The cover story appeared in Church World, then the newspaper for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, in September 1977.

It showed Dr. Charles Smith – college professor, transoceanic sailor, Navy veteran – surrounded by his beaming wife, Mary Lou, and their four children. It announced his “new challenge” would be to save a floundering religious education program at the family’s parish in South Portland.

What the article didn’t say, what no one outside the picture-perfect family knew, was that Charles Smith also beat his wife.

Mary Lou Smith of Scarborough at her home on Thursday. Smith, who is 79, has recently emerged as one of Maine’s leading voices in the fight against domestic violence. Smith spent 43 years in an abusive relationship and this past year she teamed up with Patrisha McLean on her exhibit “Finding Our Voices, Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

“I protected his good name,” Mary Lou, now 79, said Tuesday as a candle sputtered quietly in the living room of her Scarborough home. “I kept protecting his good name.”

Until, one day, she could no longer.

Mary Lou is one of 20 women whose stories of surviving domestic abuse will be presented for all of Maine to see starting Sept. 17 at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta.

The multimedia exhibit, titled “Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse,” will run through Dec. 13. It’s the brainchild of Patrisha McLean, whose ex-husband, singer Don McLean of “American Pie” fame, pleaded guilty three years ago to charges of domestic violence criminal threatening, criminal mischief and criminal restraint – all stemming from a highly publicized disturbance at the couple’s Camden home in early 2016.

Mary Lou and Patrisha first crossed paths last winter, when Mary Lou read about “Finding Our Voices” – specifically, Don McLean’s futile efforts to impede news coverage of the traveling exhibit – and traveled to Castine to see the exhibit and meet Patrisha. The two women bonded instantly.

“I was thunderstruck by how similar her and my stories are,” Patrisha said in a telephone interview Friday. “It’s uncanny.”

It’s also more commonplace than many want to believe.

Mary Lou had just graduated from the College of Our Lady of the Elms in Chicopee, Massachusetts, when she married Charlie in 1962. Six years her senior, he’d served in the military, gone on to become vice principal of a nearby school and, wherever he went, exuded a confidence that filled up whatever room he entered.

“I was enamored by his experience,” recalled Mary Lou, the product of an all-girl, Roman Catholic education from elementary school through college. “He swept me off my feet.”

But Charlie, who retired in 1994 after a long career as a widely respected graduate professor of education at the University of Southern Maine, also had a dark side. One that grew darker with each passing decade of a marriage that spanned 43 years.

He dictated Mary Lou’s every move, often to the point of absurdity. Over time, she filled three pages with “absolutes” to which she had to adhere.

When they drove on the turnpike, Charlie would demand that she hand him the toll money with her right hand, never her left.

Why?

“He said it was too difficult with my left hand,” Mary Lou said. “And so I just did it.”

Per order of Charlie, Mary Lou could never wear sneakers without socks. Nor could she ever buy a white coat because, according to Charlie, “only floozies from the VFW wore white coats.”

Then there was the shower mat. Whenever Mary Lou hung it over the shower-curtain rod to dry, Charlie would insist that she center it perfectly with three curtain rings – no more, no fewer – on each side.

And God help her if she said or did anything to upset him in front of others. When friends came over, Mary Lou joined in the conversation until, without warning, Charlie shot her “the glare.”

“I could just feel myself shut down, but keep the smile on so no one knew,” she said. “And I knew when everyone left that there was going to be hell to pay, that there was something I’d said or done that offended him. He’d say that I enjoyed emasculating him – that was the word that he used quite a bit.”

Worse yet, just beyond the constant mental and emotional abuse, violence lurked.

One day, on their way through Scarborough to go clothes shopping, one of their three sons asked if he could get a short jacket. Charlie didn’t like the idea, but Mary Lou, sitting next to her husband in the front seat, urged him, “C’mon, let the kid get a short jacket.”

“His face turned red and he got fumingly angry and he stopped the car and he punched me in the eye,” Mary Lou recalled. “And he said, ‘We’re not getting any short jackets.’ He gave me a black eye.”

And how did the world not notice that?

“Maybelline Erase.”

Theirs became, as time went by, a household under siege, interrupted only by Charlie’s adventures sailing his 45-foot sloop across the Atlantic or grabbing his rifles – he kept several guns in the house – to go hunting in the Maine woods.

