What Doesn’t Kill Me: Exposing the Revictimization of Domestic Violence Survivors

Rachel Meyrick’s documentary film What Doesn’t Kill Me will make its World Premiere at The Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles October 7th. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and the film festival is a perfect fit for the doc, which raises much-needed awareness of domestic violence and an issue many have never heard of: court-licensed abuse.

Court-licensed abuse refers to the phenomenon of an estimated 58,000 children being placed in the custody of abusers by courts annually in the United States. Abused women are often told: “You have to leave him for the sake of yourself and your children.” A victim might agonize over the decision, on the tipping point between fear and desperation, and then find the courage to make the often-dramatic flight from her abuser to a safe place. A common expectation of what happens next is of a heroic, rosy ending where the abuser faces justice and the victim is free. Unfortunately, this outcome is often fiction, with many victims entering a new stage of the nightmare: custody court.

Because of systemic bias, ignorance and the denigration of the rights of women and children, judges order shared or sole custody to abusers which enables continued abuse of the mother through her children. Studies show that domestic abusers receive custody most of time.

Precious few films have paid any attention to this issue because it is wrought with controversy which has left many documentarians afraid to touch it. Garland Waller, a filmmaker and professor at Boston University, was brave enough to follow the Collins story in her film No Way Out But One. Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur premiered Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories on PBS in 2005, but their artful and compelling film is nearly impossible to find since men’s rights activists attacked it so vigorously. The film was heavily critiqued, to which Lasseur responded with this statement.

It was with this backdrop that Rachel Meyrick chose to come across the pond (from her native England) to give voice to victims. The long-awaited film offers victims validation and raises awareness, representing one step closer to freedom for them and their children. I asked Rachel a few questions about the film and her experience.

Filmmaker Rachel Meyrick with Domestic Violence Survivor Charlotta Harrison.

You are from the UK, and this film took you all over the states to places such as Galveston, TX; Tulsa, OK; Washington, D.C. and Reno, NV just to name a few. What drew you to the U.S. to cover this issue specifically?

This film began as a short film about an 86-year-old woman in Oklahoma who escaped a violent husband after 62 years of marriage. I had edited a promo for a group called Brave Woman during which she spoke of her harrowing experiences and escape. Charlotta Harrison is an inspiring survivor who now advocates for domestic violence victims. After spewing her life story to me, she took me to the local shelter in Claremore. It was here that I was told that mentioning your own abuse in custody cases often goes against you, and that it could be detrimental to your case. I just could not believe this was correct, but six years on I realize it is. I learned that when a man expresses any interest in the custody of his children, judges like to reward him. The abuser is seen as a “good enough” father, even if there is evidence of violence or sexual abuse. The mother, meanwhile, is painted as crazy or unreliable, when she is in fact afraid for her life and those of her kids, and desperate to protect them. I initially thought it was a problem unique to the US, but experts and social workers in the UK have said it is very similar here and across the world.

When I came out with my first op-Ed on this issue, published in The Washington Post, the page was flooded with more than 400 comments, a great many of which were disparaging of me and other victims. Knowing the controversy and relative obscurity of this issue, did you have any fears about doing the film?

Early in the making of this film, I realized that domestic violence is not a tempting subject: people care about animals and children but not battered women. I thought that going at the subject with the children at the forefront would make people pay attention.

I had been warned that this was a dangerous film to make. I was told in no uncertain terms that attempts would be made by extremist groups to sabotage the success of the film. In no way does the film make accusations, and I worked hard to make sure that the film remained objective. I laid out the facts from experts and contributor’s stories in an honest way, avoiding all “conspiracy theories” or extreme views. It will be interesting to see how the film will be attacked. No perpetrators are interviewed for the film, as this is not a film about perpetrators; it’s about how mothers and children cope after escaping domestic violence.

