Nicole Behrens readily admits that it never really gets easier to share her story publicly. But she doesn’t let that stop her. On Sunday evening, in front of a group of more than 25 people on the third floor of the Sag Harbor Cinema, she spoke about the moment, more than 20 years ago, when she thought her ex-husband was going to kill her as she held her 5-year-old daughter in her arms.
She has continued to share the details of that traumatic and terrifying experience — how she had run out the door to her home with her daughter in tow, trying to escape, and had just made it to her car when she turned around to see her ex-husband standing on their front porch, shotgun in his hands — for a simple reason, she says: “We’re still dying, and more needs to be done.”
Behrens’s story is compelling because there was triumph after tragedy. She is happily married, with a high ranking position working at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and her daughter, Hannah, just earned her master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University. But she knows how easily her story could have taken a much darker turn, and wants to help ensure that doesn’t happen to others.
Behrens was one of six women who were part of a panel discussion on domestic violence held at the Cinema on Sunday evening. “Behind Closed Doors: A Frank Discussion About Abuse In Our Community,” was put together by the Cinema and The Retreat, the community-based not-for-profit agency that provides a wide range of domestic violence services and support.
Behrens, who is an advocate and survivor and has worked closely with The Retreat for years, was joined by The Retreat’s prevention education director, Helen Atkinson-Barnes, The Retreat attorney Susan Bereche, SPARK case manager Viviana Bishop, and Minerva Perez, the executive director of OLA, a Latino advocacy group based on the East End.
The discussion was moderated by Diana Diamond, a psychologist and psycho-analyst who, over the course of 30 years in practice, has specialized in issues related to gender, sexuality, and women’s life cycle transitions like marriage, divorce, transition to motherhood, and aging.
The women discussed a wide range of issues and societal factors that come into play in instances of domestic violence, but their main motivation for joining together to speak publicly, and invited broad participation from the community, is the continued prevalence of intimate partner violence, which the CDC has said is a “public health epidemic.” Diamond pointed out that for all that the #metoo movement has done to raise public awareness around sexual assault and violence, it has not lowered the rates of domestic abuse. National statistics cite that one in four women and one in seven men will be in an abusive relationship at some point in their lives, and those rates aren’t necessarily lower in affluent communities, although women of color and non-binary individuals are even more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of a partner.
The timing was certainly right for the gathering. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and the national news cycle has been dominated in recent weeks by the disappearance and death of Suffolk County resident Gabby Petito, who is believed to be the victim of domestic partner violence. All those reasons, and more, made it important to host the discussion, according to The Retreat’s executive director, Loretta Davis, who was not part of the panel discussion, but was in attendance.
“We wanted to do this because we think people don’t know the prevalence of [domestic violence] in the community,” she said. “And this is how they learn that they can participate and help.
“You can’t imagine how many cases we have,” she added, pointing out the well-documented fact that the pandemic caused an alarming rise in domestic violence. She said there was one day during the pandemic when a victim seeking support had to hang up and call back five or six times because being isolated at home meant her chances for finding the kind of privacy necessary to call for help safely were slim. “So it’s the idea of having a community presentation, where anyone can come, it’s free and they can ask questions and see what’s happening, and it’s about getting the word out. We can’t really change unless we have the whole community involved.”
Behrens opened Sunday evening’s discussion, which then transitioned into educational components. Atkinson-Barnes spoke about the dynamics of abuse, with information about which groups of people are at highest risk. She also spoke about recognizing patterns that are common features of intimate partner violence, such as gaslighting — a tactic used to undercut someone’s sense of reality and undermine their opinions. When Atkinson-Barnes asked the audience why domestic violence isn’t heard about more frequently in the community, even though she and others who work at The Retreat, in law enforcement, and within other agencies know exactly how prevalent it is — the answers were illuminating. Shame; financial dependency; fear, complications regarding children; and distrust of law enforcement (a particularly important issue for immigrant groups), were all cited as answers.
Bishop spoke about her experience with a former partner who had cut her off financially, and how she had to fight tooth and nail through the courts and legal avenues to gain financial stability and care for her children. Her story drove home the importance of recognizing that abuse doesn’t have to be physical to count, and how it can often be a challenge for women to prevail in court when there is not a proven record of physical violence.
“The mentality was, ‘You don’t have a black eye, so where’s the abuse?’” Bishop recounted of her experience fighting for sole custody of her children. She also spoke about how devastating the lockdown was for victims of domestic violence, particularly children who, prior to the pandemic, may have been shielded from witnessing some abuse while at school, but during stay-at-home orders, could not get away from it. Being cut off from the school system also meant signs of abuse that may have been spotted by an educator or school official went unnoticed.
