How an Edmonton Journal reporter told the stories of domestic violence
Jana G. Pruden wanted to tell the story in a way that would connect with people.
By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor
Jana G. Pruden wanted to tell a story about the impact of domestic violence—but she didn’t want to write the same story she’s written before.
Pruden has been following crime for many years. For the past four years, she’s been the crime bureau chief at the Edmonton Journal, and prior to that she did about a seven-year stint as the crime and courts reporter at the Regina Leader-Post. In the course of that work, she’s covered more domestic violence incidents than she said she can count.
So when she pitched her most recent feature, “Domestic silence: Meet the faces of abuse,” she knew she wanted to put the stories of those affected by abuse front and centre. The feature includes first-person stories and photographs of 20 different people.
J-Source spoke to Pruden about how she developed her story and what she learned about the nature of domestic violence. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: Did this story idea evolve out of [your beat] work?
Jana G. Pruden: This piece came out of a string of domestic homicides that we had. I was trying to go back and count the [domestic violence cases] I've covered, and just off the top of my head, I can't. But they seem endless, and there’s so many similarities that you see from scene to scene and from story to story. It’s quite frustrating in a lot of ways.
The Colleen Sillito story one is where it came to head for me. We started to learn the facts—that she had a restraining order against [her killer], that she was afraid of him, that she told people she was afraid of him.
It just seems like you hear the story enough and it’s so familiar that it seems like there has to be some way to discuss that—or maybe there isn't. That’s the question I was asking myself. Once that groundwork is laid out, is it just a foregone conclusion that the murder has to happen, or are there things that can be done?
After we had this string of [homicides] my editor said we should do a longer story about domestic violence. The thing is that I've done those stories a lot. I do them every time we have high-profile homicide or we have a string of them. I just thought, these stories, they all kind of seem to hit in the same way or they hit the same people. So I wanted to think about a different way to connect with people.
I heard Len Rhodes [the CEO and president of the Edmonton Eskimos] on the radio talking about [having grown up in a home where his father was abusive to his mother] and he described it as a coming out. I thought that was so interesting, that someone—a pure victim, a child who is born in to this house with an abusive parent—that still at the age of 51, there’s so much shame and stigma.
I got this idea to find people who would be willing to speak about it, to sort of take all of the covers away from it and just look at what is this and who it is affecting.
J-Source: How did you find all the people who told their story in the article?
JP: That was a tough one. When I went back to my editor with this idea, he said, “It’s a great idea, but I highly doubt we are going to be able to find 20 people who will go on the record with their names and faces.” I said, “I can do it.”
I put out I don't even know how many emails and phone calls. I wrote it up as a pitch. I really wanted people to know in a fuller sense than normal what my vision was for this piece.
Ultimately, what I found was that people were so receptive and people really wanted to talk.
At one point, a woman had contacted me. She said, “I really want to take part, but I can't show my identity because I really am in life-threatening circumstances.” She said that she would encourage me to consider being able to include some people anonymously because if we didn't, it would not be a full picture. I completely agreed with her as soon as she said it. I went to my editors and laid that out for them and they agreed. We decided to that we could include five people without their identities.
J-Source: It’s really a wide cross-section of people you've interviewed. Did you know that you wanted to get that cross-section of people or was it something that surprised you as started collecting all of these interviews?
JP: That was intentional, in the sense that I knew diversity would be important as a part of the piece because of course, domestic violence is incredibly diverse. It touches every sector of society.
I specifically looked for male homicide victims. Eighty per cent of domestic intimate partner homicides are female victims, but that’s still almost 20 per cent that’s male and that’s a really large number.
I also knew that I wanted a same-sex or non-heterosexual couple because there are different elements involved in that.
Of course I didn't want everyone to just white, or didn't want everyone to be one ethnicity and some of that worked out by happenstance. I had three girls who came from one shelter and they were different ethnicities, and that just worked because that’s indicative of who is staying in the shelter.
I would have loved a 70 year old or an 80 year old but it just didn't happen.
J-Source: How did you approach doing these interviews?
JP: I did three-quarters of them over the course of two days, and I certainly never interviewed that many people for something so intense in that period of time. After the first day I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. It was very emotional and very intense.
We tried to make the environment as comfortable as possible. I had an amazing photographer, Shaughn Butts, working with me on this project. All the photographers are amazing but he was just a really good fit.
I tried to make sure that people felt empowered by coming to share their stories. I wanted to do things in a slightly different way than usual interview so people really knew exactly what was going to happen. If they wanted to bring support people, they could.
I really wanted them to be sharing their story in their words, so some people were basically asked one question and then everything just came spilling out. Some people I had to ask a couple of questions. But what really struck me is that all of these people wanted to talk so badly. They wanted to share their experience all with the hope of helping others. Every single person said that they just hope that their story would help someone else.
It was really a very seamless process, and even if it was intense—I think there was only one person that didn't cry—so there's a lot of tears shed. But I thought it was a really a beautiful process. I felt very privileged to be able to be taking those stories and transcribing them and sharing them.
J-Source: Having now done all these interviews and written this story, do you have a clearer sense around this issue in general?
JP: I really do. Having done as much work on domestic violence as I have, I thought that I understood it or that I knew it or that I generally got the issue. I really learned a lot from this piece.
One of the things that I wanted with it was that I wanted it to be hopeful, including how we shot the pictures. Rather than have them really dark and in shadow, which is sometimes how you see these kind of portraits, we really wanted it to have a light kind of look to it. We're exposing this issue.
The project only just scrapes the surface. If those men and women can become informed about it, if children who are experiencing abuse can get help and if we can all start talking about what healthy relationships are, there really is a reason for hope and there really are things that we can do about it. I certainly don't think it’s a foregone conclusion that a case that seems on the track for homicide has to end that way.
H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.