Domestic violence can be a difficult topic to talk about and to learn about. It’s distressing and can make us feel sad, angry, powerless, hurt. Taking in the multitude of facts and statistics can feel overwhelming and impersonal. Perhaps this even makes it easier to ignore. But it is a problem that needs to be brought more into the public consciousness if we are ever to eradicate it. One way to make domestic violence education more accessible, palatable, and ubiquitous is through storytelling. Stories are powerful didactic tools that humanize, personalize, and empower the lesson we, as a society, need to learn. There are many narratives in print and on film that depict abuse accurately and powerfully.
DVSN uses these “leisure activity” resources in multiple ways. All those who attend our trainings receive two non-fiction books along with our substantial manual. DVSN Advocates gather for regular movie night to view and discuss films involving domestic violence. Recently, one former Advocate began a book club to lead discussions on fiction titles dealing with abuse. Earlier this month, DVSN’s Executive Director, Jacquelin Apsler, was invited to join a discussion with Michelle Bowdler about her book “Is Rape a Crime? A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto” as part of the Goodnow Library Author Series. With all this talk of books among the DVSN staff, we wanted to share some of our recommendations (and things that have been recommended to us!) for those looking for a good yarn as a way to access information on abuse. Keep reading for a list (which is by no mean exhaustive!) of books, movies, and TV series that depict or discuss domestic violence meaningfully.
Always, Forever, Maybe by Anica Mrose Rissi
High school senior Betts is immediately and intensely attracted to Aiden the first time she sees him, believing him to be “the one” for whom she will do anything. As their relationship progresses, he proves to be possessive, controlling, and both physically and emotionally abusive.
This YA novel deals with first love, various kinds of abuse, and helping a friend in a controlling relationship.
Broken Wings by Carla Stewart
Two women develop an inter-generational friendship when Brooke is treated at the hospital where Mitzi volunteers. Bouncing between time periods, it explores how Mitzi is losing her husband of 60 years to Alzheimer’s while Brooke is engaged to a handsome up-and-coming lawyer, who Mitzi suspects is abusing her.
This story deals with abuse and helping a friend in an abusive relationship.
Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie’s life appeared pretty great – Harvard diploma, job at a major magazine, the perfect husband. But behind closed doors he was anything but perfect. Leslie details the escalating abuse she suffered, her love for her husband, and how difficult it was to leave him.
This memoir deals with physical abuse, possessiveness, and the challenges of loving and leaving an abuser.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
Tilly and Leon have an unusual agreement to share a one-bedroom apartment. Leon works nights so he has the flat (and bed) while Tilly is at work during the day, and she gets it the rest of the time. They leave notes for each other and grow closer without ever actually meeting. Each has difficulties surrounding someone in their life, Leon with his wrongly convicted brother and Tilly with her controlling ex-boyfriend, whose emotional abuse she has not fully acknowledged, even to herself.
This romantic comedy deals with emotional abuse, gaslighting, obsessive exes, and mental health.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
13-year-old Leni’s father comes back from the Vietnam War troubled and violent. He moves the family up to rural Alaska, where Leni and her mother have to contend not only with his abuse but with the wild, dark differentness of Alaska.
This coming-of-age story deals with PTSD, domestic abuse through the perspective of a child, and the challenges of leaving an abusive partner.
Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult
Cassie is suffering from amnesia, so when she discovers she is married to rich, handsome movie star, Alex, it seems like she was living a perfect fairytale. As she resumes her life and memories begin to return, she realizes Alex is not as perfect as he seems. Though she loves him, Alex is abusive. Matters are complicated by her pregnancy.
This book deals with physical abuse, public perception, and the difficulties of leaving an abuser.
Something Wild by Hanna Halperin
Adult sisters Tanya and Nessa return to their childhood home to help their mother and stepfather move out and discover he is physically abusing her. The sisters have different views of their stepfather and of how to help their mother. They are also dealing with lasting trauma from an incident when they were teenagers.
This book deals with trauma, cycles of violence, restraining orders, love for abusers, and helping abused family members.
This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
Four different women are affected by their relationships, past and present, with hotshot Irish politician Paddy de Courcy, who is, by all accounts, very handsome and charismatic. The women interact in different ways as they struggle with secrets and trauma centered around abuse by Paddy.
This novel shows the outward charm of many abusers and the lasting effects on their victims.
