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Private Violence: Survivors & Advocates Confront Victim Blaming & the Epidemic of Domestic Abuse

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Just days after a Utah police officer shot dead his wife, two kids and his mother-in-law before killing himself, a new HBO documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival examines the shocking nationwide epidemic of intimate partner violence, focusing on the struggles of survivors of abuse and the advocates who support them. Set in North Carolina, “Private Violence” follows Kit Gruelle, herself a domestic violence survivor, as she helps other victims seek healing, justice and social change. Gruelle joins us along with the film’s director, Cynthia Hill. “We’re so desensitized to violence in the United States that oftentimes women have to be beaten badly enough before our criminal justice system responds,” Gruelle says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. We are in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival following the documentary track, dealing with the critical issues of the day.

BRIAN CARLSON, ABC 4 Utah: It’s believed a Lindon police officer shot and killed his entire family. Today five people were found dead in his Spanish Fork home, including the officer and his two children, just five and seven years old.

BOB EVANS, FOX 13: Authorities say Lindon police officer Joshua Boren shot and killed his mother-in-law, wife and two young children before turning the gun on himself.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s actually not a clip from a documentary; it happened last week here in Utah as the Sundance Film Festival got underway.

Back home in New York City, a 21-year-old woman and her two daughters, ages two and one, were found stabbed to death over the weekend. The victim’s husband has been arrested in Texas. Police had reportedly investigated two incidents of domestic violence at their home this year.

The list of such tragedies is long, but they are often not named for what they are: part of an epidemic of intimate partner violence. In fact, there’s a documentary here at Sundance that deals with that very issue. It’s called Private Violence, and it highlights the struggles of survivors and the advocates who support them. Set in North Carolina and directed by Cynthia Hill, the film follows advocate Kit Gruelle, who is herself a domestic violence survivor. This is a trailer. A warning that this is footage that’s disturbing.

KIT GRUELLE: I do this work because I survived a really violent relationship, and it took me getting into this work and understanding it to really see that it’s just so widespread.

DEANNA WALTERS: This last time, he almost killed me in front of my daughter.

KIT GRUELLE: But what happened to you shouldn’t happen to anybody ever.

DEANNA WALTERS: I know. That’s why I’m here.

KIT GRUELLE: What do your parents have to say about it?

DEANNA WALTERS: “Why didn’t you just leave?”

KIT GRUELLE: Did he ever threaten to kill you?

DEANNA WALTERS: Yeah, lots of times.

UNIDENTIFIED: She is still living, correct?

KIT GRUELLE: She’s still alive. The local prosecutor, he declined to prosecute because, he says, she should have tried to get away from him.

If he was convicted only of misdemeanor assault on a female, what would he be looking at as far as time?

PROSECUTOR: The most he could receive is 150 days in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED: The daughter and Deanna were back in the cab part of the truck. He just started beating on her.

DEANNA WALTERS: Martina asked him over and over, “Why are you doing it? Why are you hurting my mama?”

UNIDENTIFIED: Once he got back to North Carolina, he was interviewed by law enforcement and admitted to beating her so badly that he almost broke his fingers.

ADVOCATE: As an advocate, there were so many injustices that I felt like happened with her. Martina was removed from Deanna. That really angered me.

KIT GRUELLE: What was it like when they came and took Martina?

DEANNA WALTERS: It destroyed me. She still asks me why I gave her away.

KIT GRUELLE: So she remembers it.


KIT GRUELLE: Our criminal justice system requires she be beaten enough to satisfy the system. And by the time it gets to that point, she’s already been so worn down psychologically and physically and emotionally. You know, the courts have told her that she doesn’t have value, and her partner has told her that she doesn’t have value. Perhaps family and friends have done that through their actions with her. “Why don’t you just leave him? Why are you staying with him?” That’s when it’s really time for advocates to really step up.

Luckily, the feds picked up the case, and it’s going to be prosecuted under the federal Violence Against Women Act. If he doesn’t go to prison, he will turn around immediately and start to hurt women again.

