By Olivia Klaus
Director/Producer, Sin By Silence

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My world was shattered by a three-minute phone call. I had always heard about domestic violence, but it was a problem that happened to other people. Yet there it was…on the other end of the phone. A close friend of mine was a victim.  As my mind started racing for ways to help or fix things, I realized, to my horror, that I was completely helpless. I had no answers, no solutions. I held that phone in silence as I heard the dark secrets of a seemingly perfect marriage unravel.

My painstaking journey continued, as I watched my friend move towards gaining the courage to leave her husband of eight years. Numerous lawyers. New address. New phone number. I agonized as she kept going back, and I knew there had to be more ways to understand what she was going through and how I could help.

I started discovering women’s shelters and organizations.  Yet they offered extremely limited resources for victims and those trying to help. Then a conversation with a colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Leonard - author of Convicted Survivors - changed everything. She started talking about her own inspiration for solutions to the crisis at hand. She suggested that my quest include a trip to the most unlikely place – prison!

The first time I visited the California Institution for Women was in 2001. I was nervous that evening, wondering whom I was about to meet. The group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) was comprised of women who had killed the men they once loved. But when the meeting started, I was slowly introduced to women who could be my neighbors, my friends, my sister…or even myself.

Since that first meeting, I have been unable to turn my back on the women of CWAA. They, along with my friend, opened my eyes to a part of the world that I never knew existed. Once that silence had been broken, I found that I could never pretend that life was the way it was before. Through CWAA meetings, I slowly realized that these women were the experts on domestic violence and were willing to share stories of how they found themselves on such dark and desperate paths.  And, as relationships were built, the women soon found out that my background was filmmaking and approached me to help tell their stories.  I knew with this request came a long journey, yet I knew their voices must be heard.  So, what began as a dedication to help one woman, mobilized into an effort to help many.

Filming didn’t just happen overnight.  There were approvals from the California Department of Corrections, the Governor’s office, the warden of the California Institution for Women.  Yet, I had been attending CWAA in the prison for over a year already as a volunteer for the CWAA groups, so something that could take a media crew up to six months to gain approval happen for me in one month’s time.  I was already an ‘employee’ in the eyes of the officials and employees at CIW.  They knew my heart and knew my passion for these women.

Month after month, year after year, I drove the 70 miles to be at every CWAA meeting. I listened to experiences that were living nightmares.  I began trying to raise funds.  The women of CWAA believed that they could be a part of impacting the "outside" world and gave the first $1000 - a donation made up from average wages of only 10 cents an hour.

We began the process of filming countless CWAA meetings under the horrible production conditions of prison and state schedules.  By participating and listening in on these interactions, we documented several women’s epic stories as they began to discover hope and dignity. Many interviewees openly expressed gratitude for the freedom to tell “the whole story” to someone with whom they felt comfortable. A surprisingly large proportion of the women stated that this was their first opportunity to openly reveal their lives, their abuse, their experiences, and their perceptions.

The women of CWAA became stronger as a result of the filming process. Many members who used to remain in the background started to find their voice and members started inviting other inmates they met on the yard. An entirely new sense of purpose was given to the women of CWAA and a sense of empowerment came from finally being able to have their voices be heard. An empowerment that could lead to other women learning how to not follow in their footsteps. Empowerment that could push society to finally do something about the countless women being brutalized behind closed doors. 

It has now been ten heart-wrenching years since my first visit to prison. My initial introduction to this tragedy still remains an unresolved saga; my friend has gone back to her husband countless times, and I don’t expect that cycle to change anytime soon. But because of her story and the women of CWAA, I realize how crucial the information is in SIN BY SILENCE.

If abused women can hear the ring of truth from these woman’s stories and understand their own choices, their lives will change, their roles will transform, and the next generation will be different.