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In the spring of 2017, amid lengthy divorce proceedings, Amy Matthews, a remodeler and host of several HGTV and DIY Network shows, watched movers take away what remained of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s belongings from the east metro “dream home” they once shared.

Among the piles was a tasteful, sexy portrait of Matthews that her ex had taken, enlarged and given to her as a gift. The once-cherished photo was now the last thing she wanted to see. Thinking that the boxes were headed to her ex’s storage space, Matthews tossed it into his pile.

But the belongings — and the photo — were delivered to the home of Nina Orezzoli, a creative director at a large ad agency, who was engaged to the man Matthews was divorcing.

When Orezzoli saw Matthews’ sultry photo, she perceived it as a jealous attempt to break up her relationship. Livid, Orezzoli briefly considered dropping the photo off on Matthews’ front step.

While Matthews and Orezzoli can laugh about the story now, each considers her relationship with the man who brought their worlds together a painful chapter of her life.

Both are no longer in a relationship with their shared ex and have accused him of physical, verbal and emotional abuse in reports to the police, requests for restraining orders, interviews with KSTP TV, and in relationship witness statements for a criminal case. (In April of last year, he pleaded guilty to domestic assault by strangulation of a different woman and was sentenced to 185 days in the workhouse.)

Despite the circumstances under which they met, the women formed a wary allegiance that evolved into a friendship. A year ago, they co-founded a nonprofit And Now She Rises (ANSR) to help abuse survivors — a term that neither woman ever expected she’d use to identify herself.

“People are afraid to get up in front of a room of other people and say, ‘I was getting hit all the time. I was having to wear sweaters to work and makeup to cover up the bruises,’ ” Orezzoli said at a recent ANSR (pronounced “answer”) event. “Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody really wants to hear about it. So we thought, if we could stand up, if we could be brave enough, if we could take that step, we could help other women in that predicament.”

Matthews and Orezzoli hope that ANSR can help spread greater awareness of a potentially life-or-death issue — more than half of the country’s female homicide deaths are related to intimate partner violence — experienced by one in four women.

Rachel Louise Snyder, who has reported on domestic violence for more than a decade and authored a new book, “No Visible Bruises,” said that increased attention to the subject makes her hopeful that intimate partner violence will finally get its reckoning.

“The MeToo movement gave us a path forward for talking about a difficult thing,” she said. “And I think domestic violence needs to be the next MeToo as a way to take away the shame and the stigma.”

‘Why isn’t this real?’

A decade ago, when Matthews first started dating her now-ex-husband, she thought he was exactly the type of guy she’d hoped to meet, she explained in an in-depth interview. Matthews considered herself an independent career woman and was seeking a partner whose accomplishments and ambitions matched her own.

Her new man wooed her with grand gestures. His prestigious job paired education and international travel, causing Matthews to look past a few red flags in favor of seeing the relationship’s potential.

“I was looking for a partner that I could pair with and do huge things in life,” she said. “We felt kind of like a power couple.”

The relationship moved fast, and dramatically. They got married, had a baby, bought a beautiful new home. “On paper, we had the perfect life,” Matthews reflected.

But behind closed doors, her husband’s abuse was rampant, Matthews said. In a relationship witness statement for his criminal case, Matthews stated that her husband would be verbally and emotionally abusive during arguments at least four times a week, and described four specific instances of physical abuse.

For years, she believed that she could work things out for the sake of their son, despite feeling constantly anxious and depressed, as if she’d lost her sense of self. She kept the number for a suicide hotline in her nightstand.

“I felt trapped,” she said. “I was made to believe that all of this was my fault. That all of this was something that I could have changed. That I could have been a better wife and none of this would have ever happened.”

Eventually, she filed for divorce in September 2016.

When Orezzoli started dating Matthews’ soon-to-be ex-husband in 2017, she knew only that he was in the process of a divorce, she said in an interview. She was impressed by his credentials and drawn to his intensity, his storytelling ability, and his bell-tolling laugh.

“He really is one of those people who starts to talk and the waitress ends up not leaving the table,” she said, explaining his charisma.

Orezzoli, who describes herself as an assertive New Yorker, felt the only thing missing in her life was a partner to share it with. Her new beau, she said, met her high expectations and placed her on a pedestal like she’d never experienced before: long-stemmed roses arriving at the house, calls via satellite phone from remote corners of the Earth, a whirlwind commitment ceremony in Bali.

“It all felt like, ‘I’ve worked so hard all my life and I’m ambitious and why can’t I have this? Why isn’t this real?’ ”

But in a police report Orezzoli filed a few months after their Bali trip, she described her partner’s physical abuse as being so severe that she thought her life was in danger.

Both Matthews and Orezzoli say that if had they experienced the rages and verbal and physical assaults that they’ve described in legal documents on their first few dates, they would have quickly ended the relationship.

But they both had felt a strong sense of commitment to the relationship and a duty to try to “fix” it — a common experience, especially for female victims, Snyder said.

“Women are traditionally the matriarch of the home and are supposed to take care of everything that happens in the home.”

Cultural messaging reinforces this, Snyder said, by suggesting that victims bear responsibility for the abuse by their choice of partner, that domestic abuse is something to be ashamed of, and that the family unit is the most important foundation of society.

Orezzoli, a divorced mother of two, says she felt compelled to solve her fiancé’s issues the same way she addressed problems at work, thinking: “I’ve never been a person who just quit. I’ve never been a person who took no for an answer. My drive is such that I can take this challenge on, too.”

But Snyder explains that there’s a misconception that domestic violence is an issue of anger or of drinking or drugs. “It is an issue of power and control,” she said.