UNIDENTIFIED: If we weren’t going to do anything, then maybe nothing was going to be done. And something had to be done.

DEANNA WALTERS: I’m not going to let him get away with what he’d done to me, my daughters. Nobody should get away with this. Nobody.

KIT GRUELLE: I’m always so astonished and moved at the people who want to come into this movement and do this work, because it’s not easy work. It can be heartbreaking and frustrating. But it can also be unbelievably uplifting. You witness victims shedding that skin and just leaving the violence behind.

AMY GOODMAN: The HBO documentary film, Private Violence, is currently at the Sundance Film Festival. I sat down Tuesday with the film’s director, Cynthia Lynch, and advocate Kit Gruelle. I started by asking Kit to talk about her own story.

KIT GRUELLE: I survived a very violent marriage that ended with the death of my husband 34 years ago. And he was killed in an accident offshore in Louisiana, and it just was—the whole experience was so astonishing, and it took a long time for me to start to pull myself together. But then I took my boys and moved down from the mountains to the Chapel Hill area, and I saw an ad for a training opportunity for crisis line volunteers for the domestic violence program. And I went to the training, and I felt like I had just been—that I had found my emotional home, my spiritual home, my intellectual home. And it just fit with my personality type, because I feel very strongly—I’m a human rights activist, but, to me, this is so essential because if you can’t be safe in your own home, then where can you be safe? And then, because of my own experience, I just recognized that it wasn’t just the abuser that the victim had to deal with, it was also these oppressive systems who would marginalize her and judge her and stigmatize her and make her feel like she was doing something wrong. And so, I wanted to challenge that, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us your story, when you talk about being a victim of domestic violence? I think what happens is, people just say that phrase, and then other women who go through it think, “Well, I”—if it’s not described, they think, “That—I can’t be going through what they call domestic violence.”

KIT GRUELLE: Well, I’m glad you asked that question, because a lot of people believe that domestic violence only happens to poor, uneducated women. In my case, my late husband had been—he had gone into Vietnam, gone to the Vietnam War as a marine, and so he was trained by the Marines to be aggressive, to hunt people down and kill them. And he told me repeatedly that if I ever tried to leave, that there wasn’t a place on the planet that I could go to get away from him.

And so, the reality for battered women is they just learn to live with the violence, because, unfortunately, for a great number of women, when they do make that bold move, what I often refer to as a declaration of independence, and say, “I can’t live like this anymore. The children can’t live like this anymore. We’ve got to go,” then the abusers oftentimes hunt them down and kill them. And so, for us, as advocates, we see women have to make the choice of staying and living with the violence or leaving and running the risk of being killed. And we just believe that there should be a lot more options, and that’s what advocates work towards.

The other thing is that we’re so desensitized to violence in the United States that oftentimes women have to be beaten badly enough before our criminal justice system responds, like, for example, in North Carolina we have a charge called misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon. So a North Carolina man can shoot or stab his wife or girlfriend, and unless it involves a serious injury or a life-threatening injury, it’s going to be charged at the misdemeanor level. And so, essentially what that is is that’s just the criminal justice system giving him a green light to just carry on.

AMY GOODMAN: In your case, how did you cope with your children coping with the violence? And what did your husband do to you?

KIT GRUELLE: He—the thing that he liked to do most was strangle me. I think he liked knowing that he had my life in his hands. And he—you know, he put his hands around my neck and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. And, you know, I’m not going to use the language that he would use, but he’d say, “I could break your blanking neck if I wanted to.”

