Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'Silent Witness' display speaks of domestic abuse

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By Susan Tuz
May 04 2006

The News-Times/Wendy Carlson
Ridgefield High School students from left, Laura Dunn, Claire Dozso, Rachel Bangser and Paige Zeitler look at an exhibit of figures representing victims of domestic abuse.

The News-Times/Wendy Carlson
Figures representing victims of domestic violence are on display at Ridgefield High School.

RIDGEFIELD – When 15-year-old Paige Zeitler saw a name that was the same as her friend's on a figure from the Silent Witness Exhibit, her stomach went cold.
"I knew that she wasn't dead and that it wasn't her, but I just felt cold inside," said Zeitler, a freshman at Ridgefield High School. "As soon as I read the first figure's plaque, I felt like my heart stopped. It just kept getting heavier and heavier as I went along, reading plaque after plaque."

Zeitler was one of the members of Ridgefield High's Youth to Youth group, which brought the Silent Witness Exhibit to the school. She helped set it up in the hallway by the student union at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, but until she had time to read the plaques, its full impact hadn't set in, she said.

Created in 1997, the exhibit is a traveling memorial and tribute to women who were murdered by their partners in acts of domestic violence. It consists of 13 heavy cardboard cutouts in the silhouettes of women, with plaques carrying the names and stories of how each victim died.

One of the cutouts represents any domestic violence death not accurately reported. And one figure represents women who will die from domestic violence in the future.

"I was definitely shocked, a little scared and a little confused," said freshman Dan Pin on seeing the exhibit Wednesday. "Scared to think that this sort of thing could be happening. Confused about why people would do this."

Pin said he had seen stories about domestic violence, both in the news and in novels. But "they make it seem far away when they cover it in the media. This has more immediacy to it."

The names on the figures were stark testimonials to the fact that domestic violence happens in upscale towns like, and near, Ridgefield.

The figures include Eileen Ware, 51, of Enfield, killed in 1996; Cornelia Achin, 47, of Plymouth, killed that same year; and Harriet Gray Hunter, 48, of Westport, killed when her husband shot her through the head as she attended a service at the synagogue they belonged to.

"I was surprised things like this happen so close to Ridgefield," said student Laura Dunn. "I thought it was interesting that most of the husbands shoot themselves as well. .Ÿ.Ÿ. I thought it was pretty sad. I didn't realize so many women were affected."

Rachel Bangse also belongs to Youth to Youth, an anti-drug and anti-alcohol youth coalition dedicated to preventing destructive behavior in pre-teens and teens. She knew the exhibit was coming, but she still was stunned when she saw it and read the plaques.

"It really hits home," Bangse said. "You read about all the women who were brutalized and killed and you really wonder what draws people to do this."

Bangse was pleased with how "respectfully everybody's viewing the exhibit. They're so serious and asking questions."

Youth to Youth decided to bring the exhibit to the school when the members' adviser, Maggie Meriwether, told them about it.

"It's one of those things people don't know much about and we felt we needed to educate them," Bangse said. "We're really hoping that kids are listening to what we're saying here. And the way kids are coming up and taking it seriously, I know they are. One girl was holding back tears as she looked at it."

The usual chatter of students in the hallway at the school was hushed, the teens' faces growing serious as they read the names and the stories of the domestic violence victims. They then began talking about what they were viewing.

This was the response Meriwether – a health education instructor, as well as adviser to Youth to Youth and the Drug-Free School Committee – hoped for.

"We wanted to raise awareness of domestic violence as a social issue and the awareness that it happens in this town and in every community. No one is immune," Meriwether said.

The exhibit, which was at the school all day Wednesday , triggered a lot of discussion in her classroom about warning signs to look for in intimate relationships, she said.

"These kids are just starting to date," Meriwether said, "and this sort of thing doesn't happen in a first date. It's something that builds over time."

Two notebooks sat on a table by the exhibit in which viewers could write their thoughts.

"The more this is ignored, the more it can happen to anyone," one student wrote.

"It upsets me that there are men like that out there," a boy had written.

"It seems like the same story repeating over and over again where someone can't let go in a relationship and it triggers a lot of violence," said freshman Tom Liederbach. "It's not really the kind of thing you'd expect to see in Connecticut. I think this exhibit raises more awareness about domestic violence than a story about it in a fictional movie or television show."

The Silent Witness Exhibit is traveling the country. In each state, it highlights victims from that state. The goal is to call attention to the more than 4 million women across the country who are battered in their homes each year.

It also recognizes the more than 2,000 women who are killed annually by family or household members.

The goal of The Silent Witness National Initiative, which sponsors the exhibits, is to eliminate domestic violence by the year 2010. The Connecticut Silent Witness Exhibit was spearheaded by The National Council of Jewish Women, greater Danbury section.

Contact Susan Tuz at stuz@newstimes.com or at (203) 731-3352.


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