The other issue the film does not address is where the victim is male, which is of course a huge issue, nor does it cover same-sex interpersonal relationship violence. The dynamic remains the same: the abusive parent is often successful in obtaining custody. The majority of domestic violence is men to women. I am a woman and a mother, so I thought concentrating on the mothers would focus attention on the children. Essentially it is the children who this film is about.

How long did you spend making the film?

I spent 6 years and 22,000 pounds (all raised through crowdfunding), but where I really saved money was doing every single part of the film myself: camera, sound, producing, directing and editing. I am a single mother living in the UK, so I had to keep stopping to raise money to continue filming and to support myself and my daughter.

You started making this film before Donald Trump was elected president, an event which struck many victims who see a resemblance between the president and their narcissistic abusers. Do you think this new reality speaks to women’s lack of rights, or otherwise reflects the importance of the film?

I think this film is incredibly pertinent in the political landscape. This film is crucial right now when the president’s rhetoric toward women has been brought back to a time that we thought had passed. In such a sad era in the fight for equal rights, we need to shine a light on inequality and demand justice and protection for society’s most vulnerable.

Given the immensity of this tragedy, it’s easy to become discouraged. Does anything you learned in making the film give you hope or inspiration?

Every single victim I spoke to is a lesson in courage and tenacity. Some of these mothers have spent years and years trying to protect or rescue their children from dysfunctional abusers, yet they still have the energy to help other women and fight for reform. The grown children I have spoken to who project such fervent voices and cannot be disbelieved are utterly inspiring. There is a tendency to ignore victims but, when the children of domestic violence speak out, we cannot help but listen and give them our attention.

What’s next for you, and for this film?

The film now has a distributor, and will be released educationally through the US and Canada. I will be doing some work with the film to reach colleges, universities, law schools etc. which is where this film needs to do its greatest work. It needs to get to the law makers, social workers, politicians and police forces to instigate a paradigm shift in thinking about how to protect survivors and their children both in the community and in the court room. Most mothers who find themselves in this situation think their case is unique; a product of vindictive behavior and bad court decisions; that no one else in the world could possibly be this unlucky. They often think they are alone. Their families and friends are just as bewildered, and will often blame them. This film can be a positive tool for those women to show the people around them how the system is geared toward the abuser.

What’s your favorite part about the process, and/or the film?

I think that will be to come, when things start to change and mothers and children are effectively protected instead of being revictimized or punished for disclosing abuse.

You can buy tickets to see What Doesn’t Kill Me October 7th and find out more on Facebook or the film’s website.

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post. Republished with author permission.

Hope Loudon is an activist and writer who holds a Bachelor’s of International Affairs from the University of Nevada, Reno. She has worked in journalism and nonprofits both at home and abroad, and is attending Central European University’s School of Public Policy in pursuit of her MA.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for posting this riveting interview about the making of “What Doesn’t Kill Me.” I was privileged to watch the filmmaker interviewing some of my friends/colleagues at the 12th Annual Battered Mothers Child Custody Conference in Albany, NY. Learning now about Ms. Meyrick’s devotion to the film and to the cause of justice for protective mothers and our children fills me with gratitude. Kudos to Ms. Loudon for a splendidly written piece. May the film reach a wide audience; may it open many eyes to this scandal hidden in plain sight. In memory of my late son, Louis, victim of court-licensed abuse, I applaud MS magazine, Rachel, Hope and all those who bravely speak their truth – our truth – in this film.

  2. Sue Magee says:

    This is mind blowing news for all mother’s in Australia but sadly I personally doubt it will make a lot of difference as long as the AFCC is in charge of courts, judges etc.

    • California Mom says:

      Many AFCC vendors are pro domestic abuse and think it is perfectly fine to abuse your family if you are male. Peter Salem the director of the AFCC turns a blind eye to this as long as they make money.

