Brenda Hartman once wondered, “Do I have ‘Please abuse me’ written on my forehead?” Brenda grew up in a small town where everybody knew her family. She also grew up knowing everything about abuse: she witnessed both her father and her brothers perpetrate abuse, and witnessed her mother and her sister Mary, one of the people Brenda felt closest to, suffer from abuse. She sometimes thought she and Mary were the only people who could understand what each other was going through. Mary’s death, at 39 from a stroke triggered by her husband beating her, was one of the most tragic things Brenda says ever happened to her. In short, she grew up understanding love as being subjected to violence and manipulation.
As an adult Brenda went through a series of relationships in which she experienced unrelenting emotional and physical trauma, all leading to the incident for which she’s incarcerated: stabbing her longtime abuser in self-defense. Brenda has been in prison for the past 12 years, serving a sentence of 20 years.
Brenda’s first abusive relationship was with her first husband, whom she married at 18. From one partner to another, she experienced horrific waves of violence: Brenda was whipped with coat hangers, burned with cigarettes, was tied up and knocked unconscious , and lost one of her pregnancies as a result of a beating. The partner Brenda was convicted of killing broke her nose more than once, causing permanent sinus damage, broke her leg in two places, and would throw things at her. She’d sometimes wake to find him standing over her with a knife. He would degrade her, often telling her she should kill herself, that she was worthless, and would dump cans of beer on her head. Brenda feared every day, not just for her life, but for her three children, who were constantly forced to witness the violence. Frequent hospital visits, 911 calls, and orders of protection did nothing to help.
The night Brenda killed her husband wasn’t unusual—he was drunk, spitting in Brenda’s face, and throwing her around. For the first time Brenda, who is shy and quiet by nature, fought back: she put a knife against his back meaning to threaten him, to convince him never to hit her again. When he shifted his body in surprise, the knife pierced his skin.
Brenda met her public defender only three times, once just a half hour before her trial began. In court, her attorney didn’t mention Brenda’s history of abuse in childhood and in her relationships, and disregarded assistance offered by domestic violence organizations. Before her second trial Brenda asked for a change in location, due to the case’s notoriety and her family’s reputation; she was denied, then convicted of manslaughter, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon.
In prison, Brenda is in distress. She suffers from PTSD and Battered Woman Syndrome, still has nightmares of her abuse, and gets scared by loud noises. However, she isn’t receiving the mental health care she needs. Two years ago Brenda applied for clemency from the governor’s office. She’s still waiting.