Episode 58: Kit Gruelle, Domestic Violence Survivor and Advocate
Kit Gruelle is a domestic violence survivor and a 30-year advocate for battered women and their children. Kit is the subject of the HBO movie Private Violence, an intimate and compelling documentary on domestic violence.
Kit Gruelle is a survivor of domestic violence, who has worked as an advocate for battered women and their children for 33 years. As a renowned community educator, she has trained scores of advocates, criminal justice professionals (law enforcement, prosecutors, magistrates and judges), health care providers, clergy, legislators, educators and other allied professionals on the complexities of domestic, sexual, and family abuse. She has guest lectured at colleges, universities, medical and law schools, schools of social work and public heath, and departments of sociology, women’s studies, and psychology on violence against women and children.
In 1996, while she was working at Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services in Pittsboro, NC, she created and managed the BRIDGES Program, one of the first Coordinated Community Response (CCR) programs in North Carolina.
In 2012, she graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, Noth Carolina with a BS in Sociology (concentration in gender-based violence).
For the last twenty-one years, she has been a Subject Matter Expert and trainer for California POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training), helping develop training films and curricula for first responders, public safety dispatchers, and hostage/crisis negotiators.
She has served as an expert witness for battered women in both state and federal court.
She is the advocate/subject of Private Violence, an intimate and compelling documentary on domestic abuse which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and then on HBO in October of 2014. It is still available for viewing on Amazon Prime.
An interview with Gruelle and director Cynthia Hill can be seen at Democracynow.org.
She co-authored, in 2017, with Dr. Elicka Peterson Sparks, a textbook on gender-based violence, Intimate Partner Violence: Effective Procedure, Response and Policy.
Ms. Gruelle continues to work as an advocate, community educator, and consultant across the country.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Kit Gruelle. Kit is a domestic violence survivor and a 30 year advocate for battered women and their children. Kit is the subject of the HBO movie Private Violence, an intimate and compelling documentary on domestic violence. Kit, welcome to You Matter.
Kit Gruelle 01:20
Thanks so much. It's great to be with you.
Karen Ortman 01:23
How did your experience become the basis for this movie Private Violence?
Kit Gruelle 01:31
Well, I came in backwards. My first idea for doing a film was because we don't know the history of the battered women's movement in America, and so that was my first vision, to tell this amazing history. The battered women's movement is much like the anti-sexual assault movement, and the anti-rape movement, we just don't know about it as much as we should. I first started working with a couple of filmmakers in California to tell that story. As you can imagine, it was difficult to approach funders and say, we want to do a film on the history of the battered women's movement because most people don't know about it. They thought that it was not anything worth investing in, but...
Karen Ortman 02:23
What year was this?
Kit Gruelle 02:26
See, when did I start? I started in 2000, 2001, I can't remember. Anyway, I kind of traced all over the country doing interviews with advocates and activists, and just highly inspiring people who had decided that they wanted to give their lives to addressing gender based violence in America. We got a lot of work done on it, but then things kind of slowed down. The two filmmakers from California, well, there was no money coming in and I understand that they just, you know, people need to get paid for what they do. It was just my my dream to do this, so I found a filmmaker in Durham, North Carolina and we just started spending time together. She started going with me to court, we went to observe some other cases around North Carolina, and she started filming. As time went by the Deanna story, the main story of the film sort of fell into our laps. The thing about Deanna's story that's so compelling is it really does give the viewer a chance to sort of take a walk in Deanna's shoes and understand what it means to be a victim of domestic abuse here in North Carolina, but this also could be replicated pretty much anywhere across the country.
Karen Ortman 03:49
Kit Gruelle 03:49
Cynthia started sort of focusing on that, and then she got invited to a Sundance directors workshop. She took a bunch of footage out there with her and unbeknownst to me, while she was out there, they said, nobody knows anything about what advocates do, you need to put some of that in there. I had not expected to be in the film at all. I thought there were about 10,000 other people who would be better suited to, sort of, do this. Anyway, that was the film that she wound up putting together and then Sundance accepted it to premiere out there. While we were out there HBO bought it. Overall, I'm happy with how it worked out, but I still would love to do a film on the history of our movement because, I think it's an amazing history.
Karen Ortman 04:47
Let's go back for a second. You mentioned the name Deanna, who is Deanna?
