"How long am I to remain in this relationship?" This is the haunting question 65-year-old Glenda Crosley asks in the documentary Sin by Silence about the abusive husband she killed in 1986. She has been in prison for as long as she was married—24 years—and wonders when her ordeal will be over.
In the film, shot almost entirely inside the California Institution for Women, Crosley says the first time her husband, Sam, "truly got physical" was when she was eight months pregnant with their second child. He shoved her into a wall. Eventually she came to believe that the violence wouldn't end until one of them was dead. According to The Bakersfield Californian, at the time of Sam's murder, the couple was separated and having an argument in a parking lot. When Sam walked away from her car to the trunk of his, she believed he was going to get the tire iron he had threatened her with the week before. She rammed him once, drove away, then turned her car and hit him again. He died at the scene.
Elizabeth Leonard is the author of Convicted Survivors and a professor at Vanguard University, a Christian college in Costa Mesa, California. She says in the film that women who leave abusive relationships are often subject to "separation assault" and are 75 percent more likely to be murdered than before they left. So the answer to the question: Why didn't she just leave? is not a simple one. In the same 2009 Bakersfield Californian article, Crosley's daughter Stacy is quoted as saying she remembers her mother trying to leave several times and each of them ending with her father's rage. She even blames herself for her father's death because one of the times her mother returned was because a judge wouldn't release her from a group home unless her parents were living together.
"We are offenders, but we're victims," says Brenda Clubine in another Sin by Silence scene. Clubine is founder of Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), the support group at the heart of the film. Brenda's tireless work helped change California law in 1992 to allow expert testimony on Battered Women's Syndrome into court rooms and again in 2002 to allow women whose convictions predated the 1992 ruling the same right on appeal. Clubine tells viewers, "This group is not about staying in the victim role." It starts there, helping women to recognize the process that led them to murder their spouses, but then its goals move to education about and eradication of domestic violence.
Twenty CWAA members have been released from prison in the nine years since director-producer and Vanguard professor Olivia Klaus first began attending its meetings. A desperate phone call from a friend started her on a journey to find out why abuse happens, why the one-in-four American women who experience it stay, and how they can get out. Klaus says, "Being from a Christian family, I never thought domestic violence would come into my circle …. It completely shattered my world." Klaus turned to Leonard, a colleague at Vanguard. Leonard told her that if she really wanted to understand domestic violence and help her friend, she needed to go with her to prison to "learn from the experts."
Klaus says, "From that first day, these women completely changed my life …. What society has labeled as murderers, I see as mothers, as grandmothers, or even myself. Domestic violence has no boundaries and it can happen to anyone, and it can happen to the point where you have to defend yourself." The 32-year-old filmmaker adds, "Spiritually, this film has been the glue for my beliefs. Once my friend opened up to me about her relationship and once I met these women, I could no longer see the world with rose-colored glasses …. Domestic violence is something that we've overlooked for far too long. We have women in our churches who are in pain and need help."
Klaus hopes that other women's groups will do as the women of Newport Church in Newport Beach have done. The women not only gave generously to finance Sin By Silence, they also provide significant support and resources for CWAA women when they are released from prison.
Throughout October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Sin by Silence can be seen at Constellation.tv in virtual screenings that are hosted by key project participants. Among them is Brenda Clubine. Her heartbreaking and hope filled story provides this film with an ending so surprising that you will have to see it for yourself to believe it. I urge you to do so. But don't stop there. How about turning your next church women's social into an opportunity to respond to domestic violence?