Trigger warning: abuse
From the outside looking in, Patrisha McLean had a good life. The photographer and mother of two used to live on top of a hill in Camden, Maine, surrounded by 175 acres of gardens, lawns, and woods. She also traveled regularly with her then-husband Don McLean. Don is a singer-songwriter best known for his 1971 hit song “American Pie.” But behind closed doors, things were darker. And that is because, like millions of others, Patrisha was a victim of physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse.
“I was 27 when I met him [Don McLean]. I was a newspaper reporter. He was coming through town, and I interviewed him for a feature story,” Patrisha tells me over FaceTime, rocking in a plush armchair. “Things moved really, really fast. He invited me to be his guest at a concert that evening, and then he told me he loved me that first night. He sent me tickets to fly me out to meet him the next weekend — and I did. It was a complete whirlwind. He completely swept me off my feet.”
But soon things changed. His demeanor changed, and after quitting her job, selling her car, and giving up her home and (in some ways) her independence, the abuse began.
“The night I moved East to be with him, I saw his temper for the first time,” Patrisha explains. “I felt trapped. I didn’t have a job, apartment, or car. When I was dependent on him, I saw his anger. His temper. But before then, life was a fairytale. Things were good.”
Of course, this behavior is common. Many abusers try to woo their victims with gifts and material possessions. They seem overly affectionate, at least at first. And they dote on them. They say things like “I need you. I love you. I want to take care of you.” It is intentional, manipulative. Part of the game. But after some time, their true colors come to pass. Abusers thrive on power and control, and that happened in Patrisha’s case.
“He punched me, kicked me, and pulled my hair,” Patrisha tells me. “He liked to put both hands on my head and squeeze it like it was in a vice. It was his hallmark and trademark. His thing. But the most devastating aspect was the emotional abuse. The physical behavior was more extreme, but the emotional effects lasted longer. I was terrified the rest of the mariage. I walked on eggshells the whole time. For 29 years.”
The good news is that Don McLean was arrested in 2016 for domestic violence, and Patrisha was able to get out — and get away.
“The bail conditions of no contact are what set me free. I finally had the time and space to defog my brain,” Patrisha says. “I had been trying to leave him for a year, but each time I did he would barrage me with texts and voicemails. I didn’t have time to feel. To think. But the arrest was my moment of clarity. Since the headlines were so public, everyone knew — and that made it harder to go back.” Unfortunately, those headlines were a double-edged sword.
“The hardest thing about going through this so publicly was that he used the megaphone of fame to put statements out that were blatant lies,” Patrisha adds. “And the media put them out without asking me for a quote. They never reached out to me. It was very irresponsible by the press. That is a big problem with the celebrity culture. The press needs to stop being the mouthpiece of abusers. They are a tool of abuse.”
That said, today, Patrisha has no regrets. Her voice is light, airy, and she smiles as we speak. She is thriving, a survivor through and through. She has also made lemonade from a very sour (and toxic) batch of lemons. In 2019, Patrisha unintentionally launched a nonprofit, Finding Our Voices, which aims to break the silence surrounding domestic abuse.
“Finding Our Voices launched in 2019 as a photo exhibit,” Patrisha explains. “After going through all that I had, I knew things needed to change. The veil had been lifted for me, and I wanted others to see the truth. So I did these portraits of 14 women who had been abused, and I tape recorded their voice telling their story. It was just going to be an exhibit,” Patrisha adds. “But the reaction was so huge it just sort of gained momentum on its own.”
Several months later, Finding Our Voices was born.
When asked what advice Patrisha would give to others in a similar position, the advocate did not hold back. “If he abuses you, he’s not a good father. Period. You can’t be a good father and be abusive. It’s also not going to change. It does not get better. So don’t minimize their behavior. Don’t excuse it, and realize there is a better life out there. There is life beyond the abuse. You can get out. There is help and hope.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you aren’t in immediate danger and have an opportunity to reach out, do. Confide in a trusted friend, family member, teacher, colleague, therapist, and/or volunteer with an abuse shelter. Call a domestic violence hotline and/or speak with someone at Finding Our Voices. The survivors there want to help.