A Cry for Help: The Tracey Thurman Story
Based on a true story. After Tracey leaves her abusive boyfriend Buck, he begs her to come back, vowing he has changed. The two marry and have a child but the abuse continues and Tracey leaves again. When she refuses to come back this time, Buck reacts with extreme violence witnessed by neighbors. The police fail to intervene but do eventually arrest Buck. Worried about his possible parole, Tracy also sues the police department for not protecting her.
This TV movie deals with physical and emotional abuse, using a child to manipulate, and ineffective law enforcement.
Angela is married to the charming Olivier. Despite his outward appearance and bond with their children, he is abusive toward Angela. When a private investigator unexpectedly tells Angela more about what Olivier is up to, they come up with a risky plan to free Angela from the marriage and protect the children.
This thriller mini-series deals with physical and emotional abuse, manipulation, public perceptions, and the challenges of leaving an abuser.
After Beth, long abused by her husband Tim, leaves him with their young daughter, he pursues them through multiple residences and shelters, perpetrating several violent attacks against Beth and those who help her. Beth is assisted by family and a fellow abused woman she meets at a shelter, who is also running from her violent husband.
This TV movie deals with domestic violence, stalking, using a child to manipulate, and helping a friend or family member in an abusive relationship.
Finding Jenn’s Voice
Jenn was pregnant when she was murdered by her married boyfriend. Filmmaker Tracy Schott investigates and finds that homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Through research and interviews with survivors and law enforcement, she attempts to shed light on the issue and help find Jenn’s voice.
This documentary deals with intimate partner homicide and domestic abuse during pregnancy.
After the death of her aunt, a famous singer, Paula meets the charming Gregory in Italy. They marry and return to London, where many small things slightly out of place in their home start to make her question her sanity and, eventually, her husband.
This classic film originated the term “gaslighting” and deals with intense manipulation.
Based on the true story of figure skating champion Tonya Harding, infamous for her connection to the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. Told from Tonya’s perspective, it follows her abusive mother pushing her into skating, her marriage to an abusive husband, and her troubled rise and fall through the ranks of competitive figure skating.
This dark comedy biopic/mockumentary deals with parental and spousal abuse, both physical and emotional.
Men Don’t Tell
Ed has suffered years of physical and verbal abuse by his wife Laura. When he intervenes to stop her assaulting their daughter, Laura ends up in a coma and Ed is arrested for domestic violence and attempted murder. His side of the story comes out in the subsequent interrogation but is met with disbelief and scorn.
This TV movie from the 90s is a little out of date on laws and public perception but is one of few stories that portrays men as victims and women as abusers.
Pie-diner waitress Jenna is unhappily married and trying to save enough to leave her abusive husband when she discovers, to her chagrin, that she is pregnant. While her new obstetrician is also married, the two have a mutual attraction that turns into an affair as her pregnancy progresses. Jenna must decide what to do about both men and what’s best for her child on the way.
This whimsical film deals with emotional abuse, possessiveness, infidelity, and the challenges of leaving an abuser.
Read and/or Watch
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
While the book is set in Sydney, Australia and the HBO series in California, both follow the lives of several women whose children are in the same kindergarten class. They struggle with issues of parenting, friendship, school politics, bullying, and family secrets. As all the little lies add up, they might find themselves in big trouble when a school event turns deadly.
This dramatic mystery deals with domestic violence, sexual assault, public perceptions, the challenges of leaving an abuser, and the impact on children.
Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen
Frannie has stayed with her abusive police officer husband, Bobby, for years because she feels it’s best for their son, Robert. After a particularly bad incident, she finally decides to leave and enlists an organization to help her and Robert create new identities and lives far away from Bobby. Frannie settles into her new life, but Robert misses his father and struggles. Trouble comes after them when Robert reaches out to Bobby.
This thriller novel and TV movie deal with physical abuse and the difficulties in leaving an abuser for both the victim and the children.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
This Pulitzer Prize winning epistolary novel and the film and musical it inspired all revolve around teenage black sisters Celie and Nettie in rural Georgia in the nearly 1900s. They are physically and sexually abused by their father, who then forces Celie to marry a man who wanted to marry Nettie. Nettie escapes, travels to Africa, and become close with a missionary couple. Celie stays with her husband and begins to fall for his mistress, Shug. Other relationships are also explored through a series of letters the sister write throughout their lives.
This literary classic and its adaptations deal with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and coercive control, both by intimate partners and by parents.
I, Tina by Tina Turner & Kurt Loder / What’s Love Got to Do With It?
