Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Guest Blogger RONDA RACHA PENRICE: "Fighting For Their Lives" On Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the "Silent Witness" exhibit . . .

Christal Cooper

*Article previously published in South Magazine November issue
**Copyright granted by South Magazine, Ronda Racha Penrice, and Blake Crosby

       Sadly Lauren Smart’s letter was read in court – after her death.  On Saturday, June 7, 2014, Norman Smart killed Lauren Brown Smart.  She would have been 35 on July 10.  Even more horrifying, her oldest boy from her first marriage, just six at the time, witnessed it all.  Her other son with Smart hadn’t even turned a year old.   

       Responding to a call from Norman Smart, police found Lauren on the floor in the mater bedroom of their Wilmington Island, Georgia home on her back, with abrasions on her forehead, arms and elbows and blood stains on the carpet.  Norman was then charged with murder. 

       During the trial, the medical examiner testified that Norman Smart beat, strangled and stomped a reportedly drunk Lauren to her death – the pattern of his shoes matched the injuries on her body. 

       There’s no way to sugarcoat the horror of this crime  - nor its pervasiveness in this country.  Every day three women are murdered by a current or former male boyfriend.  Twenty people (including a small number of men) are victims of intimate-partner violence every single minute, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Every nine seconds, reports Domestic Violence Statistics, a woman is beaten or assaulted.  Over 38 million women experience domestic violence every year.  Sadly, as many as 10 million children witness this type of violence annually.

       A woman’s level of education doesn’t shield her from abuse and neither does her economic status.  Domestic violence may be stereotyped as a crime of the poor and uneducated, but that’s far from the truth.  Women of all backgrounds are victimized.

       Melissa (nor her real name) truly debunks those stereotypes.  This well-known socialite and independent professional in Savannah never imagined she would become a victim of abuse.  Yet, just a few months into her relationship with a man she believed to be a great match, she found herself a victim.  

       Looking back, she says, “My first red light should have been one evening when he was upset and ripped my car keys out of my hand.  I attributed it to a bad day at work.”  There was no explaining away what happened to her during their “romantic” getaway to the Bahamas, however.  “He got upset with me one night and pushed me, in my pajamas, out of our room and threw my suitcase at me.  I got another room in the hotel and had every intention of flying out the next day.”  

       But she didn’t.  The next morning, the hotel manager told her, “He’s very upset.  He feels terrible – maybe you should talk to him.”  She followed that well-intentioned but very bad advice and spoke to her boyfriend.  “He apologized profusely; said he was going to get help, all the things you expect him to say,” she recounts.  “He told me about the therapy he was going to and the breakthroughs he head with his anger-management issues.”  

       Not long after, it happened again.  “For whatever reason, something triggered his rage again one night, “ she recalls.  “And he came up behind me and hit me so hard that my teeth went through my lips.  I hit the ground and screamed,  “I’m bleeding!”  He said, “You think you’re f---ing bleeding now?” and he picked me up by my hair, stomped my head on the ground and dragged me through the house and let (me) go in the front yard.  I had on jeans and a tank top and it was 30 degrees outside.” 

       Waiting until she could safely go back in the house, Melissa quickly grabbed her purse, got into her car, and left.  “I didn’t go to the hospital immediately.  I was in disbelief,” she explains.  ‘I was that typical (woman), ‘How could this be happening to me?’”    

       She then called the therapist her boyfriend had been seeing and got another shock.  ‘I’m sorry.  I don’t know this person.  You need to call the police,” the therapist told her.   

       Enter organizations like Savannah’s SAFE (Savannah Area Family Emergency) Shelter Center for Domestic Violence Services that, for the last 35 years, assists women less able than Melissa to find refuge from abuse.  Former journalist Cheryl Branch has dedicated nearly 20 years to SAFE Shelter, serving as executive director since 2007 after heading the shelter’s outreach program where she regularly helped women get restraining orders, among other services.    

       “Abusers don’t see anything wrong with what they do,” Branch says matter-of-factly:  “I firmly believe it’s a learned behavior.  Often, one or both of the people in an abusive relationship grew up in a home where there was some kind of abuse – verbal, emotional or physical.”     

       Low self-esteem, Branch says, affects women of all backgrounds.  It’s also an abuser’s number-one weapon.  By and large, women blame themselves for the way they are treated.  Women rationalize the behavior by saying to themselves, “I am going to fix that bad boy,” says Branch.  “He had a rough life.  And I, through the power of my love, am going to transform him.”  

                                          Wendy Williamson 

       Many of the calls SAFE Shelter receives come from concerned family and friends struggling to help a loved one reluctant to leave an abusive relationship.  Branch advises they reassure their victimized loved ones, “I’m here for you.”  When women do leave an abuser, SAFE Shelter aids them in numerous ways, especially in holding the abuser accountable and offering programs for children in order to break the cycle of abuse.  

       “We didn’t even have battered-women shelters until the 70s’ in this country, “Branch notes, explaining that awareness has improved, but still has a ways to go.  A powerful reminder is ‘Silent Witness Initiative,” a national art exhibit that travels to various venues and events featuring life-sized, free-standing silhouettes bearing the names of deceased victims.  

                                 Photo by Blake Crosby
For Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, the Chatham County Silent Witness Exhibit will be on display in Savannah for the first time – and Lauren Brown Smart is one of the 13 victims highlighted.

       “We get so numb to statistics and you need that reminder that this was a daughter, a sister, a mother,” Branch says of “Silent Witness.”    

       Sunni Brown, Lauren Brown Smart’s mother, needs no such reminders, though.   The horrific aftereffects of her death haunt Sunni every day.  Lauren’s oldest son, now seven, who witnessed his mother’s death, has been in therapy since the murder, but still fears that Normal Smart, despite being sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 20 years for cruelty to children will still come for him.  And now, the youngest grandson, who is nearing two, is in therapy too.    

       She says what pains her most about the tragedy is that “two children have to grow up without a mother.”  Brown says she hopes the telling of Lauren’s story will help a domestic-violence victim get out of an abusive relationship before it’s too late.     

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