Violence UnSilenced - Maggie Dammit Talks about Domestic Violence and How We Can Help

BlogHer Original Post

Today is the last day of October and of Domestic Violence Awareness month. Obviously in what I would believe to be a better world such an observance would be completely unnecessary. Since that is not so, I wanted to take the opportunity to share the work of Maggie Dammit of Okay, Fine, Dammit, and Violence Unsilenced, a site with the goal of "shedding light on the epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault by giving its survivors a voice." 

Maggie is one of my writing inspirations who used the still-amazing-to-me ability to immediately self-publish and her formidable voice in the blogosphere to provide this digital space where people affected by domestic violence - survivors like Gina at Upside Down Cats and Jett at All Blogged Up and Nowhere to Go - can tell their stories.

I cannot begin to share the stories of many of the people I have known who have been affected by domestic violence, both because they are not my stories to tell and because there are so many at different levels of complexity that I wouldn't know where to begin if they were. When I mentally scroll through the years and relationships of my life, I'm sobered by the numbers of individuals I've known personally whom I could say had either been abused or were abusers - and this was just in situations that I knew enough about to be able to make that call.

So if I can't, who can? And if they want to, but are unable to, either from fear of violence being done to them by a family member or the safety of their extended family, how can we help them?

Maggie was willing to talk to me and I would like her answers to stand alone, both because she is one of the most capable writers I know and also because I believe the story is best told simply. Please, read about why she started this project and how you, if you choose to, can participate. Reach out however it is comfortable for you. Comment, as she suggests. And if you are like me, be amazed and somehow comforted that this vast medium of blogging, whatever it means for you and as alternately loved and reviled as it is, can bring people together for purposes as noble as they can be the opposite. Here is what I asked Maggie, and here is how she answered:

I used this quote from the Violence Unsilenced site as my guide for this post, because in my role here I am most concerned about what we can do as friends and family members to support people we love who may find themselves in precarious situations. 

"I believe that you have people in your life that are being abused, you just don’t realize it. I believe victims are led to believe they are alone, that no one will believe them, and that people will think less of them."

1. How can we help? And I know you're not giving clinical advice on the site, so if you just want to point me to stories that's fine. No pressure here.

We can help by talking about it, because talking about it normalizes an environment where secrecy and shame over abuse no longer exists. Abusers rely on our silence. They taunt their victims with it. "No one will believe you." "Everyone will know." Well... so what if they do? The victims aren't the ones who should have to carry the blame, they aren't the ones in the wrong. We as a society have a mandate to keep that blame squarely where it belongs, and one of the ways we can do that is by talking about our experiences and validating survivors who speak out.

2. I'd like just a little bit of background on Violence Unsilenced. I've read your background posts (I think - at least the ones linked on OFD) and I don't want to make you repeat yourself, but is there anything else that's come clear to you since the article and the blog posts about why this became so important for you to do?

I'm a journalist and in 2008 I wrote an article featuring the stories of seven survivors. It was a big deal because we used their faces and full names. What struck me at the time was how empowered the survivors were by telling their stories--they had lived so long in silence and the act of speaking out was even more therapeutic than they ever expected. Also, in the process of writing that article, many of my friends came out of the woodwork with their own stories of abuse. It got me thinking about the blogosphere, and how connected we all are, and how if one in four women has a story of abuse to tell, chances are you know a whole lot of bloggers that are affected. I wanted to empower survivors, but I also wanted to hold a mirror up to the community because this issue belongs to all of us. And, let's be honest, we often need to put the face of someone we know to the stories we hear or we don't soak it in as well.
3. It has been about a year now since the blog started. How do you feel about how it has been received? How many submissions do you receive, even in ballpark?

I am so grateful at the way the blogging community embraced Violence UnSilenced from the start. From day one everybody out there took it and lifted it up and made it their own. There were over 2,000 hits in the first 24 hours because countless people helped spread the word. It was legitimized from the start and I owe a great debt to this community for that. Most importantly, in those first 24 hours 32 survivors sent stories my way. The support has continued, steady and strong, a year later. I have a several month wait list for submissions and when I post the stories, twice a week, people always spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, and email, and leave supportive comments. It's amazing.

4. Do you get response from family members and friends on the site? People who are concerned? I'm just wondering what the engagement is with the extended community, in addition to people who are living in abusive situations or have in the past?

If the survivors are able to share their stories with their own loved ones (and they often aren't), we'll see plenty of comments from them. There is a regular cadre of VU readers, but each post gets several new comments from first time visitors, too--I assume from the survivor's own readership. We also implemented a Wednesday Q&A with a local expert a few months back, and that's where a lot of non-survivors will voice concerns or confusion over what they can do. People want to help, they just don't always know how.

5. As extended family members and friends, what can we do to best support our loved ones who we feel are in potentially or already-existing violent situations? How do you deal with the fear of approaching them or do it in a way that makes it less?

My local expert, Carrie K., has addressed this on our Wednesday Q&A. I really feel for people in these situations because it's such a helpless position to be in, or so it feels. It's so complicated, too--you don't want your loved one to feel judged to the point they become further isolated, and you also don't want to do anything that puts them in further danger.

6. This is a project that lives digitally, spun-off from real people that you interviewed and included in the article. What kind of meaning do you think the online community has or can have for people who live in some relationship to domestic violence, either in their present or their past?

Victims of abuse are usually isolated, but the Internet (and in particular the blogosphere) has helped blow the lid off that. Survivors can now reach out and receive support without leaving their homes. Sometimes just reading about other people who have lived through exactly what you're going through now, what you thought was uniquely awful to you, can be very powerful. When a survivor sees him or herself on these pages, it can inspire them to speak out, too--especially when they see how supportive the community is in the comments. The comments you leave on VU are so important--even if it's just to let them know they've been heard.

7. Do you have any thoughts about how the Violence Un-silenced project might continue? Is there any way you would suggest that readers get additionally involved, either online in their own way or in their local communities?

I have a lot of informal plans to expand Violence UnSilenced --things that could help it gain more reach, and also affect more concrete change. I'd like to develop a financial sponsorship program for victims, possibly. I'd like to organize writing workshops, because speaking out is so empowering and I'm a firm believer in the written word as therapy. I'd like to do more outreach, connect with other advocacy groups beyond the ones in my local community (who, by the way, have been very supportive of VU.) I'd also like to develop a news aggregate on the site to organize and disemminate reports about abuse. There are lots of things swimming around in my head, but for now I'm focused on the nuts and bolts--providing a forum for survivors to speak out, and for readers to support them.

I want to say the community of Madison, Wisconsin has fully embraced VU. Domestic Abuse Intervention Services of Madison has a link to VU on their page, and they also gave the project a community service award at a banquet this summer. One of their former employees is the person who organizes the Wednesday Q&A pro bono. The local CBS affiliate did a segment on VU, and it included an interview with the district attorney's office lauding VU's efforts. Madison Magazine published a small blurb this month as well. When the project first launched I also received supportive emails from several local advocacy groups, including Men Stopping Rape and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault. All of this support from traditional groups further legitimizes the efforts of this non-traditional project, and my hope is that we could expand the awareness to other communities as well.

I would like to thank Maggie for taking the time to share the story of Violence UnSilenced with us. Again, I encourage you to support it in whatever way is comfortable for you. October may be coming to a close, but this is unfortunately a problem that does not ever go away, in any month of the year. We can't solve every problem, but we can pay attention, and help where we can. I don't think there is much more to say than that.

Family and Photography Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites.

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