Kit Gruelle 04:53
Deanna is the main subject of the film. She was kidnapped by her estranged husband. He also grabbed their little girl, put them in an 18-wheeler and had his cousin drive. They left out of North Carolina and drove across country out to California, the truck was stopped halfway back when they were in Oklahoma. By that period of time, Robbie had beaten Deanna almost to death. She got out of the cab of the truck and was taken to the hospital. Robbie was not arrested, he just hitchhiked home and they confiscated the truck. When Deanna was released from the hospital, she came back to North Carolina, and in our state, being a domestic violence victim is not a good thing at all. When the local prosecutors was talking to her, even though she was so badly beaten, beaten almost to death, he wanted to know why she didn't try to leave. She didn't try to leave, she didn't try to run from Robbie because she didn't know where she was, she didn't have any money, she'd been beaten, she'd been terrorized, she'd been threatened death if she tried to leave, or that he would kill their little girl. The prosecutor said, well, I can't really do anything with this case so, I'm just going to charge him with one count of misdemeanor assault on a female. If anyone had seen the photographs of Deanna, and saw how badly she was beaten, they would quickly understand that this should have been charged as an attempted murder. The reason that this case, sort of, became as notorious as it did, was the local advocate contacting some of us and said, you know, he crossed state lines with her, I think this is possibly a federal case. Stacy started agitating with the FBI and finally, after nine months, the FBI came and took a look at the case. He was charged federally, and tried in federal court, and sentenced to 21 years in prison. The case went from being a low level case, according to North Carolina, where he would have got 90 days in the county jail, to being tried in federal court where Robbie received the 21 year sentence. The film is really about that process and watching Deanna go from thinking that literally, this is what she says in the film, I think I'm just gonna have to live with this beating, to understanding that the federal courts we're going to take this seriously and were going to try him with with everything that they have.
Karen Ortman 07:27
And the federal law is applied because there were jurisdictional boundaries that were crossed from extending beyond North Carolina correct?
Kit Gruelle 07:39
As soon he crossed state lines, that is a federal kidnapping case, and then of course, there was the horrific assault, so it fell under federal VAWA laws. The Violence Against Women Act was passed, Joe Biden was a principal author, and it was passed in 1994. Really what this is, this is my opinion as an advocate, I've done this work for 35 years, I have seen historically how little credence we give to crimes committed against women, and so the Violence Against Women Act finally meant that the federal government was going to recognize this particular crime, and give it not only the credence that it deserved, but given some legislative heft and some funds to address it through the criminal justice system; through more shelter funding, community awareness projects, and all kinds of other things. VAWA was a big step up for us as a movement and legitimized what we had been calling attention to for a long, long time. Historically, people had treated domestic violence and domestic abuse as if it was a private matter, you know, behind closed doors, it's really none of our business, or she should just leave. What we were finally able to fo with the help of the Violence Against Women Act, was call attention to the seriousness of these assaults and connect some dots between what goes on behind closed doors and, ultimately, what happens in public. It's violence against women, or family violence that is kind of the the engine that generates pretty much all the other criminal conduct that we wind up dealing with, to say nothing of the fact that there's a direct link between domestic violence and mass murders. We just felt like we had finally been given a place of legitimacy, when people think about this crime.
Karen Ortman 09:51
So in the intro, I said that you were the subject of this HBO movie. You're not the subject as the domestic violence survivor, you are the subject as the advocate represented in this movie, correct?
Kit Gruelle 10:07
Karen Ortman 10:07
Kit Gruelle 10:08
Karen Ortman 10:08
But you also have your own story?
Kit Gruelle 10:12
I do, it's how I got into this work.
Karen Ortman 10:14
So let's talk about that. What is Kit grew Gruelle's story that made you this 35 year advocate now for battered women.
Kit Gruelle 10:30
Well, let's see, what's the best way to do it? I grew up in Miami, but I left Miami at a pretty early age and headed for the North Carolina mountains. I wound up getting into a relationship that was terribly, terribly abusive. My then partner, and the man who became my husband was a former United States Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. He had his own very troubled history as a child. I was one of those women, like so many women across the country, who knew about his life experience and thought, well, he just needed someone to care about him. He just needed someone to show him love. Looking back on it now, I realize that was an exercise in futility. He wasn't at all interested in changing his behavior, in particular, towards women. So, we got into this relationship. and very quickly he established his place of dominance in the relationship. I remember being in the kitchen one day and he came in from lifting weights and he just walked into the kitchen out of the blue and came over, grabbed me by the throat and told me that he'd been trained by the United States Marine Corps to hunt people down and kill them, and if I ever tried to leave, he'd hunt me down and kill me. The rules got established pretty quickly. From then on, it was just one really wretched day afternoon another, occasionally punctuated by some good days. I think abusers do that, strategically, as a way to sort of make the victim think, okay, maybe this is all over with, and he's going to go back to being the nice guy he was when I first met him. That wasn't the case at all. We were together for three years, three months and 20 days. Three weeks before Jack died, I tried to commit suicide; I took an overdose of pills, but then I realized that if I died, he would have the boys to raise. By that time I had sons, so I got very freaked out about it. I tried to get back to the house, I'd taken an overdose of muscle relaxers, and he came out and found me. He held me down and he said, I'm gonna watch you die, and all this is gonna be mine. Out of the blue, a friend of mine came up, nobody ever came up to the house because Jack had bad dogs, but she came up and he jumped up and he said, oh, my god, she's taken an overdose of pills we've got to get her to the hospital.
