Marlee Matlin on William Hurt’s Violence: ‘I Was Afraid I Might Not Survive.’

Marlee Matlin on surviving William Hurt's Violence

ACTOR WILLIAM HURT died of natural causes on Sunday, March 13, 2022. That evening as Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin walked the red carpet at the Critics Choice Awards, a reporter asked her to comment on the news of Hurt’s passing. 

Matlin squared her shoulders, gave her head a quick shake as if ingesting a bitter tonic, and summoned the grace to say:

“We’ve lost a great actor. Working with him on the set of Children of a Lesser God will always be something I remember very fondly. He taught me a great deal as an actor. He was one-of-a-kind.”

Matlin’s response was so charitable and respectful, that for a brief moment it transcended the reality of the intimate terrorism Hurt allegedly subjected her during a two-year relationship that left her fearing for her life. 

A History of Battery and Rape

Marlee Matlin was involved in a romantic relationship with the late William Hurt when she was a teenager. They met in the 1980s during her screen test for the film Children of a Lesser God. Hurt, then 35, was at the height of his acting career while nineteen-year-old Matlin was a Hollywood newcomer.

In her 2009 autobiography I’ll Scream Later, Marlee Matlin disclosed that William Hurt subjected her to repeated emotional, physical, and sexual abuse throughout their two-year relationship. Hurt was a brilliant but complex person who struggled with substance abuse for most of his life.

Accomplished and experienced, Hurt was able to take advantage of the glaring power imbalance in their relationship due to his status as a revered performing artist, their age gap and the privileges of his positionality in the world. He was free to manipulate and abuse Matlin with impunity and without any consequences.

According to The Daily Beast, Matlin recalls a horrific incident when inebriated Hurt, “…finally came home around 4:30 A.M. drunk and woke me up. The next thing I knew he’d pulled me out of the bed, screaming at me, shaking me. I was scared, I was sobbing. Then he threw me on the bed, started ripping off his clothes and mine. I was crying. ‘No, no, no. Please Bill, no.’ The next thing I remember is Bill ramming himself inside me as I sobbed.”

Several independent witnesses confirmed Matlin’s account. Among them are members of the crew on the set of Children of a Lesser God, her translator, a medical doctor, and Hurt’s children who treated her injuries after Hurt’s brutal attacks.

A Shift in the Balance of Power

Children of a Lesser God received multiple Academy Award nominations, including nods to Hurt and Matlin. Matlin made history that year when she became the youngest person ever to win the Oscar for best actress. Hurt walked away empty handed. This only increased his envy Matlin and was the beginning of the end of their relationship.

Matlin recalls that Hurt told her that she didn’t deserve her Oscar, and told her, “What makes you think you deserve it? There are hundreds of actors who have worked for years for the recognition you just got handed to you. Think about that.”

Matlin recalls feeling anxious and confused by Hurt’s mood swings and explosive violence. She described the extent of Hurt’s abuse to Nancy O’Dell of Access Hollywood:

“I always had fresh bruises every day. There were a lot of things that happened that were not pleasant. I loved him. I did. Or maybe I thought I did.”

She recalls how his attacks on her confidence intensified after she won the award. Hurt suggested that she take acting lessons and his aggression toward Matlin escalated. Eventually, she says she started losing her will to live, “I felt lost, helpless. I realized I didn’t care whether I lived or died.”

DARVO in Intimate Partner Abuse

Many of Hurt’s described tactics are typical of intimate partner violence. Matlin describes receiving a letter from Hurt in which he DARVOs her, blaming her for his aggression and domestic violence, “He said in that letter that he was guilt-ridden about what he called his ‘physical anger.’ But he blamed me for doing things that made him crazy angry.”

The relationship finally reached its breaking point after a horrifying episode of Hurt’s explosive rage.

Matlin remembers, “I have never been so scared in my life before or after that day. The struggle turned violent. I was afraid I might not survive.”

She alleges that she reached for the telephone to call for help but Hurt jerked it from her grasp and beat her severely, striking her arms and face. She says she realized that Hurt wasn’t going to change his ways and, if she returned to him, she might never find the courage to leave.

Matlin explains, “I understand how women are afraid to leave an abusive relationship. They should, but at the same time, I understand how they don’t know how.”

Guilt as a Tool of Control in Intimate Partner Violence

When Matlin escaped from the relationship, she did not file charges against Hurt because she was afraid her substance abuse would be used against her.

“I was so wrapped up in his world and my drugs,” She says candidly, “The drugs took over my life, took over my brain.” 

Hurt also struggled with substance abuse. However, he eventually became sober, which he considered to be one the greatest triumphs of his life.

Marlee Matlin was asked by a journalist if Hurt had been informed about the book before its publication, and allowed to refute her claims, and she responded, “I had no contact with him. Really, I had nothing to say to him. He knows what happened, I know what happened. We both were there.”

In a statement issued by Hurt in 2009, the actor did not deny Matlin’s allegations.

He said: “My own recollection is that we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologize for any pain I caused. And I know we both have grown. I wish Marlee and her family nothing but good.”

Perhaps Hurt was merely being cautious with his words to avoid litigation but his statement effectively minimize the severity of his violence toward Matlin while underscoring her purported transgressions against him. This response is typical of a highly narcissistic person side stepping accountability. His acknowledgement and apology is so vague one might think he wasn’t speaking about battery and rape, which are criminal acts.

Manya Wakefield is an educator and recovery coach specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy and trauma. She is also the author of 'Are You In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship?' and host of the Narcissistic Abuse Rehab Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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