Halfway through And so I stayed, Kim Dadou Brown – a domestic violence survivor who spent 17 years in prison for murdering her partner – sits in a semicircle with a group of women and shares her experiences of abuse. She tells an anecdote about a time she went to a store with her then-partner. Dadou Brown said she was wearing jeans with a deliberate 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 ripped it, exposing her in public. For a moment she was frozen with shock. Then he pushed her, and she jumped back into the moment. “There are guys in the street,” she says, gesturing to herself. “There are drug dealers. There are children. There are people having a barbecue, like… nobody said anything. No one ever did it†
Dado Brown described her own experiences: how it felt like the people in her community would rather look away than face the inconvenient truth of what she was going through. But she might as well have described society’s wider instinct to turn away from and ignore the abuse victims in her midst. Some things have changed in the 30 years since Dadou Brown was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. There is now a greater awareness of the difficulties victims of domestic violence face to be believed, and the danger they face when trying to leave an abusive relationship.
Other elements of understanding have not changed, perhaps especially when a survivor says she was defending herself or responding to an abuser’s assault. The spread of real crime as entertainment, through television and podcasts, has only made matters worse. One of the most egregious examples is: caughtthe mainstay of the Oxygen network that repackages real stories of crimes committed by women, often in the context of domestic violence and abuse, as sensational curiosities. Women who kill their partners are portrayed as cunning, evil, crazy.
And so I stayed, a documentary by filmmakers Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson, makes the reality of domestic violence that much harder to ignore by focusing on the life experiences of three survivors incarcerated for murdering 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 does Tanisha Davis, a woman serving a New York state manslaughter sentence after stabbing her abusive partner in an assault.
The film also follows the case of Nikki Addimando, a mother of two who was tried 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 herand two magazines pieces) shows that even extensive evidence of abuse, in the form of photos and reports to police and social services, was insufficient to convince a jury that her actions were justified the night Addimando killed her partner.
The film begins with Nikki as a newborn baby, held by her father in the hospital. “We just want to go home and stay a new family,” her father says. This scene of familial tenderness is interspersed with the audio of a phone call from the Dutchess County Jail. Addimando, now an adult, talks to her father while she awaits her trial and considers the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison.
She asks, “There is no self-defense law here, do I understand?” And, “There was a gun in my face, what else could I do?” Addimando’s father does his best to comfort her. “Your father loves you,” he says, “remember that.” By the time of the call, Addimando is not only a daughter, but now a mother. Some of the documentary’s most poignant and heartbreaking moments come in the form of conversations with her young children, who cry when they speak to their mother, not understanding why, despite how much they love each other, they are unable to be . together.
The film features an interview with Addimando’s therapist, Sarah Caprioli, who testifies to the “regular bruising on her face, her arms…sometimes around her neck and around her chest,” along with photos of Addimando’s red wrist and dark bruises in her neck and cheekbone. It shows the dashcam footage of Addimando the night she was picked up by the police, when she got out of her car in shock and said to a police officer, “I stayed with him as long as I could”, and later, “He’s a good one.” father, and so I stayed.” We hear the audio of the 911 call Davis made the night she stabbed her partner, the terror and terror in her voice as she yells her address and pleads for help, as a 911 operator impatiently tells her to calm down .
The filmmakers, Pattillo and Nelson, were both graduate students at 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 real-life crime stories), are often robbed of their truths.
“I’ve been in an abusive relationship myself, I knew it was life or death, there’s no in-between when those power and control dynamics are in play. I couldn’t understand that’s what we thought justice was, to to shut down and criminalize those who literally just wanted to live,” she says. “We were looking for people to see survivors, to hear their hopes and dreams, their grief, as much as they wanted to share. All things we couldn’t see in court.”
It’s not just the grief of the survivors that animates the film. Much of the forward momentum is provided by Dadou Brown, who aptly describes the pain of being abused and then disbelieved by the justice system. “I felt like I was being screwed by the same system I used to go to for help,” Dadou Brown told me in an interview, noting that she had police reports and hospital records confirming her past abuse.
As the film follows her, Dadou Brown spends much of her free time after her conviction pushing for a law that would allow courts to consider the experiences of victims of domestic violence by convicting them. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) went into effect in New York in 2019, thanks in large part to the advocacy of survivors such as Dadou Brown and others, and the film follows her as she offers comfort to the families of Davis and Addimando. Towards the end of the film, Davis was released under the DVSJA after the judge in the case viewed footage of Davis prepared by the filmmakers, but not Addimando — the judge in her case ruled she was ineligible to be convicted. under the new law.
However, in 2021 an appeals court ruled that Addimando was indeed 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; being supporters insist on New York Governor Kathy Hochul to immediately pardon her. Pattillo and Nelson have since been approached by lawyers for other survivors asking them to create short videos in support of their legal aid petitions, and they are working with theaters, legal organizations and nonprofits to screen their film.
The filmmakers understand that the survivors don’t necessarily need someone to speak for them, they just need to be heard and believed. These acts of witnesses — be it by the people who ignored Dadou Brown, the viewers of caughtor those who watch And so I stayed – are not neutral. By focusing on survivors’ stories, the filmmakers challenge viewers to rethink some of the dominant stories of women and violence. They suggest that we cannot keep looking the other way.
At her sentencing, Addimando told the court, “I especially wish this had ended a different way. If it did, I wouldn’t be in this courtroom. But I wouldn’t be living either. And I wanted to live. I wanted that all this would stop I was afraid to stay, afraid to leave, afraid no one would believe me. Afraid of losing everything. That’s why women don’t go. I know that killing is not the solution, and staying hurts “But leaving doesn’t mean living. So many times we end up dead, or where I end up standing,” she said. “Alive, but still not free.”
And so I stayed iplays in selected theaters. Contact the filmmakers to find a screening or to host your own screening here†