'Sin by Silence' spotlights women who have killed their abusers and ended up behind bars.
Brenda Clubine met "Mr. Right" at age sixteen. At first, her gut told her something was off, he was a little too old for her—the relationship wasn't a fit. So the couple stopped dating. They moved on...but only for a time.
Two years later, when Brenda was 18, they met again and started a fresh relationship. They got married. They had a son. Brenda thought she knew what real love looked like. But there's a reason for the old saying "Love is blind." When her husband constantly chose her outfits, decided when she could put on make-up and dictated every facet of her life, Brenda believed that was just a part of love.
She missed the important early warnings.
Soon, her husband was referring to her by using ugly names. His hurtful words escalated into physical abuse. Brenda filed 42 police reports. She left her husband 11 times. And she came back 11 times, because when you have a child to provide for, life isn't as simple as walking out and never looking back. She thought she could change him.
She couldn't...but one night changed her life. "I wish I could put into words what it feels like to be so broken that your words and actions don't matter. I'd learned that what I had to say didn't matter," Brenda says. "And six months after he'd beaten me the worst, I knew that if something didn't happen, I wouldn't make it out of the room. I wouldn't be here celebrating my 50th birthday. He told me to give him my wedding rings, because tomorrow they wouldn't be able to identify my body."
In fear for her life, Brenda responded. She hit her husband, a former police detective who was twice her size, over the head with a wine bottle. Then, she ran for a safe place. She had no idea that she'd inflicted a mortal blow. Later, the police wouldn't tell her how her husband had died. She kept asking, and they kept telling her to let them know where she was, they would come get her. Brenda was charged with second-degree murder. She went to trial twice. The first was a hung jury. The second landed her behind bars for sixteen years to life.
"I kept thinking, I needed to protect my life—doesn't anyone want to hear that?" Domestic Violence: Is It Just As Bad When A Woman Hits A Man?
Brenda's story is told as a part of Sin by Silence, a documentary about domestic violence's absolute worst-case-scenarios where the victims are incarcerated for killing their abusers. The film makes its world television premiere on Investigation Discovery at 8 PM ET on October 17 as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Award-winning director Olivia Klaus helmed the project, which was close to her heart. She started volunteering at the California Institution for Women, the site of filming, about a decade ago. "One of my friends had opened up to me about what was happening in her marriage. I had no idea what to do," Klaus says. "I asked Dr. Elizabeth Leonard (the clinical and forensic neuropsychologist featured in the film) for help, and she told me I needed to meet these women. So, I went to the prison one night."
By that time, Brenda had begun Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) after hearing whispers of past domestic violence inside prison walls, from the mouths of others with stories just like hers. She started the inmate-led group where victims could share their histories of domestic abuse and help each other cope.
"I needed to understand the abuse," Brenda says about leading the CWAA. "I wanted a platform so that other women could experience what I was feeling. I wanted them to know they weren't alone."
After one visit with the women, Klaus was hooked. She began volunteering with the group. After a year or two, the women got together and asked her to tell their story.
"How could I refuse?" she asks. "Society had labeled them as killers, but I saw them as survivors. I remember thinking, 'How are these women incarcerated?' I saw my mother, my grandmother, and even pieces of myself in them. In a split second, we could have to make a life or death decision like that. One in three women are abused. It could happen to anyone. These 7 Celebrities Who Survived Domestic Violence
"Before 1989 there was no support system for women of abuse. Brenda got the courage to start."
The group Brenda founded grew from six women to 72, and these women began to push for change. The CWAA gained attention, and was instrumental in altering California law regarding Battered Women Syndrome from behind bars. The syndrome explains how a woman devastated and trapped from abuse may end up killing her abuser after perceiving she is in imminent danger. By 1992, a law passed allowing evidence of the syndrome in the courtroom. Some of the women in prison began to have their cases retried.
On October 22, 2008, after serving 26 years of her sentence, Brenda became the 20th member of the CWAA to be released from jail. She was reunited with her son, has started a non-profit, Every 9 Seconds—referencing how often a woman is battered in the United States—and continues her advocacy work against domestic violence.
"You know something, it takes a lot of courage to be out," Brenda says. "And then there's a relief, like you're not walking on eggshells anymore."
When Sin by Silence airs on October 17, Klaus wants audiences to understand why: why women are abused. Why women don't leave. Why women are silenced.
"I hope people take away the silence factor, which is at the core of the problem," Klaus says. "The women provide us a preventative road map for change. Understand, it's not that easy to leave. There's finances, there's children, there are good times that keep you there. I want it to click—what makes domestic violence what it is."
"These women who have been incarcerated," Klaus says, "inmates who have come together and changed laws. If they can do all this from behind bars, then we can definitely do our part out here. The title of the flim comes from an Abraham Lincoln quote: 'To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.' I think that sums it up right there."
As for Brenda, she wants domestic abuse victims to remember two things. One, the abuse is not your fault.
"You fall in love with your heart first," she says. "What we decipher later with our minds—we're already in over our heads. We're so in love, we make excuses and rationalizations: 'If only I loved him more.' If we as women could understand it's not about us. It's about the manipulation, the control. When you get to that point, it's awesome. It's a power beyond explanation."
Second, you are not alone.
"This was never about Brenda Clubine. It was about making change so no other woman would have to live this nightmare. Even if I could get through to one woman, if she hears me and it touches her spirit, to realize she has more options. Then, this whole nightmare would be worth it.
"Pick out one person you know will listen. Share your heart. In telling one person, it changes everything," Clubine says. "You never know who they will tell. And as long as you're alone, you feel it. It's really important to empower women. To tell them that it matters, that they're worth fighting for. The day we don't listen is the day we fail—the day we keep the silent silenced."
What should a woman watch for if she senses her partner could be an abuser? Here are some signs:
An abuser will isolate you. Klaus observed that many of the women she spoke with felt totally alone, thanks to their marriages. There was a pattern of "giving up friends and family and focusing on this one man."
An abuser will make you feel like you can't leave—you can't make it on your own. Many women don't leave because their abuser tells them they can't survive without their help. Brenda felt she couldn't leave, truly, because she had a son.
The early signs aren't screams, they're whispers. Both Olivia and Brenda talked about a common thread in abusers: manipulation—and it's rarely overt. "These guys know how to manipulate and control ... [The women] often said mental, psychological and verbal abuse was worse than any physical abuse."
Sin by Silence airs on Investigation Discovery at 8 PM ET on Monday, October 17.Domestic Violence Information, Solutions, and Resources