The headlines that followed the domestic-violence arrest of my celebrity husband in 2016 were devastating. But the truth about what had been going on behind closed doors in my community of Camden was even more traumatic.

Deborah Stevenson’s collage “Domestic Terrorism,” displayed in the window of The Republican Journal, is part of Waldo County Breaks the Silence of Domestic Abuse, a citywide exhibit in Belfast of work by local artists and poets. Photo by Patrisha McLean

Then a strange thing happened. Women everywhere – from my hairdresser Kate to architect-neighbor Meg to Mel who runs the local health food store to my best friend’s daughter Bekah – told me that they too had been terrorized by someone to whom they had given their heart.

This kind of “me too” sharing around domestic abuse happens every time I go to another town or city with the outreach program developed by Finding Our Voices, the nonprofit organization I founded a year ago. More than 1,000 of our banners featuring 34 named Maine survivor-warriors have been put up in windows of nail salons, auto parts stores and restaurants from Eastport to York in the past year, and more often than not when I walk in to explain the campaign, the owner or a staff member or customer – and occasionally all three – will tell me how they too were trapped by a sociopath masquerading as a lover.

Domestic abuse is everywhere in Maine, but no one knows because few will talk about it publicly.

But the silence is exploding in Belfast this month, with creative expression by more than 60 Waldo County artists and poets on the theme of “Love/Not Love” filling all 40 lower windows of City Hall, the windows of 40 downtown businesses and two rooms of the public library.

In this second such Finding Our Voices event, following Rockland’s in 2020, which raised $20,000 for our group in the concurrent online silent auction, artists explore the complexity, insidiousness and pervasiveness of domestic abuse in paintings, photographs, poems, collages, blown glass, fiber art and sculpture.

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And mixed in with all of this are my huge photo portraits of survivors, with such quotes as “It was emotional abuse every day,” from Lindsay of Camden; “He weaponized our money and our children,” from Jeannine in Casco, and “Now I can do what I want to do,” from Donna, a Penobscot Nation women’s advocate in Bangor.

Come to Belfast in June and you will see, across the 11 windows of Darby’s restaurant, the manuscript pages of Suzanne Carroll’s “Big Red Balloon,” which relates the classic tale of being swept off your feet, then isolated and systematically reduced to a shell of yourself.

The Belfast Fiber Arts collective is showcasing a sumptuous swath of jewel-colored silk backed by black velvet. Come really close to make out in the pattern of a butterfly flight. In tiny stitched phrases, Alice Seeger writes, “… were made to me by parent, spouse, District Attorney, and Judges.” All have “more invested in supporting abusers and keeping up the status quo, than stopping them and making change toward Respect, Dignity and Peace. If only ONE person would have actually listened and cared to help, everything would have been so different.”

“Easter,” an oil painting by Alison Rector, is on display in the Belfast Free Library as part of the exhibit. Photo by Ken Woisard

Among the beauties of marshaling local artists to express domestic abuse are the wildly different results, highlighting the range of talent in one community as well as the complexity of the issue.

Alison Rector’s oil painting in the Belfast Free Library is a church kitchen that is all tranquility, with Easter flowers on the counter symbolizing resurrection and the peaceful life that awaits when you manage to escape the individual who is tormenting you while purporting to love you.

The Good Table is displaying Lynn Karlin’s Rembrandt-lit photograph of roses. Lynn and I go way back and the heirloom roses are my own, from the sanctuary gardens of the marital home I fled. Accompanying the photograph is a passage from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”: “And I knew that in spite of all the roses …  a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.”

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“From Poultry to Poetry” buttons celebrated Belfast’s transition years ago from the “Broiler Capital of the World” to the “Biggest Little Poetry Town in Maine.” Now, in the window of Alexia’s Pizza is “Little Blue Fish” by one of eight local poets featured in the exhibit, Kathleen Robinson.

The poem relates a thrashing by her stepfather: “Little blue fish underpants, and khaki shorts crumpled at nine year old ankles,” and Robinson adds in a statement: “May the transparency of those who’ve made it through … be the agency for those who’ve yet to find their own voices.” Paired in the window with this poem is a Finding Our Voices mother-daughter banner with this quote from the daughter: “He told me he brought me into the world and he could take me out of it.”

A window of the Republican Journal office is taken up with a 40-inch by 40-inch blow-up of a record of “domestics” – 911 calls to emergency dispatchers in Waldo County, broken down by town. Studded onto this are the puffball sentences for violent domestic abusers handed down by judges in the District Court just steps away.

“Domestic violence,” reads the title quote from Sheriff Jeffrey Trafton, “continues to be one of the most serious threats to the safety of women and children in Waldo County.” The banner next to it is Autumn, from Lewiston, with her quote: “He put a gun in my mouth.”

Half of all murders in Maine, year after year after year, are committed by an intimate partner. But women and children all across Maine and next door to us are being tormented right now in bedrooms and kitchens with no physical assault and the devastating effects of emotional abuse have got to be aired, recognized and and dealt with too.

The Belfast City Council voted unanimously to allow 40 windows of City Hall to be filled with domestic abuse-themed art in June. Most of the downtown merchants are giving up valuable marketing space just when shoppers are finally returning from the COVID retreat. Sixty artists, many of whom are hit up constantly to donate work to silent auctions, not only said “yes” to this one, but also, in many cases, created pieces especially for it.

All are saying loud and clear that domestic abuse and the survivors-victims of it matter.

Alice Seeger exquisitely documented how everyone let her down when she was going through her own ordeal and called it:  “It takes a Village to Support Domestic Violence.”

It takes a village to end it, too. Come see the beautiful way one village in Maine is doing this in June.


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