Patrisha McLean: My ‘deeply controlling’ ex-husband Don McLean

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Patrisha McLean at a Finding Our Voices event in Maine in October 2019. Photograph: Sarah Rice/New York Times

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Patrisha McLean was married to the singer Don McLean for 29 years, until an incident in their home in 2016. Now an anti-domestic violence campaigner, she is happy she will never have to listen to American Pie again

The anti-domestic violence campaigner Patrisha McLean has a proud smile on her face as she shows me around her home in Camden, Maine, on the east coast of the United States. The house, she says, is a reflection of her personality.

We are on a Zoom call, so she points her laptop camera at various walls, some painted in vibrant shades of purple and green. She shows off her favourite wallpaper, a turquoise design festooned with white flowers and birds. This is a colourful, bohemian looking home with a dazzling view of the sea and boats bobbing on the Camden harbour. There is art everywhere and a room where she can indulge one of her favourite hobbies: calligraphy.

He was trying to shove open the locked bathroom door behind which I had barricaded myself. As it was splintering I pushed the numbers 911... I believed when he broke through he would kill me

“Don didn’t like me doing calligraphy, although he pretended to be proud of my art,” the 60-year-old explains as the camera pans over a wooden desk, strewn with pens and notepaper. The “Don” she refers to is Don McLean, her ex-husband and composer of some of the most famous folk songs in the American playbook, such as American Pie, Vincent and Castles In The Air.

In January 2016, after an incident at their home in Camden, Don McLean was arrested and pleaded guilty to four charges including one of domestic assault.

Don McLean has denied assaulting his wife at any time in the marriage asserting that the guilty plea was only to keep the case out of the papers and protect the family’s privacy. A plea bargain agreement would eventually see the assault charges, including the most serious charge of domestic violence assault, dismissed.

WE ARE TALKING about her marriage to one of America’s most beloved songwriters because of a recent interview with the singer by Rob Walker, which was published in The Guardian newspaper and subsequently, through a syndication arrangement, on irishtimes.com. In the interview, Don McLean declared: “I can truly say that my ex-wife is the worst person I ever knew. There’s nobody who compares.”

Patrisha, who now runs a domestic violence organisation Finding Our Voices, felt moved to respond. As part of her activism she takes portraits of survivors of domestic violence, who consent to using their real names. Finding Our Voices records the survivors’ stories to illustrate the everyday nature of violence in the home and to encourage victims to seek help.

Patrisha emailed The Irish Times wondering whether we might be interested in talking to her about what her ex-husband said in that interview, and about her view that by ventilating her husband’s disparaging remarks, the media was allowing him to abuse her again, this time in public.

This opinion was shared by many on Patrisha’s Facebook page and elsewhere on social media. There was outrage that Don McLean, who had pleaded guilty to domestic violence, should be facilitated in criticising his ex-wife.

The couple have two grown-up children, a son and a daughter. After the article was published, their daughter Jackie, a talented singer-songwriter, commented on Twitter: “Even though I’m estranged from my father, seeing things like this makes me feel physically ill. It’s emotionally devastating in so many ways. So tired of the media giving a platform to abusive, narcissistic men.”

Don McLean after being charged with domestic violence assault in 2016. Photograph: Knox County Jail via Getty
Don McLean after being charged with domestic violence assault in 2016. Photograph: Knox County Jail via Getty

MARRIED FOR 29 YEARS, the now-divorced couple once shared four homes, but Patrisha says her “deeply controlling” former partner did not allow her to put her own design stamp on any of the houses. She says he chose the cars she drove over the decades, always leasing them in his name.

When she worked on her calligraphy at Lakeview, their sprawling mansion on 175 acres in Camden just three miles from her current home, Don McLean would come up behind her “when I was almost finished a long, painstakingly-created piece pretending to massage my shoulders, moving my arm so the work would smudge”.

She explains how, if she was on the phone, she would have to hang up when he appeared in the room or else risk his “explosive” temper. She learnt this lesson once when she lifted her finger in a ‘just a second’ gesture, asking him to wait until she was finished on the phone. He “lost it” then. He “lost it” a lot, she says.

