Nearly 70 million people have tuned in to watch Netflix’s Maid, and if you’ve seen it, it’s easy to understand why the show is on track to become the most watched limited-series that Netflix has ever had. Derived from the memoir of Stephanie Land, Maid chronicles the journey of Alex, a young mother trying to escape domestic abuse. And while the show may appear to some as nothing more than an entertaining drama, survivors of domestic abuse are hoping that it’s also the eye-opener needed to finally change the ways that society, the welfare system, and the legal system fail victims who are trying to leave abusive relationships.
Maid is a story so similar to my own, I actually thought that someone had stolen my written works and turned them into the hit series when I first began watching. Like Alex, I was a young mother when I got out of an abusive relationship, and also like Alex, I quickly learned that leaving the relationship was only going to be the beginning of my struggle. Previously a stay-at-home mom without a job, I couldn’t afford to feed or shelter myself and my children, but I couldn’t get a job without having childcare. And I couldn’t afford childcare without a job, but without a job, well, you can see where this is going.
Five dollars for furniture polish and vinegar, I began cleaning office buildings overnight; pulling a pack n’ play crib that contained my two young sleeping children from room to room until I was able to secure daycare and begin cleaning houses during the day.
Pulling on my rubber gloves each morning, I’d get to work scrubbing toilets in the houses I wished I could live in and emptying trash cans in the office buildings of the jobs I wished I could have. While homeowners sat on the couch and their children played with their toys, my back ached to be the one relaxing, and my heart wished it were my children playing with those toys — the one’s that I couldn’t afford to buy. But that wasn’t the life I was leading and I remembered it every time someone walked past me while I was on my hands and knees washing their floors.
Desperate to get out of the mess my life had become, like Alex, I reached out to social services for help. “You’re white” I was told by the caseworker sitting behind her dilapidated desk. “I find it hard to believe you can’t find a job.” Shocked at the blatant racism spewing from the person I was humbling myself before, I quickly learned that in these offices, you were an application form, a number, a statistic, and often nothing much more than that.
It’s cracks in the system just like that which add to the reason why on average, a victim will try to leave an abusive relationship seven times before they are finally successful. And it goes so much deeper than just a number, because each one of those attempts is a very real person who makes up the 10 million victims of domestic abuse in the US alone each year. Ten million people who may try seven different times to get out, to get their babies out, to feel safe and to be free.
Michelle Meyer, executive director of Mutual Ground domestic violence shelter in Aurora, Ill., knows the scenario all too well. “When people come to us looking for help," explains Meyer, "they have no idea what to expect. They never thought they would need these services, so the first thing we do when someone reaches out to us for help is to listen and believe them. Everyone comes to us with a different set of circumstances and we are here to meet them where they are at.”
It is a life moment for survivors that is so fiercely private, it was difficult to imagine before Maid sucked us into the imagery of Alex first reaching out for help, as if we were all right there with her. And it’s moments like those that bring reality to a circumstance many people assume they will never find themselves in.
“As much as we’d like to think we have the awareness and skills to protect ourselves from getting into an abusive relationship, it’s human nature to have some degree of vulnerability with those we trust,” explains Kathryn Hatch, a licensed clinical psychologist. “It makes sense that anyone could find themselves in a relationship where another person could take advantage and redirect the life path they envisioned.”
But once the realization has set in that a victim needs to leave an abusive relationship, the next steps can be confusing and difficult to manage, especially if there are legal issues involved, as so perfectly portrayed in Maid during the scene where Alex finds herself in court fighting for the custody of her daughter, and all around her the script is literally spoken, “legal, legal, legal, legal.” It’s a complex situation that I myself know all too well and one that my own attorney, Michael Biederstadt, understood when he stepped up to represent me in court, even though I couldn’t afford to pay him.
“Unfortunately, the legal system can be a traumatic forum for a victim of domestic abuse,” he explains. “Not only is walking into the courtroom to face your abuser triggering, but the stakes are high, and the risks are great for everyone involved. Victims are placed in a vulnerable state, in unfamiliar territory, and completely traumatized, while its quite common for the abuser to appear calm, cool and incapable of being able to do the things they are accused of. Victims are at a great disadvantage, which is unfortunate when the judge's decision will forever impact the lives of the accuser, the accused, and their children.”
The reality is one that Alex faced quite quickly when she lost custody of Maddy, without ever understanding what was going on around her, and one that Jamie Mosser, States Attorney in Kane County, understands wholeheartedly. “I prosecute cases like this every day and it’s a process for everyone involved.”
It’s now been four years now since I worked as a maid, but I'm still “the maid,” and I always will be. Not just because I feel like I am always picking up after my children, but because I will always remember being the girl cleaning toilets while wondering if my entire future had been flushed down the drain. I will always remember what it felt like to have my life at the mercy of the person hurting me, the system failing me and the courtroom I was drowning in.
What you can do to help
Maid offers the opportunity to change the narrative on what people believe when they think of leaving domestic abuse — but that won’t happen if it’s seen only as an entertaining drama and then turned off when it's over.
After finally freeing myself from abuse, my attorney and I founded a nonprofit that provides legal representation for domestic violence victims — but survivors need so much more. They need changes across the entire system and they need people who are willing to help make those changes; a task that isn’t as difficult as you might think.
Individuals wanting to help can reach out to their local domestic violence shelters and see what opportunities are available to assist; many are in dire need of volunteers and donated supplies. Changes in the courtroom can often be started by simply reaching out to local state representatives and initiating bills that change domestic-violence related laws. Most DV related organizations exist solely on donations and grants, and simply making a monetary donation can go a long way, especially if you don’t have the time to get fully involved.
And lastly, educating yourself on what domestic abuse looks like and what resources are available to victims being affected by it can help you recognize a person who may be in need of assistance and help get them the services they need.
This isn’t a problem that we can’t fix, but it is one for which the solution isn’t found in turning off the TV and pretending that the story is over. Because although Maid isn’t currently slated for a sequel, the story for many survivors of abuse is just beginning.