Vanessa put up with the beatings for 10 years, afraid her
husband would murder her. Kori, a college freshman, was raped by a campus
acquaintance who was drunk after a late-night party.
Gayla, a Latin American immigrant, survived years of abuse by a boyfriend
who threatened her son. Tonda was raped by a stalker who broke into her home,
vowing to attack her young daughter if she resisted.
They are violent stories, disturbingly common and, by now, familiar. The
storytellers are among the 52 percent of American women who have been assaulted
some time in their lives, according to Department of Justice statistics. Such
experiences are usually related by women hidden in the shadows of a TV studio
or photographed from an anonymous angle.
In the cases of Vanessa, Kori, Gayla and Tonda, the road they chose was
more arduous - they agreed to go public with their experiences. Baring their
faces and their painful experiences, they are the principal players in a
harrowing new documentary, "Together: Stop Violence Against Women," which will
debut Sunday at 11 p.m. on Lifetime Television.
The hourlong film marks the opening of Lifetime's 2003 campaign to
dramatize the many forms of violence endured by women and girls around the
world. Hosting the documentary are TV actress Angie Harmon and her husband, pro
football star Jason Sehorn. The couple's presence is meant to underscore the
channel's view that men and women must work together to expose violence rooted
Lifetime Television, launched in 1984, draws an audience made up of about
75 percent female viewers in about 1.7 million households during prime time.
Now, activists against domestic abuse are trying to involve more males,
Meredith Wagner, the channel's executive vice president, said in an interview.
"We are saying to women that they should start dialogues with their
husbands and boyfriends, with their brothers and sons. So having a man as the
co-host made a lot of sense," she said. "It's not just a women's issue," Harmon
says at the end of the film. "It's our issue, too," Sehorn adds, a pointed
reminder to the men in the audience.
Another male voice in the film is Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes,
who had his first experience with domestic violence at age 5. Awakened by his
mother's screams, he rushed to her room.
"I was greeted by a nightmare - my mother covering her face, blood running
through her fingers. It was the first of many beatings I witnessed at the hands
of my father," he recalls. The violence continued on and off until he was 18
and his father left their home.
In 1989, when he was elected district attorney, Hynes made a symbolic first
act - creating a separate bureau to prosecute cases of domestic violence.
Since then, he has become a leading advocate of the principle that violence in
the home is a crime as serious as crime on the streets.
For Wagner, advocacy is a big part of life at Lifetime. In recent years,
the channel has devoted considerable time to subjects of concern to women,
such as self-esteem, breast cancer and AIDS.
In Lifetime's focus groups, she said, women tended not to talk about
violence. "Not until the moderator introduced the issue. Then women couldn't
stop talking about it and how they didn't know what to do about it. They didn't
have a clue where the resources were, where they could seek help. That was
very shocking to me."
In selecting stories for the film, Lifetime chose women with diverse
backgrounds, but with the common experience of taking action to empower
themselves, Wagner said.
When she was raped, Tonda, for instance, remembers thinking, over and over,
"Just get the evidence." Her attacker was later caught and, on the basis of
the DNA evidence she was able to preserve, he was convicted of rape. One in 12
women, like Tonda, will be stalked in their lifetime, the film asserts. Nine of
10 stalkers are never prosecuted. One in 20 victims report rape to the police.
Gayla, an undocumented alien, was beset with shame and terrified that she
would be deported or lose custody of her son if she called the police. After
her boyfriend brandished a knife and threatened the child, she dialed 911. She
found temporary shelter at the East Los Angeles Women's Center. Two-thirds of
immigrants in the United States are women and children, says the film. Nearly
half of the women, like Gayla, are victims of domestic violence.
Kori, a college freshman, was too stunned to call police after being raped
by an acquaintance, a popular football player. But she finally reported the
incident to the school's disciplinary panel.
She listened in disbelief as her assailant testified that he simply did not
believe her as she struggled against his advances, pleading "no." Since she
had not reported the assault to police or preserved evidence of the rape, the
athlete was permitted to transfer to another college without facing legal
On campuses, one in four women are victims of rape or attempted rape, the
film maintains, and only 25 percent of colleges conduct investigations or
collect evidence when a report of sexual assault is made.
In another study, reported in the Commonwealth Fund Survey of Women's
Health, 31 percent of American women said they had been physically or sexually
abused by a husband or boyfriend sometime in their lives.
As a young woman, Vanessa was unaware that so many women experience
violence in their relationships. Working as a fashion model at age 19, she had
been optimistic when she met and married "a wonderful man." But after two years
of marriage and the birth of their son, he began to drink heavily - and the
When Vanessa's husband broke three of her ribs, she was hospitalized but
decided a proper wife would not press charges. The beatings continued but she
remained silent when he threatened to take their children and move away. She
blamed herself for his anger.
"Nothing was right," she said, "the food wasn't right. The baby would be
awake. I'd worried that the problem was with me. Still, I thought I could
handle it because we were a family, because he was supposed to love me."
One night her husband pointed a gun at her head and pulled the trigger. The
gun jammed. She called the police and her husband was charged with attempted
murder. While his case lumbered through the legal system, she hid in a women's
She is still afraid whenever she sees a strange car parked on her street in
Brooklyn. Perhaps, she thinks, her ex-husband has come back to kill her.
But, at 32, she is moving on with her life - getting a divorce, becoming a
certified emergency medical technician, seeing a man she hopes to marry.
When she was asked to talk about her experiences on film, she agreed, "so
other women would see how I continue to fight to keep my children, to be
independent and survive, to see there are ways to stop the violence."