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'Alive, but not free': How society misunderstands domestic violence

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This story was originally published at Prism.

(Content note: This article contains descriptions of domestic violence and abuse.)

Contradictory expectations for women, limited protective mechanisms against domestic violence, a public unwillingness to believe survivors, and an insatiable desire to meet every social problem with a carceral response all converge in the lives of many women who have been abused by their intimate partners.

While every survivor’s story is unique and nuanced, the new film And So I Stayed explores the double bind that constricts some survivors, both while they are experiencing abuse and in the aftermath of protecting themselves against it. In the documentary, filmmakers Natalie Patillo and Daniel A. Nelson tell the stories of three women—Kim Brown, Nikki Addimando, and Tanisha Davis—who survived domestic violence and were criminalized for protecting themselves against their abusers.

And So I Stayed was borne out of Pattillo’s masters project when she was a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she also met her co-director, Daniel A. Nelson. Pattillo had been covering the fight to pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), a 2019 New York state bill that would require judges to deeply consider a defendant’s history of abuse when making sentencing decisions, allowing for reduced or alternative sentencing (such as suspended sentences, community service, or various fines) in cases involving domestic violence. The role of the courts and legislation in shaping perceptions about domestic abuse and how that affects survivors is a pivotal thread woven throughout the film.

In creating the film, Pattillo and Nelson employed a trauma-informed approach, avoiding the tropes that often characterize true crime—a genre that has only been growing in popularity and which has found a particularly loyal audience amongst women. As a genre, true crime can appeal to women because the stories offer a blueprint about how they may protect themselves—learning about the inner mind and thought processes of those who have enacted violence may provide women clues on what to watch out for as they navigate their own lives. The genre plays upon women’s vulnerability and fears while also offering a sense of reassurance: Yes, threats abound, but at least this particular story is not about you. As true crime draws its audience in, however, its dangers become more insidious. The genre sensationalizes violence, caricatures both the victims and the perpetrators, and the very reassurance it offers viewers also gives way to victim blaming.

And So I Stayed disrupts how the genre encourages us to think about crime, harm, violence, and those who survive it. Pattillo and Nelson contextualize the lives and choices of the women in their film by exploring the bonds they share with their parents, children, siblings, and current partners; the complicated nature of the relationships where they suffered abuse; their limited options while they experience domestic violence and after they escape it; and how the court system misunderstands the psychological impact of intimate partner violence. The result is an intimate portrait that goes beyond a moralistic tale that reflects women’s fears and vulnerabilities back at them or offers reassurance that domestic violence can be avoided by “doing the right things.” Rather than providing easy answers, And So I Stayed asks viewers to confront the reality of what it means to survive domestic violence in a society where women face blame for both leaving and staying, and where defending themselves from........

© Daily Kos

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