The story of Jessica Lenahan, showing at the 40th Denver Film Festival
As soon as “Home Truth” begins, you know you’re in for an emotional ride. The documentary opens with home video footage of Jessica Gonzales (now Lenahan) as a young and happy mother taking care of her children in the early ’90s. Everything seems normal – just another suburban family in a quiet Colorado town. And then you hear the 911 call: “My kids still aren’t home. I don’t know what to do.”
The anguish in Jessica’s voice will set the tone for rest of the film, which takes its audience on a nearly 20-year journey of tragedy and redemption.
In 1999, Jessica, the victim of emotional abuse, is granted a restraining order against her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales, after he tried to kill himself in front of Jessica and her daughters. The incident was the pinnacle of disturbing behavior that included verbal abuse, obsessive controlling, and threats against Jessica and her son, Jessie Rivera. The restraining order allowed for a weekly, pre-arranged dinner visit and alternate weekend visits with the girls – who were biologically related to Simon.
Almost immediately, Simon began stalking the family, and a month after the restraining order is issued, he abducted the girls from the front yard. Jessica was frantic for 10 hours while she calls the Castle Rock police multiple times and visits the station, only to get the runaround because they thought he had the right to visit. The girls never returned home.
In 2000, Jessica filed a suit against Castle Rock and the police department for $30 million, alleging her Constitutional rights were violated. The case would make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 2005, Justice Anthony Scalia told a joke before presenting the decision that Jessica had no right to police enforcement of the restraining order, noting that the wording “shall arrest” allowed officers to exercise discretion. The decision effectively eliminated the protection promised to victims of domestic violence, which is why Jessica filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, becoming the first U.S. American domestic violence victim to bring a case against the U.S. before an international tribunal.
Jessica was granted a hearing in 2008 and the IACHR decided in 2011 that Castle Rock and the U.S. Supreme Court decision had violated Jessica’s and her daughters’ human rights. The Commission recommended a number of reforms for the U.S. government, which included adopting legislation to enforce restraining orders, train officers to better protect victims of domestic abuse, and conduct an investigation of the actions of officers the night the girls were abducted.
The film itself
“Home Truth” directors Katia Maguire and April Hayes began filming around the time Jessica filed the complaint with the IACHR, following her and Jessie as they tried to live their lives while preparing for the hearing. While the beginning of the film fills us in on everything that happened leading up to 2008, the rest of the film centers on the psychological impact that the murders, initial case, and subsequent IACHR case had on Jessica and Jessie.
Jessica was diagnosed with PTSD following the loss of her daughters. She had nightmares about Simon and the cases consumed her life. She was thrown into the public sphere because of the importance of the Supreme Court case, becoming the face of domestic violence victim advocacy. She even received the first-ever Human Rights Hero award from the United States Human Rights Fund in 2011.
Maguire and Hayes show us the effects that tragedies have on the survivors of domestic abuse. Jessica said she went from being the perfect mom to not being able to do anything for her son. Jessie ended up living with his grandmother at the age of 15, saying his mother “chose the case over me.” Their relationship was so damaged that he told Jessica talking to her gave him anxiety. But he still showed up for her at the IACHR hearing, telling the story of growing up with Simon and the toll that everything since 1999 had taken on him.
Luckily, Jessie was able to mostly move on with his life. He started a family and seemed to have a healthy relationship with his wife and kids. The same, unfortunately, couldn’t be said of Jessica. The filmmakers followed her through another breakup and tragedy that almost made her give up entirely. For her, life will never be normal again: “He wants me to be unbroken and I’m not,” she said of her relationship with her son.
The filmmakers continue to document Jessica’s life despite the win at the IACHR because it took the U.S. government another four years to implement any of the recommendations. Jessica and her legal team had to continue pushing the Department of Justice, and the IACHR had to officially remind the government of its responsibilities in 2014.
By the end of the film, you can tell that Jessica is exhausted but refuses to give up the fight. Her continued efforts, despite all of the setbacks, inspire the viewer to not give up hope. By sharing her story, Jessica and the filmmakers are able to present more than the statistical aspects of domestic violence, which tell us that more than one-third of women and a quarter of men have been victimized. We can talk about numbers all day, but the human element that drives the film finally gives insight into the ongoing trauma that victims experience and how it affects every relationship.
However, it also teaches us that the trauma doesn’t have to define you. Jessica will never be the same, but after the DOJ finally released guidance on how police should handle domestic violence in 2015, she had a noticeable change in her demeanor: “I had to let it go so I could be done.”
Despite the weight of the subject matter, it doesn’t overwhelm the importance of the story. The directors are careful to not talk down to the viewer or present the case with explicit bias. Maguire and Hayes focus on how Jessica copes with the years of struggle rather than sensationalizing the setbacks, which would have been the easiest thing to do. “Home Truth” tells us that while there’s still work to do, important steps have been taken to ensure no one has to go through the tragedy that Jessica Lenahan endured. It’s an inspiring film about resilience and fearlessness, making it an essential film to see at the 40th Denver Film Festival.
Saturday, November 4, at 1:45 p.m.
Sunday, November 5, at 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, November 8, at 4:00 p.m.
There will also be a Women+Film panel with Jessica, Maguire, Hayes, and Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to discuss domestic violence on Sunday, November 5, at 11:45 a.m. at the Sie FilmCenter. For more information, click here.