William Hurt’s Former Partner Donna Kaz on Surviving Abuse and Speaking Her Truth (Guest Column)

Donna Kaz William Hurt
Kaz: Courtesy of Lyn Hughes; Hurt: AP

Donna Kaz is a multi-genre writer and the author of “Un/Masked, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour,” which covers her relationship with the late William Hurt and her path to becoming an activist fighting domestic violence. Kaz writes about her emotional response to the news of his death.   

I will never forget the first time I saw him, standing by the front door of Jimmy Day’s bar in Greenwich Village where I waited tables. The sun behind him made him appear almost godly. It was 1977. I was 23 years old and had just moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. He was a regular at Jimmy Days and worked at Circle Repertory around the corner. As I took his order, he asked me what I did. When I told him I was really an actress he said, “Congratulations,” as if the pursuit of a career in the arts was the highest of honors. He was performing in Lanford Wilson’s “The Fifth of July” at Circle and invited me to come. I remember sitting in the dark theater, watching him on stage and falling deeply in love. For the next three years there would not be a day we would spend apart.

His name was Bill Hurt and soon after we met, he was cast in “Altered States.” He asked me to accompany him to Los Angeles for the filming. We lived in a bungalow on the beach in Malibu. On his days off we swam, read poetry to each other and made love. But our relationship quickly morphed into a different cycle. Bill would snap, physically shove, punch and beat me, followed by tears, apologies and him offering me expensive gifts. When the battering began I sloughed it off. He said he was sorry. Perhaps I instigated it. I only had to visit the ER once. It was only after many, many years I admitted to myself that I was the victim of domestic violence.

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William Hurt and Donna Kaz on the set of “Altered States’ Courtesy Morgan Renard

I was with Bill at the start of his career. I survived “Altered States,” “Eyewitness” and “Body Heat.” In 1980, at the height of his physical abuse, he dumped me. But we could not let each other go and remained connected, seeing each other a few times a year until 1989. In 1992, while I was living in Los Angeles, I decided to do some volunteer work for the L.A. Rape and Battery Hotline. I actually thought I had chosen this organization randomly. It was during orientation when, for the very first time, I realized I had been abused. As other volunteers were introducing themselves as survivors, it hit me that I was a survivor too.

After coming to terms with what really happened between us, I cut all ties with Bill Hurt. Recently, I started Googling his name and the word “obituary,” but my search always came up empty. Once I read he was sick, but had made a full recovery. And then a few nights ago my phone pinged with too many messages to be good news. My famous abuser was dead.

You have to understand something about surviving violence. It is always with you. It is something you will never get over. And just as you are never going to get over it you incorporate the experience into the fabric of your life. It becomes a part of you.

Domestic violence survivors carry something else with them as well. They carry their batterers with them. Their assailant lives forever in the memories of a deep love who inflicted cruelty and harm. These memories will always be connected. They are impossible to separate.

My process of dealing with being abused went like this: I kept it a secret for 35 years. When I finally did decide to write about it, my assailant was constantly there in the back of my mind. I heard him ask if writing this sentence was really necessary and did this really happen this way and wasn’t I just exaggerating everything and using our relationship to carve out my own little bit of fame?

My batterer was William Hurt. I wrote about our three-plus year relationship in a memoir published before #MeToo. I chose to tell my story when it was the right time for me to tell it. It changed me forever. There is something extremely empowering about speaking the truth. All artists know this. One’s personal truth is the thing that fuses you to everyone who comes in contact with it. This is why we feel a connection to actors. Their truth aligns with our own.

I have no idea if Bill ever read my memoir. One night I bolted upright after a deep sleep with the eerie feeling that he had just finished it. In the book I directed a personal manifesto at him: “Vow to step aside and allow me to follow my chosen career path even it if means you must sacrifice your own career so mine might flourish.” I know he did not step aside, but he never got in my way either. He did not try to stop the book from being published. I had ceased hearing from him over 25 years ago – ever since I went public about being a formerly battered woman by appearing on CNN when Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered.

William Hurt died on March 13. There have been accolades all over social media, the press and television since then about his acting, his awards, his career. I agree with all of them. But I must also use a good deal of energy to prevent his memory from sitting down next to me and abusing me all over again. In writing this I had to let him live again for a moment or two. And in that moment there was sorrow, regret, anger and a dream of reconciliation that will never be.

I wonder about all the folks who Google-search their abusers, waiting for the day when they will no longer exist. Death humanizes people. When our abusers die we might be surprised to discover that in the end they were mortal human beings. Except for us, they are also boyfriends, lovers, spouses who tried to change the course of our lives, leaving behind brutal remnants of themselves that we will never forget.

I want this to be the year that everyone talks about violence and abuse and works to end it forever. I want #MeToo to remain a powerful movement. I want to never regret writing about my experiences because someone will judge me for doing it only to promote my own work.

I am ambivalent that my chance of reconciliation with William Hurt will never be. I feel lucky that I survived and overcame him. I am ecstatic that I am still alive to speak my truth.

Along with her alter ego, Guerrilla Girl and Guerrilla Girl On Tour, Aphra Behn, Donna Kaz creates visual art and performance to attack sexism and prove feminists are funny at the same time. Find her on Twitter @guerrillagsot and @donnakaz.