Karen Ortman 13:14
You were with your husband for three years?
Kit Gruelle 13:18
...and 20 days...
Karen Ortman 13:21
Did you say 30 days?
Kit Gruelle 13:23
Three years, three months and 20 days.
Karen Ortman 13:26
Okay. And during that time was it always abusive throughout that entire time period?
Kit Gruelle 13:35
Well, I think we have to widen the aperture and think about what abuse is. Once the abuser has established his place of dominance and the relationship, he doesn't need to do much more than that to impose his will, and a variety of ways. Oftentimes, it's not about physical abuse, it can just be a look like, I knew what he was capable of. I think that part of what we miss, like I tend to say when I do training, is that the physical abuse is a punctuation mark. The stuff that we need to pay attention to is about 90% of what constitutes an abusive relationship, and that's things like coercion, intimidation, using the children, using his physical strength, his social strength, whatever, as a way to remind the victim that he's the one that's in control.
Karen Ortman 14:25
Right. And, nuances, if you will, sometimes.
Kit Gruelle 14:29
Like in the film, there's another victim that I was working with, who wasn't Deanna, she was trying to get a restraining order. She had gotten a restraining order and she wanted the judge to remind the offender that his friends were not to stalk and harass her like they were. You see him standing in court, in handcuffs, because there's also a criminal case going on, but he's about to be released. The advocate stands up and says to the judge, your Honor, we want you to remind him that there should be no third party contact, so he says that to this to this defendant. As the defendant turns around and walks out of the courtroom, he just manages to stop for a second and turn around and shoot a look at her. Every time I show the film, particularly to advocates, and especially the court advocates, they just gasped, because they've all seen this. It's all right out in front of the judge, the court personnel, everybody. The offender will manage to shut the victim down by doing nothing more than giving her a look that says, if you open your mouth, you're gonna pay for it.
Karen Ortman 15:37
Yup. I know exactly what you're talking about.
Kit Gruelle 15:40
Like, I could tell what kind of mood Jack was in if I was downstairs in the kitchen, and he was getting out of bed, I could tell what kind of mood he was in by how his feet hit the floor. What victims do to survive is a fine tune their antenna, right? They learn to listen for and look for things that nobody else would see. There's a language and a set of behaviors that go on between the abuser and the victim. Oftentimes, we miss that, so I just I just wanted to say that.
Karen Ortman 16:10
Yeah, and other people don't understand that. They don't understand how that unspoken language is so impactful on a victim.
Kit Gruelle 16:24
Karen Ortman 16:25
Talk about the common injuries that are associated with someone in a domestic violence abusive relationship that often go ignored.
Kit Gruelle 16:39
Some of the more sophisticated abusers will aim their blows at her head, you know, in her hair where the bruises can't be seen. More and more police officers are actually feeling for nobs, pulling the hair away, and looking for where hairshave been pulled out or whatever. Strangulation assaults are significant. Again, sometimes more sophisticated abusers will aim their blows at her breasts or in the lower part of the body where she doesn't want to disrobe in front of law enforcement officers. I train hostage negotiators in California, because domestic violence is the leading cause for all hostage and barricade incidents. We've got a whole bunch of photographs that we use in the negotiations class to make sure that officers understand that, tactically, abusers are very sophisticated. They know how to continue to control the victim with looks, or with aiming their acts of violence at particular part of her body. I think a part of what we all need to do is, we need to understand that if we only look for signs of physical abuse, then we're missing the point almost entirely.
Karen Ortman 17:58
Back to your experience. When you're standing in the kitchen and your husband walks in and without any provocation, any discussion, I'm assuming not even to look his way, he comes up and strangles you. How common is that in domestic violence relationships?