The manipulation and isolation that victims often experience make it extremely difficult for them to leave. And many start to feel crazy, like they don’t know who they are — you’ve lost your horizon, as Orezzoli puts it.

Matthews and Orezzoli both felt a sense of relief when they connected; while so many others couldn’t understand what they went through, or didn’t believe it, here was someone who could validate their experience.

They hope that more people speaking about their experiences with abuse can help others avoid or leave such relationships and that ANSR can create a sense of community.

“Because you are never lonelier than in that moment when you’ve left your abuser,” Orezzoli said.

From victim to victory

As Orezzoli’s relationship deteriorated, she and Matthews started talking by phone. At first, the women’s relationship was largely transactional — sharing information that might clarify circumstances or be relevant to each other’s legal dealings with their shared ex.

After Orezzoli left for good, she and Matthews started getting together with their children and developed a friendship.

A year ago last November, Orezzoli suggested that she and Matthews organize a clothing drive for Tubman, a Twin Cities-based organization that provides a variety of services to those who have experienced relationship violence.

Within a matter of weeks, they’d turned the idea into their own nonprofit organization, hosted an event and donated nearly 500 items of clothing.

In the year that followed, the duo collected new underwear for a local women’s shelter, rallied its supporters to send encouraging Valentine messages and gift cards to shelter clients, and threw a concert at a brewery where attendees brought books to restock a shelter’s resource room. This November, ANSR repeated its clothing drive and nearly tripled the number of items donated.

While ANSR is primarily focused on abuse survivors’ aftercare, Matthews and Orezzoli are also working on prevention. Last spring, they hosted a panel discussion for University of St. Thomas students with legal and psychology experts to discuss warning signs of intimate partner violence and how to date safely.

In the future, the two have plans to advocate for increased training to identify domestic violence and for legislation to protect victims.

The duo sees ANSR’s role as supporting shelters and other organizations that provide acute care to victims in crisis. While those groups are often compelled to strike a serious tone, ANSR has been able to reach new audiences by taking a more lighthearted approach.

Matthews’ and Orezzoli’s ability to reconcile their past and present — to speak candidly about the horrors of their experience, but also laugh and enjoy themselves like they always have — has enabled them to gather a group where the drinks are flowing, but also deliver a sobering message.

Lauren Rimestad is development director of Women’s Advocates in St. Paul, one of the groups ANSR has supported. She said Matthews’ and Orezzoli’s willingness to go public helps people realize that domestic violence doesn’t just affect the powerless and the needy, as stereotypes suggest.

She said she appreciates how the women’s popularity — their visibility in their careers and large social networks — has helped bring attention to an unpopular topic.

“When someone who has a voice and a platform speaks, that invites the issue to be discussed,” she said.

Women’s Advocates has appreciated ANSR’s donations, but even more so their ability to get people talking.

“The biggest impact is starting the conversations,” Rimestad said. “All the people that are in those rooms, and at those parties and those events, and the people who follow them on social media — we can’t get that sort of message across as effectively as they do.”

Kelly Abanda, left, took some clothes from Elizabeth Stannard to put on display at the clothing swap hosted by And Now She Rises.
Kelly Abanda, left, took some clothes from Elizabeth Stannard to put on display at the clothing swap hosted by And Now She Rises.

JEFF WHEELER

At ANSR’s recent clothing swap to benefit Tubman, held at the rooftop bar of Le Méridien Chambers Minneapolis, dozens of women perused tables that held chic handbags and designer shoes and flipped through racks of stylish clothing, some with the tags still on.

The crowd skewed young and female. Some attendees had experienced relationship abuse; others were simply fashion lovers who wanted to support a good cause.

Matthews and Orezzoli briefly addressed the crowd, reminding attendees that even though every abusive situation is different — domestic violence can be so much more than a black eye — it always thrives in silence.

“So share your own story, share your friends’ stories, share our stories, and share what we’re doing because the only way that we can continue to do all of this work is because of the amazing community that we have found,” Matthews said.

Elizabeth Stannard of St. Paul said she found out about ANSR on social media and volunteered to help at the clothing swap.

Seeing Matthews and Orezzoli share their story publicly inspired her to post about the event on her Instagram account and acknowledge that she, too, was a survivor — something she hadn’t previously shared outside her inner circle.

“Here are two women who have strong, loud, powerful voices that so many women don’t have,” she said, acknowledging how scary it was to speak up. “They encouraged me to keep using my voice.”

Toiletries Drive

Throughout January, And Now She Rises is accepting donations of unopened personal care items for domestic violence survivors in need. If you’d like to contribute, drop off shampoo, lip balm, deodorant, etc., at the following Twin Cities beauty salons:

Evolution, 2836 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

Divine Salon, 525 Diffley Road, Eagan.

Global Braids Salon, 1821 W. University Av., St. Paul.

Spalon Montage, 8375 Seasons Parkway, Woodbury.

Galentines Day Party

Amy Matthews and Nina Orezzoli will be guest bartenders at Lawless Distilling on Feb. 11 to raise funds for ANSR. 2619 28th Av. S., Mpls., lawlessdistillingcompany.com

Toiletries Drive

Throughout January, And Now She Rises is accepting donations of unopened personal care items for domestic violence survivors in need. If you’d like to contribute, drop off shampoo, lip balm, deodorant, etc., at the following Twin Cities beauty salons:

Evolution, 2836 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.

Divine Salon, 525 Diffley Road, Eagan.

Global Braids Salon, 1821 W. University Av., St. Paul.

Galentines Day Party

Amy Matthews and Nina Orezzoli will be guest bartenders at Lawless Distilling on Feb. 11 to raise funds for ANSR. 2619 28th Av. S., Mpls., lawlessdistillingcompany.com