Dear Abby & ‘hard-hitting facts’ made area aware of domestic violence

By Kamna Shastri, 2016 Whitman College Community Fellow & YWCA Archivist  

An interesting pamphlet is tucked away in the YWCA’s archives that promises “Hard Hitting Facts.” The pun—if you can call it that—was intended: This pamphlet was fearless in publishing color photos of women who had suffered domestic violence. In 1989, this was a daring choice even if the reasoning was to garner support for YWCA’s mission.

Donna Jones was in charge of writing grants for the YWCA when Peggy Sanderson asked her to take on the project of creating a pamphlet to get Walla Walla to pay attention to domestic violence and abuse. Also in on the project was Carroll Adams, an important YWCA supporter.

“I believe it was either Carroll or Peggy’s idea to do the pamphlet” said Donna.  “We didn’t just want to put out a pamphlet that was kind of bland. We wanted something to shock people’s attention.”

The shock factor would be featuring real women who had undergone abuse. Trying to reach out to women in Walla Walla might endanger the lives of those women; some women might fear retaliation from their abusers. Dear Abby was a better alternative, since the column was published on a national scale. That way, Donna could reach out to women across the country.

Dear Abby had previously run a column on a domestic violence case in newspapers around the country. Donna wrote in response to this and requested from Abby the photographs that the subject of the previous column had sent. It was a long shot for the letter to be published, but upon its publication, letters from around the country started pouring in to Walla Walla.

If you look through the “Dear Abby” file in the archives, you’ll see letter after letter from women sharing their painful, yet amazing stories of strength, resilience and grit, along with bone-chilling photos. These women were immensely supportive of the pamphlet project, and welcomed Donna to use any photos she wanted. Donna, in turn, replied to each and every letter she received.

The final pamphlet features a black and white cover with a balled fist. Inside are resources and information about domestic violence and abuse. If you unfold the pamphlet one more time, you’ll see color photographs of women with bruises and wounds, an effort to bring the reality of this issue to light.

“For me [it] was not only the graphic part of the photos but realizing they went back for more [violence] because they had no other place to go or no education and three children and no way to support them. So I think it just really opened my eyes to why these women went back for more,” said Donna. The experience of putting together the pamphlet and hearing so many personal stories made a deep impact on Donna. There was some pushback to the project, with people preferring a pamphlet that was more pleasing to the eye and “prettier.” But there was not enough opposition to halt production.

Now—27 years later—Donna says things have changed in Walla Walla and society in general regarding how we talk about domestic violence: “I would say, in general in our culture we are more comfortable talking about everything from homosexuality to domestic violence to all kinds of things. Our society is definitely more open  than it used to be,  which I hope has led to more women and men who are being abused coming forward and feeling okay to say I need help.”