‘Hidden Horrors’: When it Comes to Domestic Violence, the Real Monsters Are Hiding in Plain Sight

Safe In Harm’s Way, DomesticShelters.org and Neon launched the ‘Hidden Horrors’ campaign on March 27. (Sam Lauro / Neon)

April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Safe In Harm’s Way, DomesticShelters.org and Neon launched a new campaign exposing domestic violence abusers as master manipulators. Since domestic violence perpetrators don’t always fit the “wife-beater” mold, “Hidden Horrors” called attention to how most people have likely been deceived by an abuser at some point in their lives—especially if they haven’t experienced the abuse first-hand. 

“The abuser isn’t targeting friends or colleagues, they are gearing abuse towards one specific person, and everyone else may experience something completely different,” said Ashley Rumschlag, CEO and president of DomesticShelters.org. “Abusers make great efforts to protect their public perception in order to maintain control over their victim.” 

By focusing on an abuser’s strategic deception, “We wanted to put a spotlight on the subtle details that are breaks in the façade—a possessive hand, a demeaning expression, strained body language, panicked eyes and darkened windows,” said Sam Lauro, group art supervisor at Neon. “It exists right before our eyes, our aim is to make it visible.”

Ms. spoke with Caroline Markel Hammond, CEO of Safe In Harm’s Way, and Sam Lauro to discuss the campaign’s creative process, how to expose the real monsters hiding in plain sight, how to support survivors and how to navigate healing.

Michelle Moulton: Since the “Hidden Horrors” campaign is featured on over 2,900 national screens, what do you hope survivors or the public at large gain from it?

Caroline Markel Hammond: April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month and also April Fool’s. We really wanted something that spoke to what happens at home and the perfect façade outside. And from my own personal experience, this resonates with me. That’s what my life was like. 

We know that people will identify with their feelings more than they will label themselves as being abused. And so we wanted that feeling of “Oh, that’s me.” 

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people reposting and resharing. People are saying, “This was my life…there was a monster living at home.” We wanted to be able to talk about that monster—not only harming their target, but children and pets, too.

Others have said, “Wow, that was impactful driving to work today and now all I can think about is my childhood when I didn’t have the resources, or I didn’t know that my mom could have had these resources.” So when we want to provide a resource, we want to provide immediate and actionable steps. Our website, for example, has the beautiful ability not just to raise awareness, but to actually give immediate and actionable steps for people to take. 

Moulton: Can you share more about the campaign’s creative process?

Sam Lauro: Domestic violence is nuanced and complicated—it’s also contextual. Society, family members, friends, exterior dynamics and social media all come into play—we wanted our third campaign to be rooted in that. Further, we juxtapose private and public life.

In terms of the creative, we wanted to quickly portray a complicated narrative. Monsters can strategically and deceptively lie beneath the surface of a perfect façade. Immediately upon looking at the imagery one sees a perfect, aspirational couple—but things are not what they seem.

When examining the scene, the stiff facial expressions and body language between the two individuals reveal tension. The possessive hand placement on top of her shoulder was deliberate, as was the fear in her eyes, her clasped hands, his charming look and the darkened windows. The brick alludes to a prison setting. We put a lot of thought into those subtle visual cues.

Moulton: This campaign exposes the monsters hiding in plain sight, but how can we individually do that safely? 

Markel Hammond: It comes down to people actually calling abuse and misogynistic behaviour out—but in a very nuanced way. Let’s say within your friend group, you consistently witness someone’s significant other being egregious, and will often scream at a partner in front of you or others. Now you have a choice to call it out right away or wait. There is no time limit on a conversation you’ve witnessed. Pulling someone aside to say, “You doing that in front of me? I don’t tolerate it. I see who you are. I see what you are. And your behavior is not acceptable.” 

We also have to engage more men to call out these moments. Most have a friend group where there is one annoying guy who gets too drunk, who touches women too often without consent and who makes condescending comments. Call those instances out. Say something like, “That is not okay. Would you want me to say that to your sister?” Calling behaviors out lets people know horrible behavior toward women is not acceptable and encourages others to speak out against those types of behaviors, too. 

