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 Awareness Film Festival is a perfect fit for the film 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 (Domestic Violence by Proxy). 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.
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 6 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.
Buy tickets to see What Doesn’t Kill Me October 7th, and like the Facebook page or visit the website. If you would like to donate to help stop court licensed abuse and support victims of domestic violence, we suggest Center for Judicial Excellence, Stop Abuse Campaign, The National Network to End Domestic Violence, and DV Leap.
Watch the trailer below:
Note: Author was interviewed for this film, but receives no compensation for her participation in the film, or for this article.