The new HBO documentary Private Violence, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, follows victim advocate Kit Gruelle as she helps various victims of domestic abuse seek justice and freedom from their abusers. Gruelle is a domestic violence survivor herself, and her own story of abuse is told alongside the stories of women who she assists.
One useful function the film serves is dealing with a question domestic abuse victims hear far too often: “Why didn’t you just leave?” Multiple victims in the film talk about how infuriatingly often they hear this question. Kit Gruelle explains that she stayed with her abuser because he had threatened to find and kill her if she left, and he had been trained by the United States Marine Corps to effectively hunt down and kill people.
Deanna Walters, whose story is a centerpiece of the film, did leave her abusive husband. However, on Halloween she decided to take her daughter trick or treating with him in a public place. He kidnapped her, took her across the country, beat her, tortured her, and nearly killed her in front of her daughter. Leaving situations of violence and predatory aggression is not a simple choice. Abusers use threats, violence, and manipulation to keep their victims with them and under their control.
In Deanna Walters’ case, local prosecutors said her injuries were not sufficiently serious, and were unlikely to prosecute beyond a misdemeanor assault charge. The abuser was only punished because a victim advocate helped Deanna convince federal prosecutors to press charges.
At the beginning of the film, one abuse survivor is reluctant to call the police, but she says she wants to be safe from an abusive ex who is coming after her, and shelter staff tell her that law enforcement are the only ones who can provide her with that security. As I watched, I concluded that these stories show the profound failure of state monopoly justice. Regardless of how uncomfortable victims are with police officers, these officers have a monopoly on providing security and justice. Victims rarely have anywhere else to turn. So they seek help from police and prosecutors who all too often hold misogynistic misconceptions about domestic abuse. Or they do not seek help at all.
Worse still, the criminal justice system sometimes overtly punishes the victim of violence. In one short yet heartbreaking scene in the film, Kit Gruelle travels to help prepare a defense for a black woman who is being charged with first degree murder because she killed her abuser. This man had beaten her so badly over the course of their relationship that her facial structure had radically changed and she had gone blind in one eye. He had threatened her with a gun at least once. Yet she was in jail, facing first degree murder charges.
The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project has extensively documented cases like this, where women are caged for defending themselves from abuse. While this problem is only covered during a small segment of the film, it’s a tragic and infuriating example of how the state often punishes survivors rather than protecting people from violence.
This is a difficult film to watch. I cried multiple times during the film, and I felt the need to look away from the screen at one point when particularly brutal injuries from a beating and strangulation were being shown and discussed. However, it’s also a film well worth watching. Private Violence tells vitally important stories about how abusers terrorize their victims, how the legal system fails victims, and the steps victims take to survive.