His absences were like holidays. Mary Lou and the kids would break out the Cap’n Crunch cereal, watch TV until all hours and not worry if the house became less than immaculate.

But then, a few hours before his return, they’d shift into top-to-bottom cleaning mode. Mary Lou would anxiously prepare one of Charlie’s favorite meals. And when the sound of tires in the gravel driveway signaled his arrival, the kids would flee for their bedrooms.

As each child grew up and left home, Mary Lou never suffered from empty-nest syndrome. Rather, she’d quietly say a prayer of thanks that they were now free, that from now on they would be safe from the man who, one night, held a gun to his own son’s head.

Finally, on Aug. 20, 2005, a Saturday, Mary Lou reached her breaking point. Closing herself in the bathroom of their Scarborough home with a handful of pain pills, she raised them to her mouth and, in that life-or-death moment, tearfully realized she still wanted to live.

She flushed the pills down the toilet. Then, hoping to impress upon Charlie how miserable she was, she told him what she had just done.

His response?

“He took out a gun – I can still hear the cylinder spinning. He told me, ‘I’ll show you how to put a gun to your head and be successful committing suicide.’”

Then, as if nothing had happened, they went to a movie, followed by Mass at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Scarborough.

The next day, Charlie appeared with a suitcase. “I’m leaving and you’ll never see me again,” he told his wife.

Something deep inside Mary Lou shifted in that moment. Years of fear gave way to anger. Out of that, a newfound strength suddenly emerged.

“No,” Mary Lou said, turning to face her tormentor. “I’m leaving and you’ll never see me again.”

And with that, at age 65, she left.

She spent a year with a son in California, where she decided the marriage was indeed over.

Upon returning to Maine, Mary Lou soon became a leader in the “Divorce and Beyond” programs at various Roman Catholic churches throughout Greater Portland.

She told her story publicly for the first time in 2007 during a domestic violence conference at the State Street Church in Portland. The title of her talk: “No One Knew.”

She served for two years on the board of the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine.

Then in 2014, working with Maine filmmaker Jennifer Widor Smith, Mary Lou made a film called “Leaving Charlie.” It’s just under 15 minutes long, but its message is timeless.

“I learned it’s never too late to escape the horror of domestic violence,” Mary Lou says in the film. “I found peace, I found contentment and I found that I love myself very much. It’s a gift I give myself every day.”

Charlie, who died in 2017, was never charged with a crime – the only time police got involved, he avoided arrest by agreeing to a short stay for a psychiatric evaluation at Maine Medical Center. Yet even as Mary Lou shared her story via the film, the speaking engagements and a steady stream of letters to the editor, Charlie never protested, never told her to shut up or else.

“I think he went to his grave truly believing that I was coming back and that he did nothing wrong,” she said.

When she learned of Charlie’s death two years ago, Mary Lou cried – out of catharsis, not grief. That beguiling photo on the cover of Church World, the close friends who were stunned to hear what went on for so long behind those closed doors, the life that in so many ways was a lie – it was all over.

But it will never be forgotten.

These days, Mary Lou basks in the tranquility of her home – a sign by the door reads “Enter in Peace” and the walls teem with photos of her ancestors, her children and grandchildren. Many of the pictures include her daughter Cathy, who took her own life four years ago.

She will turn 80 in January. But slowing down is not an option, not when she’s still handing out business cards that proclaim: “It’s never too late.”

She’ll appear with Patrisha McLean and other survivors at an opening reception for the “Finding Our Voices” exhibit at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center on Sept. 19 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. She’ll be on a panel titled “What Trapped Me, What Freed Me” at the same location on Oct. 10.

And sometime in the coming weeks, she’ll join Patrisha to discuss domestic violence with soon-to-be-released women at the Maine Correctional Center’s Women’s Center in Windham.

At each appearance, Mary Lou will begin as she always does – by asking her audiences for their love and compassion, not their judgment or pity.

“When you give me your love and compassion, I stand beside you,” she’ll explain.  “When you give me your judgment and pity, you make me a victim. And I’ll never be a victim again.”

She’s on a new path now, the path to survival. And she prays others like her will follow.

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