This is the first home Patrisha has owned by herself and the first place she has been able to decorate and furnish in a way that expresses exactly who she is. “I never believed I could buy a home, and make all those decisions about how to decorate it, but it turned out I could,” she says.

“He didn’t like me wearing bright clothes,” Patrisha says adjusting the scarf around her neck. It’s bright yellow, her favourite colour.

These days, Patrisha McLean no longer considers Don McLean’s opinion.

That all ended in January 2016, the night she says her ex-husband “terrorised” her so badly over several hours that she locked herself in a bathroom where she called the police.

He’s been using the media as a weapon against me, and he’s very skilled at that, having been giving interviews for 50 years. It was hurtful and very traumatic in the beginning. At this point it doesn’t really bother me, because I expect it

“I called 911 this time because he was in his Mr Hyde mode of Jekyll and Hyde where there was no reaching him, no turning back. He was trying to shove open the locked bathroom door behind which I had barricaded myself. As it was splintering I pushed the numbers 911, and as he was breaking through the thick, locked door I pressed the button to send the number through because I believed when he broke through he would kill me.”

The police arrived soon afterwards. They interviewed both of them, and arrested Don McLean.

There were six charges originally. The singer pleaded guilty to four charges arising from that incident including one of domestic violence which was later dismissed. For the remaining charges of criminal restraint and criminal mischief he did not receive any time in jail but paid about $3,000 in fines.

The Irish Times has seen the 10-year restraining order Patrisha has against Don McLean, agreed by him and without a finding of abuse. We have also seen a copy of her local district attorney’s description of the plea bargain deal Don McLean was offered when pleading guilty to the assault.

Don McLean in 1970, shortly before the release of American Pie. Photograph: Julie Snow/Ochs/Getty
Don McLean in 1970, shortly before the release of American Pie. Photograph: Julie Snow/Ochs/Getty

RETURNING TO THE ARTICLE in which her ex-husband disparaged her, Patrisha says that since his arrest, he has put out statements through the media “and they’ve been picking them up. He’s been using the media as a weapon against me and he’s very skilled at that having been giving interviews for 50 years. It was hurtful and very traumatic in the beginning. At this point, it doesn’t really bother me because I expect it. And to me, it’s just pathetic.”

But she says it’s “gone beyond” this time. A Fox News media report of the interview put her name in the headline: “American Pie singer Don McLean claims his ex-wife Patrisha is ‘the worst person I ever knew’.”

“I think it’s really dangerous, especially with Covid and the escalation of domestic abuse all over the world. I am afraid of what is happening. It is dangerous for the media to be doing this because it perpetuates the silence. Like, if I had been a good girl and stayed quiet this wouldn’t be happening. I’d be suffering terribly, keeping it all inside me, but he wouldn’t be doing this, punishing me for speaking out. And for the media to be complicit in this . . . it says to other women ‘don’t come forward’.”

Her point about the escalation of domestic abuse since the pandemic is well founded. Globally, there has been a rise in reports of intimate partner violence and earlier this year in Ireland the Garda reported the number of calls for help relating to domestic violence had increased by 25 per cent.

She mentions a report in the New York Times last year around the launch of the Finding Our Voices project. “They did a really long article and in it they quoted Don saying that I was ‘a woman scorned’. It really bothered me that they would include that quote. The reporter tried to tell me it was about being ‘balanced’ but there is no balance here. It’s not a ‘he said, she said’ situation. There are not ‘two sides’ in domestic abuse cases.” As a close friend said to Patrisha: “In what other crime does the perpetrator get a chance to blast the victim in an article?”

She believes the media has a responsibility. “Don’t allow yourself to be used by the perpetrator . . . the media is abusing me by doing this.”

PATRISHA SHNIER, as she was then, met Don McLean in 1987 when she worked as a reporter. “I heard he was in town and wrangled the interview. The relationship moved very quickly,” she says. “And again, now that I know a lot about this, there were classic signs, well-known red flags. One of them is when the person moves quickly to seal the deal.” The couple started living together two months after meeting and married a few months later.