The lockdown also made it extraordinarily difficult for victims of intimate partner violence to find the alone time they need to seek help discreetly. Davis spoke after the discussion about how the governor’s order to “stay at home to stay safe” was a cruel irony for victims of domestic violence, who suddenly found themselves in more peril than ever. Bishop also spoke about the devastating short- and long-term effects that being a victim of or witnessing domestic violence can have on children, from intense separation anxiety in younger children to increased likelihood to engage in high-risk behaviors for teens. There has even been evidence that children who witness or suffer from domestic violence are at increased risk of developing adverse health outcomes like diabetes or obesity. She did offer a note of hope, however.
“With a good support system, and a good relationship with the non-offending caregiver, they can overcome trauma,” she said.
Modeling the courage and determination it takes to leave an abusive relationship is important for children to see as well.
“I want to show my child that she never has to stay in a place where she doesn’t feel safe and loved,” Behrens said.
Perez spoke about the impact of domestic violence on Latino members of the East End community — emphasizing that she wants to drive home the idea that the East End is one community, with members of various different backgrounds, rather than referring to Latino people within that community as “the Latino community.”
Despite that, she did acknowledge that people of Latino descent living in the area often face unique challenges when it comes to intimate partner violence and trying to protect themselves and seek help.
Perez was the former director of The Retreat shelter before moving into her current role with OLA, and spoke about how the presence of so many different law enforcement agencies in Suffolk County — as opposed to one central police department — can create complications, and said that OLA has worked on identifying barriers that might prevent a victim from seeking help or getting the kind of support they need.
“We always have an eye toward accessibility,” she said, after pointing out that OLA was instrumental in having local police departments gain easy access to language lines, where live people are available to provide translation services at the push of a few buttons. She pointed out that systems like that are only part of the solution.
“It’s not just about language access, but also cultural nuances,” she said.
Bereche spoke about her work helping victims understand their rights and navigate the often tricky and turbulent waters of the court systems. She said that while strides have been made in recent years in the legal system to help victims of intimate partner violence seeking justice, common procedures like obtaining an order of protection can be more difficult than one might imagine. She pointed out that a crime has to have been committed for an order of protection to be granted, and it isn’t always easy to clear that hurdle. She also spoke about the effect that gender bias and how stereotypes surrounding the way men and women are perceived can also have a big effect on court outcomes.
“The abuser could have a strong community presence or important ties in the community, which can be a factor,” she said. She also added to Perez’s point about how living in an area where there are so many different police departments can create added layers of complication for victims.
“That’s a lot of different departments that might have different levels of discretion about making an arrest,” she said.
Near the conclusion of the discussion, Atkinson-Barnes spoke again, giving the audience members some key information about how to help a friend or family member who is or is suspected of being a victim of intimate partner violence. They advise people to follow the “ABC’s”, which includes asking (A) what’s going on, with open-ended, validating, and non-judgmental questions; being there for them and believing them (B); keeping confidentiality (C) front of mind, making sure not to gossip about the situation or confront the abuser, which could put the victim in more danger; documenting (D) the abuse; and educating (E) themselves about the resources that are available in the community. Atkinson-Barnes pointed out that The Retreat is not just a shelter, but also provides legal advocacy and counseling services.
Those elements all came into play for Behrens when she finally broke free of the abusive marriage she’d been in for nine years. Even after her near-death experience, she said she still isn’t sure she would’ve been able to leave if it hadn’t been for Wendy Russo, a legal advocate with The Retreat, who came to family court when Behrens sought an order of protection. Russo applied those strategies that Atkinson-Barnes spoke about, believing Behrens, validating her experience, reassuring her she would get through it and that she’d have the support she needed.
“She walked in at the right moment, and she saved my life,” Behrens said. To emphasize how much that support meant to her, Behrens pulled out from her back pants pocket the business card Russo gave her that day more than 20 years ago. It has softened at the edges, and yellowed slightly with age, with a thumbtack hole puncturing the center, but remains a testament to how seminal that moment was for Behrens.
Russo and many other people associated with The Retreat have been helping women like Behrens for years, but hosting the panel discussion and giving the microphone to women like Behrens highlights the importance of speaking about the topic in a public forum. To illustrate that point, toward the end of the discussion, Diamond referenced words from the feminist poet Muriel Keyser, who wrote a poem in the 1960s that began with the lines “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The whole world would split open.”
For more information about The Retreat, visit allagainstabuse.org.