When director Lisa Olivieri met Patricia Livingstone, the subject of her would-be documentary Blindsided, in the mid-90s, she could not have imagined that she would still be filming her 17 years later.
“I probably would have run for the hills,” Lisa said.
But as this recently released film shows, it’s damn near impossible to not be intrigued by Patricia, whom Lisa calls the “epitome of resilience.” Why? Because this woman has dealt with Usher Syndrome, a disease whose major symptoms are deafness and blindness, since her youth, coming out as a lesbian and two physically and emotionally abusive relationships. And yet Blindsided is not a downer of a movie.
Based in Boston, the film opens in 2003 with Patricia getting ready for a date after being off the scene for seven years. She tells us a bit about herself, including that her sight and hearing took a turn for the worse in the mid-90s and that before that she had been in a relationship with a woman for 10 years.
We’re then transported back to 1998 where Patricia’s working on an ambitious painting. She shares that although it’s ironic, she always took comfort in music and painting. And she tells us more, like how her symptoms of hearing loss hit first and that, by 13, she knew she would eventually become deaf and blind. Knowing so early on that her dreams of becoming a painter wouldn’t go far, she became suicidal as a result and opens up rather vulnerably about that.
What came of all that was the realization that she would have to be independent to be happy. That would also mean coming out. By 1986, she would meet Karen and move in with her just eight months later. Humor brought them together, as evidenced by the skits they filmed that are included in the documentary.
But then it stopped being funny.
Karen became physically and emotionally abusive, a fact she admits to on camera. “If she didn’t agree to be interviewed, I was just going to scrap the whole film because it would’ve been just a one-sided film,” Lisa said, who only found out about the abuse in 2004. By then, she had been filming Patricia at her shared home with Karen for years, and Karen had become comfortable with her.
If the math is confusing, that’s because Patricia continued to live with Karen even after they broke up because financially she didn’t have a lot of options. By the time Lisa started filming, they had already broken up and were just living together as roommates.
And that’s the situation Patricia finds herself in by 1999, although things have now gone from bad to worse. The positive attitude she tried to carry just the year before is now largely gone. She’s still working on that same painting, but now she needs to use braille labels to figure out what colors she’s using. But when even that doesn’t work, she breaks down. As if that weren’t bad enough, her hearing starts to go. Lisa calls witnessing Patricia’s deterioration “heartbreaking” and that’ll ring just as true for audiences.
During this time, Karen and Patricia struggle to communicate, and the house has to be safeguarded, on a very low budget, so that Patricia won’t hurt herself. As a last resort, she agrees to undergo surgery for a cochlear implant.
While Patricia’s sight eventually goes away altogether, the implant and subsequent help from volunteer aides work. She’s got a new lease on life and finally feels ready to try dating again. That’s where the woman from the film’s opening comes back in–Bella.
Bella is charming and Patricia’s completely infatuated. It doesn’t take too long before they get serious and, after 17 years of living with Karen, Patricia’s ready to move out. You see, she and Bella are getting married.
“I thought the story was over then. I thought: ‘happy ending,’” Lisa said. (So did I.) “And then it all started up again; she was getting abused by Bella.”
Five years after they got married, Patricia left Bella on grounds of spousal abuse. After confessing, Bella got probation for two years for assault and Patricia got a permanent restraining order against her. Lisa did not contact Bella for an interview after these events. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “And I don’t know what it would’ve added.”
This film was never supposed to be about domestic abuse, although it largely became that. Ultimately it also became about the redefinition of a happy ending.
Lisa’s last interview with Patricia was filmed in 2013 when she found herself living on her own for the first time in her life. She finished, signed and hung up that painting, a process that took over 15 years. Today, she’s got plenty of people around her who support her.
“She has a full life,” says Lisa. “I think it’s nice to see somebody’s happy ending be their independence.”
That somebody happens to be her now good friend Patricia, whom she showed and eventually described every cut of the film to without any objections. But after 17 years of filming, does a lack of a camera between them feel odd?
“It doesn’t feel weird,” she shared. “I don’t feel like I should still be filming her.”
Instead, she feels like that chapter in their lives is over and that the film can now serve a greater purpose. “I hope that people who may be in a bad situation can say, ‘Well if she can get out, maybe I can.’”
Having watched the film, I don’t at all doubt its capacity to inspire.
To watch Blindsided, visit the movie’s website for information on future screenings.