Kit Gruelle 18:19
I think that, oftentimes, victims themselves are unaware of the seriousness of these assaults. You have to think about it; when someone puts their hands or a ligature of some kind around the victim's throat, they literally have her life in their hands. I can't tell you, over the years, the number of women that I've worked with who have come in and during the course of me talking with them, or after they spoke with law enforcement, she says when he choked me; well, choking and strangulation are not the same thing, not by a longshot. The Heimlich maneuver is used on people who are choking. The Heimlich is used because someone has a piece of peanut butter sandwich lodged in their throat. Strangulation is when someone chooses to put their hands or a ligature of some kind around the victim's throat and either attempts to end her life, or to actually end it. Strangulation assaults are very, very common. The problem with them is, oftentimes, there's no external injuries - now - oftentimes, there is what we call petechial hemorrhage, which is, you can look in her eyes,or behind her ears, or in her ears and see signs of the strangulation where the blow has been forced up and into a place it's visible, but oftentimes, there are no physical signs. That doesn't mean that it's not a serious assault. If she's holding her throat, if she's got a raspy voice, if she's saying I'm having a difficulty, time breathing, these are these are 911 emergencies. We have to think about what these are, essentially they're carotid restraints.
Karen Ortman 19:52
What does petechial hemorrhage look like, for people who don't know?
Kit Gruelle 19:58
I worked with a woman down in Chatham County, and the entire whites of her eyes were red for about four months. I mean, they were blood red, she had been strangled so severely that that she didn't have the whites of her eyes. The whites of her eyes were red for four months. It can be smaller, little dots of blood that appear in the whites of the victim's eyes. I remember talking with a woman who was a nurse up in Alaska, a woman came in to the ER and she said she'd been choked. This very smart nurse, there was there were no signs of particular hemorrhage in her eyes, but the nurse went and got the kaleidoscope that's typically used for sex assault investigations and looked down in her ear canals, and there was particular hemorrhage down in her ear. So, this case went from being a misdemeanor to being an attempted murder case. I just think people need to, if a woman says, he choked me, or he strangled me, if that's the language that she uses, then we need to get her forensically evaluated so that any signs of a particular hemorrhage, whether it's in her eyes, or ears, if she has new bruising, that's just coming up on her throat, if it's in her scalp, whatever, there's ways to look and see. We just have to listen and believe her, and then get her connected to some forensic evaluators.
Karen Ortman 21:30
When you were married for the three years, three months, and days, what years are we talking about?
Kit Gruelle 21:41
Jack died in '79. So we got together in '76.
Karen Ortman 21:48
Okay, so '76 to '79, which is quite a long time ago. The laws were very different back then. What sort of resources were available to you, if any, concerning your your victimization in this domestic violence relationship?
Kit Gruelle 22:20
There were no resources. This was up in the North Carolina mountains, and there wasn't anything that even approximated as a resource back then. I did have an experience with a patrol officer that I'll never forget as long as I live. Jason our son, was a few months old, and I was nursing him. Jack took Jason left. I was freaking out. I was so terrified that he was going to take Jason and run with him. I drove down to the sheriff's department, and I was just coming off the walls. The officer who responded, Tom Alexander, I remember like it's happening right now, he explained to me that Jack was his father and if he wanted to take him he could. But, then he said this one thing that changed everything, he looked at me and he said, tell me what else has been happening. Two months previous, Jack had punched me so hard in the face that I kind of flipped off the porch, and my face was just a mess. I was too ashamed to have anybody see it. I stayed on the couch with the covers over my face for, I guess it was about five days, before the swelling started to go down. I didn't do anything because I was just so ashamed of how I looked. I just blurted out right there to this deputy Tom Alexander, I said I should have pressed charges against him when he punched me, and he said when was that? I said it was two months ago, and he said let's write it up. In that moment, that officer validated my experience. He wrote up warrants to help me get Jason back. I got Jason back, but of course, Jack was still in the picture. A few weeks later, we walked into a court of law in Waynesville, North Carolina, at that time, they didn't separate victims and offenders, there wasn't even a language for it. Jack was a powerlifter, he'd been in the Marines, he was a dangerous guy. So he and I walked into the courtroom together, and he had his arm around me and, I looked right at the judge and I said, everything's fine Your Honor. Tom was there and he knew everything wasn't fine. He also knew that I didn't have a whole lot of options other than shooting Jack, and that's not who I am.