“It was a whirlwind. Another red flag is that they sweep you off your feet. And it doesn’t take a rich and famous poet to do that. But he did, he swept me off my feet and then it all just changed.”

At the time, Don McLean was recording For The Memories, a romantic album of old standards. “That’s part of what pulled me in,” she says. “Back then he had a beautiful singing voice. And I just thought he was so romantic and such a poet. It just shows you the difference between how someone presents themselves and who they really are.”

She says she saw his temper for the first time early on in the relationship. “I had quit my job as a newspaper reporter. I had sold my car. I had given up my apartment and told everybody I was moving back east with Don. It was like a fairy tale. I couldn’t even process it when I saw this temper of his. Like I couldn’t even believe it. I blocked it out. I said, ‘this can’t be true,’ because it was so frightening to have to start all over again. And to let go of the dream because until then it had been so amazing. It was so exciting. It was so fabulous. I could not admit to myself that this was not real.”

THIS WRITER INTERVIEWED Don McLean five years ago, the year before his arrest and subsequent divorce. In that interview, when I asked him what he was proudest of apart from his music, he said his 28-year marriage to Patrisha.

Before Patrisha, his second wife, “my other relationships only lasted 28 minutes”, he joked.

When I tell her this, she says that when she was with him she viewed the longevity of their relationship as “a source of pride. I felt it showed how strong I was. I am reading a lot about cults. I do feel there is an element of brainwashing there. I relate to a lot of the things they say about cults like the charismatic leader, and how their version of things becomes your version, the twisted version . . . and it’s crazy.”

She has had a lot of time to reflect on her life with the singer since their divorce. She had a few friends back then, but “we never really had meaningful conversations . . . now I have so many friends and we talk a lot. They tell me what they really thought of him. I used to think people only liked me because I was with him. But it turns out they liked me in spite of him. They like me for who I am.

“He was bigger and bigger in my mind, so I was smaller and smaller. I really thought the most interesting thing about me was him.

“And even though I lived in the big house on the hill, the biggest in our town, it makes you realise that these guys are all the same. It’s the pattern, it’s the things they do to maintain control. He liked me to be isolated from everybody.

“I just lost myself and that’s what I think happens . . . They rob you of who you are and who you can be and who you’re meant to be . . . And they just snuff out your life. I saw this painting once, it was a hand holding up colourful balloons. And there’s another hand piercing a balloon. And that’s exactly what it’s like being married to someone like that. They are always piercing your joy.”

DON MCLEAN IS DOING the interview rounds at the moment because he is promoting a film, The Day the Music Died, and a children’s book, American Pie, both of which are out next year. A musical is expected in 2022. The arrest did not hurt his career. He said in that New York Times article that he’s actually busier and “more famous” than ever since his arrest. The main photo on his Twitter page features The Who’s Roger Daltrey, British singer Ed Sheeran and Don McLean with his 25-year-old girlfriend, former Playboy model Paris Dylan. The singer is 74.

The conversation turns to the conundrum of how to separate the art from the artist. How does she think fans should engage with the work of a celebrity such as Don McLean?

“My whole thing is, if you’re going to go to a Don McLean concert, fine. But why don’t you contribute the same amount for the ticket price to your local domestic abuse shelter? At least recognise that you know what he did. If you love his music, if you want to hear him, well, just help domestic abuse victims while you’re doing it.”

There are so many stereotypes around domestic abuse, tropes Patrisha bought into so deeply that she did not recognise herself as that person. Now she also sees herself as a victim of coercive control which is defined by Irish charity Women’s Aid as “a persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour including all or some forms of domestic abuse - emotional, physical, financial or sexual including threats - by a boyfriend, partner, husband or ex.”

My community flooded me with love and support... Women everywhere started whispering to me about the domestic abuse in their lives. They had not known about me and I had not known about them

In 2016, when her silence was broken for her by worldwide headlines about the arrest of Don McLean, she was “amazed” by what happened next. “My community flooded me with love and support . . . Women everywhere, some I only knew casually and some I’d known for decades, started whispering to me about the domestic abuse in their lives. They had not known about me and I had not known about them. And that’s when my journalistic instincts kicked in. I knew this was something big that needed to be exposed.”

