Maine women speak boldly about abuse in ‘Finding Our Voices, Breaking the Silence’
CAMDEN — Sitting in the beauty salon chair in Rockland three years ago, Patrisha McLean quietly read a magazine, as Kate Chapman cut her hair. It was McLean’s habit not to talk much. But Chapman asked McLean how she was doing, coming out of a divorce under tremendous public scrutiny.
Then, Chapman confided to McLean she had once been abused, and knew, to an extent, what she was experiencing.
Their conversation, and many more, was the genesis of photographer McLean’s latest exhibit that, by its courageous beauty alone, is an art show, as well.
“Finding Our Voices, Breaking the Silence on Domestic Abuse,” now mounted at the Camden Public Library through February, is a powerful testament to individuals rejecting abusive relationships.
There are 17 women featured in this exhibit, and all had acknowledged somewhere along the line that they needed help, found the tools to break their own roller coaster of emotions, took action, and created a healthier existence.
It was neither easy, nor comfortable. Those who have suffered abuse know how hard it is to create new lives — to exit an abusive home environment, to break materially from shared finances, and break relationships that are sometimes many years old.
McLean’s exhibit sheds light on that process, and moves it further into public discourse.
“There was a domestic abuse case in Camden that lead to charges of domestic violence assault domestic violence criminal threatening, domestic violence terrorizing, domestic violence criminal restraint, criminal mischief, and obstructing the report of a crime,” writes McLean, in her introduction to the show.
“The maximum sentence for each was 364 days in jail,” she continued. “The Rockland District Attorney’s office had photos of the victim’s bruises, photos of the door the abuser broke to get to her, voicemails of him threatening to wreak havoc, and a victim willing to testify. This is how the case ended: He paid a $4,000 fine and plead guilty to all six charges, and with a year of ‘good behavior’ three of the convictions, including the most serious of domestic violence assault, were wiped off his record. There was no jail time.”
She cited a newspaper article that quoted the DA as saying the sentence is comparable to similar domestic abuse cases.
“If this does not show the imperative for change, what does,” asks McLean.
The library has already witnessed increased foot traffic to the exhibit room, where on Feb. 14, there will be an official opening from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with a talk and slide show by the artist, a talk by survivors, and a community discussion about domestic abuse.
“People are remarking on the exhibit,” said Camden Public Library Director Nikki Maounis. “They see beautiful photos of women, who mostly are smiling. Then they look more closely, and are blown away. I’m glad we, as the library and center of public life, are going to discuss this issue.”
The show is highly personal, and McLean has collected the stories and voices of 17 Maine women willing to go public with their lives in order to help other individuals who may not know how to move out of their own damaging situations.
One woman talks about the beautiful studio where she now paints. Her boyfriend had built it it for her, but never allowed her to create art in it.
Another woman describes the cuts, bruises and other marks left on her body, and the hurt, shame and embarrassment of going into a police department to be photographed as a victim.
Now, she visits that same building, a police department that has since been converted to a library, and it is her sanctuary.
“I read, laugh and learn here,” she says, defying her abuser, and the memories of him.
McLean has mounted photos of these women on the library walls, and posted next to them their own Power and Control Wheels, a visual diagram created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project and used by used by therapists to outline and define what forms abuse takes. The women have written on them, describing the abuse, and the joy in moving away from it. She has included her own story on the wall, as well.
“Physical and sexual assaults, or threats to commit them, are the most apparent forms of domestic violence and are usually the actions that allow others to become aware of the problem.” according to the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. “The Power and Control diagram is a particularly helpful tool in understanding the overall pattern of abusive and violent behaviors, which are used by a batterer to establish and maintain control over his partner. Very often, one or more violent incidents are accompanied by an array of these other types of abuse. They are less easily identified, yet firmly establish a pattern of intimidation and control in the relationship.”
But McLean goes one step further with this exhibit: She has recorded the voices of each of the women recounting their individual stories, including her own, and each running three to eight minutes. She then presents them as audio accompaniments.
To hear them, one dials the provided number on a cell phone and a woman begins to speak.
You can read how Bekah’s boyfriend would beat her and her dog, but you can also hear Bekah talk about it, in her own voice, her own cadence.
“We are standing up and speaking out to show how much of this there is, hidden, all around us," McLean said. "We need to end the shame and stigma for the victims and get more accountability for abusers."
For some, this is the first time they have gone public with their stories.
"The sisterhood that has developed and that is growing," McLean said about the participants, who range from a former TV news anchorwoman in Casco and architect in Camden to artist in Ellsworth and prisoner in Windham. "This has been very healing. These are some of the bravest, strongest, and kindest people I have ever met.”
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Maine has battled domestic violence for decades, defining language and then enacting new laws against domestic, sexual, child, elder and animal abuse. Yet, it continues. Women and children are abused, and some killed each year under horrific circumstances.
“Despite the fact that Maine has a relatively low crime rate in contrast to other states, according to the Violence Policy Center’s  study, “Women Murdered by Men; An Analysis of 2013 Homicide Data,” Maine ranked ninth highest in the nation for homicides that males committed against females,” said the 11th Biennial Report of the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Panel of 2016.
In 2018, two years later, the 12th biennial report said: “We each have a role in contributing to or helping to change public perception. So here’s how each of us can help:
• Let survivors know that it’s not their fault.
• Change the words we use and challenge others who use “victim-blaming” language. Victim-blaming only serves to reinforce what the perpetrator is already saying--that it’s thevictim’s fault they abuse.
• Hold abusers accountable for their actions. Abuse is not caused by a person’s “anger issues” or “too much stress” or the fact that “he was just drunk.”
• Reframe the question of “why does the victim stay?” to “why does the perpetrator abuse?”
McLean said her personal silence broke when she became the subject of news stories.
“With the breaking of silence, things were able to get better,” she said, in a conversation just before mounting the library exhibit at the beginning of February. “The story was out and it was no longer a secret, that power and control of what I was living under.”
Sometimes, that, however, is invisible to the abused.
“I didn’t even really see it,” she said. “But women started to come up to me and tell me their stories. I thought my situation was unique. I was up on a mountain. That card in the mailbox from New Hope for Women, I didn’t think it pertained to me.”
But then she visited a domestic abuse organization in New York state while on a trip, and later attended a Bangor support group. That is when she became aware of stories similar to her own.
McLean decided to create and curate a show of women who had the courage to step into the public arena. After talking more with Chapman about the idea of a show, she put out the invitation on her personal Facebook page. Then, she extended it on the Facebook page of the nonprofit Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. That resulted in a number of women stepping forward with their stories.
“Some are in the project,” said McLean. “Some don’t feel strong or safe enough to do it.”
But of them all, she said, “I can relate to each of these ladies.”
Breaking the Silence is not only presenting a story in public, however. It is a metaphor for acknowledging that one is suffering abuse at the hands, words or actions of others.
“Until then, you are alone,” said McLean. “The voice in your head is his voice.”
She continued: “I hope when people listen to the stories they don’t ask 'Why does she stay?' but instead, 'Why does he brutalize?’”
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