(Content note: This article contains descriptions of domestic violence and abuse.)
Contradictory expectations for women, limited protective mechanisms against domestic violence, a public unwillingness to believe survivors, and an insatiable desire to meet every social problem with a carceral response all converge in the lives of many women who have been abused by their intimate partners.
While every survivor’s story is unique and nuanced, the new film And So I Stayed explores the double bind that constricts so survivors both while they are experiencing abuse and in the aftermath of protecting themselves against it. In the documentary, filmmakers Natalie Patillo and Daniel A. Nelson tell the stories of three women—Kim Brown, Nikki Addimando, and Tanisha Davis—who survived domestic violence and were criminalized for protecting themselves against their abusers.
And So I Stayed was borne out of Natalie Pattillo’s master project when she was a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she also met her co-director Daniel A. Nelson. Pattillo had been covering the fight to pass the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), a 2019 New York state bill which would require judges to deeply consider a defendant’s history of abuse when making sentencing decisions, allowing for reduced or alternative sentencing (such as suspended sentences, community service, or various fines) in cases involving domestic violence. The role of the courts and legislation in shaping perceptions about domestic abuse and how that affects survivors is a pivotal thread woven throughout the film.
In creating the film, Pattillo and Nelson employed a trauma-informed approach, avoiding the tropes that often characterize true crime—a genre that has only been growing in popularity and which has found a particularly loyal audience amongst women. As a genre, true crime can appeal to women because the stories offer a blueprint about how they may protect themselves—learning about the inner mind and thought processes of those who have enacted violence may provide women clues on what to watch out for as they navigate their own lives. The genre plays upon women’s vulnerability and fears while also offering a sense of reassurance: yes, threats abound, but at least this particular story is not about you. As true crime draws its audience in, however, its dangers become more insidious. The genre sensationalizes violence, caricatures both the victims and the perpetrators, and the very reassurance it offers viewers also gives way to victim blaming.
And So I Stayed disrupts how the genre encourages us to think about crime, harm, violence, and those who survive it. Pattillo and Nelson contextualize the lives and choices of the women in their film by exploring the bonds they share with their parents, children, siblings, and current partners; the complicated nature of the relationships where they suffered abuse; their limited options while they experience domestic violence and after they escape it; and how the court system misunderstands the psychological impact of intimate partner violence. The result is an intimate portrait that goes beyond a moralistic tale that reflects women’s fears and vulnerabilities back at them or offers reassurance that domestic violence can be avoided by “doing the right things.” Rather than providing easy answers, And So I Stayed asks viewers to confront the reality of what it means to survive domestic violence in a society where women face blame for both leaving and staying, and where defending themselves from violence can result in their incarceration.
Limited choices and consequences
Kim Dadou Brown, whose story is one of the anchors of And So I Stayed, helped draft the DVSJA while she was still incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for the murder of Darnell Sanders, her ex-boyfriend. Sanders abused Brown over the course of their nine-year relationship, until she shot him in an act of self defense. In the film, she returns to the street where the incident occured on the anniversary of Sanders’ death, remembering how much he charmed her during the early years of their relationship—and how swiftly things turned. Throughout the film she recounts the instances of humiliation and public and private violence that she suffered at Sanders’ hands. On the night of the shooting, Brown said she knew he was going to kill her. Brown was 25 years old when sentenced to eight to 25 years; she was 42 years old when she was released in 2008.
The film carefully draws out the weight of Brown’s action and highlights the sheer lack of choice she had when it came to saving her own life. Interviews with Dr. Chitra Raghavan, a forensic psychologist, help tease out the double standards that bind women. In the film, Raghavan noted how often people struggle to understand why women stay in abusive situations until it’s too late and why they have to defend themselves in often lethal ways.
“We never compare the women who die with the women who kill,” Raghavan said in the film. “We see them as separate and that is our first error. Would it have been better if she had died? Is that really what we’re asking of women? That they don’t fight back so they die? I think we’re artificially separating the situations and using double standards.”
Because of those double standards, Raghavan pointed out how characterizing public reactions to why women stay in abusive situations until “it’s too late” as “confusion” obscures a bleak reality. The fact is that since their youth, women have been given specific messages about how they should behave in relationships with men and what they should tolerate “for the sake of their family.” The willingness to stay with abusive partners and hope that things will get better is deeply ingrained by societal expectations.
“We should be acknowledging that we gave the message to women to begin with that they need to stay in these relationships as much and as long as they can, and they must be patient and they must find a way so that the children have a father,” Raghavan said. “But when something goes wrong, we immediately blame them.”
Blame and judgement
And So I Stayed opens with home video footage of Nikki Addimando as a newborn and as a toddler before cutting sharply to an audio recording of a call between her and her father while she was incarcerated.
“Justice will prevail,” he attempts to assure her, “I know you think that, Dad,” she replies despondently.
The willingness to blame women for being abused often accompanies an unwillingness to believe that real abuse has even taken place. If a defendant decided to stay in a relationship, then the abuse could not have been as bad as she claims. If the abuse is not as bad as she claims, how can she have acted in self defense? It’s a strain of thought as unforgiving as it is inaccurate, yet it has shaped courtroom logic in countless cases involving survivors of domestic violence like Addimando.
