La Crosse based photographer Dahli Durley was selected to give a Tedx Talk in Fond du Lac in August, which was released last week. Titled “Your ‘Hey mister’ Matters,” her talk shed light on issues of domestic abuse. 

Dahli Durley once sat fearfully for hours in a parked car as her boyfriend berated her, silently pleading for someone to step in. So years later, when she overheard a stranger doing the same to his partner, she raised her voice.

Gathering her courage as the man’s screams filled a coffee house, Dahli eeked out a quiet, “Hey.” The man didn’t hear. She shouted this time. 

The confrontation would become the topic of Durley’s TedxFonddulac talk, recorded Aug. 25 and released last week. Titled “Your ‘Hey Mister’ Matters,” the 18-minute oration drew from her personal experience with an emotionally and verbally abusive partner, and finding the courage to not only leave that relationship but to speak up on behalf of others in her situation.

Durley was one of 15 applicants selected to participate in the Tedx series, centered on the theme “Enough.” The La Crosse- and Arizona-based wedding and travel photographer, the Potosi, Wis., native was encouraged to apply by a friend, and after two rounds of interviews was stunned when she was asked to speak. 

Having opened her photography business, which brings her around the world, in October 2015, Viterbo graduate Durley didn’t consider herself a speaker but she loved the ability to connect with others and tell a story through her photos. This was a chance to reach people in a new way, on a new level, with a topic of great importance. 

Durley, 33, had originally posted about the incident in the coffee house 10 months ago on Facebook, receiving an outpouring of responses. With the #metoo, #WhyIStayed and #WhyIDidn’tReport movement in full force, Durley knew the story would resonate with TedX listeners as well.

“For everybody, it has touched their lives,” Durley said of abuse. “It’s so important for everyone to share their stories. We have to talk about these things.”

A strong-willed, assertive individual, Durley says many have wondered why she stayed with the man who became cruel early in their 18-month relationship. At six months in, Durley was anxious to leave, constantly belittled and threatened. The screaming brought back memories from her childhood, watching helplessly as her parents fought violently in the next room. A quote Durley used in her TedX talk summarizes why she stayed with him another year: “Sometimes the devil you know seems a hell of a lot safer than the devil you don’t.”

“I’d be sitting in the car crying, and then he’d be done yelling and he’d calm down and drive off and it would be over,” Durley said. “I knew what to expect. The unknown is scary. People keep staying because they know what to expect, even if it’s sadness.”

Durley saw herself in the woman at the coffee shop, named Marie. She was accompanied by a “quintessential grumpy old man,” named Bob. Repeatedly cursing, upset about his table, Bob yelled at the baristas and Marie, who was clearly embarrassed and pleaded with Bob to calm down.

Bob screamed, “You dumb b—, just sit down and shut the (expletive) up,” Durley recalled in the Tedx talk. Marie slunk into her chair. 

Nervous about what might happen behind closed doors if she confronted him, Durley thought about a friend, who a week earlier was groped by a stranger on a busy street. Even more than the attack, the friend was upset by the fact no one did anything to help her or defend her. It was the same way Durley felt in the car that day four years ago.

“You can’t break the cycle (of abuse) for someone — they have to break it themselves,” Durley said. “But for me, just for a second, I would have liked someone to disrupt it. It’s a moment for the (victim and the abuser) to see everyone sees this, and it’s not OK. Sometimes we need to remind people what the rules are. (Keeping silent) isn’t the rule we play by any more.”

Bob wasn’t phased by Durley’s confrontation, letting out a chuckle and muttering, “I can talk to her any way I want.” Filled with fury, having received the same response when she spoke back to her own abuser, Durley told Bob, “No, you can’t say anything you want to her,” and told Marie she hoped she knew that, too. Furious, Bob left the coffee shop, Marie running after him. 

Durley will likely never know whether or when Marie will break free, but her own turning point came in 2015, when the death of a beloved friend brought not support but spite from her boyfriend. She couldn’t stand any more loss, and that included losing herself. 

“You have to know and believe you are enough,” Durley said.

Durley had trepidations about giving the Tedx Talk, still frightened of her ex and fearing his response. But sharing her story proved cathartic, and the reception was overwhelming. 

“I had everyone from…high schoolers to 80-year-old women in hummingbird sweatshirts crying and hugging me,” Durley said. 

Many told Durley, who is writing a memoir, they felt validated by her talk, and she felt the same way, knowing she was not alone, she was believed and she had made a difference with her words. 

“You are empowered and you are able and you have the right to speak up when you see something that’s not right,” Durley states in her Tedx talk. “…You have the right to say when enough is enough.” 


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