  3. Debbie Ricker says:

    I spent 7 years in court trying to protect my children from their abusive father. He was always charming in court, and I was always on the verge of hysteria, because the abuse continued with the constant custody exchanges, and he terrorized me every chance he got. I had to endure years of court ordered mediation, which doesn’t work with an abuser- they are liars, manipulative, deceitful, and are ONLY concerned about getting their way. By the grace of God, after 7 years of getting no help in the legal system, everything came together and the new female judge awarded full custody to me after my ex showed his true behavior in court. I now lead a support group for abused women, and the custody issue often arises in group. It is a travesty that these abusive men still get away with their manipulation of judges in the midst of custody battles!

  4. Mom in Connecticut says:

    Thank you Hope for once again helping to raise awareness of custody tactics by abusers in family court to either avoide child support and punish a protective mother for leaving him.

  5. I would like the same help for us victims of non physical domestic violence. The same us true here…woman is not believed, man wants custody and gets it

  6. As a “survivor”/still dealing with it, this ticks every box for me. I am thankful my childrten are teens now and actively advocate for themselves, but the bigger systems still don’t hear them.

  7. Hope, I am looking forward to viewing this documentary hopefully in Florida some day! Currently I am collaborating with FLorida Atlantic University for the release of our documentary, STAND UP on January 13, 2018. Plumb Talk Productions takes an in depth look at the Alimony Reform bills which have been sweeping the country. As a result of my own personal divorce battle, I became actively involved in the much heated debate between second wives of men who pay alimony and the women who receive support. Much to my surprise, as I continued to speak out, I became a target of the MRA groups, the Second Wives Group and the men who are sponsoring these bills. I am the co-founder of Equityanddignity.com which is sponsoring the documentary. Our group has grown quite large since the Governor vetoed the Alimony Reform bill not once, but twice! A firestorm of hate has been raining down on us since. We are called leeches, barnacles, and parasites just to name a few. Some of the women in our group are afraid to speak out. Others who have testified in Tallahassee have had their address and divorce records displayed on social media.

    Hope, you have taken on a subject that needs to be exposed, thank you for doing so. It wasn’t until I became so involved with my own post judgment battle, that I became aware of what women and children have to endure when attempting to leave their abusers. In honor of Domestice Violence Awareness Month, thank you for producing this documentary. I would love to assist you in distributing here in Florida. You can reach me at: Weiofflorida@gmail.com.

  8. Amy Brockwell says:

    I Know My Own Story and I know there’s expected to be an estimated 1 million more. I pray this documentary educates those who need to know and I pray that the untouched public stands up for these mothers and children God bless the Children!

  9. Fuzzy Urchin says:

    The only reason I have custody of my kids is because I paid $80,000 in legal fees, including a psych eval. I was fortunate enough to have a competent evaluator. But the games continue. And I also get to the man who beat our children spousal support, because he refused to find a real job when we are married. The court approved abuse also made me “unreliable”, and I can’t get a job now, even though I was on FMLA, I get bad references.

    The system is beyond broken and ridiculous.

  10. Jennifer R. says:

    The Father’s Rights and Men’s Rights activist groups are notoriously aggressive, negative, and hateful, and they spew out false statistics to back up their cause – things like that most child abuse/neglect is by mothers (much of those “neglect” cases are due to poverty), or that as many women abuse men as the reverse, when it’s based on surveys, not police reports or hospital admissions, etc.
    Things are much worse for abused women who are dealing with child custody, but the legal system in general does not protect women very well from abusers. Family Court just adds a whole other layer – domestic violence by proxy

  11. Such a needed awareness. Please include the women who either don’t have children or the children are raised, who are horribly affected by abuse, especially by covert narcissists. The legal system absolutely re-traumatizes the victim!
    You absolutely lost my respect though when you brought in President Trump to slight. If you were going to go political, look at HRC, whose disregard & continuous degradation of all women who didn’t vote for her & those affected by her own husband, is beyond senseless & hateful. Smh at the ridiculous inclusion of our President who is a real advocate for all, not just those who contribute to his numbers.

  12. Thanks for posting this, Ms. Going through my own battle right now and oscillating between giving in and fighting. Been in it over 4 years.

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