Karen Ortman 24:36
Kit Gruelle 24:37
And that doesn't represent a character flaw on my part.
Karen Ortman 24:40
Kit Gruelle 24:41
So Tom, he just saw the bigger picture and he didn't take it personally.
Karen Ortman 24:46
Yeah. And did you and Jack have a conversation before you walked into the courtroom that day?
Kit Gruelle 24:52
He just said go in there and tell him everything's alright, which is exactly what I did, and that happens a lot. So again, what we turn around and do is, we turn around and say to the woman, why didn't she just leave or why did she go to court and lie? You know, there's 10,000 reasons why women get hemmed in and they're all legitimate reasons. It's dangerous to leave an abuser. Leaving an abuser is not an event, it's a process.
Karen Ortman 25:20
Kit Gruelle 25:20
That's why it's so important for people who are non-judgmental, who can help her access resources, who understand that it's a process and not an event, to stand beside her as she makes the decisions that she needs to make, as she's starting to deal with, with the abuse of violence in the relationship.
Karen Ortman 25:38
Yeah, I think that's probably one of the most important things that you can share with listeners, particularly those who know others who are in domestic violence relationships, that leaving the abuser can be one of the most dangerous things to do, that it is not an event, and that it is a process. I appreciate you saying that.
You have two boys?
Kit Gruelle 26:03
And I have a daughter. Yup. Oh my god I'm so old, I have a son, Matt who's 45 and Jason is 42. Jason is my son that I have with Jack and then, I have my daughter Noel, who is 37. They're all big people now, and they know about what I've given my life over to, and they're just incredibly supportive. And a daughter?
Karen Ortman 26:37
You've been blessed.
Kit Gruelle 26:39
Karen Ortman 26:39
How often are men yhe victims in these relationships?
Kit Gruelle 26:46
I'm really glad you asked that question. Over the last 35 years I had to calculate up, recently, for an expert witness job I did. I don't have a graduate degree, I've got my undergraduate degree and that's it, but I've worked with approximately 40,000 victims over the last 35 years. Out of those 40,000 victims, I would say five were men. Now, that's not to say there's not female abusers. I know, there are female abusers out there. I also know that it happens a lot in LGBTQ relationships. I don't think we've got good numbers on it, I don't because, there's so much shame and guilt attached to it that I take any statistics about domestic violence with a massive grain of salt. The other thing that we don't think about, with what a lot of people call female and male violence, is context. Are there women who are just natural aggressors, and they've grown up that way, and they are proactive with their violence, yes. But, many, many times when men are assaulted, they're assaulted because the victim is either protecting herself or her children or their children. So, when we just look at pure numbers, it doesn't tell us what we need to know. Context is everything with domestic violence cases. I've worked for a number of women who have killed their abusers, and to the data collectors, that looks like she's the perpetrator and he's the victim. But, when you sit in a jail cell with a woman and get the whole entire story, one of those cases is featured in Private Violence, a woman that I worked with who was charged with murder and who wound up getting sentenced to 12 years, context was everything. Her boyfriend was beating her relentlessly. I can't in all good conscience myself, I can't attach real numbers to the issue, because I just don't think it's clear.
Karen Ortman 28:53
Okay. Your friend who showed up during your attempted suicide when Jack was there and he kind of flipped the script when she showed up...
Kit Gruelle 29:06
Karen Ortman 29:07
Did she know anything? Did she know that you were being abused by him?
Kit Gruelle 29:12
You know, it's funny, every once in a while I'll see someone from the old days, because I live back in the mountains now after being gone for a long time. Maryanne, my friend who came up that day, she passed away from kidney disease, so she's gone. I don't think she did know, or if she did know, I don't think that she realized how bad it was. I don't think that she realized that he used the dogs as a way to cut me off from everybody. He had bad dog, so I couldn't get out and other people couldn't get in.
Karen Ortman 29:42
Although your husband is deceased, do you ever suffer from post traumatic stress? Even now, all these years later, does does it still affect you, what you went through?
Kit Gruelle 29:54
Oh, yeah, whenever I hear Jackson Brown song it affects me. I go right back to where it was. That album, Running on Empty always, always triggers me. Every once in a while when I hear a story from a woman, and there's something that feels very familiar, because it's one of the tactics that Jack used, I can get triggered. By and large, I'm just so incredibly grateful that I that I survived, that I made it, that I'm here. When that phone call came in at two o'clock in the morning that he was dead, and when I got the official notice from the sheriff's department that he was dead, and when I walked into the funeral home and saw his dead body stretched out there, I thought he was still going to come up off the table and try to strangle me again one more time. I'm just still so astonishingly grateful that I'm here and I get to do this work, because it is fundamental to who I am as a human being. To me, the idea that one out of every three women in America, the most dangerous place in the world to them, is their own home, it is just an abomination. I'm going to do this work as long as I can.
