Oprah Daily: Kathy Hochul on Domestic Violence and Guns
By Ryan D’Agostino
“My mother heard the screaming,” says Governor Kathy Hochul, sitting behind her large desk in her large office in the state capital in Albany, New York. She rose to the governorship in 2021, when her boss, Governor Andrew Cuomo, was forced to step down following a spate of sexual harassment allegations (of all things). Hochul, the daughter of a woman who heard her mother screaming when the abuse got bad, won a full term of her own in 2022, becoming New York’s first female governor. “My mother’s mom died when she was 16, so I don’t know how much she shared with her—but my mom knew it. She knew what happened,” she says.
When her mother, Patricia Courtney, was 41, she wrote an autobiographical essay as part of an application for “College Credits Based on Life Experiences.” I watched my brothers awakened from a sound sleep and abused psychologically and physically. I saw my mother go through the same hell.… I felt the pain and anguish my mother suffered as she tried to hold together a family that was falling apart.… My brothers moved to Florida with my father and his new bride, and my mother at age 29 and myself at 9 had to start over with nothing and rebuild our lives in a two-room apartment over a gas station.… The loneliness I experienced as my mother worked evenings was sometimes unbearable.… These factors caused my childhood to end at the age of 9 as I was forced to deal with my own problems.
Hochul has spoken only occasionally about the history of abuse in her family, but until now has rarely gone into detail about the painful confessional from mother to daughter, and then from mother to daughter again. We spoke during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in choosing to make the victims of abuse a priority for her administration, she has also chosen to tell her grandmother’s story. It’s a question unique to politics: When should a politician invoke raw details from their personal life in order to help further a legislative goal? Which stories should remain private, and which do you dredge up and deploy? And at what cost?
In July, Hochul wrote a forceful op-ed in that amounted to a public warning shot about a potential disaster for survivors of domestic abuse. At the end of its current term, the Supreme Court will issue a decision in the case of , a decision that will determine whether an individual against whom the court has issued a domestic violence protective order can legally own a firearm.
The New York TimesUnited States v. Rahimi
In the essay, she invoked her grandmother, Kathleen Mary, by name, and her mother, Pat, who was an activist and advocate for abused women, and I asked Hochul what made this occasion—this court case—worthy of employing her family’s deep pain in a public way.
She looked at me for a second, then leaned forward.
“The thought that people accused of committing violent acts on a domestic partner could have access to a gun was just beyond the pale,” she said. “That was a shocking revelation, that this Supreme Court—which I suppose should never shock me any longer, but they still do—that they would think it’s acceptable. To put women who’ve been through the worst of trauma, in fear for their lives, because of some right of—I will call them criminals, because you’re not allowed to hit someone—they have a right to have a gun? In what civilized society is that allowed? Having worked with women who are so betrayed—I mean, this is not a random act of violence. This is someone who either pledged to love you in a marriage ceremony or was an intimate partner, someone you trusted, and then they betray that. And it can be psychological, which was a lot of what was perpetrated on my grandmother—psychological torment where you feel like you don’t have any value, you’re worthless. Those are the people that are in the shadows. They were in the shadows until people like my mother stood up back in the ’70s and took on a number of women as her own cases, and was their spokesperson, went to court with them, counseled them on the phone, had retreats for women. So that was just part of my obligation as governor, to protect everybody, but the special subset are these highly vulnerable—I shouldn’t say all women, but many are women—who have endured the unspeakable, and often in front of their own children, who then grow up very different because they have fear in their eyes instead of love.”
She sat back in her chair, never breaking eye contact.
“So that’s why it matters.”
It was just us in the room, save for a young press guy over on the couch, on his phone. Hochul’s voice is low, not only in volume but in its timbre—husky, knowing, even a little chilly, not unfriendly, but without any time to waste, or any words. She grew up around Lackawanna, south of Buffalo, not far from the trailer park where her parents had lived. She still goes to the diner up there when she can.