And then there were the things that I refer to as the minutia. He was trying to gain muscle weight. He was a bodybuilder, and he wanted a lot of calories that were protein calories. And so, he wanted—every night he’d have a bowl of ice cream, and on the ice cream he wanted peanuts because, he said, the peanuts were so high in protein. But when I went to the grocery store—and he didn’t want the—he didn’t want salt on the peanuts because, he said, the salt would cause him to retain fluid. But when I went to the grocery store, I had to buy salted peanuts, bring them home, rinse them off in the colander, pat them dry, put them on the ice cream. And then, if he came across salt on his peanuts on the ice cream, then he’d come after me because, he said, I didn’t do a good enough job washing the peanuts. And so, one of the things that’s so important is that I couldn’t call law enforcement and say, “I’m terrorized by husband because I don’t do a good enough job washing the peanuts.” They’d laugh at that.

But the reality of it is, is the anger is only a tactic. What it’s about is control. What it’s about is seeing the woman, the wife or girlfriend, as personal property to do with as the abuser pleases. That was certainly the case with my husband, as he just treated me like I was his private property to do with as he pleased.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did the kids deal with it?

KIT GRUELLE: Well, Jason, our son, was only 14 months old when his dad died, so he didn’t—he didn’t see anything. And Matt, my older son, I don’t think he remembers much, because he was only four when Jack died. But it’s been—it’s been interesting for me as a single mom raising boys, wanting very much for them to grow up knowing how to relate to women in respectful and nonviolent ways. And there were challenges along the way, because there’s a lot of external, you know, misogynistic reinforcers. But I had them at Friends School for a while, and they’ve grown up to be two pretty great guys.

AMY GOODMAN: Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence survivor, who’s been an advocate for other survivors for 30 years. Her story is featured in the new documentary, Private Violence, which premiered here at Sundance this week. We’ll return to our conversation with Kit, as well as the film’s director, Cynthia Hill, after break.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival, where a new film just premiered called Private Violence. It airs on HBO later this year. I sat down Tuesday with the film’s director, Cynthia Hill, and its main subject, domestic violence survivor, advocate, Kit Gruelle. We’ll return to that interview in a moment, but first, this is a clip from the film where Kit seeks advice from a prosecutor about the case of a woman named Deanna Walters.

PROSECUTOR: Yes, ma’am. What’s up?

KIT GRUELLE: So, I want to talk with you a little bit about this case up in Ashe County involving a woman who was kidnapped, pretty severe beating.

PROSECUTOR: And when you say kidnapped, do you mean—

KIT GRUELLE: Kidnapped.

PROSECUTOR: OK, held against her will.

KIT GRUELLE: Held against her will, she and her daughter.

PROSECUTOR: Transported.

KIT GRUELLE: She and her daughter taken out of the—out of the state, driven all the way to California and halfway back, and the truck was stopped in Oklahoma. This was an 18-wheeler.


KIT GRUELLE: And he beat her for four-and-a-half days.

PROSECUTOR: What kind of injuries did she have? Holy crap!

KIT GRUELLE: So, this is the injuries.

PROSECUTOR: What did he use?

KIT GRUELLE: His fist, a Maglite flashlight. He bit her.

PROSECUTOR: Any internal injuries? Or is it all—is it all tissue injury, soft tissue injury?

KIT GRUELLE: Well, he also strangled her.

PROSECUTOR: OK. Do we have any medical doctor who’s going to say these are serious injuries? Because, you know, in state court, that’s the tough part, is when we’re talking about soft tissue injuries, when you don’t have damage to the spleen, internal injuries, or cuts that require stitches. Concussions can be serious injury.

KIT GRUELLE: The local prosecutor called this a misdemeanor assault.



PROSECUTOR: OK, no. I would push felony charges probably for kidnapping. If it’s a Maglite, a Maglite’s a deadly weapon—assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. It’s all about getting a medical doctor to say on the stand, “Yes, this is serious injury.” Is it serious bodily injury? Sure. Is it protracted pain and suffering that she has suffered? Yeah, I think so. But even if we succeed on all levels, what I’m telling you, Kit, is that you may not be satisfied with the amount of time that they’re going to get at the state level.

KIT GRUELLE: If he was convicted only of misdemeanor assault on a female, even with doing this—


KIT GRUELLE: —what would he be looking at as far as time?