Karen Ortman 31:01
How did you feel when you got the news that he died? When you saw his body in the funeral home?
Kit Gruelle 31:10
Well, after I tried to commit suicide, I took the boys and left and went to Vermont thinking that if I was up there he wouldn't come that far and try to find me. After being gone for a week, I called back down to the mountains and spoke with a friend, her brother had left with Jack to go down to Louisiana to get this job. Martha said, it's safe for you to come home. I came back and Jack had taken pretty much everything out of the house and sold it to finance his trip down in Louisiana. I was up there on the side of the mountain, a sitting duck. Like I said, Jack was trained by the Marine Corps and there was absolutely nothing he was afraid of, so, I felt like a sitting duck up there. I got two letters from him on the Thursday before he died, and the letters were classic abuser letters, you know, he said, I'm so sorry, it's never gonna happen again, I didn't mean to hurt you, I didn't mean to scare you, Jesus wants us to be together. All the typical abuser stuff. But the last of the letters were, pardon my language, but, you better pack your shit and get down here because if I have to come up there and get you, you know what's gonna happen. He had gotten this job for a company called Tidewater out of Morgan City, Louisiana. I got those letters on Thursday. On Friday, I drove into town and I saw a friend of mine whose husband had been in Vietnam with Jack, and I showed her the letters and I said, what do I do? She said, I don't know what to say, you know he's dangerous. On Saturday evening my friend Maryanne, the one that had showed up out of the blue, came to he house to hang out with the boys and I, but she wasn't feeling well, so I drove Maryanne back home. I came back up and got home at about, I guess it was around one in the morning, Martha's mother called, I had the phone number changed at the house, but Martha's mother has a new number. She kind of stammered and she said, I don't know how to say this, I don't know how to tell you this, and I said, well, whatever it is just tell me. She finally said Jack's dead. I said no, he's not I just got two letters from him. She said no, Kenny just called from Louisiana, he was killed tonight. I got off the phone and and called the sheriff's department in Morgan City, Louisiana, because that was the postmark on the service. I talked to the dispatcher and I said, I understand my husband was hurt tonight offshore and I'm trying to find something out. He said, we have Ship to Shore communication with all the ocean going vessels and we haven't heard anything about an accident so, there's probably been a mistake. He said, let me have your name and the county your from and somebody will get back in touch with you. I sat there and waited for an hour, and then I picked up the phone and called the Haywood County Sheriff's Department and I said to the dispatcher, I'm trying to find out about my husband, I heard he was hurt Louisiana and I did not give him my name, and he says, is this Mrs. Cherry, and as soon as he said that, I knew it was true. I heard the the sheriff's deputy car trying to get off the road and we, look I when I say we live on the side of a mountain, we lived on the side of a mountain, so I had to get the jeep and drive out there to to meet them and they handed me the death notice and I knew it was real.
Karen Ortman 34:47
How did you feel?
Kit Gruelle 34:49
I felt like, I mean the best way that I can say it, because I've thought about it now for a long long time, is I felt like I understood gravity, because it felt like I should be floating away. I also felt guilty, because I knew that it was going to take either him going or me going, one of us was going to have to die for this to end.
Karen Ortman 35:10
Kit Gruelle 35:11
I'm not not a particularly religious person, but I kind of offered up to the universe, I need an intervention here of some kind, and then boom, he was dead so I felt like it was my fault. I thought somehow, I had willed it to happen, even though I was in the North Carolina mountains and he was in the Gulf of Mexico when the accident happened. It took a few years of kind of grappling with all that, and then going into therapy, and starting to put everything together, and then getting involved with this work. I mean, becoming an advocate has done a lot to center me, and it helped me understand these dynamics and why women want to think about themselves like they do and how men think about their entitlement to positions of power and dominance in relationships. It's still a process. I mean, every once and a while I drive up to the grave, and it's like the tape runs again, and I can picture his body stretched out on that stainless steel table and think about what that felt like?
Karen Ortman 36:16
How do you have the strength to advocate on behalf of domestic violence victims after surviving that life, such violent abuse with your husband?
