HBO’s Documentary About Domestic Violence Is Difficult to Experience, Essential to Watch

Photo: HBO

It took longer for me to get through Private Violence, a feature-length profile of an advocate for battered women that airs on HBO tonight at 9 p.m., than any TV documentary I've seen. The filmmakers should consider this a compliment. I kept starting the damned thing and then stopping it after ten minutes, then watching it another ten minutes, then stopping, always to collect myself, or steel myself. If I'd seen it in a theater I might have left for a while, or watched certain scenes through splayed fingers. Anybody who's experienced the situations chronicled in this film will understand why: Domestic violence is a door marked "Do Not Open," and here is Private Violence, opening it, and saying, "Step inside, have a look." 

Directed by Cynthia Hill, Private Violence chronicles the life and work of Kit Gruelle, a North Carolina woman who escaped an abusive relationship and became a defender of women in similar situations. The key to the movie's effectiveness is the way it makes familiar stories concrete and immediate. We're not seeing women tell stories of abuse with a few months' or years' remove. We're seeing them in the middle of hell, struggling to prosecute their abusers in court. In some cases, we're alongside them in the courtroom watching the cases as they're adjudicated, or hearing audiotapes of abuse, or looking at photos of women who've been beaten so badly that their faces have changed shape.

Aside from Gruelle, our guide and surrogate, the closest thing to a main character is Deanna Walters. Years ago, she and her then-2-year-old daughter, Martina, were kidnapped by her abusive husband, long haul trucker Robbie Howell, and taken across state lines. The intent was to remove her from her support network so that he could treat her however he wanted, which is to say: as badly as anyone can treat another person without killing them. Make no mistake, though: Murder was definitely on the horizon. You can feel it in the way Walters talks about life with her husband, a sadistic psychopath who beat her to the point of disfigurement and terrorized her daughter as well. 

Not that it should matter, but Walters is an amazing camera subject, speaking with touching frankness about her experience as Gruelle and her co-workers listen and formulate a response. The odds are stacked against her. The problem for Gruelle, and for other domestic violence victims profiled in the movie, is threefold. 

First, violence by partners against partners is such a profound violation of basic human decency that people don't want to think about it, much less contemplate it. This partly explains why another woman in the film, the wife of a prominent doctor whose rage is captured on an answering machine message (screaming at his spouse and child that he's not a person to be fucked with, that they should be thankful he's here to protect them from the monsters that want to rape them), went to court seeking an injunction and was told by the judge that she should move back into the house, because it was a big house with plenty of room for everyone. 

The second, related problem is that domestic violence used to be treated as property crime, and the legal system is filled with vestigial remnants of that mind-set. As Gruelle observes, in North Carolina, domestic violence is treated as a misdemeanor assault, while the theft of a bale of pine hay is considered a felony. Progress toward enlightenment has been slow. 

The third problem is that domestic violence has always been thought of as a problem that the abused person needs to solve. Period narratives don't exaggerate when they show abused women fleeing to friends' homes and staying there "until things blow over," then returning to the same horrendous environment. There was — and in some social strata, remains — a school of thought that held that if a person entered into an abusive relationship, he or she bore much of the blame for abuse, because it was a manifestation of having chosen poorly. The easing up of divorce law has remedied this a bit, but there still exists an entire legal, social, and psychological apparatus that truly amounts to victim blaming: You got yourself into this, and now it's up to you to deal with it. 

It's somewhat appalling to look back on fairly recent narratives of domestic violence such as What's Love Got to Do With It and realize that the moment of triumph is when the woman summons the courage to walk away from the man who's beating her. This isn't the storytellers' fault, necessarily: We are all products of our social conditioning, and this particular box encloses us all so tightly that it's tough to escape. Nevertheless, the onus, in fiction and life, has always been on the battered spouse — a point that Private Violence makes uncomfortably clear. The question "Why don't you leave?" keeps coming up in these situations, as if domestic violence were a natural disaster, like a flood or a fire, around which only a helpless person or a fool would linger. 

Gruelle never asks that question because she's been there. She knows that the whole point of terrorism — which is what domestic violence is, in a very limited sense — is to paralyze other people, to the point that they can't think straight, can't act, can't run, can't fight. (Seventy-five percent of domestic violence-related murders happen after the partner leaves.) She knows that the abusers are people, too, and that it's possible for the target of abuse to feel real love for the abuser, or love for their unrealized self, or their ideal self; it's so complicated that you can't describe it without inviting second-guessing or condemnation from people who don't understand and only want to pass judgment, but it's summed up in the moment when Gruelle shows us a photo of her ex with their child, and says it was taken during the last good stretch they had together, then goes on to tell us how, after he died and she visited his corpse lying in state, she stared at his hands, and thought about how they beat her bloody but also taught her how to garden.

I've seen many documentaries on this topic, some superb, all heartfelt. The best is probably Frederick Wiseman's 2001 film Domestic Violence, set at a shelter for battered women. None can touch the power, sensitivity, and explanatory skill of this one. It's not just wallowing in pain, it's illuminating the social architecture that encloses and protects abusers and preserves the status quo. 

One of the most striking sequences finds Gruelle and a male co-worker running a clinic for police officers in which they act the roles of a fighting couple, then let the cops interview them and critique their form and their decisions. When the partners separate the "husband" and "wife," as usually happens, the "husband" shoots a dagger stare at his wife, a look that, as Gruelle explains, is meant to threaten violent retaliation or death if the abused partner tells the truth to authorities. One of the cops fails to notice the Look, and once the clinicians warn him about its predictive power, they leave the exercise enlightened. And so do we: Later, during a courtroom hearing, an accused wife-beater pauses as he's led from the courtroom and glares at his partner, giving her the Look. Gruelle, who's sitting in the courtroom, sees it. So do we. We know what to look for now. We're onto them.