Monday, January 24, 2011

Whatever Happened to What's Her Name?

I googled a battered woman's advocate I used to do volunteer work for to see what she's doing now. The last time I did this, a few years ago, she seemed to be in semi-retirement in Wisconsin. She was a bright, shining light when I knew her. Someone people would listen to about domestic violence when DV advocacy was in its infancy.  If -- no, when -- they make the Lifetime movie about her, Susan Sarandon would be a good choice to play her.
Yesterday, as I traveled around the internet, I discovered "Sue" now has a website, a blog, and her own radio show, and she seems to have branched out into Nancy Grace territory, traveling the country to fight for victims of DV and other kinds of violence. She's also credited with several very comprehensive, useful DV books, all of which, I hope, had the benefit of a good proofreader, since her website is in serious need of spellcheck and The Grammar Lady, despite her Catholic school education. She also seems to be in South Carolina now, although, knowing her penchant for misdirection, that may just be the location of her PO box. 
          Sue still enjoys a unique position of respect within the domestic violence field. Her father was a decorated violent crimes police officer who battered her mother for years. When she finally got the courage to divorce him, he killed her, then committed suicide. As their only child, Sue was also a victim of their marriage, becoming hyper-vigilant about her mother's safety. Sensing something amiss one day, she went over to the house where her mother lived, and found the bodies. 
          My background was a little less dramatic. I had several friends and neighbors call me or come to my house to escape their husband's abuse. Seeing the pattern, I thought I'd better find out what to do. I ended up spending six years as a volunteer DV advocate and crisis line worker. Until I couldn't take it anymore. The last straw was when I warned a girlfriend that she was in imminent danger, that she and her children should leave her boyfriend that night or she could die. She ignored me and he sent her to the hospital the next day. The guy had never laid a hand on her before that night. But the signs had all been there. That's when I decided I couldn't help these insane women and I quit, using the same tired excuse that batterers use when they beat up their loved ones, "She never listens." 
          Needless to say, Sue's background gave her a boatload of street cred when it came to being an expert on DV. Can you say Oprah? Twenty years ago, she quit her job with a financial company and began to work full time to bring attention to the issue. To this day I don't know where she ever got the money to support herself, unless her father's life insurance and sale of the family home was enough. She was very good at helping DV victims, even facilitating at-risk women via an underground railway that could create new identities for them.
         At the time I was working with her, she was in her early thirties and proudly claimed to have been married three times. When I said I thought that multiple marriages so young was an indication of childhood sexual abuse, she stopped bragging. She also supposedly had a current husband and a son whom I never saw in person or in pictures. Tall and attractive two decades ago, with a mane of Hollywood quality red hair, I notice from current photos/videos that she is still very telegenic and articulate, albeit with a heavy Chicago accent. It also doesn't hurt that she wears designer clothes extremely well. 
          Back in the day, when I was often with Sue for press conferences outside a courthouse, or accompanying her on radio appearances, she was still the go-to person for DV interviews. She also had bodyguards, but I always felt like they were more for show than anything else. I think the guy who provided them for free wanted some up close and personal time with her. But, even if there were no direct threats that I was aware of, she certainly liked the attention. And it didn't hurt having people around to protect her in public, since these were volatile issues she was taking on, though batterers generally unload their anger on loved ones. 
          Her knight in shining armor, the owner of the bodyguard company, was straight out of Goodfellas. And the quasi-cops he provided to keep her safe as we traveled around the city were way out of my comfort zone. At best they were former high school hoodlums dressed up in black suits. It seemed like most were one speeding ticket short of prison time. However, they did keep me apprised of how her speeches went, the size of the crowds, the details of the event, as well as other unsolicited details about what happened when I wasn't around.
           Two things transpired that ended my involvement with her. I was able to get her a slot on a talk show in NYC. A CBS affiliate as I recall.They needed a DV advocate for credibility. I talked to the producer and his main requirement was that she had to be telegenic. I understood his concern. The stereotype of DV advocates is "fat lesbians."  She, on the other hand, was, and still is, easily the best looking woman in the movement. So they flew her out, limo'd her around, and she made a very good appearance on the panel. When she got back I asked her about the trip and she told me a strange story about the limo being disabled by gunfire in a Queens neighborhood on the way to the airport. I was so astounded by the story I called the producer to tell him what happened. He called me back to say that he talked to the limo company, spoke to the driver, and there was no incident on the way to the airport in a Queens neighborhood. Plus, apparently, Sue had been wandering around the CBS offices, after being strictly forbidden to do so. 
            So I called her up and confronted her about making up stories. And behaving badly. Her only comment was "I should have saved my receipt." I have no idea what she meant. The second incident occurred soon after, when I was sitting outside a courtroom with one of her bodyguards. He said she recently gave a speech where she told a story about a little kid she'd helped escape from domestic violence in the Cabrini Green projects. It was one of those tug at your heart anecdotes that help bring in the money at fundraisers. Only the bodyguard told me it wasn't true. Apparently it was a story she had just made up. I was reminded of a New York Times writer who won an award for her stories about ghetto kids, but it turned out they were also made up. And her career went down the toilet. I had to get away from Sue fast.
            While I know that people raised in dysfunctional families often have a penchant for fabrication, I decided that my ass was grass if I stayed with her any longer. So I called her up and said I didn't want to work with her any more, because her behavior had put my reputation on the line.  
            As long as she stays focused on victims of DV and other crimes, she'll have no problems. Her career has expanded to a national radio show. She's written books. She's still a go-to expert. But as far as I'm concerned, when she's not talking about victimization or staying safe, you can't believe a thing she says. About her private life. About her past. About anything that can't be verified with newspaper clippings or by someone who was there.
            Shortly after our falling out she invited me to a fundraiser where she was the honored guest. It was her attempt to reach out and re-connect, I suppose. 
            No thanks.         


Donna said...

Very interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing. I can see how it would be hard to work with battered women; as you say, they tend to stay put no matter what. My husband grew up in a home where it was a regular thing for mom to slip around and dad to get drunk and come in and call her a whore and beat her. Cliff says what made him the maddest was that his mom would be yelling, "Hit me again, you S.O.B." One time he and his brother, probably both under the age of six, decided to grab a broomstick and, swinging together, hit their dad over the head as he was beating their mom; their intention was to kill him. All it did was make him mad, and he cuffed the boys across the room and went back to beating his wife saying, "Now you've turned the kids against me!"
Thanks for the outlet. For Cliff's sake, I can't talk about this subject on my blog. I feel much better now.

Emily Suess said...

Fascinating story of particular interest to me because my ex was a victim of domestic violence (or so the story goes). And he lied all the freakin' time. Made up a story about being shot while working as a reporter at a Podunkville Indiana newspaper. (It was actually just a big old scar from a mole removal gone wrong.)

The twist here though, is that your "friend" somehow manages to do some good. Certainly not so with my ex.

Mrs. L said...

Glad I could help, Donna.