by Natalie Pattillo
Before my first day at Columbia Journalism School in May 2015, I knew that my master’s project would cover domestic violence, but I just wasn’t sure which facet. In 2011, my half-sister was killed by her then-boyfriend. Shortly after that, I found myself in an abusive relationship with a man I’m no longer with. Then in 2014, NFL player, Ray Rice, was caught on camera punching his partner, Janay Palmer Rice. That news cycle was brutal for me to watch. Many outlets criticized Janay for not leaving. There was an entire hashtag trending on social media dedicated to asking abuse survivors #WhySheStayed.
Why is the onus only on survivors? Why aren’t we questioning abusers for terrorizing their loved ones? Women 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 (a statistic that’s often overlooked).
What happens when, as a society, we don't lend empathy or trust to survivors of abuse? Survivors lives are destroyed, violence perpetuates and, in many cases, women and children are killed. Our jobs, as journalists, are to tell these stories even if they are painful to bear witness to or hear.
In April of 2015, well before #MeToo, I spoke to Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Trauma Journalism Center about my interest in writing about gender-based violence. He suggested for me to read Dr. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. “Read the part about the survivors’ mission,” he told me. “That will resonate with you.”
Herman wrote, “It is the law, not she, that must prevail. By making a public complaint or accusation, the survivor defies the perpetrator’s attempt to silence and isolate her, and she opens up the possibility of finding new allies.”
I decided to focus my master’s project on the incarceration of survivors who defended themselves against their abusers in life-or-death situations. It was newsworthy in New York because of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), a bill that would allow judges to sentence domestic violence survivors to less years behind bars or to alternative-to-incarceration programs.
Immediately, I reached out to advocacy groups like STEPS to End Family Violence and the Women in Prison Project. I knew if I wanted access to currently or formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors, I would have to develop trust with these agencies. After interviewing Gail Smith at the Women in Prison Project, she told me that Kim Dadou and LadyKathryn Williams-Julien were interested in sharing their stories. Both women were advocates of the DVSJA and survivors who reportedly killed their abusers in self-defense. Since these women were advocates for the DVSJA, their stories were used as testimonies for the bill. I scoured Newspaper.com for archived articles and came across a few of pieces about Dadou’s court hearings.
Over a phone interview, Kim told me she was getting married to her partner Annie Bell. In July of 2016, I travelled to Rochester to attend their wedding. That same weekend, LadyKathryn invited me to attend a fundraiser event she was hosting for the bill. Reporting at these events helped me write vividly about these women’s lives—they are more than the abuse they endured.
When I found Kim’s prosecutor Angela Reyes through LinkedIn, I reached out. She responded within a day (I know, it surprised me too). Her point of view is essential because it represents how the justice system perceived domestic violence survivors in the early 1990s.
I learned from Kim and LadyKathryn that the system fails survivors even when they report the abuse. LadyKathryn is a result of what happens when a judge or prosecutor understands or considers domestic violence in relation to self-defense. Kim lost 17 years of freedom because she didn’t fit the “model victim” profile.
Last year, I published a deeply-researched, long-form print piece on Narratively and Salon about the story of Kim. Even though my Narratively piece covered much of Kim’s story, I felt her experiences in prison would be more powerful if told by her, which is why I was excited to produce a segment for Lena Dunham’s podcast Women of the Hour.
A few months later, producers from Criminal, a podcast by PRX’s Radiotopia, reached out to Kim and me because they wanted to feature her story on their podcast. A couple of days after Kim’s story aired on Criminal, my Republican, tough-on-crime uncle reached out to tell me how moved he was by her story. I was floored. Listening to Kim tell her story had softened his stance, at least for a moment.
Then, when my friend and former classmate Dan Nelson read my master’s project, he was shocked and angered about the injustice Kim faced. He approached me and asked, “What do you think about turning Kim’s story into a documentary?” I couldn’t say no.
So now, on top of my full-time job, freelancing and responsibilities as a mom, I’m making a documentary. I believe this film has the power to teach people about how domestic violence is ubiquitous and insidious. Silence is not an option. I won’t stop until Kim’s story is told. I won’t stop until justice is served. And I sure as hell won’t stop until we, as a society, trust the testimonies of survivors.
In addition to everyone else who has helped me with my reporting and writing, I would like to thank my daughter, Amora, for being a flexible kid who constantly tells me, “Don’t worry, Mama, you can do it,” when I’m stressed about a deadline.
Lastly, I would like to dedicate this project to my sister, Jennifer Pattillo, who died too soon in the hands of a violent partner.