Private Violence is a recent HBO documentary about a domestic abuse survivor, named Deanna, and her advocate, Kit. Though their two stories anchor the narrative arch of the film, other women’s stories are featured throughout. In this film Deanna’s experience is metanymic for the experiences of thousands of other survivors, becoming a concrete representation of a relatively abstract concept. Abstract because, as the title intimates, abuse is something that happens behind closed doors out of public view, and so remains foreign to many of us who have not personally experienced abusive relationships. This, by the way, is a standard documentary practice, moving from the particular to the general, using specific examples in order to make an argument about broader social issues.
One of the driving questions that the film attempts to answer is the all-too-familiar one: “why didn’t she just leave?” The film attempts to humanize the survivors, counteracting this subtle form of victim blaming through the advocates’ interactions with survivors (one advocate, hugging a woman sobbing uncontrollably, soothingly repeats “it’s not your fault”), and by explicitly addressing this question through survivor testimony. Kit, in a direct address to the camera, explains, “it’s not clean, it’s complicated.” Through Deanna’s story it becomes clear that a lot of women stay with or return to their abusive partners out of fear—fear for themselves, their children, or simply of being alone with no financial or social resources.
Ultimately the film reveals that public discourse reinforces a lot of assumptions about domestic violence that inhibits our ability to properly tackle this crippling social problem. At one point Kit reassembles an essay that she wrote and subsequently ripped up out of anger. She explains that the comments scrolled across the bottom in red ink are from a male professor correcting her for her claim that “all socioeconomic groups are affected by domestic violence.” Admitting that he’s not an expert, he proceeds to admonish her for this claim, arguing that only working poor and uneducated classes are affected by it. All of this comes after a quite disturbing scene in which Kit listens to an audio recording of a wealthy doctor verbally and physically abusing his wife. I believe this sequence exemplifies the overall project of the film, which is to give the survivors themselves epistemological agency through personal testimony. The documentary legitimizes their experiential knowledge as an important, if largely absent, part of our larger conversation about domestic violence in this country.