Violence is never justified.
This is one of the core beliefs of my life- Violence is never the answer, regardless of the question.
"Sin by Silence" is a harrowing documentary from director Olivia Klaus chronicling a group of women who started "Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA)" in 1989 while incarcerated at the California Institution for Women for murdering their spouses/partners.
Admit it. You just flinched.
You thought to yourself "I don't care how horrible their abuse was, it could never justify murder."
"Sin by Silence" doesn't seek to justify the women nor their actions and, indeed, the majority of the women who spoke on film don't at any point seek exoneration or to excuse their actions.
Rather, by starting CWAA, women like Brenda Clubine hope to break their own cycles of abuse and violence while educating others in the hope that they, perhaps, will break the cycle before it is too late.
Instead of fighting a system that often fails to comprehend the complexities of abuse, the women of CWAA led an initiative to help educate the system.
The first independent film endeavor of Olivia Klaus's Quiet Little Place Productions, "Sin by Silence" has been birthed out of Klaus's eight years of involvement with CWAA by attending meetings and building close relationships with each of the women whose stories are told in the film.
There's Brenda Clubine, the group's founder, who was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to 17 years to life. Brenda lost custody of her 3-year-old son when convicted, and was informed of his death by his adoptive parents.
There's Glenda Crosley, who'd been married to her husband for 25 years and endured 20 years of abuse when she impulsively ran him over with her car as he reached, she believes, for a tire iron he'd threatened her with just the week before. Sentenced to 15 years to life, Glenda is now in her mid 60's and remains in prison.
There's LaVelma, a woman who seemed to have done everything the right way. She was a good Christian woman who married a man from her church. They dated for two years and, according to LaVelma, there were no signs of abuse. Her husband became a minister, all the while his abuse towards LaVelma intensified. Finally, she snapped.
There are other stories in "Sin by Silence," but in many ways their stories of the "act" are not what's important for the women of CWAA. What's important for these women is that they learn what made them become victims and, more importantly, how to break that cycle...whether they ever leave prison or not.
It was only in 1992 that Battered Woman's Syndrome was allowed as testimony in California courts, and it was only in 2002 that the efforts of CWAA began to manifest in women being able to have their cases reconsidered with all the facts being presented.
Again, it's not that these women wish to deny their truth- It's simply that they want the whole truth to be presented.
How committed were these women? When they discovered, after she had been already active with their group for some time, that Klaus had a background in filmmaking they sought her help in telling their stories. In fact, the women of CWAA donated the first $1,000 towards the making of the film- an amazing accomplishment when you consider that most of these women made wages in the penal system of $.10 an hour.
Consider this CWAA timeline...
1989- After two years of trying, Brenda Clubine succeeds in getting CWAA approved by Sacramento.
1990- The women of CWAA compile a brief booklet of stories about their abuse, domestic violence resources in California, information about the cycle of abuse and much more. This information was pivotal in helping politicians gain a better understanding of convicted survivors. The group was contacted by legislator Jackie Spears, who chaired the California Women's Legislative Caucus. During this same year, the women of CWAA team up with a local shelter that allows women in the shelter to visit and learn firsthand the potential costs of domestic violence.
1991- Jackie Spears organizes a public hearing at the prison on domestic violence that is attended by 22 political dignitaries. This same year, Brenda Clubine speaks at the L.A. Women's Clinic with then Mayor Tom Bradley and the LAPS. This is key in getting LAPD to increase domestic violence training for its officers from 8 hours to 40 hours. Over the next 1-2 years, media interest will increase and CWAA will become a more visible effort.
1992- A legislative hearing is held and 12 CWAA women share their story. The result is that 1107 of the evidence code is enacted into law and Battered Woman's Syndrome is officially recognized as a defense.
1993- The first CWAA women were granted clemency. From 1994-2000, 17 more will be granted clemency.
2002- A Senate hearing is held and 8 CWAA women share their testimony. Penal Code 1473.5 is passed allowing a write of Habeas Corpus to be filed that will allow challenges for women sentenced prior to 1992. Between 2003-2008, many more CWAA women will be released.
2008- Brenda Clubine is released.
2009- The 20th Anniversary of CWAA. This same year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cuts ALL funding for domestic violence programs in California.
The true power of "Sin by Silence" lies in its simplicity. It is clear throughout this relatively short documentary that director Olivia Klaus trusts her interviewees implicitly, and she avoids any gimmicks in "Sin by Silence" that would heighten the drama of their stories.
Gimmicks aren't needed. The stories themselves are harrowing, disturbing, heartbreaking and, at times, downright painful to listen to as we watch woman after woman remember, process, grieve, weep, overcome and heal.
The women in "Sin by Silence" and CWAA cross every ethnic, economic, and age background. They came from different walks of life and, without fail, there are women who once considered it unfathomable that such a fate could befall them while other women clearly identify having experienced a lifetime of abuse.
That which is strongest in "Sin by Silence" is also where, as a documentary on the subject, it falls slightly short in fully addressing the issue. While Klaus is clearly trying to give voice to the women whose lives are being chronicled here, there is never a point in the film where she addresses the naysayers.
What about those who would argue, and there are many, that the years of abuse could not ever justify the act of murder?
Just as many argue that a history of childhood abuse should not be considered a mitigating circumstance, there are perhaps even more who would argue against this legislation. At the end of the film, it's documented that several women have had their attempts at reconsideration denied- it would have been a touch more balanced if Klaus had addressed this issue, at least briefly.
Finally, perhaps, in the ultimate argument for these women it would have helped if Klaus had presented evidence on whether or not the women release have or have not re-offended.
Yet, it is abundantly clear that it is Klaus's primary aim to focus on the women of CWAA and their stories. It's understandable, to a certain degree, that had Klaus given weight to the other side of the story that this could, in fact, be perceived as re-victimization. By now acknowledging the other arguments, however, Klaus's documentary becomes a bit too sympathetic.
Where Klaus regains strength is in her well utilized incorporation of interviews involving clinical and law enforcement professionals, who give tremendous credibility to the women and their stories. It is in these interviews, often used parallel to the women themselves, that "Sin by Silence" becomes most convincing.
Likewise, it is in the courage of these women, who really had nothing to gain by participating in CWAA or this film project, that "Sin by Silence" is most powerful.
Simply yet powerfully photographed and perfectly edited to focus almost squarely on the women whose lives are being shared, "Sin by Silence" is a powerful, revealing and vital documentary for all who are impacted by the cycle of domestic violence.
In case you're wondering, that means all of you.
"Sin by Silence" will be screening at Earth House in Indianapolis on October 22, 2009. It is recommended by this critic that survivors attending the screening be accompanied by a supportive friend or loved one.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic