AUGUSTA, Maine — When the audience had gotten settled in their chairs, balancing Ritz crackers and Styrofoam cups on their laps, Patrisha McLean got to her feet and began to talk about what went on behind closed doors during the 29 years when she was married.
With her mass of blond hair and comfy sandals, McLean, 60, was the picture of Down East gentry, the same woman whose rose garden had once been featured in Maine Home & Design magazine.
This was not that story.
Addressing a rapt audience of around 50 people, she described living for many years in fear of her husband’s bursts of rage. She said a knot of anxiety would form in her stomach when she put his dinner on the table, in case it wasn’t hot enough when he appeared.
She displayed a typed letter which, she said, he forced her to sign in 1994, declaring that fights they had were her fault, the result of her premenstrual mental disturbances.
In the later years of the marriage, “the worst of the physical violence didn’t really occur,” she said. “But I always know it could occur. He would say, ‘Don’t get me started,’ and we both knew what that meant.”
That her ex-husband is a celebrity — Don McLean, the 74-year-old singer-songwriter most famous for the 1971 folk-rock ballad “American Pie” — did not need to be pointed out.
The public meltdown of the McLeans’ marriage began in January 2016, when Patrisha McLean made a 911 call to police, and her husband was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. He denies assaulting his wife at any time in the marriage.
The case ended in a muted fashion. Originally charged with six misdemeanors, he pleaded guilty to four as part of a plea agreement in which one of the four charges, domestic violence assault, would be dismissed after a year. For the remaining three — one count each of criminal restraint, criminal mischief and making domestic violence threats — he paid around $3,000 in fines and was not sentenced to any jail time.
But the case has had a ripple effect in Maine, a state where domestic abuse accounts for around half of all murders and assaults.
Patrisha McLean has reinvented herself as an organizer for abused women in the state, creating a traveling exhibit, “Finding Our Voices.” In the exhibit, women — some of them, like her, from wealthy and prominent families — speak out about violence within their relationships, in a small-town echo of the #MeToo movement.
Don McLean has repeatedly tried to block publicity about the project, threatening a series of local newspapers with lawsuits for giving it coverage. So far, these efforts have not worked: Bill Nemitz, a columnist for The Portland Press-Herald, described Don McLean’s protests as the exhibit’s “most powerful promotional tool.”
At the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta on Oct. 10, the exhibit’s host read aloud, to laughter from the audience, the contents of a letter from Don McLean’s public relations firm, warning that “any display of doctored photos and untruthful information concerning the details of a 2016 incident in their home may be adjudicated as defamation toward Mr. McLean.”
The exhibit represents something new and risky: A large number of women coming forward, using their own names and photographs, often in their own communities, to describe abuse in their relationships.
“This is the deepest, darkest part of my history I’m admitting to,” said Amber Hatch, 30, a prison therapist who said she moved to another part of the state to escape a violent boyfriend. “It’s ugly and it’s violent and it’s horrible, and it’s a conversation we all need to have.”
By appearing in public, “we are all at risk,” she said. “We could all be at risk. Pat is a perfect example.”
Beside her sat a woman with a blond pixie cut, who said her ex-husband had shown up at the end of her driveway the night before, in violation of a protection order. She said she took the episode to be a warning against appearing on the panel.
“I expect that there will be repercussions,” she said.
Patrisha McLean’s project marks a departure from a tradition among outreach workers, who were trained to protect victims’ identities from exposure, said Dorathy Martel, who heads Next Step, a domestic violence service agency in Ellsworth.
“We joke about it, but in Maine, everybody knows everybody,” she said. “If you live in a very small town, and the person abusing you is the brother of a police officer, or a town clerk, you’re going to think twice about whether it’s safe to reach out for help. There is a sense that you can’t be invisible here.”
McLean, she said, had achieved startling success in persuading women to come forward, perhaps because of the nationwide groundswell of anger that followed the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
“I think a lot of women are really angry right now,” Martel said. She added that it made her a little nervous to see them go public.
“There is definitely a risk when you call someone out for behaving abusively,” she said. “It is likely to make them angry. Personally, as someone who has been working with survivors, I support their right, and choice, to speak out. And I do worry. I think of it as potentially poking the bear.”
Though the McLeans divorced in 2016, their lives remain intertwined, not least because they are both residents of Camden, which has a population of just under 5,000.
Don McLean still lives in the 175-acre estate, Lakeview, where the two raised their son and daughter, now in their 20s.
His ex-wife’s exhibit, first staged in Camden’s public library, features a description of the 2016 incident, in which she said he pinned her to a bed until she broke free and called 911 from the bathroom. She said she was on the phone when he shoved the door open, breaking a latch.
In an interview by telephone from Oklahoma, where he was giving a concert, Don McLean said that his ex-wife’s exhibit featured “horrible lies about me,” and that medical records would show that she had no injuries after the 2016 incident.
“I never assaulted anyone in my life, especially my wife, who was treated like a queen,” he said. He added that only three misdemeanor charges remain on his record, which he described as “about the same as a speeding ticket.”
“I will not be defamed and lied about,” he said. “That’s an aspect of these movements out there — not everybody tells the truth. And Patrisha is not telling the truth.”
He said publicity around his arrest had won for him the sympathy of fans who “are divorced and realize that people have arguments.”
“My career has been helped by this,” he said. “I am more famous, and I have more work than I have ever had.”
He disputed his ex-wife’s characterization of their marriage, saying she had enjoyed luxury, social prominence and a home that belonged, as he put it, “in a Merchant-Ivory film.”
“This is so far away from the life we had,” he said of her account. “This life that we had was her in a long red dress, going through her beautiful rose garden sipping Champagne, while the people that worshipped her and her information about flowers were following along. You can see it in the movie about me called ‘American Troubadour.’”
The trouble began, he said, when “I stopped loving her.”
“Patrisha is a scorned woman,” he said.
Patrisha McLean, for her part, said her husband’s arrest “lifted the veil,” prompting a long series of women — her hairdresser, her dental hygienist, a woman at the farmers’ market — to reach out to her with their own stories about domestic violence in their lives.
“I had never heard of domestic violence in Camden,” she said. “It was never in the paper. And all of a sudden this happened to me, and it was everywhere.”
Those encounters inspired her to organize the exhibit, recruiting 19 women to pose for photographs and record their stories. She said she made no effort to independently verify their accounts, because, as she put it, “In domestic abuse, they say you should believe the woman.”
When it opened at the Camden library, the exhibit drew surprisingly large crowds, said Nikki Maounis, the librarian, and it featured “familiar faces.”
“That was, for me, a little disturbing,” she said. “To read about people who use the library was kind of a knock on the side of the head.”
Patrisha McLean said that on the day the exhibit opened in Camden, she was so nervous about potential repercussions that after she spoke, she went to the library’s bathroom and vomited.
The anxiety, she said, has never entirely lifted.
“I will never stop worrying,” she said, adding that her ex-husband’s protests over the exhibit were “a perfect example of how you can never really leave, once you’ve become attached to someone like this — they just don’t want to give up control. ”
Besides, she added, since they still live in the same town, “It’s difficult to know when I might see him in the post office.”