The true story of superstar singer Tina Turner’s difficult childhood, rise to fame, and her relationship with her abusive husband, Ike.
This memoir and biopic deal with physical abuse and jealousy.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land / Maid
Accidentally pregnant by her abusive boyfriend, Stephanie leaves him but struggles to care for her son while working as a cleaner. Stephanie works hard and seeks help to better their lives all while spending her days surrounded by the affluence of her clients, some of whom are kind to her and some of whom are not.
This memoir and series deal with verbal abuse, physical abuse, and long-term consequences of domestic violence, especially for those living in poverty.
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
New in the small town of Southport, Katie avoids getting too personal with the locals, but as she grows closer to her neighbor Jo and widowed shop owner Alex, she is tempted to put down roots in the community. What they don’t know is that she is on the run, hiding from her abusive police officer husband who has the resources to find her.
This romance deals with physical abuse, the challenges of leaving an abuser, and stalking.
Sleeping with the Enemy by Nancy Price
Laura’s husband Martin seems perfect to the world but in private he abuses and controls her terribly. Seizing an opportunity in a boating incident, Laura fakes her own death, changes her appearance, and flees to another state. Laura begins to fall for her neighbor Ben, but her new life is interrupted when Martin figures out she is still alive and comes after her.
This thriller deals with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, coercive control, safety planning, the difficulties of leaving an abuser, and stalking.
Domestic violence may involve sexual assault but not all sexual assault is domestic violence. It can happen when there is no current or previous domestic relationship between the abuser and the victim, as is the case with the following recommendations. While technically not “domestic violence”, the abuse in these stories is certainly related, equally horrendous, and can add to our understanding of both issues.
Beartown by Frederik Backman
The big hope for tiny, struggling Beartown, Sweden is their junior ice hockey team, who just made it to the national finals. But when a teenage girl is raped and accuses the star player on the day of the big game, repercussions ripple through the entire town. Note: The book is the first in a trilogy and the series is a Swedish language production (Björnstad).
This novel and series deal with rape, issues with reporting & prosecuting, public perceptions, victim shaming, and lasting effects on both the victim and the community.
Is Rape a Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto by Michelle Bowdler
In 1984, two men broke into Michelle’s house and raped her. It was the last in a series of such incidents in the Boston area. Michelle was interviewed once by the police and never heard from them again. Twenty years later, after working with other victims and still haunted, she decided to look back into her case and rape in general. Her research leads her to question, given how it is treated by the American justice system, whether rape is really even a crime.
This memoir deals with rape, difficulties with investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, and public perceptions.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Chanel tells her story of being sexually assaulted as a college student, prosecuting the assaulter, and the lasting effects for both herself and many others. Despite being able to build a rare “perfect” case against Brock, including witnesses and physical evidence, he only got six months of jail time. Chanel’s then-anonymous victim impact statement went viral, was read before congress, and inspired a change in California law.
This memoir discusses sexual assault, trauma, issues with prosecuting, and cultural bias that protects perpetrators.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
High school freshman Melinda is ostracized by the entire school for calling the police at an end-of-summer party. Melinda struggles not only with social isolation and scorn from her peers but with the trauma from what happened to her that night, which she is unable to speak about. She was raped by popular upperclassman Andy, who taunts her with winks and smirks when they cross paths in school. As she continues to spiral downhill, Melinda’s only respite is art class, where she eventually begins to find her voice.
This YA novel and film deal with rape, public perceptions, trauma, the difficulties of reporting sexual assault.
Teenage Marie reports to the police that she was raped. With no evidence and inconsistencies in Marie’s recollections, they don’t believe her, and Marie eventually recants her story. But two female officers notice a pattern of incidents across many towns that fits with Marie’s account and are determined to catch the serial rapist.
This series deals with rape, trauma, victim-blaming, and the difficulties in investigating and prosecuting sexual assault.
The suggestions listed here are specifically chosen for their narrative method of imparting information about domestic violence. If you are looking for more scholarly publications that examine facets of abuse with a basis more in research and statistics, check out DVSN’s October 2020 blog post, “Start by Believing: Building Awareness to End Abuse”, which includes some equally fantastic recommendations for non-fiction books, websites, and online databases more in that vein. For an extensive look how abuse is portrayed passionately in literature and its effect on readers, particularly teens, check out DVSN’s February 2021 post, “The Romanticizing of Domestic Violence in Literature”.
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