Trauma-informed interactions with survivors, or people you witness being abused, is something we’re talking about now at Safe In Harm’s Way. We can offer all the resources we want, but if we don’t educate family, friends and co-workers on how to respond to someone and abuse, we fail. Survivors will isolate themselves from friends or even return to violent relationships if not supported. 

“Hey, I hate your boyfriend, would you leave him?” or “I don’t know why you stayed with him so long, I’d never let that happen to me,” is not the way to engage. First, your friend will not leave. In fact, your friend may never talk to you again. It’s crucial to pour love into your friend and say, “You know what? I’m so glad we’re friends. I love how when you show up to work, you show up for all your employees. You’re a great leader. Please know that if you ever want to talk to me about life, I’m here and will always believe what you have to share.” Make really specific callouts to the person because we know that person is being dismantled from the inside out at home. Next, shaming survivors with “why did you stay comments” only delays healing and access to resources by piling on the shame they’ve already suffered in an abusive relationship.

Moulton: Do we use a similar approach with children who are experiencing abuse? 

Markel Hammond: In that situation, it’s really about surrounding the kid with the same kind of soul fuel as you would anyone being abused. If you notice something, you could say to the child, “I want you to know that as someone who’s in your life, I’m here for you. I think you are a really neat kid. I think you’re a really great person. I love that when you play soccer, I see you congratulate the other team. I love it because my son told me that you’re nice to everybody in the class. So if you ever have anything you need, anything you’re worried about, I’m going to be a person that is safe for you.”

Moulton: Since your last interview with Ms., are there any new resources you would like to share with Ms. readers? If not, how can Ms. readers continue to support your organization’s mission?

Lauro: At Neon, we’re aiming to shift the conversation around domestic violence, as it is largely unrecognized, yet is life threatening. The consequences, scars and occurrences of domestic violence may be invisible and non-explicit—even at times for the person experiencing it. Our goal is to help people see, help people recognize what they are going through, let people know that they are not alone and let others see what is occurring. We aim to validate experience.

Markel Hammond: For us at Safe In Harm’s Way, we’re doing two big initiatives. We are bringing pets more into the equation because 90 percent of the time the abuser injures or kills the family pet. I was at a conference recently. A gentleman was giving the case studies and he used a story about a married couple. One man beat his husband so horribly that there was a brain bleed and hospital admission. While in the emergency room, the abusive perpetrator called his husband’s cell phone to let him know and allow him to hear the strangulation of their dog. The conference room gasped.

At that point in the conference, we had already heard four cases of equally egregious, horrible instances of one human abusing another human. It was an abuser’s strangulation of a family pet that made the entire room gasp. I realized that if we could get every dog lover invested in finding out about domestic violence—because you never know who is living with their own monster—we could create real change and action. If we let survivors know that they’re not alone when they choose to be a buffer to their children and their pet, then that can be a way where we can help them with unique and specific services for their biggest need. 

If we can get frontline responders, emergency rooms, or even interviewers, police and prosecutors leaning in and asking, “Have they hurt your family pet?” we can create a better dialogue. If survivors are hesitant to divulge all family members being abused, but you get them talking about their pet, then they may also add, “And they do this to me and our kids.” We can get animal felony convictions for actions like that, which go on a national registry of having harmed an animal. If we can get animal felony convictions for cruelty, then maybe the abuser will get less custody in any kind of divorce arrangement. So we’re just starting those trainings and services, and we’re working with other organizations to bring animal abuses within domestic violence to light. 

We’re also expanding an initiative that we started with Neon called UninterruptedStories.org, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This project profiled diverse women, especially those who have been historically marginalized, who will never get to make history because they were killed by the men who claimed to love them. Each woman’s killer used guns to kill their prey. Within the U.S., as instances of mass shootings keep increasing, we have to address domestic violence as the single biggest indicator of mass shootings. Almost 100 percent of the time, there’s a history of domestic violence in a mass shooter’s family history. 

Abusers are supposed to lose their guns when convicted of a domestic violence charge or if they have a restraining order issued against them. But 29 states have loopholes that allow those abusers to keep their guns. Statistically, a survivor is 75 percent more likely to be killed in the first three months of leaving. If there’s a gun in a home where domestic violence exists, this statistic increases to 500 times more likely to be killed. My home state of Missouri is in the top 10 states where women are killed due to domestic violence. 