Kit Gruelle 36:30
Because I really believe in what advocates do, because I believe this is gonna sound hokey, but I believe that kindness changes people's lives. For people who have felt marginalized, for either a short period of time or a long period of time, I think it's important for there to be people who can step into their lives and look at them and say, let me tell you what I see, when I look at you, if you've been told that you don't have value as a human being, then that's on them. When I look at you, I see someone who is strong, who is capable, who is wise. It's just amazing to be able to be a part of that process, that empowerment process where women finally get to push away all those negative messages, and then we as advocates just step back and watch her step out of that very dark, very scary shadow. It's just magical, so that's, that's how I do it, because it's awesome.
Karen Ortman 37:28
Yeah, wow, that's inspiring. So, you've been doing this work for well over 35 years, you were a victim yourself, or I should say a survivor, and you recall back in the 70s, when the laws were different, there were no resources, very few rights that victims had, if any back then, and the system has since evolved. There are resources, there are movements that are ongoing. Can you speak to any resources, or any guidance you can offer that person who is in a domestic violence relationship, and is not prepared to begin that process of separating from that abuser? What sort of help is available to that person?
Kit Gruelle 38:37
What I always always, always say to women always, is get somewhere where you can quietly look at the power and control wheel. Google power and control wheel, it's in, I think 200 languages now. It was started by some folks up in Duluth, Minnesota, Ellen Pence, who was kind of the godmother of our of our movement. She listened to victims of domestic abuse describe the different things that their abusers did to them and it became clear to her, and to the women as a group, that this is a set of tactics, and oftentimes things are invisible; things like coercion, intimidation, manipulation, gaslighting, reproductive rights, all kinds of stuff. The victim is aware of it to some degree, but there's something that happens when she sees it in black and white. I have literally used that power and control wheel with every single woman I have ever worked with. What I'll do is I'll just hand it to them and say take a look at this and see if there's anything on this on this power and control wheel that feels like it fits with your relationship, and then I'll either sit with her or give her 10-15 minutes by herself and say, go ahead and write margins, or write on the back or whatever. Of all those 40,000 plus women, I have never ever once, handed them that power and control wheel and not come back into that room and they look at me and they're like, oh my god, this is exactly what's happening. Part of why it's such an important tool is it allows her to identify the non-physical and non-sexual forms of abuse that he's using on her. It's liberating for her to be able to put her finger on it and say, now I see it, I know what it is. I say to people who are looking externally at abuse victims, it's like she's standing in a waterfall with no umbrella, the power and control wheel is the umbrella, she can then look at it and identify specifically the things that are unique to her relationship. Once she's identified those things, then she can start to come up with a plan if she's got a really good advocate, who is connected to community programs and is willing to sit with her and listen to her articulate what her thoughts and fears and strengths are.
Karen Ortman 41:06
What if she's not connected with an advocate? What if she's in a rural area?
Kit Gruelle 41:12
I just can't overemphasize this enough, I think that, unfortunately, there's been a professionalization in the movement, so there's a lot of really great advocates who don't have college degrees, who are have been sidelined because they want women to have undergraduate degrees or master's degrees or whatever but some of the best advocates I've ever known in my entire life, some of them didn't even have high school diplomas, but they have lived experience, and that lived experience... ...and that lived experience created a North Star for them. That North Star is just this powerful thing, soo I'm just a huge fan of community based advocates. I think it makes a big difference to have advocates not be professionalized to just say I'm an advocate and whether or not she's got a college degree or advanced degree or whatever, it should be irrelevant to the whole entire thing. Does she have experience working with, listening to, empowering, supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse? That should be the guidepost for the whole entire thing. I agree with that.
Karen Ortman 42:28
There's a tremendous amount of resources online that if anybody with a computer can research as well.
Kit Gruelle 42:37
Yeah, absolutely, but the only thing, is that women need to have someone that they can discuss what they want to do about this with so if they're contemplating breaking up with their boyfriend or their husband, a well trained advocate who understands all the systems that she might need, is going to be able to help her understand what may or may not happen when she breaks up with him. We all know the most dangerous thing a domestic violence victim or domestic abuse victim can do is leave the abuser, especially if he's got an addiction to controlling her, and most abusers are deeply deeply invested in controlling their partner. When she makes that decision, it's important for her to have someone who can say to her, have you ever tried to leave in the past, and if so, what happened? Has he ever made threats against you or your family members, or the kids? Has he ever hurt your pet? Has he ever made threats to kill you? Does he have weapons, things like that, which is why having those discussions with an advocate whether it's online, whether it's via zoom, or whatever, that can help the victim come up with the best, safest, most strategic way forward, no matter what it is that she's going to do at any given moment?
