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A new documentary looks at women who survived domestic violence — then faced jail time

And So I Stayed challenges the dominant narratives about abuse.

Kim Dadou Brown, a domestic violence survivor who spent 17 years incarcerated, is now an activist for other survivors. Her story is part of the documentary And So I Stayed.
Daniel A. Nelson/And So I Stayed/Grit Pictures LLC
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

Midway through And So I Stayed, Kim Dadou Brown — a survivor of domestic violence who served 17 years in prison for killing her partner — sits in a semicircle with a group of women, sharing her experiences of abuse. She relates an anecdote about a time she went to a store with her then-partner. Dadou Brown said she was wearing jeans with an intentional rip in the upper back of the thigh.

When she came out of the store, her partner was angry. He asked her if she thought she was cute, and told her to turn around. When she did, Dadou Brown said, he grabbed the hole in her jeans and tore it, exposing her in public. For a moment, she was frozen in shock. Then he shoved her, and she snapped back into the moment. “There’s guys on the street,” she says, gesturing in front of her. “There’s drug dealers. There’s kids. There’s people barbecuing, like — nobody said anything. No one ever did.”

Dadou Brown was describing her own experiences: how it felt like the people in her community would rather look away than face the uncomfortable truth of what she was living through. But she might as well have been describing a broader instinct on the part of society to turn away from, and ignore, the abuse victims in its midst. Some things have changed in the 30 years since Dadou Brown was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree. There’s greater awareness now of the difficulties domestic violence victims face in being believed, and the danger they face when trying to leave abusive relationships.

Other elements of understanding have not changed, perhaps especially when a survivor says she was defending herself or responding to an abuser’s attack. The proliferation of true crime as entertainment, through television and podcasts, has only made it worse. Among the most egregious examples is Snapped, the Oxygen network mainstay that repackages real stories of crimes committed by women, often in the context of domestic violence and abuse, as sensationalist curios. Women who kill their partners are portrayed as devious, malevolent, out of their minds.

And So I Stayed, a documentary by filmmakers Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson, makes the realities of domestic violence much harder to ignore, by focusing on the lived experiences of three survivors who were incarcerated for killing their partners. Dadou Brown, who was released from prison in 2008 and has since become an advocate for other survivors, is one of them; so is Tanisha Davis, a woman serving a sentence for manslaughter in New York state after stabbing her abusive partner during an attack.

The film also follows the case of Nikki Addimando, a mother of two who was put on trial for second-degree murder for killing her longtime partner after years of abuse. The latter case (which has also been the subject of an excellent podcast, Believe Her, and two magazine pieces) shows that even extensive evidence of abuse, in the form of photographs and reports to police and social services, were insufficient to convince a jury that her actions were justified on the night Addimando killed her partner.

The film opens with Nikki as a newborn baby, held by her father at the hospital. “We just want to go home and continue to be a new family,” her dad says. This scene of familial tenderness is juxtaposed with the audio of a call from the Dutchess County Jail. Addimando, now an adult, is speaking with her father while she awaits trial, contemplating the possibility that she might spend the rest of her life in prison.

She asks: “There is no self-defense law here, is that what I’m understanding?” And, “There was a gun in my face, what else was I supposed to do?” Addimando’s father tries his best to comfort her. “Your daddy loves you,” he says, “remember that.” By the time of the call, Addimando is not just a daughter but a mother now, too. Some of the most affecting and heartbreaking moments of the documentary come in the form of conversations with her young children, who cry as they speak to their mom, not understanding why, despite how much they love each other, they aren’t able to be together.

The film features an interview with Addimando’s therapist, Sarah Caprioli, who attests to the “regular bruising on her face, her arms … sometimes around her neck and around her chest,” along with pictures of Addimando’s reddened wrist, and dark bruises on her neck and cheekbone. It shows the dashcam footage of Addimando the night she was picked up by police, stepping out of her car in a state of shock, telling a police officer, “I stayed with him for as long as I could have,” and later, “He’s a good dad, and so I stayed.” We hear the audio of the 911 call Davis made the night she stabbed her partner, the anguish and terror in her voice as she screams her address and begs for help, while a 911 call operator impatiently tells her to calm down.

The filmmakers, Pattillo and Nelson, were both graduate students at the Columbia Journalism School when Pattillo started writing about the incarceration of women who have survived intimate partner violence. As a survivor who lost her sister to domestic violence, Pattillo wanted to give a voice to women who, through the legal process (and in true crime narratives), are often robbed of their truths.

“Having been in an abusive relationship myself, I knew it’s very much life or death, there’s no in-between when those power and control dynamics are at play. I couldn’t understand that that’s what we thought justice was, to incarcerate and criminalize people who were literally just wanting to live,” she says. “We were looking for people to see survivors, to hear their hopes and dreams, their grief, as much as they were willing to share. All the things we weren’t able to see in the courtroom.”

It’s not just the survivors’ grief that animates the film. Much of its forward momentum is provided by Dadou Brown, who aptly describes the pain of being abused and then disbelieved by the legal system. “I felt that I was screwed over by the same system that I used to go to for help,” Dadou Brown told me in an interview, noting that she had police reports and hospital records that corroborated her prior abuse.

As the film follows her, Dadou Brown spends much of her free time post-conviction pushing for the passage of a law that would allow courts to consider the experiences of domestic violence survivors in resentencing them. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) became law in New York in 2019, thanks in large part to the advocacy of survivors like Dadou Brown and others, and the film follows her as she provides comfort to Davis’s and Addimando’s families. By the end of the film, Davis has been released under the DVSJA after the judge in the case viewed footage about Davis prepared by the filmmakers, but Addimando has not — the judge in her case ruled that she was ineligible to be sentenced under the new law.

In 2021, though, an appeals court ruled that Addimando was in fact eligible for the DVSJA and reduced her sentence from 19 years to life to seven-and-a-half years, making her eligible for release in 2024; supporters are urging New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to grant her clemency immediately. Pattillo and Nelson have since been approached by lawyers for other survivors with requests to make short videos to help support their petitions for legal relief, and they are partnering with theaters, legal organizations, and nonprofits to screen their movie.

The filmmakers understand that the survivors don’t necessarily need anyone to speak for them, they just need to be heard and believed. These acts of witnessing — whether it’s by the people who ignored Dadou Brown, the viewers of Snapped, or those who watch And So I Stayed — are not neutral. In focusing on the stories of survivors, the filmmakers challenge viewers to reconsider some of the dominant narratives about women and violence. They suggest that we cannot continue to look the other way.

At her sentencing, Addimando told the court, “I wish more than anything that this had ended another way. If it had, I wouldn’t be in this courtroom. But I wouldn’t be alive either. And I wanted to live. I wanted this all to stop. I was afraid to stay, afraid to leave, afraid that nobody would believe me. Afraid of losing everything. This is why women don’t leave. I know killing is not the solution, and staying hurts, but leaving doesn’t mean living. So often we end up dead, or where I end up standing,” she said. “Alive, but still not free.”

And So I Stayed is playing in select theaters. To find a screening or to host your own, contact the filmmakers here.

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