About her mom, Pat: She was her everything. Hochul’s father, John “Jack” Courtney, was a hardworking parent, too. (He died suddenly at age 87 recently, while Hochul was on a diplomatic trip to Israel following the attack by Hamas.) But her mother’s commitment to helping what were then referred to as “battered women” in western New York became a model for Hochul. Pat, the only child of her mother and an abuser, volunteered at, and then ran, a community outreach center in the early 1970s, where she met lawmakers and mayors. In 1977, she helped create the Erie County Coalition for Victims of Domestic Violence, corralling everyone from cops to the local leaders of the YMCA and Children and Family Services to help the women (it was always women) who came in with bruises under their makeup and children too scared to speak.
“It was so hidden,” Hochul says. “My mother wanted to make sure people knew it was for everybody. It was everywhere. She talked about how some of the women were wives of prominent doctors—this was not just women who were castaways, forgotten because they were poor and maybe immigrants. This dates back to when there were telephone cords, women strangled by telephone cords when they’re on a phone call calling for help. It was a time when police officers, when they were called—if they were called—would show up at the door, speak to the husband, and if the husband said, ‘No, no, everything’s fine here,’ they left. So my mother championed a change in the laws in New York State.”
Pat volunteered at a place called Haven House, an emergency shelter, gaining experience she used when creating Kathleen Mary House later in life. Hochul used to help out by babysitting the women’s children at Kathleen Mary while Pat drove them to their counseling appointments, to their court appearances, to their job training. She talks about a little boy named Johnny who came in one day, 5 or 6 years old. Hochul looked after him. Jack took him to a ball game. Johnny’s mother ended up moving in for good, and becoming a spokesperson for victims.
Politicians are known not so much for telling their personal stories in earnest as for leveraging them for political gain. Speechwriters and spin doctors, greedy for personal stories of resilience and whatever, grab any morsel of relatable detail from a politician’s one-sheet and create a caricature that lies somewhere between embellished and apocryphal. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope.” Donald Trump, self-made billionaire. JFK, family man.
Some politicians, however, reserve at least some of the telling for themselves, out of the hands of middlemen. When President Joe Biden, for example, speaks of the loss of his first wife, Neilia, and his daughter, Naomi, and of the death of his son Beau, there is no craft, no spin. When Kathy Hochul props her elbows on the desk and looks at you and tells you that she doesn’t know exactly how much of her grandfather’s abuse toward her grandmother was physical versus verbal but that based on her mother’s trauma, it was bad either way, she is not performing. There is no calculation. And this is why the question I asked at the beginning of our conversation, and at the beginning of this article—when should a politician deploy personal details in the name of political agenda?—is not the right question at all.
I don’t mean to sound naive about it. Obviously, she made a decision to share her family’s past in service of making what she sees as good policy when it comes to punishing perpetrators of domestic abuse and protecting victims. In October, for example, when she announced new state guidance to law-enforcement agencies that respond to domestic-violence calls—as she did when she signed legislation shielding the identities and financial information of abuse victims or protecting them against housing discrimination, and as she did in her op-ed on Rahimi—she invoked her mother.
But when she talks about it for half a minute, you can see the degree to which it is, in fact, personal to her. No B.S. She has seen it, whereas, I have to admit, I never have. Has she, I ask?
She just nods, like, Are you kidding?
“Very prevalent,” she says.
The children’s eyes looked different altogether.
“I remember seeing when these little kids would first come to the Kathleen Mary House, my mom would say that they had hard eyes, even the little ones. They had these eyes that didn’t look soft and loving because no one had looked at them that way,” she says.
Hochul understands intuitively what modern psychology has only recently accepted: The idea that generational trauma isn’t just about nurture but that our ancestor’s experiences get imprinted in our bodies on a cellular level. “There’s a cycle of this. People’s sense of worthlessness. ‘I don’t deserve any better.’ And that’s where it becomes generational,” she says, her expertise coming out. “Kids don’t see love in a marriage or in a relationship—in the adults in the house—so they don’t learn love.”
She leans back in her desk chair now but doesn’t look away. She’s here but also back in time.
“Hard eyes,” she says.
I imagine as she signs executive orders and writes op-eds and gives speeches and makes statements, those eyes, the horrific stories about telephone cords are never far from her consciousness.
Did she hesitate before talking about it publicly?
“No,” she says, before I finish asking the question. “My mother would want people to know.”