Patrisha McLean’s New Exhibition Gives Voice to Domestic Abuse Survivors

Originally published in The Free Press Feb. 7
By Andy O’Brien, The Free Press | Feb 21, 2019
“This is me now,” says Mel, “unbroken, unstoppable, empowered, wise and mature. A light for those who are still lost.” Photo by Patrisha McLean

Before photojournalist Patrisha McLean met her celebrity husband Don McLean over three decades ago, a good friend always thought of her as “ferociously independent.” Patrisha, then 27, was living her dream as an award-winning reporter in the San Francisco Bay area when she met the 41-year-old McLean, a world-famous songwriter best known for the classic hit “American Pie.” She felt like she was living in a fairy tale.

Thirty years later, she would watch as her husband was led away in handcuffs by the Camden Police late one January night in 2016. She had locked herself in the bathroom and called for help after she says he pinned her down on the bed, hit her and terrorized her for hours. She begged the police not to arrest her husband, but when the police officer saw her bruises he said he had to take him to jail.

“I thought his arrest was my fault,” she says, “and I knew that he would be furious with me. His bail condition of no contact gave me the space and the time for the first time in three decades to really think about him and us. His arrest made worldwide news and with our secret out I gained strength and insight from my family, friends, community and domestic abuse agencies. Five months after his arrest I divorced him.”

Under the terms of a deferred disposition agreement, in July 2016 Don McLean pleaded guilty to charges of domestic violence assault, domestic violence terrorizing, criminal mischief and criminal restraint. Under the agreement, the domestic violence assault and terrorizing charges would be dismissed if McLean committed no crimes for a year, had no contact with Patrisha and met the other conditions of the agreement. In July 2017 those charges were dismissed and McLean paid a $3,660 fine and settled the case.

Meanwhile, as Patrisha McLean worked through her healing process, women from all over the community began whispering to her about the abuse that they also had endured.

“A woman who always looks like she stepped off the cover of Town and Country leaned across the table at a dinner party to tell me how her very successful first husband used to terrorize her nightly,” she wrote. “My dental hygienist told me the reason she is in Maine is she fled here from another state to escape her abusive husband of 25-plus years. A good friend told me that all the while our kids were growing up together her husband was strangling her.”

After hiding her secret for so many years, McLean says she was not only ready to tell her own story, but also to help other women break the silence. This month, McLean is exhibiting her multimedia project on domestic violence titled “Finding Our Voices” at the Camden Public Library as the first stop on a statewide tour.

The exhibit — which is sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence — features photo portraits of domestic abuse survivors along with a phone number that leads to recorded messages of the women telling their stories. The opening reception for the show will be on Thursday, February 14, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with a talk and slide show by the artist, talks by survivors, and a community discussion about domestic abuse.

McLean says she hopes the presentation will raise awareness and encourage others to come forward because, by being silent, survivors feel alone and ashamed of the abuse they’ve suffered.

“It blocks you from understanding what is happening or healing from what happened, and it keeps girls and boys just starting to date ignorant of what is and is not healthy and acceptable in a relationship. And it lets the domestic violence perpetrator get away with everything short of murder,” she writes. “When there is a wrong, the first step to righting that wrong is bringing it into the light.”

The exhibition includes women from various walks of life — a former TV news anchorwoman, an architect, an artist, a businesswoman and a prisoner. Kate, a local hairdresser, recounts how she became isolated on a remote island with a man who physically abused her and sexually abused her daughter nearly 30 years ago.

“Tensions at home caused more physical eruptions,” she says. “I began withdrawing from social activities and sometimes even missed work so no one could see my black eyes or bruises. Then I found out that he had been sexually molesting my 8-year-old daughter…. I knew then that I had to leave, but I didn’t know how.” Eventually, she says, she and her children managed to escape with the help of the sheriff and Marine Patrol and her husband was sent to jail for three months.

Sydney talks about her abusive relationship in high school with a boy who controlled her, isolated her from her friends and pressured her into sex. It wasn’t until New Hope for Women gave a presentation at her school about intimate partner abuse that she understood what had happened to her.

“I guess I just figured that relationship abuse and domestic violence was for married people and domestic partnerships where you lived with somebody and had kids or financially there’s some reason you can’t leave,” Sydney says. “And I assumed it would look more like outright physical beatings and rapes and threats and stalking and things like that. I didn’t understand how subtle it could be.”

Meg, a Camden architect, directly addresses a man who abused her in college. Although he was often drunk, she just thought it was proof of his “poet’s soul.”

“And everything was fine … for a while. And you were a gentleman,” she says on the recording. “Then, unbeknownst to me, we crossed some psychic Rubicon separating the free from the possessed. Wild thing that I was, I struggled against the cage you forged of violent tirades and threats of suicide. You found my weakness. I believed you.… Believed your life was my responsibility.”

She continues, “The bruises on my throat healed long ago. But the scars remain, grown into antennae alert to echoes of the past. So I googled you, and, for all your promise, all I found was a police report: Marblehead, Mass., OUI. I had to wonder, who are you hurting now?”

Next to each woman’s photo is also a “power and control” wheel that includes the various tactics abusers use: physical and sexual violence, coercion and threats, intimidation, economic abuse, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying and blaming, and using children and male privilege. Next to the spokes, the women have scrawled notes:

“Repeatedly threatened suicide if I left him. Made me feel responsible for his life and the impact of my action on his family.”

“Became angry and verbally abusive if I was ‘caught’ spending time with friends. Wanted me all to himself.”

“He called me fat and ugly. He tried to make me believe I was crazy. Accusing me of lying and trying to pull something over on him. He would get pissed over trivial stuff. It would become a huge fight.”

In addition to ending the shame and stigma for the victims, McLean hopes that the exhibit will also start a conversation about ways of making the perpetrators more accountable. She would like stronger laws to ensure that domestic abusers aren’t able to withhold alimony and child support or to secure a deferred disposition for “good behavior” in domestic violence criminal cases. She says there also need to be laws to prevent domestic violence perpetrators from filing frivolous lawsuits against their victims.

McLean says that there were several more women from the community who shared their stories with her, but only a few were ready to speak publicly about the trauma and abuse they suffered. In the meantime, she hopes that her traveling exhibit will encourage more women to leave abusive partners and recognize the signs of abusive relationships.

“The sisterhood that has developed and that is growing has been very healing,” she says. “These are some of the bravest, strongest, and kindest people I have ever met.”

Meg, a Camden architect, says, “I am astounded how young I was when this happened to me. It puts into context the vulnerability and lack of life experience I had coming into the abusive situation.” Photo by Patrisha McLean
Comments (2)
Posted by: Debra Damon | Feb 24, 2019 08:30

I applaud her for standing up and doing this. It takes a strong woman to stand up and tell what happened to her for years. When you are going through it you think it's because you did something wrong or said the wrong thing but you learn it isn't your fault it is there fault. I'm sure there are men out there that have been abused by women, so it isn't just about us.



Posted by: ananur forma | Feb 21, 2019 19:22

I went to the presentation at the Camden Library. It was extraordinary. The energy was upbeat. The photographs inspiring- faces filled with strength, joy, renewed innocence, and stability. Patrisha McLean has great talent, and now is a "hero"  in my eyes! Maybe she's really an "Angel," in disguise.  I hope that Patrisha will continue on as planned to bring her presentation to many, many towns across the state and.... maybe  even consider taking it  across the country to help encourage women to leave bad situations. There is loving, caring support available, this was made clear at the presentation. I wish the men would forms groups to help each other.



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