Robbie Howell abducted his wife and their toddler across state lines. He poured Mountain Dew and urine into his wife’s hair and beat her senseless with a flashlight, teaching his daughter that “it’s okay to hit Mommy” because she “doesn’t love you.”
“When he realized I wasn't moving, he started laughing and said 'I almost got you that time,'” Deanna Walters recalls in Private Violence, a chilling documentary that premieres October 20 on HBO. “It was right after that I started having seizures. I heard Martina screaming. He pulled me up next to Martina, and I fell asleep. It was the first time I slept the whole trip.”
Despite these horrors, the anguish of her abuse is magnified when people ask Walters why she never left her husband. “I thought about ripping out pages out of one of those coloring books and writing ‘help me’ and sticking it out of the window and hope someone would call the police,” Walters says. She would spend her days under her husband's captivity wondering how to escape with her daughter. “But then I thought he would instantly kill me, and I'd never know what would happen to Martina.”
Walters's battle to put her abusive husband behind bars is the centerpiece of Cynthia Hill's documentary. Through Walters's story, Private Violence illustrates not only how much domestic abuse slips through the legal and social cracks of society, but also how poorly we understand the victim's point of view.
That perspective is often lost in the most recent discussions of domestic violence, perhaps because we focus on the famous alleged abusers rather than their victims. In a perverse way, the emotional manipulation that keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships is less sexy than video of a violent elevator brawl. We only wonder why Janay Palmer Rice stayed in a relationship with her abuser and even defended him, but Private Violence shows how simplistic, crude, and accusatory that question is.
“I want people to walk away and no longer be able to say 'Why doesn't she just leave?' That became my obsession,” Hill tells me.
That question—so often asked after abuse victims share their stories—implicitly blames them, suggesting that they could have walked away and protected themselves. As Walters's own situation clearly illustrates, leaving her husband would have not only meant risking her life, but any future with her daughter. Yet, she is still asked why she didn't just leave her husband. “That is the worst question you can ask a victim of domestic violence. There's really no answer, no one answer,” Walters tells me.
“Leaving an abuser is not an event. It's a process,” Kit Gruelle, a domestic abuse advocate, says in the documentary. She suffered at the hands of her husband for years until he died in an accident. “He was trained by the United States Marine Corps, and he told me if I left, he would hunt me down and kill me. So, I didn't leave.”
Gruelle's story highlights the overlooked fact that leaving an abusive relationship can be lethal. One often-cited study showed that women who left abusive relationships were 75 percent more likely to be killed by their abusers. “[The movie] was about understanding the most dangerous thing a woman can do is leave,” Hill says. “Staying may be an act of survival. That's what may be needed to keep her and her family alive.”
At the same time, Private Violence shows how much of domestic abuse is about control and manipulation rather than sheer brutality. Walters recounts how during the abduction, her husband exploited their daughter's hunger to get Walters to confess to cheating on him (something she states in the movie she never did). At a gas station, he bought meatballs and started eating them and waving them in front of two-year-old Martina.
“He got one out of the pack and held it in front of her face and ate one and said 'Hmm, this is so good. Just think if your mommy had told me the truth you could have had one,'” Walters says. Her abusive husband tormented their toddler to drive Walters crazy without lifting a finger—and it tragically worked. “I let him beat me with a flashlight while I fed them to her. I was bound and determined. I wasn't going to let my baby starve because of him.”
Gruelle says the mental aspects of domestic abuse are often misunderstood or overlooked because we're taught to focus on physical markers. “Law enforcement can't do anything until there are physical marks or a threat,” she tells me. “All of us need to understand that if we wait until a battered woman looks like she's been beaten, we've already missed 90 percent of what they're dealing with. It's about control. It's about entitlement. It's about him thinking he can treat her like a piece of property.”
Private Violence shows how the misunderstanding of domestic violence manifests itself in a legal system that fails to protect abuse victims. Although one would think Walters's case against her husband would automatically put him behind bars for years, it takes close to two just to get him on trial. The documentary shows not only how much work Walters and her legal advocate put into pursuing her husband, but how disturbingly close prosecutors are to declining to even treat the case as a felony.
“Our criminal justice system requires that she be beaten enough to satisfy the system,” Gruelle says in Private Violence. At one point, she is seen talking about Walters's case to a county prosecutor, who is shockingly skeptical about taking it on. Even after Gruelle describes how Walters's husband choked her, the county prosecutor is still dismissive. “Any internal injuries? Do we have any medical doctors that will say these are serious injuries?,” she asks, ultimately concluding that it's unlikely to be more than a misdemeanor conviction.
It is only because Walters's husband transported her and her daughter across state lines, which violates the Interstate Violence Act, that the feds follow the case. It is chilling when a federal prosecutor reveals that Walters's husband “could have gotten off with nothing” if he hadn't been caught crossing state lines. He is ultimately convicted and sentenced to federal prison, creating a happy (or happier) ending in a domestic abuse story.
While Walters' story is inspiring, the one failing of Private Violence may be that it doesn't focus enough on the victims who do not find justice or truly break away from their abusers. Because Walters's story of triumph is the prime thread of the documentary it overshadows the more disheartening stories. It almost wholly ignores Candy, who is actually the focus of the movie's opening scenes. Two workers at a domestic violence center are shown coaching Candy to text her abuser to meet her at a certain location where the police will actually be awaiting him. Candy is shown with bloodshot eyes, shaking and smoking as the workers cry tears of joy at her abuser's arrest. “This is so hard,” she says. “I feel like this is my fault.”
The audience never hears from Candy again until the closing credit when a note reveals she has returned to her abusive ex. It feels like a hard slap in the face. It stings to discover she is back with the man we saw cause her so much turmoil. Although the movie has taught us how hard it is to leave an abuser and how likely a victim is to return, it is still shocking and, frankly, frustrating as a viewer to be denied any details behind Candy's story.
Hill stands by her decision to focus on Walters's story of domestic abuse. “I feel that the story gives us hope that we can make a difference, that a woman who experiences something like that can come out and survive,” she says.
While that means Private Violence runs the risk of glossing over the unsuccessful attempts at escaping abuse, Hill would rather motivate than depress viewers. “We don't want the audience to walk out and think 'There's nothing we can do,'” says Hill. Because when it comes to domestic violence, that kind of resignation can be lethal.