Speaking about the unspeakable

New play puts domestic violence on centre stage

Kirsten Hills
January 30, 2014

The high rate of domestic violence and femicide in Italy is a well-documented fact, and the expat community is not immune to this problem. An American professor has developed a play that looks at domestic violence among American women married to Italian men, striving to break the silence surrounding not only personal pain but this larger social issue. Eighteen percent of all pregnancies in Italy end in termination due to partner violence. This is just one of the statistics from the United Nations that reflects the severity of domestic violence in Italy. For Amy Sarno, statistics like these were the starting point for writing a play on the subject. As a professor of theatre arts at Beloit College in Wisconsin and a survivor of a violent relationship, Sarno volunteered for 10 years at a women’s shelter.

I worked with women from Mexico, Guatemala, Russia and China,’ she explained. ‘Their challenges as victims of domestic violence were all the bigger, being foreigners living in the United States. It got me thinking, “What about the American women who are foreigners abroad?”’ 

When she discovered the American Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Centre (AVODC) had some of the highest number of calls from Americans living in Italy, the idea for her play began to take shape. Basing the play in Florence seemed an obvious thing to do, because of the number of Americans studying and working in the city and the number of women who subsequently marry and settle here.

I am half Italian, so I understand in Italy there is a “code of silence”: important personal issues aren’t discussed. Having grown up in this environment, I thought, this is the perfect container for violence to happen,’ Sarno said.

In September 2013, Sarno moved to Florence to do research and conduct interviews. But fewer victims were prepared to talk than she had expected: ‘It makes sense—they’re in a culture that isn’t their own, and, also, when you’re going through it, you can’t step out of it and talk about it. There’s a certain level of denial.’  Eventually, Sarno found six women prepared to share their stories, past and present. The result is Plan B: Love Stories Gone Wrong. The play centres on three American women in Florence who fall in love with Italian men and experience domestic violence. The play explores their desperation, shame and sense of isolation as well as the challenges of navigating the complex and cumbersome Italian legal system. A first reading was recently held at the British Institute, performed by the English-language theatre group FESTA (www.festatheatre.com). Sarno hopes to return to Italy to present the play in 2014.

Although support is available to women (see box), do expat women in abusive relationships access it? Of the six women Sarno interviewed, just one turned to Florence’s Artemisia association against domestic violence. ‘Few of these women would talk to their friends. There is a lot of shame linked to it. I think for someone living in a foreign country there’s a sense of, “I moved here for the relationship,” that perhaps adds another level of shame.’ In addition to support organizations, the Italian government is seeking solutions to domestic violence. In 2013, legislation was passed that makes it easier to report abuse, remove abusers from the home and increases penalties against them (see theflr.net/domesticviolence). If you have been affected by domestic violence,contact the AOVOC or Artemisia.

AODVC: international free phone 866-USWOMENemail [email protected] theflr.net/866uswomen

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