The heartbreaking, disfigured faces of domestic violence


The conversation about domestic violence has re-emerged as the nation witnessed the disturbing footage of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice striking his then-girlfriend in an elevator. And just as that happened behind closed doors, millions of women and children endure abuse at the hands of men who have lost control. Some scars can be covered by makeup while other episodes of abuse leave the victim disfigured. That’s where an organization called Face Forward has been a godsend for those who have survived mutilating abuse.

On Saturday, Sept. 13 at the Milennium Biltmore Hotel, the Face Forward Foundation will be hosting its 5th annual gala,“A Venetian Masquerade,” where Grammy Award-winning artist Estelle will be performing. This year, the organization has hopes of raising more than $500,000 to support those physically affected by domestic violence.

Rolling out spoke to Deborah Alessi. She and her husband, Dr. David Alessi, founded Face Forward in 2007.

What prompted you to start Face Forward?

My first boyfriend was an abuser and I didn’t even want to tell my family because I was ashamed. And before I met my husband, who is a plastic surgeon, years later, I never really shared my story with anyone. And we decided we should start something to help women who were victims of domestic violence. [We found that] people were really struggling behind closed doors and [some] were terribly disfigured. That’s when we decided to start Face Forward.

What are the biggest challenges for women trying to recover from physical abuse?  

I think it’s really hard for women to get out of the relationship, and once they do, they’ve been dependent on the abuser for so many years, it’s having the strength to know that it’s OK. And then having the strength to move on especially if you’re disfigured like a lot of our patients. You’re constantly reminded every time you look in the mirror of the abuser and your past. That’s why I think it’s great to be able to heal someone and reconstruct from the inside out.

What is your ultimate goal for the organization?

I would love to have a recovery house — where we could accommodate 5 or 10 patients instead of two a month, and have a place where they could recovery with full-time service with a room for yoga and meditation and a little home that’s peaceful where patients can feel safe. That would be my dream.

Are there support services in place for women after they’ve had the surgery to reconstruct a disfigured face?

Most of our patients need 5–15 surgeries, so they are coming back every other month for the next surgery because some of them are very disfigured. We also provide therapy, because the bruises, which result from surgery, often reminds them of what they went through. So, it’s important for us to provide therapy as well. We keep in touch with all of our patients.

Talk a little about the upcoming gala and the importance of this event to your organization.                                                                                                                        This event is when we raise our money for the entire year. So this one night, we count on to provide 20 surgeries next year for our patients. We have amazing auction items. We have Etihad Airlines, which is the No. 1 airline in the world that has provided us items. We have meetings with celebrities and a number of other quality items to auction.

The theme is Venetian Masquerade, which I think is a perfect theme for what we do, revealing the mask. So from the moment our attendees get out of the car until the moment Estelle performs, it’s a beautiful journey through Italy.

We try to get as much as we can donated. Ninety percent of the money we raise goes toward the cause. My husband provides all of the surgery pro bono and I work pro bono.

When people hear the word “gala,” they think it’s going to be dark and depressing and I want our event to be about celebrating life. This means a lot to me, and I want people to have a great time but also think about us for next year.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about Face Forward?  

When people hear about what we do, they automatically think “plastic surgery,” [there is a negative stigma attached to it]. But the women we do surgery on have no face — no nose, no mouth, their features have been melted because they’ve been set on fire.

Just when I think I’ve heard the worst story, the next patient comes in and I’m blown away. No woman should have to go through that from someone she loved or had children with.

So I want people to know that it’s not about fixing someone’s nose; the cases are severe. And we want to get the word out and stop domestic violence because there is this shame attached to it.

We have a patient who is a young child from Washington, D.C. Her father killed her mother and then he tried to kill the child. Now her grandparents have to take care of her. She is suffering from major anxiety and has been told by other people that she’s ugly. She has asked her grandpa, “why did my daddy kill my mommy?”

No kid should have to go through that, and that’s what Face Forward is, we are here to make a difference. Not just to make people prettier, but to make them functional.

To learn more about Face Forward and to purchase a ticket for Saturday’s event, visit

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