Addimano’s case was a flashpoint for advocates for DVSJA. In 2020, Addimando was sentenced to 19 years to life for killing her partner, who physically and sexually tortured her over the course of their nine year relationship. After the DVSJA passed, advocates felt Addimando was the perfect candidate to benefit from the bill: not only had she suffered years of abuse, the violence towards her was also well-documented: Addimando filed police reports, spoke regularly to a therapist, had pictures of the burns, bruises and scars left on her body, and her partner himself had uploaded a video of him raping her onto a public porn website.
On the night of the shooting, she recalls her partner saying, “I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill myself, and then your kids have no one,” referring to their two children, aged 3 and 5 years old at the time. Addimando had exhausted all of the available avenues for women in such a dangerous situation. Simply leaving in the middle of the night was a choice that surely could have gotten her killed had she been caught. For her family, friends, and allies it’s not difficult to understand why she took his life to protect herself and their children.
Edward McCloughlin, the judge presiding over Addimando’s case, was a different matter. He denied her DVSJA petition, arguing that the extent of the abuse and the identity of her abusers was “undetermined and inconsistent”.
“Anger, despair, and disharmony are not a defense,” McCloughlin told Addimando, according to reporting from MidHudson News. “Your life sentence is having to explain to your children what you have done. You will forfeit a large amount of your future. You didn’t have to kill him.”
McCloughlin’s decision exemplifies how much discretion is left up to judges within DVSJA cases. The bill’s passage alone doesn’t ensure that eligible defendants will benefit from reduced sentencing. So long as outdated ideas about intimate partner violence and the psychology of survivors prevail, then the legislation will not be as effective as it could be.
What freedom requires
With survivors at the mercy of biases and misconceptions in the courts, the impact of narrative interventions that help change public perceptions can be profound. Nowhere is that more evident than the impact that And So I Stayed has had in the life of Tanisha Davis, the third woman featured in the film.
Throughout the film Davis is incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, so her story is primarily told through her teenage son, her mother, and her sister. Davis has served eight years of a 14-year sentence for the murder of her ex-partner, Montreall Wright. Over the span of eight years, their relationship grew increasingly violent physically, sexually, and emotionally. Davis says that whenever she tried to end the relationship, Wright would stalk her, break into her home, and threaten her young son. On the night of Wright’s death in 2012, Davis had a restraining order against him, but he still showed up to her home.
“Restraining orders don’t mean anything,” Davis’ mother lamented in the film.
In scenes gathered around their dining room table, Davis’ family talks fondly about her amicable and social personality. Her mother shares how domestic violence is something that women throughout her family know of intimately and she tries to explain to her grandson the tension that comes from still loving someone who hurts you. Davis’ son, who describes his mother as his “best, best friend” looks forward to her release and anticipates helping her navigate a world that looks very different than it did in 2013. Her mother dreams of just giving her a big hug.
Davis had been incarcerated for six years when the DVSJA passed, enabling her to petition for a reduced sentence. Like Addimando, Davis had called the police—which ultimately made no difference to her safety—and documented evidence of the abuse she’d experienced. When she was sentenced, the court didn’t take that abuse into consideration when making their decision. Prosecutors even leaned into racist stereotypes to justify Davis’ punishment, speaking extensively about “the culture she came from” and describing Davis, who is Black, as a “hood diva.”
By the time she petitioned for DVSJA, Davis had not just a record of good behavior at Bedford Hills, but also help from And So I Stayed. The film team compiled a video based on interviews they’d gathered with Davis’ family to provide court officials with a fuller picture of her than documents—no matter how compelling—could convey. Prosecutors and the judge cited the video in helping them with their decision to accept Davis’ DVSJA petition. A photograph of her son, they told her lawyers, was particularly moving.
In March 2021, Davis was released from Bedford Hills with her sentence reduced to eight years. The homecoming was captured by And So I Stayed and makes for one of the most moving scenes in the film. Brown, who had been an ally to Davis while she was inside, helping coordinate letter writing campaigns on her behalf and offering her support to her family, was among the group waiting outside Bedford to welcome her home. After they embrace, Brown asks Davis if she had spoken to Addimando before she left the prison.
“She was so happy for me,” Davis said. “I told her I’m not giving up on her.”
Survival isn’t a crime
There is so much about being a criminalized survivor that only those who have experienced it will ever know or truly understand. That’s why formerly incarcerated survivors are leading the fight to pass legislation like DVSJA, identify people who are eligible for it, and support currently incarcerated survivors. Upon their release, women like Brown and Davis are tasked with rebuilding their lives while also dedicating their time and energy to supporting women the rest of the public often chooses not to see.
To truly create a world that both responds to the real needs of survivors and addresses and ends abuse when it happens, more people must also commit to learning their stories and developing new interventions to help people at every stage. That means changing the messages we convey to young girls, protecting women who are currently experiencing domestic violence, and diverting survivors away from the criminal legal system after they have taken the only option available for saving themselves.
The impact of that collective endeavor can be tremendous: After filming, Addimando’s case was taken to an appeals court, which repealed the denial of her DVSJA petition. Her sentence of 19 years to life was reduced to 7.5 years. She is eligible for release in about three years.