Split but Unbroken

Patrisha McLean had a celebrity marriage that might have seemed idyllic from the outside. It wasn’t. How she’s rebuilding a new life with the help of her art and advocacy work.

Patrisha McLean used to live on top of a hill a few miles out of Camden’s downtown, surrounded by 175 acres of gardens, lawns and woods. Now she lives in a house that looks directly out on Camden Harbor from its eastern shore. Her view is so impossibly paradiscal that it almost feels like an optical illusion, as if someone were flipping through the pages on a very large nautical Maine calendar just outside the windows: Windjammers, yachts, working boats, the occasional kayaker.

Patrisha McLean, 60, sits in her garden at her home in Camden. It’s the first house she bought on her own after a nearly 30 year marriage to singer/songwriter Don McLean. She has spent the last two years adding plants and hardscaping to the yard, which looks out over Camden Harbor. Photo by Molly Haley

This is the first house she ever bought on her own, purchased after her split from musician Don McLean, not long after he was arrested and according to court records, charged with domestic violence assault and five other crimes stemming from an hours-long January 2016 incident at their hilltop house that left her bruised and dialing 911 from behind a locked door. He pleaded guilty to domestic violence assault but the charge was later dismissed under a plea agreement. He was convicted of three crimes and paid a fine.

“My house is very meaningful to me because my husband was so controlling I had no say in the house we were living in,” McLean says. Her new home is filled with a warm, eclectic mix of furnishings and artwork. The vibe is bohemian cozy by way of California; if it looked out on redwoods it would make equal sense. She’s sitting on the window seat in her bedroom, with that view to her right. The bed is on a landing and her desk just below it, well filled with signs of work. She is busy these days, working on expanding the documentary project she began after her split from her husband, “Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse.” She’s got lunch partially assembled in the adjacent kitchen—crab cakes and corn salad—and she’s sipping tea made with herbs freshly cut from the garden.

She and Don McLean had four houses, including another Maine house, in Castine. In each of them, he did all the decorating, she says, to the point where she didn’t feel comfortable contributing anything that represented her own style. He made her send back a dreidel a friend had sent for their first child, she says, because her Jewish heritage was not something they shared and he did not want to feel like an outsider. Once, a friend gave her a small, framed photograph. “And the only place I could put it—we had 15 rooms—was in my darkroom.”

He put her down so much, she says, including for her taste in bright clothing, that she lost all confidence in her ability to make decisions. For that reason, buying a house was particularly scary. She made offers on other houses and then retracted them before finally settling on this house in 2017. The gardens are planted, with flowers of her own choosing, the walls hung with artwork she picked. It’s all hers.

“Everything in it reflects me,” she says. “And it is proof, every day, that I can make good choices. It’s just a very big step in coming back to who I was.”

On first acquaintance, McLean, 60, does not seem like the kind of woman who would be easily led. She’s full of ideas, creative impulses and strong opinions about everything from Brett Kavanaugh to Andrea Dworkin’s research on pornography. She questions as well as she answers. But to blunder through saying this to her—that she doesn’t seem like the easily-led type—is to be reminded of the way we as a society stereotype victims of domestic abuse.

McLean says she worried she’d be lonely, but her sense of community—and support—in Camden is powerful. “I have a very strong feeling of community here.” Photo by Molly Haley

“That’s the thing,” she says. “That’s my exhibit.” She’s referring to “Finding Our Voices,” which has spent the better part of the year traveling the state and is currently in Augusta, at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine through Dec. 13. The multimedia exhibit revolves around 19 domestic abuse survivors. McLean, a professional photographer, made portraits of the women, which are featured alongside writings and recordings. She’s also part of the exhibit herself. In a recording there (and online) she talks about her boyfriend from the 1980s, before Don McLean swept her off her feet, who told her recently that he remembered her as “ferociously independent.”

That was true, she says. “That was me. That’s part of what domestic abuse is. It’s coercive control and it is step by step. You don’t know how you got there and you don’t know how to get out.”

She recognized herself in the other women featured in “Finding Our Voices,” all victims of domestic abuse, and often violence. “They are all very different,” McLean says. “But there is also so much commonality…I can relate to every single one.”

It’s a challenge to write about Patrisha McLean without writing about what or where she used to be. Her past as the wife of a famous person, the man who wrote one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century, is always present and is shaping her present as she tries to expand the dialogue about domestic violence in Maine. After staying silent herself for many years—she called the police on her husband in 1994, but says she successfully begged them not to arrest him then and tried to halt his arrest in 2016 as well—she is eager to help other women tell their stories. And there are many: A domestic violence assault is reported to Maine law enforcement every two hours and five minutes, according to the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. The coalition’s network fielded 34,053 calls to helplines around the state in 2018 alone.

“I’m just having the time of my life just being by myself.”

