysterious phone calls from Deanna, called the trucking company to say that unauthorized riders were in the cab.

When police officer Robert McCain arrived, Deanna stumbled out of the truck, looking as if “she had been in the worst car accident possible,” Gruelle said. “Her face was smashed in. Her body was bruised from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Her knees were grotesquely swollen where he had beaten her. He almost killed her.”

She was taken to the local hospital. But her husband simply walked away from the scene. That separation did allow authorities to learn the real story.

“In the 15 years that I’ve been in law enforcement, I’ve never seen anybody as beat up as that girl was, even if they had been thrown out of a vehicle,” officer McCain in the film. “If I hadn’t stopped the vehicle, they never would have made it home.”

Despite the extent of her injuries, no one in Oklahoma made any moved to arrest Robbie. McCain explained, “I had no proof where this had happened or that he had done it.”

Even Deanna had been oblivious to where they were at any particular time. So which state had jurisdiction?

Thus the complications of getting a domestic-abuse conviction began to surface in the film.

“Once Robbie got back home to North Carolina, he was interviewed by law enforcement and admitted to beating her so badly that he almost broke his fingers,” Gruelle said. “The local prosecutor called this a misdemeanor assault.

“The local prosecutor declined to prosecute because he said she should have tried to get away from him. If he was convicted of only misdemeanor assault on a female, the most he could receive is 150 days in jail.”

That situation highlights why abused women are quite hesitant to press charges.

The justice system seems to give them little confidence. If Robbie had been released in five months time, for example, he might have fulfilled his frequent promises “to kill her,” Deanna said on screen with tears in her eyes. Or if he hadn’t been convicted at all, whom would he have looked for first?

“Just leaving” isn’t easy

“It’s not always easy to just leave,” reads a headline on the movie poster.

“Our criminal justice system requires that she be beaten enough to satisfy the system,” Gruelle said, based upon her many years of experience working with victimized women. “And by the time it gets to that point, she’s already been so worn down — psychologically, physically and emotionally. The courts have told her she doesn’t have value, and her partner has told her she doesn’t have value.

“When family and friends start asking, ‘Why don’t you just leave him? Why are you staying with him?’ it’s really time for advocates to step up."

“It’s clear, after watching this film," said filmmaker Cynthia Hill, "that you cannot ask that question and expect to get any results that are meaningful. All that question does is blame the victim for the whole situation without putting any responsibility on the perpetrator. As society, we need to understand that we do play a role in this.”

Fortunately, the federal judicial system picked up the case, and Deanna was willing to take the stand. By prosecuting Robbie under the federal Violence Against Women Act, the court came down with a 21-year-plus sentence, instead of the state’s 150 days for a misdemeanor.

The film officially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when it won the Candescent Award for a socially conscious documentary. Although the film largely follows Deanna’s case, it also highlights several other important cases.

Un Kyong Ho was thrilled that her hometown and alma mater hosted the first “summit” and said that more were planned around the country.

“Every minute in the U.S., 24 people fall victim to rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner,” she pointed out. “Each day, four of those female victims will die from the abuse.”

“I think what we really want audiences to walk away with,” Hill added, “is to not ask that question anymore of "Why doesn’t she just leave?"



View trailer below.