PROSECUTOR: The most he could receive is 150 days in jail.

KIT GRUELLE: A hundred and fifty days in jail for this.

PROSECUTOR: That’s it. So, that’s what I’m saying. You have a clear case where he’s transporting a woman across state lines for the purpose of terrorizing and assaulting her. That is a federal case all over. And so, what we need to do, or what you need to do, since it’s not, you know, in my county, is really push and talk to the federal prosecutor in that area, in that district, which would be the Western District, and say this is the case, and get them interested in it. I think they will be.


PROSECUTOR: I think they will be.


AMY GOODMAN: So that’s a clip from the film Private Violence, astounding conversation you have with the prosecutor. Can you tell us who Deanna Walters is, who her abuser was, what happened?

KIT GRUELLE: Deanna Walters is a woman from the mountains of North Carolina, from West Jefferson. She was attempting to separate from her husband, and he wound up kidnapping her and their daughter, and putting them in an 18-wheeler. He had his cousin drive. And as they left North Carolina and drove all the way out to California and halfway back to Oklahoma, Robbie beat Deanna and strangled Deanna and kicked Deanna and urinated in her face and beat her with a Maglite flashlight and almost killed her. And she survived. When the truck was stopped in Oklahoma, she was taken to the local hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was stopped because—explain how the police were alerted.

KIT GRUELLE: It was only stopped because Deanna—Robbie put Deanna on the phone with people that he was paranoid that she was having affairs with, which was baloney. She wasn’t—you know, she wasn’t doing that at all. And because of her robotic sort of approach to having these conversations, they became concerned that something was happening. They called the trucking company. The trucking company realized that he had unauthorized riders in the cab, and the truck was pulled over in Oklahoma.

And Deanna got out of the cab looking like this—just like she had been in the worst car accident possible. I mean, her face was smashed in. She had petechial hemorrhage in her eyes, which is the first symptom of acute strangulation assaults. Her body was bruised from, you know, the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Her knees were grotesquely swollen where he had beaten her with a Maglite flashlight, I think, so that she couldn’t run. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Her daughter watched this?

KIT GRUELLE: Her daughter witnessed everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Her daughter was how old?

KIT GRUELLE: Deanna was three or four at the time.


KIT GRUELLE: And she witnessed everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Her daughter.

KIT GRUELLE: Yeah, Martina. And Martina was just screaming and screaming over and over again, “Why are you doing this to my mom? Why are you doing this to my mom?” And Robbie would say things to Martina like, “I’m doing this because your mother doesn’t love us, so it’s OK for me to do this.” And Deanna had had a seizure disorder that had been in check, but after the blows to the head, her seizure disorder has now started back up again, so she’s on medication for that.

And yet, when she got back to North Carolina, the local prosecutor, his first question to her was: “Why didn’t you try to run?” And, you know, there are a thousand reasons why she didn’t try to run. Robbie said that if she tried to run, he’d kill Martina. She didn’t know where she was. She was hideously beaten. She was being threatened with her life. She was afraid that if she ran or tried to run, he’d kill her, and she didn’t know what would happen to Martina. So, this is why we have to stop asking women, “Why don’t you just leave?”

AMY GOODMAN: And there was another problem: The question of where she was beaten would determine whether he was charged and where he would be charged—


AMY GOODMAN: —given that he was crossing state lines.

KIT GRUELLE: Right, right. Well, he kidnapped her in North Carolina, but the local prosecutor seemed unimpressed with her injuries. In fact, when Robbie did come back from Oklahoma, he told the local law enforcement officers that he beat her so bad that he thought he broke his fingers. And yet they still only charged him with misdemeanor assault on a female.

AMY GOODMAN: They left him on the roadside, the police—

KIT GRUELLE: Mm-hmm, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —because he had her say that she was—he was saving her from a beating by someone else, and that’s why she was in the truck.