As an advocate, McLean is “fierce,” says Regina Rooney, the education and communications director for the coalition. Rooney says she’s been a strong partner in getting these messages out there: survivors are not a monolith, this is an intense problem in Maine, where 40 percent of all reported assaults are domestic and people everywhere are suffering. When the show opened at the Camden Public Library in February, Rooney says, “I could see people walking around and recognizing people from the community that they knew.” She does a lot of trainings, but “to actually see people and hear them reflecting on that in the Camden library?” It was “remarkable” she says, to see “that people are really listening.”

Rooney said one of the things she most appreciated about McLean’s approach is the way she works with participants (all women so far, but men and boys too suffer from domestic violence, as former Gov. Paul LePage spoke to) in making their portraits. “How they wanted to be represented,” Rooney says. Instead of as bruised or battered victims, they got to show themselves as they were healing. The work McLean did over many years as a family photographer, specializing in photographing children, was relevant there.

But with “Finding Our Voices,” so is her deeper past, the career she had before she met Don McLean. She used to be a reporter, a job that has made her uniquely qualified to help other women in abusive relationships tell their stories, and to understand that sometimes the women who find her via her website, or approach her in public, want to talk, but only off the record. “I can tell immediately,” McLean says. She wants to eventually bring the number of participants in “Finding Voices” up to 30, and publish a book based on the exhibit, but not by persuading someone to participate. “A lot of times a person might think they want to do it but they are just not emotionally ready.”

She grew up in Montreal but yearned for California, where her father lived. “I was just so mesmerized by it,” McLean remembers. “Especially San Francisco. The fog and the hills and North Beach. It was just so cool. It was really golden.” At 19, she left Montreal and headed west. She waitressed and worked for tiny newspapers, the kind that began to evaporate in the early aughts. There was a weekly in Humboldt. A daily in Antioch. The names blur together. She made very little money. A $600 a month apartment in a garage in North Beach was too much of a luxury. But she loved the work she was doing and she felt herself on an upward trajectory, headed to one of the bigger papers in the Bay Area.

McLean says Camden felt like home to her, even after her marriage ended. “It is not my shame,” she says. “It is his. So let him hang his head when he walks in town because it’s what he did.” Photo by Molly Haley

Then in 1986 she had an assignment to interview the man who wrote “American Pie.” Don McLean was opening for Joan Baez at the Concord Pavilion. He was 41, Patrisha was 27. They were married five months later, but not before she signed a prenuptial agreement saying she would never write a memoir about him. (Their divorce agreement restricts her from writing about her experience.) They moved east, living first in Castine and then Camden. She put her career aside, for the time being. They had two children, Jackie, now 29 and a singer in a small band called Roan Yellowthorn, and Wyatt, 27, who is a barista in New York. Sometimes, she says, her husband had rages, but family life made them lessen and she sympathized with him. He’d had his struggles, including losing his father as a teenager.

She felt isolated. She says her husband didn’t believe in therapists, so she did not have a professional to talk to. She didn’t share her pain with friends, and friends didn’t ask. “People sort of think as the couple as sacrosanct,” she says. “A friend might tell you she doesn’t like your boyfriend, but once the ring is on? You don’t want to interfere when someone is married.” She gets that. “You sort of feel like, whatever they have, it works for them. And that’s dangerous. That is what happened to me. I didn’t hear any dissenting words.” Now, she says, friends tell her they knew something was up. They noticed her placating her husband, following his orders and putting her down, she says. One of them, writer Deborah Joy Corey, was instrumental in telling her not to sign a non-disclosure agreement in the divorce process that would have stopped McLean from speaking about her ex-husband. “Spiritually it would have been like a death to finally be out after 29 years and not be able to speak about it.” As part of a plea deal, Don McLean was convicted of three of the charges, but avoided jail time and a domestic violence assault charge was dismissed. He tried, unsuccessfully, to wage a legal fight against the Free Press in Rockland for writing about the exhibit.

In the garden at her new house is a rose bush, an Ispahan. She had this type of rose in the extensive gardens she shared with her ex-husband. (Her ex, 74, still owns their old house, and his girlfriend, Paris Dylan, 25, a social media personality, has posted shots of herself in the gardens on Instagram.) But here in the house on the harbor, the bush grew well over her head in just one year and was covered with blossoms. “In one year this did better than my gardens did for 10 years there,” McLean says. Things are flourishing in her life. She got certified to scuba dive in Cozumel. She visits her grandchildren in New York state. She dove in the Red Sea. She’s contemplating a trip to Turkey.

Photo by Molly Haley

“It was lonely the first two years,” she says. “But I’m just having the time of my life just being by myself. I used to think that I’d want someone to do things with, but I just do them on my own and I do what I want when I want.” No compromising. As one Cowboy Junkies song goes, time to go see movies of one’s own choosing, “black and white with a strong female lead.” “I realized that most of my life, it’s been the guy’s dreams that I’ve been tagging along with.”

“Women should stop doing that,” McLean says. “I really am a feminist now. So, so, so much.”

Mary Pols is the editor of Maine Women Magazine.

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