By Brook Chalfant
Rae Pearson Benn (SBL ’16) is living proof that ashes can generate beauty. But more than two decades ago, as she dragged herself to her girlfriend’s house with a displaced hip and crushed pharynx following a domestic dispute with her then-boyfriend, she never imagined one day she would add “Emmy Award nominee” to her list of accomplishments.
The City of Virginia Beach media and communications coordinator, author, speaker, and host of Our Issues Hampton Roads regularly calls on her faith and her personal journey to share with others that they, too, can move from victim to survivor to overcomer. It is on this platform that she wrote and produced a 30-second empowerment public service announcement (PSA) on domestic violence for the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office in early 2019.
The PSA played on local news channels and also in local theaters before featured movies during a 10-week spring and summer 2019 campaign. It was seen by 264,000 movie-goers. The PSA inspired open conversation surrounding public perceptions linked to intimate-partner violence, earning powerful feedback from community advocates/survivors and increasing the number of complaints and cases. In Spring 2020, the PSA was nominated for an Emmy in the Community/Public Service (PSAs) category for the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences National Capital/Chesapeake Bay Chapter.
The Making of a PSA on Domestic Violence
Pearson Benn explains how the very rewarding, but surreal, process unfolded. “I had just been in my job with the City of Virginia Beach for about four months when I got the word that my team needed to create a PSA for National Crime Victim’s Week,” she says. “They knew my background and passion and wanted to leverage that, which was such an honor, but … we only had one month from start to finish.” And so began the process of writing and rewriting the script, composing the shot list, and rocketing through production.
The PSA, titled “In the Right Hands,” encourages those affected by domestic violence to access help available through the City of Virginia Beach. “I want people to know what I didn’t,” Pearson Benn says, “You are not alone. People are available who won’t judge you; there are so many free resources provided by the city, and you just need to make a phone call. No shame; just make the phone call.” Pearson Benn welcomes opportunities to lead those abused out of bondage and into freedom and hope.
“If I can stand toe to toe with a man more than 100 pounds heavier than me, be slammed to the ground and left broken inside and out, and then walk through a very real journey of redemption and healing, I know others can find that inner strength too,” she says.
“If God is for you, who can be against you?” (Romans 8:31).
Back to the Beginning
Pearson Benn describes her downward spiral from bubbly college-bound go-getter to humiliated and embarrassed abuse victim as “slow but steady.” She was raised in a strong home with loving parents and a biblical anchoring. Her new boyfriend (during undergraduate studies at a local university) was a quiet and strong fraternity brother who seemed to check all the right boxes. He had a steady job, a house, a smooth Camaro, and a vision for his future. That made it easy for her to explain away his active role in choosing her outfits, her friends, and her activities as “caring and loving.”
The shift was subtle … progressively critiquing how she “governed herself,” increasingly policing her right to speak her opinion, and eventually degrading her ability to think and act for herself. As her confidence diminished, his threats escalated to physical attacks. “Anything could trigger an outburst, but my mind was totally different by now, and I felt weak, powerless,” she explained. “Somehow, it was all my fault.” Too ashamed to reach out for help and reluctant to hurt her parents with the truth of her choices, Pearson Benn suffered in silence for more than a year.
In a fateful altercation—during a simple attempt to watch a movie together at his home—her boyfriend began verbally attacking Pearson Benn for a past break-up attempt. He then flung her onto the couch and placed his knee into her chest using his full body weight. Eventually, he dragged her to the front door and slammed her into the cement, leaving her confused and afraid for her life.
Mustering the strength to escape, Pearson Benn made a three-block drive to her girlfriend’s house—a drive she calls “miraculous and providential.” It was this experience and her interaction with the police, close friends, and her mother that convinced her to press charges, despite debilitating fear.
Her boyfriend received the maximum sentence, which included jail time. However, he got off in appeals court.
Nonetheless, Pearson Benn began the hard work of rebuilding her life. This included taking a self-defense class, immersing herself in her career, and renewing her relationship with her family and with God: “I pressed ‘pause’ for a long time on dating, as you can imagine. It was me and God, and it was the best healing waters I could’ve asked for.” Years later, at a friend’s wedding, the bride introduced Pearson Benn to her now husband, Terence. Together, they have two children and are committed to a life of honor.
“I like to share that part of my story so that others know there is life after abuse,” Pearson Benn explains. “God always wants to be our GPS; He wants to get us back on track. And even though all of us are forever growing and recovering from something, there’s a big world we can help change if we just keep taking steps of faith and stop disqualifying ourselves.”
Another piece of Pearson Benn’s redemptive story was graduating from Regent University’s School of Business & Leadership in 2016 with an M.A. in Organizational Leadership. As a working professional over age 40 with a toddler and a baby, she said she wanted to give up more than once: “Was it hard? Yes. Did I question if I had what it took? Yes. But I found that I just needed someone to tell me who I was and whose I was. Regent did that; the staff was amazing!”
The Taste of True Victory
Coming full circle as an ambassador for others who have experienced abuse, on August 8, 2020, Pearson Benn—will attend a virtual Emmy event to represent the PSA she shepherded. Here, the best of the best in video production and storytelling will gather to celebrate their work and the winners will be announced.
“Regardless, I already feel like I won,” Pearson Benn says. “Years ago, I was drowning, and God —with others used by Him—rescued me. I don’t need a statue to remind me of the goodness that I am living. Salvation and grace—that’s what I want others to experience.”