KIT GRUELLE: And he also told her not to say that he’d done this. So, as long as Robbie was within earshot, of course she was going to say what she’d been instructed to say. But the minute she was able to say, “No, he did this to me,” by then he was gone—

CYNTHIA HILL: Yeah, [inaudible].

KIT GRUELLE: —hitchhiking back to North Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Cynthia Hill, as you followed this story as a filmmaker, as it unfolds, and you were doing it as it unfolds—

CYNTHIA HILL: Yes, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: So you didn’t know the final outcome.

CYNTHIA HILL: No. When we first met Deanna, it was just a few months after the incident had actually happened, and she was so distraught thinking that nothing was going to come of this and that he was not going to be held accountable for anything. And she just was—I don’t know. She just—and you can see this in the film. She just is—she seems hopeless, like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I’m just going to have to live with this.”

But what’s amazing about having this story and this trajectory and watching this process of seeking justice and the feds finally picking up the case and him actually going to prison for almost 21 years, and seeing Deanna transform from victim to survivor is pretty spectacular. You know, I don’t think—I mean, it’s one thing that I have never seen in a film, or a documentary film, actually being able to see physically her transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: The horrific injuries she suffered, the police that found her said they hadn’t seen injuries like that even in car accidents, when they dragged people out, from head to toe.

CYNTHIA HILL: Yeah, there’s this one image of her laying on the hospital bed, and she looks like a corpse. It looks like she’s dead. She just is so bruised. And you just cannot imagine somebody actually experiencing all of this, in the way she looks, and still be alive.

AMY GOODMAN: But unlike in many cases, he is convicted. He is sentenced. Talk about that sentence.

KIT GRUELLE: Yeah, and he got—we were thrilled at the sentence that he got, because it shows the difference between the federal prosecution, where he got a 21-year-plus sentence, and in North Carolina the most he would have gotten is 150 days. So, it just shows the stark contrast.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was 150 days he would have gotten because? That’s 150 days, is 30 times four—30 times five is five months.

KIT GRUELLE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, for beating her like he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Almost to death. This is attempted murder.

KIT GRUELLE: Mm-hmm, it should have been charged as attempted murder, right. But because of the kind of inherent patriarchy in our criminal justice system and because there are many laws that still regard women as less than or as the property of their husbands, because that’s the reality of how it plays out—I mean, we do have good laws on the books in some states, but how do those laws get translated? And what does it mean for someone like Deanna to be beaten that badly by her husband and then to have the person who’s in charge of holding him accountable for what he did look at her and say, “Why didn’t you run?” It’s just a completely upside-down and backwards way to approach this very private violence, that ultimately plays itself out in public ways, because when kids grow up exposed to domestic violence, they tend to not do well in school. Oftentimes they wind up running away. Girls get pregnant early. Boys become violent themselves. They join gangs. So, I refer to domestic violence as kind of the Petri dish for all of the other social issues that we ultimately pay for.

AMY GOODMAN: Having worked in a domestic violence shelter, battered women’s shelter myself, I know another issue is dealing with the police, and that’s dealt with very well in this film. You actually train police in how not to abet the abuser. What is the accepted wisdom now on what to do when a cop is called into a domestic violence situation, which is probably the most violent situation overall? Domestic violence cases are the most violent and threatening for police officers of any situation, which most people might not know.

KIT GRUELLE: Well, one of the things that has happened, thanks to the Violence Against Women Act, is that there has been a lot of law enforcement training. And part of what they look at now is who’s the dominant aggressor. And so, they’ve been trained in looking at offensive versus defensive injuries. They do a much, much more comprehensive and thorough job gathering evidence, talking to other people, talking to neighbors. And as a result, I think that a majority of law enforcement officers around the country now see domestic violence as an actual crime, and they treat it like a crime.

But unfortunately, in many pockets around the country, it’s still not considered criminal conduct. And so, for me, as someone who works very closely with law enforcement in North Carolina and also in California, I just hope that in the next months, years, decades, that we can really start to focus on this crime and deal more appropriately early on with the offender rather than blaming her for what he’s done.

