IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Allowed Cameras Into the Courtroom With Me For a Domestic Abuse Documentary

I agreed to be filmed because I wanted my story to be told in case I didn’t make it out alive, and in case my step-daughter grew up and wondered what had truly happened.
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I agreed to be filmed because I wanted my story to be told in case I didn’t make it out alive, and in case my step-daughter grew up and wondered what had truly happened.
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

It’s not every day that you find yourself the subject of a documentary film. 

When it happened to me, nearly four years ago, I was a resident at a safe house for women and children survivors of domestic violence. Living there felt pretty abnormal for me, but my story echoes the stories of nearly 7 million women who experience partner violence each year in the United States. 

I had ended up in the safe house after a my relationship ended with police intervention at Christmas.

When I met Mr. X that previous summer, it was a whirlwind of a romance. He was intense and passionate, expressing his love before we even met in person. I was fresh out of a long-term relationship that had lasted for over a decade and looking for this kind of passion. 

If I had paused long enough to think, I would have realized that things were moving too fast to be healthy. But the heart doesn’t simply pause.

The day after our first date, I met his young daughter and fell in love with her as well. His family was welcoming and appeared to be a close-knit group, perfect for someone like me who comes from a broken home. It was everything I had ever wanted and everything that would later destroy my world as I knew it.

We got engaged within a couple of months and married shortly after. I convinced myself that, after waiting a decade for someone who never proposed, moving quickly made sense. We were eager to become a family and take care of his daughter together.

I won’t lie to you and say there were no red flags. They were there. But I refuse to feel guilty for choosing love over caution. We do the best we can with the information we are given at the time. Hindsight can break you or it can educate you, and I prefer the latter.

The day after we were married, I was looking up “annulments” on my phone as he raged about missing a barbecue. I knew then I had made a mistake and was in serious trouble.

One night, as I planned to leave, his his daughter came into the closet where I was packing a suitcase. She closed the door and sat down on top of my luggage, having a kid-sized panic attack. 

In between tears and short ragged breaths, she told me that I couldn’t leave. When I asked her why, she explained that her life was “like a garbage can” and that she had gone from one scary house to the next until I came around. In that moment, my heart melted along with my resolve to go. I simply couldn’t leave her there.

Over the next few months, she began calling me Mama, and he began to rapidly unravel. The drug habit he had told me he was no longer a problem resurfaced with a vengeance. His violent outbursts were a daily occurrence and he admitted his darkest desires to harm women. He threatened to kill me and began to physically abuse our family pet — a four-pound kitten.

With the help of my therapist, I created a crisis plan. I heard time and time again from domestic violence advocates and police that this man wouldn’t hesitate to take my life.

I knew without a doubt that my life was at risk. So one afternoon, while he was in a violent rage and we were home alone, I called the police. I remember sitting and waiting for them at the front door, shaking and barely able to stand. When they knocked, all I could do was point to where they would find my husband.

He was arrested and placed under a 2 million dollar bond -- the number was so high because he told police about his desires to violently harm other women. Police and social workers placed my step-daughter’s care in my hands and took us to a safe house. 

I had roughly 20 minutes to pack my stuff and hers. I grabbed her Christmas presents, determined she would somehow have a happy holiday. I wrapped the kitten in a blanket and insisted that he be saved as well.

After we'd been living in the safe house for maybe a week, a graduating senior from a nearby college contacted the director and asked to do a documentary on domestic violence survivors. It was supposed to be a piece on several women, but after hearing my story, she decided to focus on only me.

I agreed to the film because I wanted my story to be told. In case I didn’t make it out alive, in case women like me needed encouragement to leave abusive men, in case my step-daughter grew up and wondered what had truly happened. 

I also felt the cameras would add an additional layer of much-needed protection when I had to go to court. My only condition was the filmmaker not film my step-daughter or use her likeness in any way. She had been through enough trauma and didn't need to be exposed on top of it all.

The filmmaker was sweet and young and fearless. She got permission from the presiding judge to film in court. So, along with a special escort from the sheriff and police officers, I made my way into the courtroom with a camera following close behind me. My ex's family was not at all pleased as she turned to film their reactions.

He was charged with vandalizing property, making threats, and animal abuse, all misdemeanors. He was in jail for only a couple of months. 

I did private interviews at the safe house and the filmmaker followed me as I visited attorneys and sought advice about obtaining custody of my step-daughter. It wasn’t easy to face a camera and share, but it was something I felt was important despite my self-conscious misgivings.

After Mr. X was released from jail, my step-daughter was reunited with her biological parents as ordered by the judge. The camera caught me begging the judge to listen to why the caseworkers had placed her with me and why she was afraid of her parents. (Mom had already lost several kids to the state for maltreatment, neglect and abuse.) But biology is king, not the well-being of the child. 

The camera also caught me afterward, as I realized I would never see my step-daughter again, and stood there in a state of complete shock.

With his release from jail, it was evident that I was no longer safe in the area that had for so long been my home. I went to a second safe house and then a third, until I found a new place to try and start my life over. I had lost it all — my home state, access to my family and friends, my step-daughter, and everything I had ever owned.

Over the next year-and-a-half, I was nearly destroyed by grief. I replayed my last moments with my step-daughter over and over again. 

The last day I saw her was like any other day, before I knew she would be released to my ex's custody. Over the next couple of years I was in a heavy state of grieving and relived that last day in my mind over and over again. I would see her getting on that school bus after hugging me tightly and saying "I love you, Mama." And I would see that school bus driving away, never to return again.  

I kept in touch with the filmmaker, who had since graduated college. She would send me clips of the film and occasionally ask for photos to add to it. I sent her photos of myself with my step-daughter with the explicit instructions that no images of her could be used unless they were fully blurred. I told her even then I might decide not to let her use them. I repeatedly forbade the use of my step-daughter's name. 

Yet, time and time again, I was sent footage that included her name and/or her image. Trust began to vanish.

I didn’t hear from the filmmaker for awhile, until she decided to enter the film in a contest for prize money and recognition. When she sent the footage to me, it yet again included my step-daughter’s image, in addition to giving a choppy and inaccurate portrayal of what I had endured.

I was still grieving, and had had enough.

I revoked her rights to use my story in any way. She later admitted that she had almost submitted the film anyway without telling me out of spite. It was then that I knew I had made the right decision. 

After leaving a domestic violence situation, it is sometimes difficult to trust your own instincts. I felt guilty at first, but her threatening to use the footage despite the fact that I had revoked her rights released me from that guilt. It was my story and if anyone was going to tell it, it would be me.

Since then, things have drastically improved for me. I pulled myself out of that deep darkness by my fingernails and gone back to the business of living. I have a violence-free life. I am grateful to have my life at all.

I have memories of a precious girl that once called me Mama and a story that I continue to give a voice. My voice. And what a powerful thing that has turned out to be.

If you or anyone you know is involved in an abusive relationship please call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.