Four Things I Learned from Maria Henson’s “To Have and To Harm” series on domestic violence

As I drove to Lexington, Kentucky yesterday from my temporary station in Louisville, I remembered the first time I’d committed to going.

In 1991, while taking Literature of Appalachian Women in Alaska that rocked my world, we students were given copies of the Lexington Herald-Leader’s editorial series by Maria Henson.

Henson, who was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work addressing domestic violence, did something that was unthinkable at the time: she spotlighted how prevalent violence was in families,  published pictures of victims, their injuries, their stories, and published pictures and personal addresses of judges and officers who’d failed to protect victims.

(To see Ms. Henson speak about her work, click here.)

At the time of the class, I was likely between restraining orders, definitely on welfare, and edging close to a degree in journalism. Yet the closer I got to success, the scarier my estranged husband became.

I couldn’t believe how fearless The Lexington Herald-Leader was to publish the work. How progressive and tenacious Ms. Henson was. I naturally imagined myself one day, visiting Lexington, and maybe setting down roots there.

There were four takeaways from Ms. Henson’s work that transformed my world, nudging me to become a domestic violence advocate, tell my own story, and hold the judicial system accountable.

  • Domestic violence is everyone’s problem.

Rich, poor, white, brown, young, and old. The prevalence was not limited to Lexington Kentucky, remaining an epidemic worldwide today.Intimate partner violence flourishes in isolation and secrecy.

  • Domestic violence flourishes in isolation and secrecy.

 When victims are controlled and isolated, they will not believe in their own strengths, know about services and laws to protect them, and are more likely to blame themselves for what is happening, thus remaining stuck and feeling hopeless.

  • Until we believe that every person is equally valued, worthy of respect and protection, regardless of gender or any other factor, the systems response will remain inadequate.

Had the threat come up from a mugger, rapist, or holdup man, the authorities might have seen their duty more clearly. But this is what the law calls a “domestic case.” -Maria Henson in A Death Foretold about Betty Jean Ashby.

  • A stranger can make all the difference in addressing the violence.

By now, decades later, most of us are aware of programs like Green Dot training bystanders on what to do if they witness domestic violence. But look at the power of Ms. Henson’s work. She was in her late twenties when she decided to roll the dice and change her world. It was risky, publishing names and faces of those in her then-small community. She worried that her effort would cause further violence or even death to some of the victims, who’d agreed to go on record in the Lexington Herald. “If I put these women’s names in the paper, will they be in further danger?” she’d asked herself.

But less than two years after her work was published, legislation dramatically changed in how Kentucky managed domestic violence cases.

It had been a while since I thought about those columns. But when I saw the Lexington Herald, it all came flooding back.

I sat in my rental car and sent an email to Ms. Henson. I had to thank her for inspiring a revolution, and changing so many lives.

Including mine.

It’s Domestic Violence Action Month, a terrific time to make a donation to a local shelter, volunteer, or even share a DV shelter event on your social media.

I’m off to see family now, before going to North Carolina and visiting my esteemed Literature of Appalachian Women professor and dear friend, Dr. Virginia Carney.

Thank you for stopping by.

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