Know the Warning Signs of Domestic Violence

She testified in the O.J. Simpson trial; now Denise Brown speaks in Madison

Denise Brown

Denise Brown

Across two brisk days in February 1995, Denise Brown took the stand in one of the most infamous murder trials in U.S. history. Denise’s sister, Nicole Brown Simpson, was dead; Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J. Simpson, was accused of murdering her. Witnesses came out of the woodwork testifying to O.J.’s alleged abuse, but it didn’t seem possible to Brown. There was no way her strong, vibrant sister had been a battered woman. She believed this, even as she testified to an incident in which Simpson, after hurling Nicole into a wall, physically threw both Nicole and Denise out of the house and onto the sidewalk.

“I just thought it was an isolated incident, I just thought he was crazy,” says Brown, who spent that night in a hotel with Nicole. “The words ‘domestic violence’ never even came into my head. I tell people all the time now, educate yourself about the cycle of domestic violence. Because that’s what I didn’t know anything about.”

It’s personal insight like this that Brown plans to share with the Madison community when she arrives in town for the fifth annual DAIS Celebrate Independence! luncheon June 19 at the Madison Concourse Hotel. Proceeds from the luncheon directly support local victims of domestic violence and their children through Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, or DAIS, which in addition to crisis intervention and safety planning is the only abuse shelter for all of Dane County. A reported one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence, and Brown, who now travels the country speaking via her nonprofit the Nicole Brown Foundation, says it’s your mandate to recognize the cycle and—most importantly—know that its escalation could lead to murder. In fact, victims are six times likelier to be killed after leaving or while attempting to leave an abuser.

“If I had known everything that I know today, I would have never let her go back to that house,” says Brown of the night they were thrown out. “Knowing that people get killed when they go back home? Never, never, never. But I didn’t know.”

Brown’s story hits chillingly close to home for Lisa Judd Blanchard, whose own sister and two-year-old niece, along with two other victims, were murdered by Tyrone Adair in December 2009. Like Brown, Blanchard didn’t recognize the red flags for what they were, and didn’t piece together the pattern of abuse until after her sister was gone.

“How could she not have told me? Were we not as close as I thought we were? Those are questions that I still have but will never get the answers to,” says Blanchard. “I know in my heart that Tracy didn’t think she was in an abusive relationship.”

Also like Brown, Blanchard and co-founder Heather Severson created a nonprofit organization to spread domestic abuse awareness. In addition to fundraising and spreading awareness through TraJa (a combination of her sister Tracy and niece Deja’s names) the women sparked concrete change: In mere months they authored, secured co-sponsors and drummed up bipartisan support for TraJa Act SB350, which called for third domestic violence convictions to become felonies. In February 2012 the TraJa Act passed the state Senate unanimously and the Assembly by a vote of ninety-four to one, and on April 9, Governor Scott Walker signed the bill into law.Blanchard is part of the DAIS organizing committee responsible for bringing Brown to Madison this summer, and all of this work is just part of how Blanchard copes with an unfathomable loss, something Brown relates to better than anybody.

“You don’t know anything, your sister gets murdered, and then you look back and go I should have, I could have, if only I would have,” says Brown. “All we can do is move forward and hope to God that something doesn’t happen to somebody else.”

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz  is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.

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