October - National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

An Empty Place At The Table: a chilling exhibit that exposes domestic violence

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 10:45am

This October, in a number of Midcoast libraries from Belfast to Bath, you’re likely to walk in and find an elaborately set dinner table with empty chairs. Upon closer look, you will see personal effects at each place setting, such as sunglasses or a favorite coffee mug, framed photos and other mementos. The people for whom these place settings were set are dead—all killed in an act of domestic violence.

They were parents, children, neighbors, friends and valued members of the community, and their untimely deaths have left many empty places at the table. New Hope for Women is once again bringing back its powerful exhibit to Maine libraries: An Empty Place At The Table, a memorial it has exhibited since 2002.

The memorial consists of a dining table surrounded by empty chairs as a reminder of the tragic deaths leaving an empty place not only in the lives of their families, but in the community as well. The table is set with tableware donated by the families of those who have been killed with items that either belonged to the victims or were selected to reflect and celebrate their personalities, passions and dreams.

According to the state Department of Public Safety, of the last 10 homicides in Maine, seven of them were caused by domestic violence. The most horrific was this past summer in Saco, where Heather Smith, 36, and her three children, Jason Montez, 12, Noah Smith, 7, and Lily Smith, 4, were shot to death inside their apartment by husband and father, Joel Smith, 33, who then shot and killed himself.

In national news it took a graphic video of NFL athlete Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee (now wife), Janay Palmer, in an elevator on Feb. 15, 2014, to surface online this past month before the public and the NFL reacted. Since then, that video has lit an incendiary fire under the domestic violence issue. 

“It certainly has engendered a great deal of interest in this issue and a lot of questions,” said Kathleen Morgan, executive director of New Hope For Women in Rockland. “Ray Rice is not the only athlete, and football is not the only sport in which this has occurred. I’m glad to see the spotlight on the issue on the national level and glad to see the NFL taking a stance.”

An enormous amount of Internet backlash from both men and women came against Palmer (now Rice), when she posted an Instagram message the day after the video surfaced seemingly making an excuse for her husband’s physical abuse. To give some perspective to this situation Morgan said, “She wants what most victims want. They want the violence to end, not the relationship.  I’m sure Ray Rice has made all the correct apologies and promises to Janay. She should not be blamed for making the decision to stay. He is the only one responsible for his actions.”

One question always asked is: Why doesn’t she leave?

“Victims stay for many reasons that are complicated and complex,” said Morgan. The most common reason is that the victim still loves his/her abuser. Other reasons include trying to keep the family together if they have children, religious, cultural or family pressures, lack of income and available housing, emotional blackmail or threats from the abuser.

“The bottom line is that the victim wants the violence to stop and gives the abuser opportunities to change,” said Morgan.

The memorial is sponsored by New Hope For Women, a nonprofit agency serving victims of domestic violence in Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties. It is available for viewing in the following Midcoast libraries on these dates:

  • Patten Free Library, Bath on Oct. 7
  • Topsham Public Library on Oct. 9
  • Wiscasset Public Library on Oct. 14
  • Skidompha Public Library, Damariscotta on Oct. 16
  • Rockland Public Library on Oct. 21
  • Camden Public Library on Oct. 23
  • Belfast Free Library on Oct. 27

For more information on New Hope For Women, including a new support group forming in Rockland in October, visit newhopeforwomen.org or call 1-800-522-3304.

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com