WALKING ACROSS THE LEAFY GROUNDS OF MICHIGAN State University, Denise Brown is trailed by a gaggle of reporters and camera crews. But this time the sister of murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson isn’t interested in talking about the trial of her former brother-in-law 0. J. Simpson. Wearing her sister’s silver cross around her neck and a tiny angel pin in memory of Nicole on her lapel, Brown firmly bats away those questions. “We’ve moved on,” she insists. “There are other things to life than the verdict, other things to life than 0. J. Simpson.”
Foremost among those things is the issue that brought her to the East Lansing campus last week: the battle against domestic violence. Brown, who assisted in the creation of the Nicole Brown Simpson Charitable Foundation, which raises funds to help battered women, was visiting Safe Place, the nation’s first women’s shelter on a college campus. She was invited there by MSU officials to help illustrate that domestic violence can happen to women of all backgrounds and circumstances. “It’s important that abuse not be seen as a blue-collar issue,” says the shelter’s founder Joanne McPherson, 48, the wife of MSU president M. Peter McPherson.
Apparently, women are battered with astonishing frequency. According to shelter director Holly Rosen, 28 percent of female high school and college students are abused by someone they are dating. In a Wisconsin survey of 200 high school-and college-age women, more than 30 percent said they had encountered physical abuse in a dating relationship. “People assume we’re talking about wife-battering when we talk about domestic violence,” says MSU psychology professor Cris Sullivan. “But so many young [single] women have experienced it themselves or had friends who did.”
McPherson, a former staffer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was horrified by those statistics. When she learned two years ago that the nearest battered women’s shelter was eight miles from campus, and that it was often filled to capacity, she decided an MSU shelter was needed. “Education is the way out [of abusive relationships],” says McPherson. “We were looking at how to keep these women on campus.”
With space and funding donated by the university, McPherson set out to make the refuge—which can house up to 12 women—both comfortable and safe. The address is strictly guarded, and women requesting admission are met elsewhere and escorted in. A staff member is always available, and an alarm system brings campus police in 3 to 5 minutes.
Since Safe Place opened its doors in June 1994, more than 100 battered women have taken refuge there. Most have been students—although the shelter is also open to university faculty and staff—and most have been single, in their 20s or 30s.
For Mary, a 21-year-old dietetics major, the shelter was the key to leaving her violent, 1½-year marriage to Dan (these are not their real names). “The shelter gave me a taste of what life should be,” she says. “It made me more determined to leave him.”
A native of a small town in northern Michigan, Mary met Dan when she was a 17-year-old high school senior and he was 21. On their first date he tearfully told her how he had hit his previous girlfriend and how bad he had felt afterward. “He got my sympathy,” she says. “Now I think back to it, I realize he was just testing me to see if I would put up with that.”
The first year went well. “He took control,” she says, “and it made me feel real safe.” But in 1992 after Mary enrolled at MSU, where Dan was in his second year, their relationship turned violent. At times, Dan began pushing or hitting her when they disagreed.
Despite her growing fear, Mary let Dan bully her into marriage in December 1993. But even as they were leaving the wedding reception, the violence escalated. “I said something he didn’t like and he grabbed my wrist and said, ‘If you ever embarrass me like that again, I’ll beat the crap out of you,’ ” recalls Mary. “This was 10 minutes after we said our vows.”
Soon, Dan was beating her frequently, and Mary was showing up on campus with bruises, split lips and, once, a black eye. She left him nearly a dozen times—but always returned. Then in October 1994, Mary, who had seen a flyer for Safe Place, called for help. “When I was at the shelter, I felt protected,” she says. “He couldn’t get to me. It gave me a feeling of freedom. I could make phone calls, and he wasn’t there listening.”
Six months later, Mary gathered the strength to leave Dan for good and moved in with her grandparents. When he tried to take her back with him by force, he was arrested on attempted abduction charges. (Convicted in a brief trial, he is serving a one-year sentence in a Michigan jail.)
While she was gone, shelter officials alerted her professors to her situation. “They made sure I would not flunk my classes,” she says. Now back at MSU, Mary lives off campus with her older brother and works two jobs to pay the legal fees for her divorce, which is still pending. She hopes to tell her story to educate other women.
It is a story, says Denise Brown, that America needs to hear again and again. “I never knew a thing about domestic violence,” says Brown, “until my sister’s death.”
LUCHINA FISHER in East Lansing