Her Finding Our Voices movement started in her hometown of Camden with 14 survivors talking openly about their abusive relationships. Now there are 50. She also has a radio show, Let’s Talk About It, where she hears the stories of people who have been abused.

“I never thought of myself as a domestic abuse victim. I did not relate to the woman with the black eye. I never had a black eye. And I am not pitiful, I’m strong. I couldn’t relate. But with our movement, with the portraits, people are seeing people they know, all kinds of people from 18 to 80. An architect, a teacher, a nurse. And that, I think, what’s going to make a difference. That’s what I’m so excited about, because people are going to realise that this happens to everybody.

“If it’s happening to you, you’re not alone, and there’s nothing for you to be ashamed of. That’s why that headline in the newspapers was so wrong. They tried to shame me but the shame is not mine. The shame belongs to Don McLean.”

Patrisha says she will never get over the trauma. She has a breathing issue, it ambushes her every so often, she calls it a “scar” left behind from the marriage. “But I’m really happy to be free. And that’s why I’m doing everything I can to help other women be free also and to recognise that there’s a beautiful life out there, once you get help. Make the call, if it’s the police or a domestic abuse agency or a friend or someone . . . there’s nothing like freedom.

“That’s why I take the portraits of these women. I’m using all my talents for the greater good of breaking the silence about domestic abuse . . . I feel stronger every day, and more empowered and so excited about what I’m doing.”

It has been reported that Don McLean tried to stop the publicity around Finding Our Voices, making legal threats against local newspapers in Maine that covered Patrisha’s activism. His threats came to nothing. The movement continues.

Patrisha McLean at a Finding Our Voices event in Maine in October 2019. Photograph: Sarah Rice/New York Times
Patrisha McLean at a Finding Our Voices event in Maine in October 2019. Photograph: Sarah Rice/New York Times

THE IRISH TIMES put Patrisha McLean’s allegations of abuse and coercive control to Don McLean’s lawyer Eric B Morse. He made no comment regarding the coercive control allegations but said his client denied ever assaulting Patrisha McLean. He pointed out that Don McLean was not convicted of assault and “never received probation, jail or any other serious sanction.”

He said no court had “ever made factual findings that Don McLean had engaged in any improper conduct of any kind, including abuse.” He added that Don McLean entered his guilty pleas “not because he was in fact guilty of anything but to provide closure for his family and to keep the whole process as private as possible.”

He also said Patrisha McLean has a “vendetta” against the singer and stated that her attempts to “misuse the courts and press in her vendetta against Don McLean must end.”

TOWARDS THE END of our interview, I ask Patrisha McLean about her ex-husband’s music, and whether hearing it is difficult since they split. American Pie gets a lot of radio play, especially in the US.

“It’s funny but I don’t hear the song. I think I’ve heard it twice since we’ve been separated. But I am very happy about not having to hear that song again . . . I must have heard that song thousands of times. I had to go to every single concert all over the world. And sometimes, imagine, he’d play it twice in one night. No-one’s heard that song more than I have . . . and I’m asking you, what would it be like for you to have to sit and listen to American Pie thousands and thousands of times over 29 years?”

She laughs. American Pie is eight and a half minutes long.

Patrisha believes that Don McLean had a message for her in that recent newspaper article, a warning that despite the restraining order, he can continue to attack her through the media. Does she have a message for Don McLean? She shakes her head.

“No I don’t have a message for him,” she says. “I tried to have my voice heard by him for the whole 29 years of my marriage and he never once heard me. I am just so happy to have him out of my head, to have my life back and to have finally found my voice.”

Any person suffering domestic abuse or aware of an abuse situation should contact An Garda Síochána. Anyone who feels in immediate danger should call 999 or 112. Those affected can also reach support by calling Women’s Aid’s 24hr national freephone helpline on 1800-341900. The new dedicated text line for the hard of hearing is 087-9597980. The Finding Our Voices website is here