Karen Ortman 43:58
How do you find the criminal justice system and its evolution with respect to these cases? Has it improved? A little bit? A lot? What do you think?
Kit Gruelle 44:10
I think it depends on where you live.
Karen Ortman 44:12
Kit Gruelle 44:14
I'm in the south, and there's still the notion down here in the south that women are the property of men, and so oftentimes, responding officers can play to that, Now that's not that's not across the board, I've worked with incredible cops here in the south who really get it. They understand that the abuser is going to try to coerce and manipulate them, and they are completely ready to see that and step out and do something about it and say, you're not gonna play me. It's been interesting over the years doing this, the law enforcement training that I've done in California, which I started in 1997, and then coming back to North Carolina, and seeing the difference in the laws and the law enforcement officers, I mean, California is kind of the the promised land for domestic violence victims. It is not perfect, not by not by a longshot, but the Simpson case really shook that state up. Then, the Violence Against Women Act was passed right around the same time. So, the California criminal justice community took this very seriously. The hostage negotiations class that I teach, it's the only class of its kind in the country that is specifically dedicated to helping crisis and hostage negotiators understand how different the dynamics are with a DV hostage barricade case, versus a guy who's got a bag of money in a bank and wants to go to Mexico. It's a real privilege to be involved with it. We're in our 22nd year now and it's just amazing to to get to do this class. I think some things have changed, but I just think that there's way too many people that are in positions of power and privilege, whether that's law enforcement officers, whether that's legislators, judges, doctors, whatever, that they still, on some fundamental level, just think that whatever happens behind closed doors is still, private information and it's not, for the public.
Karen Ortman 46:24
We got a lot of work to do.
Kit Gruelle 46:25
Yeah, a lot of work to do.
Karen Ortman 46:29
Is there anything that you would like to add that I haven't already asked you?
Kit Gruelle 46:36
I think if there are women listening to this, or men, and they feel that they're in a relationship where there's a power imbalance that they should just think about that and listen to their gut. My guess is, if they think that their own behavior has changed in relation to keeping their partner happy and satisfied, and all that sort of thing, that's the beginning. It doesn't come in like a freight train, it comes in like something much more general than that, and it's subtle stuff, which is why it's so hard. Victims oftentimes, don't see that their own behavior is starting to change in relation to his moods, his needs, his expectations. Those are the kinds of things that I think, if victims could maybe figure that out earlier on, and maybe do some hypotheticals with themselves or some actual - like, say, he wants them to spend the weekend together, but all of a sudden, a friend of hers comes in from out of town and she decides she wants to go hang out with a friend. How does she respond to that? Does he say, great, awesome, go have a good time, or does he say no, we're supposed to be together, I want you to be with me? Or, does he say fine, go off and be with her, I'll go find somebody else to date, or whatever. Those coercive kinds of things are the kinds of things that should get her antenna kind of vibrating, because no one deserves this. The test of a good relationship is not how things are going when it's great, it's how things are going when they're not great. Can you safely disagree with him? Can she exercise agency and be out there in the world doing her own thing and he supports her and says, yeah, go for it, do it.
Karen Ortman 48:35
It's a really important perspective to bring up. I agree with that. And then when all else fails, in terms of somebody not knowing where to turn, I think, looking at the power and control wheel is a great option.
Kit Gruelle 48:53
It is, it really is. If they can just sit there and think tactically about the things that he's doing to intimidate and coerce her, and this typically happens way before the physical violence starts. As I said, the physical violence tends to be a punctuation mark. It's the tool that he pulls out a toolbox when he feels like the other tactics are not yielding for him the control he feels entitled to. We just want people to be aware of those tactics way before it gets to the point that there's physical violence.
Karen Ortman 49:33
Well, I thank you so much for joining me today on You Matter and for sharing your story and talking about your 35 plus years of experience working with victims. It's a really important conversation to have over and over.
Kit Gruelle 49:54
I appreciate it and I know that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but we're still losing at least four women a day to domestic abuse, which is the exact same number that we were losing when I started this work, so we have a long ways to go. I just hope that people will join in this work, and that if you feel like you're being abused in any way, shape or form, that you will take a look at the power and control wheel, and then find a good community based advocate to start to talk to.
Karen Ortman 50:25
Yeah, I agree. Thank you. Thank you to my guest Kit and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like, and subscribe to You Matter on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Tune in or Spotify.