Domestic Violence Awareness Week began on Monday. That evening, NBC aired "The Burning Bed," a made-for-TV movie based on the true story of an abused wife who killed her husband by setting fire to his bed as he slept.
The reactions to this presentation were overwhelming and, in one case, horrific. One half-hour after viewing the movie, a Milwaukee man doused his estranged wife with gasoline and set her afire with a cigarette lighter, authorities said. The 37-year-old woman, Sharon Brandt, is in critical condition, with burns over 95 percent of her body. Her husband, whose name has not yet been released, said he "decided to scare my wife with fire." He is being held in the city jail pending formal charges today.
In contrast to this grisly incident, area response to "The Burning Bed" has been immediate and positive.
"We can't tell if it's the movie, Domestic Violence Awareness Week or the full moon, but the phones have been ringing off the hook," says Sharon Scalise, an administrative assistant at the Family Crisis Center of Prince George's County.
At My Sister's Place, the District's only shelter for battered women and their children, the reaction was much the same. "A lot of calls came in right after the show," says Executive Director Michelle Hudson, "and they've continued to come in today. People are calling to get counseling, to discuss how they'd been affected by the program, to let us know what's happening in their own lives.
"The residents in the shelter saw the film," says Hudson, "and they thought it was good. They were very upset, because it brought back a lot of memories . . . But they all felt that people need to realize how serious the problem of battered women is."
Sylvia O'Donnell, a counselor at the House of Ruth shelter in Baltimore, viewed "The Burning Bed" with her clients and two of their children. "As you can imagine, it was pretty heavy," she reports. "Many of the women empathized with the gal in the movie, especially with her frustration, and the fact of her not being able to do anything about her situation.
"But the women realized that this incident took place in 1977, and maybe the lady didn't have access to a shelter . . . After all, the House of Ruth didn't open until '77."
"The Burning Bed" is based on the true story of Francine Hughes, a Michigan woman who was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity for slaying the man who had beaten and abused her for 13 years. Such incidents continue to occur: Last Saturday in Clinton, Tennessee, Hassie Kirby Arms allegedly shot and killed her ex-husband while their 11-year-old son looked on. She was subsequently charged with voluntary manslaughter and freed on $3,000 bond. Apparently Arms had taken her husband to court several times during their marriage and testified that he beat her. According to statements from Arms, her son and her sister-in-law, William Stanish Arms had struck her and later kicked in the door of her home before the shooting.
Loretta Muller, who works in the administrative office of the Montgomery County Crisis Shelter, says, "Everybody agrees here that the film was very, very well done.
"It also showed the husband's loving moments . . . It's very, very typical. They're always very sorry, they're always very contrite."
According to John Dillingham, director of Men to End Spouse Abuse (MESA), "The Burning Bed" resulted in several calls from men in need of help. The movie was also seen by members of MESA's treatment groups.
"Many of them were interested in seeing how it would be handled," says Dillingham, "and curious to see if the characteristics of the abuser were similar to those they themselves exhibited. They also wondered if there would be any interest expressed in treating the abusers."