AMY GOODMAN: In California, you train hostage negotiators because of your experience with women as hostages in domestic violence situations?

KIT GRUELLE: Well, part of what we’re trying to get the negotiators to understand is that battered women are what we refer to as benign hostages. And what we mean by that is that they—you know, they wake up every morning, and their abuser gives them a set of rules and regulations that they have to live by. And if they don’t abide by those terms and conditions strictly, then there are consequences—you know, physical violence, sexual violence, coercion, intimidation.

And 80 percent of the hostage-taking incidents every year in this country are domestic-violence-related. Most people think it’s about banks, but it’s not. It’s almost always where, you know, the woman has done what everyone has told her to do. She’s left. She’s got an order of protection. She’s drawn a line in the sand. And yet, he says to her and to the court system and everyone else, “You’re not—no, you’re not walking away from me.” And he goes over and barricades in, and then the hostage negotiators are called out.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, aren’t many mass shootings—


AMY GOODMAN: —when you actually read the article or listen carefully to the story, have to do with a man going after a woman in some situation, or her family or friends or the children?

KIT GRUELLE: In fact, it just happened here in Utah last week. Right as we got here, there was a police officer who shot and killed his wife, his two children, his mother-in-law and then himself. And what I’ve heard from the domestic violence community around here, she had separated from him, and then they reconciled at the holidays. But it sounds like she probably had decided that it wasn’t going to work and was about to leave. And for many battered women, that’s the most dangerous time for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Cynthia, what are you hoping to do with this film? It is not an easy film. And so, it probably had something to do with you making your decision about whether—I mean, on the one hand, it’s such an important subject, but how are you going to get support for it, get audiences for it?

CYNTHIA HILL: Mm-hmm. Well, just to step back, I think the—what we really want to happen with the film, or what we want audiences to walk away with, is to not ask that question anymore of “Why doesn’t she just leave?” because it’s clear, after watching this film, that you cannot ask that question and expect to get any results that are meaningful. I mean, all it does is just blame the victim for the whole situation without putting any sort of responsibility on the perpetrator at all. And then, also, as society, you know, we need to understand that we do play a role in this.

AMY GOODMAN: You have an astounding moment in the film where a woman has killed her abuser, and the comment that these women, who are so violated, actually feel safer in prison than they do so-called free.

KIT GRUELLE: Every woman that I’ve ever worked with who has killed her abuser, when she goes into the prison system, she says, “I’ve never felt this safe.” And it just—it just blows my mind that this is—you know, this is the United States of America. And for battered women who turn to the criminal justice system, like Deanna did, only to be told, “Your injuries don’t satisfy me as being serious enough to do anything with it,” and then it continues to happen, or she decides, “I’m not going to call 911, because what’s the point?” And then she has to take matters into her own hands, and then she goes to prison and says, “Well, this is the safest I’ve ever felt.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kit, you’ve done this work for decades now. What gives you hope? Do you see improvement in how domestic violence is dealt with?

KIT GRUELLE: Well, I mean, it’s a privilege to be a part of this opportunity to train law enforcement officers in North Carolina and in California. I have to say California is very forward-thinking about this crime, so that gives me hope. We still have a long ways to go, and it’s not exclusive to the criminal justice community. I think that everyone has to understand that when they look away from a battered woman, they’re—all they’re doing is reinforcing the isolation. So, if what anyone and everyone can do when they see or hear something that gives them an indication that a woman is being abused, that rather than looking away, if they can learn a few basic things, helping her understand that this is not her fault, that there is help for her, that she’s not alone, that we understand that leaving an abuser is not an event, it’s a process, but there are people in the community who can help you do this, is so important to helping her understand that she does in fact have people she can turn to. But then, the other side of it is we have to say to abusers, “You can’t do this anymore.”

AMY GOODMAN: Kit Gruelle is an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, and Cythia Hill, director of the new HBO documentary, Private Violence, which is currently at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on HBO later this year.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory. Stay with us.

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