Home was a war zone when she was growing up, says police captain and film maker Donna Roman Hernandez, whose personal memoir on film, “The Ultimate Betrayal: A Survivor’s Journey,” will be screened Friday through Sunday, June 23 to 25, at the New Jersey International Film Festival Summer series at Rutgers University. Hernandez will make a special guest appearance at the Friday, June 23, showing.
Hernandez says she made this film to free herself of demons and to help other sufferers to transition, as she did, from abuse victim to survivor. “I want women to understand,” she says, “that it is not normal to be abused and that abusive behavior is not a form of love. When a victim accepts violent behavior, it enables the batterer to believe that his behavior is normal and that becomes part of the relationship.”
The documentary, written and produced by Hernandez, is about the 33 years of verbal and physical abuse she and her siblings endured from her father in their Newark home. It is one of three films all screening the same weekend that deal with women in painful life situations. “In an effort to link themes in our programs,” says Albert G. Nigrin, executive director/curator of the Rutgers Film Cooperative, “we have brought together for three evenings these films that deal with women who surmount difficult life challenges.”
“Ellie” is a short film that tells the story of a pregnant 17-year-old who is attempting to induce a miscarriage and follows her as she confronts the father of the unborn child. Chosen Best Student Film of the festival, “Ellie” is the work of Cherry Hill filmmaker Matthew Garrett.
“Monsoon St ‘77” features Tina, the young daughter of an alcoholic mother, who creates a rich imaginative escape world and finds beauty in the natural landscape of the Arizona desert. This film by Minda Martin of California was selected as Best Short Film of the festival.
The punching, hair pulling, and degrading names that Hernandez endured for 32 years until the instigator, her father, Harry, died in 1998, was not called domestic violence back then, she says. “It was called parenting. We were all victims. While my mother endured only the verbal abuse with threats of violence, she witnessed the scene as my two older siblings and I endured the daily onslaught from our father.”
Hernandez, 48, has been involved in police work for more than two decades and is today a domestic violence expert, “thanks,” she says, “to the lifetime of exposure I was subjected to in my own home.” In the 1990s she moved to a suburban police department, where she is a captain and operations commander.
After graduating from Essex County Vocational and Technical High School, she worked days for the Newark police department as a civil servant in the legal unit while attending Rutgers University at night. “It took 17 years,” she says, “but I finally got a BA in criminal justice in my mid-30s, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.”
She says: “The violence in the home was never sexual.” Outside of the home, her father, Harry Roman, “was a good Catholic and the nicest guy, who would praise his children to outsiders.” A diesel mechanic for a utility company, he also served part time as a constable for the sheriff’s department of Essex County, working in the court system.
But inside the home, where Hernandez was the youngest of three, was another story. “I wore long sleeves in the hottest weather to hide the bruises,” says Hernandez. “And for the same reason, I was always the last in gym class to change. He’d rip the bindings off my college textbooks and scream that I thought I was smarter than he was while bragging to the neighbors about his daughter, the college student. While I didn’t respect him, I always loved him. It was his behavior I didn’t love.”
Her parents were both first generation Americans. Her mother’s parents came from Italy and her father’s were Romanian and Cuban. Hernandez was brought up among religious Catholics. She attributes her academic successes to her mother, Anna, who, she says, was “the most significant person in my life.” Although her mother never completed high school and the only job she had was in a cigar factory, Hernandez says, “she was a voracious reader. As a child, she’d read to me; when she was older, I read to her. We had each other. She was my comfort zone. We’d bake and do ‘girly’ things.”
Hernandez became a competitive public speaker “because my father kept telling me to shut up and called me stupid,” she says. Martin Luther King was her idol and she would stand in front of the mirror and emulate King’s movements.
Stories were always important to Hernandez. “I’d bring home books from the bookmobile, which took me to places I wanted to go.” And she loved films. “I grew up with the classics — Fred Astaire, Carmen Miranda — the movies were another escape,” she says.
“The most important thing to my relatives was keeping the family together. Everyone knew what was going on but no one would talk about it. My mother’s goal was for us to stay together. If the truth was in the open, the secret was exposed, he would go to jail, we would lose his paycheck, and the children could be taken away,” she says, adding that the same kind of abuse permeated her father’s whole family. “His brothers did it to their children as well.”
Through her work, and some therapy after her father died, Hernandez began to understand more about the dynamics of her family and to realize that her father’s behavior was an illness. It was a repetition of what he had viewed as a young person in his own family. She learned that his own mother had been an abuser and that he had never recovered from the carnage he had experienced while serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. His battleship was hit, and he was one of only a handful of survivors.
The idea of making a film was incubated in 2004 when Hernandez attended a meeting of New Jersey Cinema Women in Rahway. Chatting there with a videographer, Anna Marie Vag, she realized that she wanted to become a film maker. The message she took from tthe meeting was that your first film should be about subject matter you know. Vag worked with her on the film.
The film offers a strategy for the viewer, explaining how the cycle of violence develops. It offers a way out, through empowerment and confiding in someone and getting help. There is no difficult language, Hernandez says, and the film is suitable for teenagers. It provides resources and telephone numbers for help.
“Each time I see the film,” she says, “I see it differently. It seems as if it’s about another person. But finally, I am now the woman I always wanted to be.”
Earlier this year, Hernandez had a private showing of the film for extended family members. “I was no longer embarrassed,” she says. “This work released any guilt I had. My only obligation was to myself. While I was filming I discovered some tapes my father had sent to his family from the Pacific during his naval service and these brought up some very warm feelings, and I changed the film to give him a voice,” she says. Her mother’s viewpoint is also explored.
“Some relatives refused to come to the screening,” Hernandez says. “Others were angry that I revealed the family secret. And it was a secret. No one outside the family knew. We actually filmed a scene with a dear friend of my childhood learning the truth.” The film also includes an appearance by a female cousin in her 70s, who was a witness to everything, and the voice of her sister as well as Hernandez and her husband, Jerry.
Hernandez has two films germinating in her mind: one about salsa dancing and the other about police survivorship, the people left behind by policemen who die. She is involved in women’s political organizations and volunteers in several domestic violence projects and is a trainer for the state in domestic violence, teaching police officers.
Hernandez married for the first time three years ago when she was 45. “I waited to find someone who would never repeat the sins of my father,” she says. “He allows me to be me. I feel safe.” The couple are both salsa dancers and attend clubs regularly. Jerry Hernandez, now retired, had been a professional wrestler in Cuba and came here for asylum.
None of the three Roman siblings has had children. They feared it would repeat the cycle of violence.
Women’s Films Weekend, New Jersey International Film Festival, Sunday, June 25, 7 p.m. Scott Hall 123, College Avenue, New Brunswick. “Monsoon St., ‘77,” Mindy Martin, 2005. “Ellie,” Matthew Garrett, 2006. “The Ultimate Betrayal: A Survivor’s Journey,” D.R. Hernandez, 2006. $7. 732-932-8482. For full festival schedule visit www.njfilmfest.com.