Vanguard University play sheds light on lives of abused women who killed husbands, boyfriends

In the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, a popular sociology professor at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, interviewed 42 women at California Institution for Women in Chino. They all had been abused by their husbands or boyfriends, and they all were serving long-term sentences for killing their abusers.

In 2001, Dermody Leonard asked Warren Doody, an English professor at Vanguard, to transform her work into a play.

“She wanted this material to connect with a larger audience, not just academicians,” Doody said. “They revealed some really hard stories.”

So with a box of rich material and Dermody Leonard’s book – albeit an academic one – Doody wrote “Life Without Parole,” playing this weekend and next at Vanguard University’s Lyceum Theater.

Leonard died last year, a few years after she retired from Vanguard.

From Dermody Leonard’s more than 200 hours of interviews, Doody created a handful of composite characters. “Life Without Parole” centers on the parole board hearing of one prisoner, called Helen Broker, with four others telling their stories in the form of a Greek chorus.

Susan K. Berkompas, chairwoman of the theatre department, directs the play. Though the theater audience at the Christian school may be somewhat conservative, this play is not for the faint of heart. Be advised: there are graphic descriptions of abuse. One man tied his wife to the posts of their bed for 14 hours at a time.

“It’s raw (with) all kinds of words we’ve never spoken on this stage,” Berkompas said. “It’s a visceral experience that this audience is going to have.”

Through the years, Doody has revised the play. It’s had quite a long run already, starting in 2003 with five years of staged readings, including at the prison for the women it’s about.

The response at the prison was memorable.

“‘That’s the first time I haven’t felt ashamed about what I did, or about what my life has been like,’” Doody remembers one woman saying after a staged reading of the play there.

“Not (ashamed) for killing her abuser, but for staying with the abuser for all those years,” Berkompas added.

“There’s a lot of shame about being victimized, about not being strong enough to leave,” Doody said.

Recent revisions have added depth to the characters, Doody said. In some cases, the women seem to have killed in self-defense. In the case of others, there is room for questions. One character is imprisoned for conspiracy. She hired someone to “talk to” her husband who then killed her husband. It’s murky about what she knew, or chose not to know, Doody said.

“You have questions about whether or not they should’ve done it. … There’s some ambiguity,” she said.

The women Dermody Leonard interviewed were all part of a support group at the prison, and they were largely middle class, middle aged and white. Though not reflective of the prison population at large, their makeup goes against preconceptions about abused women who kill, Berkompas and Doody said.

“This is the community that we live in, in Orange County,” Berkompas said.

“That’s what gives it, I think, a particular hook for most audiences, is that it could be any of us,” Doody said. “It’s not just what takes place in East L.A. or in Compton.”

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