Domestic violence can be hard to recognize, even if it takes place right in front of you, Denise Brown, the sister of O.J. Simpson's slain wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, told a group gathered in Burlingame on Oct. 29.
Ms. Brown told the audience that even though she was always especially close to her younger sister, Nicole, especially after the two moved to the U.S. from Germany when they were 6 and 5, that closeness didn't help her realize her sister was being abused until after Nicole was murdered 21 years ago.
Only after her death were diaries and papers left behind by Nicole Brown Simpson found by her father.
"I just couldn't believe what I was reading," Ms. Brown said. She couldn't believe it, she said, even though she had once witnessed the abuse.
Ms. Brown spoke in Burlingame at a national Domestic Violence Awareness Month luncheon sponsored by Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA), a San Mateo County organization that works to increase awareness of domestic violence and to help those who experience it.
Ms. Brown said she only understood what her sister had been going through after she read the diaries and saw photos Ms. Brown Simpson had taken of her injuries and put in a post office box for safe-keeping.
That's even though Ms. Brown had once angered her sister's retired professional football player and actor husband, O.J. Simpson, by telling him he took her sister "for granted."
"All hell broke loose," Ms. Brown said. "He ended up throwing us out of the house." Ms. Brown said she took her sister to a hotel, but Ms. Brown Simpson went home to pick up some possessions and didn't return, telling her everything was fine.
Ms. Brown said she convinced herself it was a one-time event. "You just think it's somebody flipped out because they drank too much," she said.
What she found out when she read Ms. Brown Simpson's diary, however, was that she had been nearby on several other occasions when her sister was abused, including an incident in which Ms. Brown Simpson wrote that her husband dangled her off a hotel balcony.
"For me, education was the key to everything," Ms. Brown said. She visited shelters, such as those CORA runs for San Mateo County residents who are affected by relationship abuse. She also visited treatment programs for abusers and prisoners who had been convicted of domestic violence.
"Every step of the way was true education for me," she said.
Ms. Brown said that people who fear a friend or family member is being abused should educate themselves. "Sit down, learn everything you can about domestic violence" and share it with the person who may be being abused, she said. "I always think it's better to be safe than sorry," she said.
"There's a lot of denial when it comes to domestic violence," she said.
Domestic violence is a cycle, she said, with the abuser repeatedly expressing sorrow and promising to stop the abuse. In the end, however, "it's about the power and control of one human being over another," she said.
Programs like CORA can help those being abused to find protective housing and get advice, Ms. Brown said.
CORA's board members include Gail Gorton and Michelle Edwards from Menlo Park, Rosemary Mayer Hintz from Portola Valley and Hana Ma from Palo Alto.
Melissa Lukin, the executive director of CORA, which was founded nearly 40 years ago, said it is the only agency in San Mateo County providing comprehensive services to survivors of domestic violence. CORA has a 24-hour hotline (1-800-300-1080) with trained counselors who answer calls and two emergency safe houses.
Supportive housing, therapeutic counseling and legal services are also provided, with services in English and Spanish as well as other languages.
In Menlo Park during the last fiscal year, CORA took 139 hotline calls from Menlo Park residents -- 38 of them from men. Many of the callers were referred by the Menlo Park Police Department.
Throughout the county, nearly 11,000 people called CORA for help last year, with the number increasing annually, representatives of the organization say.