We know that if someone sees a story where the person looks battered, bruised or sad, people deflect—even if they’re wearing a turtleneck in July to cover their own strangulation marks. With UninterruptedStories.org, we chose to make beauty, art and poetry by interviewing family members to get intimate details about their loved ones lives, not the physical violence of their death. This initiative ties in with trauma-informed care and being resource ready, so that people can find the information on what can be done next if they’re worried about someone they love. 

We also have another billboard campaign!

Lauro: That’s true. Our fourth campaign is in development. I like to think of them as chapters. Each one captures specific insights and emotions, so people can connect on an instinctual level and think, “I feel that way” rather than being deterred by hyperbolic imagery and labels.

Moulton: There is a section for healing on your website, Caroline, but can you talk more about that? How do you define healing personally or as an organization?

Markel Hammond: We know that survivor stories are key for people healing, so we’re going to have a dedicated survivor story space on our website. We’ve worked with insurance companies to make sure that we can’t be held liable and survivors can’t be held liable because the instances of secondary forms of abuse related to the court systems are massive. We’ve had to make sure everybody’s safe legally. Within our dedicated space, we have the CEO of one of the largest ESOP providers who’s going to share her story of being a survivor. Additionally, since she’s in the retirement industry, she’s going to talk every month about financial abuse and how to combat this early form of relationship power and control. We also have a woman who’s a therapist and works directly with survivors. Every month she’s going to talk about how people can navigate the secondary court system after abuse. She’s going to offer free classes, and provide immediate and actionable resources. 

We have several other people who will be regularly-featured survivors. We are also opening submissions to be reviewed for publication. People can reach us at info@safeinharmsway.org

I know my own journey in healing catapulted forward because I built a platform to share my story. I also know that healing isn’t linear. Safe In Harm’s Way describes healing as whatever way that helps someone break the grasp of their abuser. Healing can look like 52 great days in a row and five days where you’re in bed by 4 p.m. as soon as you get off work. That’s still healing. So we talk about healing as a lifelong journey. 

I had a conversation with a woman who escaped 26 years ago and her abuser slit her throat in an effort to kill her. She shared she was having the worst day possible and that she couldn’t shake it. If we don’t tell that part of the story, then people who are navigating a really bad day, feel like they’re doing it wrong. So when we describe healing, it is whatever you can do to keep yourself, your children and your pets safe. It’s being intentionally fearless. That’s our hashtag we started with because there will always be fear. 

I recently went to dinner with a friend. I walked in and I could feel something. I turned around and the man I escaped from—who threatened to kill me every day when I was homeless and living in my car—was sitting three feet away from me at the bar. I had an opportunity to run, but I thought if I keep running, I will always run. I turned around to the hostess and I said, “I need you to know that that man over there has threatened to kill me and I’ve had restraining orders against him. If he makes one step toward me, I need you to call the police immediately without hesitation. Can you sit me at the back of the bar because I have friends coming.” It’s being intentionally fearless, which is taking every step you can that allows you to feel safe in the world. And on those days when you don’t, allows you the ability to stay at home. All of it is healing.

More resources available:

  • VictimsVoice: VictimsVoice is built for legal admissibility so users can document information that holds up in court, investigators can collect the relevant evidence and the prosecution can build a stronger case. It’s built to meet HIPAA, VAWA, VOCA and FVPSA regulations— ensuring the most strict privacy and security standards are upheld. Contact info@safeinharmsway.org to get the app for FREE.
  • JoinDeleteMe.com: This service provides a personal privacy concierge that scrubs your data every quarter and gives you a report that shares where you were removed from, where you were found again and how long it took to do it. Anyone (judges, police, media, news people, survivors) can use this service. If people use the SAFE20 discount code from Safe In Harm’s Way, then it will cost them less than $130 a year.
  • SeekThenSpeak: Safe In Harm’s Way is planning to partner and expand awareness for End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) and VictimsVoice. SeekThenSpeak is a service for sexual assault survivors, and an evidence documentation app, giving survivors power and control over their experience.

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Michelle Moulton is a former editorial intern with Ms. and a graduate of Smith College, where she majored in the study of women & gender and sociology. Her beats include reproductive justice, domestic violence intervention and pop culture.