by Kim Brown
In 1991, I was a domestic violence victim before I was defendant. At 24, I fought for my life as my boyfriend strangled me in our car in front of my mom’s house. The price of fighting for my life cost me 17 years in prison. In New York State, self-defense laws do not protect domestic violence victims who kill their abusers in a life-or-death situation.
If I had a nickel for every time I was asked, "Why didn't you leave," I would be rich. It's a misconception that battered women always have a choice. The fear of my abuser’s unexpected violent attacks and threats to end my life became so strong it paralyzed me. I was living in constant fear. Women, like me, are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving than at any other time during the relationship, according to the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
My home, my job—no where was safe.
One day, we were at a gas station and a male attendant gave me a free stick of gum because I mentioned that it was my birthday. I didn’t want to be rude and not accept the gum. But, I also knew my boyfriend was furiously watching my every move. When I got in the car, I handed him the stick of gum and said, “Here, I don’t want it,” because I knew he was angry. As I was driving to his job at Rochester General Hospital, he forcefully twisted my right arm behind my back. I was counting the minutes and seconds until he had to be at work. I was trying to not crash the car. I was trying to make it through the next 17 minutes. I was trying to survive. But, because he worked at the hospital, I had to be extremely careful about receiving treatment for my injured shoulder. I was in pain and couldn’t drive to a different hospital. I begged the hospital employees to not put my name on the triage board while they treated me. Nowhere was safe. Not even the hospital...and so I stayed.
It was easier to know when and where the blows were coming from rather than start over. At the time, I worried that all relationships escalated into violence. He was charming and tricked people into believing that he was a nice guy all the time. Behind closed doors, I had no self-esteem and no sense of individuality left. I was broken and felt worthless...and so I stayed.
Now that I’ve done 17 years in prison, maybe it's easier to just leave the domestic violence and trauma behind me. But, as a survivor, I’m staying in this fight to help others, especially those who helped me. It’s healing for me to turn my pain into action. When I was in prison, Jaya Vasandani and Tamar Kraft-Stolar from the Correctional Association of New York visited me and other incarcerated women frequently to assess and report on the quality of living conditions in the prison. One day, I asked Jaya, “Do you think I can help you guys do this when I come home?”
Since coming home from prison in 2008, I have struggled to get a job where I can financially support myself. Then, in 2009, Jaya and Tamar asked if I’d be a survivor advocate for New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a bill that would save survivors from prison time for defending themselves against violent abusers. I just want to do what I can to prevent anyone from going through what I have had to endure. In my spare time and when I can afford it, I volunteer my time to speak at legislative conferences and domestic violence forums. I have worked with many advocates to ensure that this bill will be passed sooner rather than later. I want to protect victims of domestic violence before they turn into defendants as I did—and so I stayed in the movement to make systemic change. And I will stay until survivors are believed and the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act is law.