While building her career as a CBC star, Anna Maria Tremonti kept gravitating to the same types of stories – gender-based violence, trauma, conflict, survival. She won awards for her skill at drawing out people in pain. Yet the entire time, she was harbouring a secret: In the early 1980s, she was married for a year to a man who beat her.
Forty years later, she’s telling her story in a six-episode CBC podcast called Welcome to Paradise. (She’ll be interviewed on opening night of the Hot Docs Podcast Festival, Jan. 25, and the series arrives Feb. 15.) The title comes from a photograph of 23-year-old Tremonti and her new husband – about whom she will share no identifying details – posing giddily by a sign welcoming people to the town of Paradise, N.S., on the day they eloped.
“We thought it was the best picture ever,” Tremonti, 64, told Johanna Schneller in an in-depth Zoom interview. “Later I’d look at it and think, ‘Oh my god.’” Here are highlights from that conversation.
I’m so sorry that abuse happened to you, and I thank you for speaking about it. Why now?
I’m in a good place, emotionally and professionally. I’m in a supportive relationship [with Toronto city councillor John Filion]. In the past, when I’d talk to people about their trauma, I didn’t say anything about mine, because I thought, “Mine is in the past, yours is more important.” I didn’t want to get in their way. But staying silent about my own experience was no longer comfortable.
Was there a specific incident or conversation that convinced you?
Years ago, I was doing an interview at The Current with a woman who’d been through so much. We were talking [off-air], and I told her.
What did it feel like, to say it out loud?
The people I worked with were looking at me through the booth, that’s for sure [laughs]. But it felt right to do it with her.
Yet you kept it private for some time after that.
Even though it wasn’t constantly here [gestures to her shoulder], I carried a lot of shame. Piled on that, early in my career, was the idea that if I wanted a career where I could cover all topics, I didn’t want to be identified as a “battered wife.” I remember thinking, “That will stop you.” It was the 80s, women were in newsrooms in real numbers for the first time. We saw issues the guys didn’t see. So I told myself, “If this had to happen to you, use it to make you more empathetic.” Also, I was always on deadline, there wasn’t time to think about it. Or so I thought.
What can you tell me about your abuser and your year-long marriage?
He was four years older, interesting, handsome, a whirlwind. The abuse didn’t start right away. One night, he was moody, withdrawn – he’d do that. I thought, “I should snap him out of it.” And he just blew. He pounded on me. I didn’t have a reference point for what he was doing to me. It was almost an out-of-body experience. Afterward I looked in the mirror and my back was covered in bruises. I didn’t know how to react. But he told me what to think. He was clear and concise about that, immediately: I drove him to it.
As the abuse progressed, I grew to agree with him. Why didn’t I shut up? Why didn’t I think of something else? Try this, try that, be a better wife. I couldn’t predict it, but I would berate myself for not seeing it coming. Sometimes it would happen long into the night, and I’d still go to work on early morning radio. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d hide the bruises. I didn’t want people to feel badly about him, because I blamed myself.
Was there one moment that made you say, “Enough,” or was it cumulative?
I’m not sure I’m allowed to tell you. Okay, I can. He threatened me with murder. That’s when I left – the first time. When I went back, he made it clear he wasn’t messing around, and I left again. I showed up on some friends’ doorstep, hours away down the highway, a total mess. Even then, it took me awhile to file for divorce. I was in love with him. I still thought, “Maybe it will work out.” I didn’t know how much shame I was accumulating.
How did that year reverberate through your life?
When we talk about getting people out of abusive relationships, we don’t always understand that a long tail follows you. The more you don’t talk about it, the more you don’t want to. Physically, for years, when I got a massage I could never let anyone touch my neck. I bruised my leg on a bicycle ride, and my first thought was, “I’m going to have to cover that up.” Emotionally, I told myself, “You’re no good at relationships.” For a long time, I made choices based on feeling unworthy of having a personal life.
Did making the podcast stir up anything that surprised you?
Yes. In writing out the details of the beatings, I realized how I’d minimized them. Those were the hardest parts to write. I would procrastinate, snuffle around the house looking for chocolate. But doing it was revelatory for me. To finally give that the weight it deserved – to say, “That was bad,” and know I wasn’t being melodramatic.
What do you hope people take away from your story?
As a society, we’re having the conversation about abuse, but we’re not having it enough, and not deeply enough. We still see it as a one-on-one problem. We still see someone who’s abused as somehow complicit, and that’s just not true. We know a lot more about perpetrators and coercive control now. But the laws haven’t kept up, the language hasn’t kept up. The myths are still there. I remember thinking, “I’m one of those women now.” Well, who are “those” women?
So if I can touch a few people who are going through this, who think their lives are predestined, I want them to understand they can have hope. They have a right to want something better. We all pass one another on the street, and some of the people who think they’re utterly alone are passing people who have been there. Talking about it matters.
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