‘Dear Sister’ author Michelle Horton speaks to campus community

Image courtesy of Wendy Freedman.

[CW: This article mentions murder, imprisonment, domestic violence and sexual assault.]

On Feb. 15, Vassar College hosted a talk with “Dear Sister: A memoir of secrets, survivals, and unbreakable bonds” author Michelle Horton and activist and social worker Elizabeth Clifton. The memoir recounts how Nicole “Nikki” Addimando, Horton’s sister, shot and killed her physically abusive domestic partner and father of her two children in an act of self-defense. The book further details the many efforts to secure Addimando’s release from prison, largely through the establishment of The Nicole Addimando Community Defense Committee. The Vassar event was organized by Women, Feminist, and Queer Studies (WFQS) and sponsored by the Dean of Faculty Office, and co-sponsored by the Political Science Department, the English Department, the Women’s Center, the SAVP Office, the EOAA/Title IX Office, Counseling Service, H.O.M.E. and the VSA.

The talk lasted a little under two hours. Attendance included individuals from the greater Poughkeepsie community in addition to Vassar members. 

Prior to her conviction, Addimando was employed at Vassar’s Wimpfheimer Nursery School. The director at the time, Julie Reiss ’82, became Addimando’s on-campus confidante after noticing signs of potential physical abuse. At Wimpfheimer, Addimando taught the children of Vassar faculty, staff and administrators, many of whom also supported her during this time. This included Wimpfheimer parent and Director of Psychological Services Wendy Freedman, who joined Horton and Clifton to create The Nicole Addimando Community Defense Committee in the wake of Addimando’s trial.

Students have also been involved in fighting for Addimondo’s release for the past seven years. “I remember when we were holding a protest outside of the courthouse and a bus arrived filled with Vassar students,” Freedman wrote in an email correspondence. “Being on this advocacy journey together has led to a deep sisterhood of trust and friendship.” 

Horton’s publisher reached out to College faculty in order to bring the talk to campus. In a written correspondence with The Miscellany News, Director of WFQS and Adjunct Professor of Multidisciplinary Studies Paulina Bren stated, “Once I’d read it, I felt it was a story that needed to be told—all the more so because of the many Vassar faculty and staff that were instrumental in organizing for Nikki’s release. And because Elizabeth Clifton was so central to it all, I felt it would be even more interesting if I had her and Michelle together on stage in conversation.”

The two women discussed six points: the ways in which people close to survivors may deny the possibility of abuse, due to survivors hiding evidence and how abusers may act in public; how difficult and dangerous it can be for survivors to leave an abusive relationship; how the criminal justice system is ill-equipped in handling trauma and domestic violence, leading to criminalization of survivors who protect themselves; the long term advocacy work of many organizations to reduce sentences by judges; the fact that anyone can make a difference; and the fact that there are thousands of stories like Addimando’s, where survivors are imprisoned away from their families, with women of color disproportionately impacted. 

“Michelle and Elizabeth’s comfort and ease in talking together at the book talk was a reflection of their trust in one another,” Freedman wrote. “Prior to the event, they discussed the main topics they wanted to cover to use as an outline, but the conversation itself was authentic and improvised.”

Emma Raff ’26 said that she had initially expected Horton to be interviewed by either a student or faculty member, and mentioned she appreciated the “conversational” format instead. “It flowed a lot nicer,” she explained during a phone call. Raff first heard about Addimando’s case while taking Bren’s “WFQS-130: Introduction to Women’s Studies” course, in which she was encouraged to sign petitions advocating for Addimando.

Collective support for Addimando’s release finally came to fruition this past January, largely due to the Domestic Violence Survivors Act, a New York state law that was passed in 2019, which allows sentences to be reassessed in light of evidence of domestic violence. Addimando was originally sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, which the appellate court shortened to seven-and-a-half-years under the new legislation. 

Judge Edward McLoughlin, who gave Addimando’s life sentence and ruled that Addimando had “reluctantly consented” to her abuse, is up for reelection next year. 

At the talk, Horton and Clifton detailed the many ways in which their efforts in support of Addimando were derailed by the justice system, such as when a judge ordered the public defender they had chosen off the case due to alleged conflict of interest. As recounted by Raff, this happened after the public defender had spent months educating herself on PTSD and domestic violence. “Many lawyers aren’t trained on trauma and mental health issues,” she said. 

The case was further complicated after the justice system moved the trial to Putnam County court without clear reason. 

“[Horton and Clifton] really led the charge on freeing Nikki with no knowledge of the legal system beforehand. They had to teach themselves everything, which I really admired,” Raff said.  

After the two women spoke, there was an extensive Q&A session. Most of the questions came from faculty or other adults in attendance. Audience members were interested in Addimondo’s well-being since her release, particularly in regards to her reunion with her children. There were also several questions about Horton’s relationship with Addimando’s children’s grandparents on their father’s side. 

Image courtesy of Wendy Freedman.

Bren wrote about how much “Dear Sister” highlights the prevalence of patriarchy both in the criminal justice system and society at large. “Exactly as Michelle said at the end in answer to an audience question, the horrific abuse that Nikki experienced both at home and then within the judicial and prison systems are all aspects of a cultural and internalized patriarchy.”

She continued, “Some women—as anyone who has taken Vassar’s always popular ‘WFQS130 Introduction to Women’s Studies’ knows—are beneficiaries of that system and unwilling to push against it. Michelle and Elizabeth encountered both help from male allies as well as pushback and silence from women who did not want to see or believe.” As an example, Horton described how her and Addimando’s mother downplayed the abuse that Addimando was experiencing.

Bren encourages everyone to read “Dear Sister” and listen to the audiobook. “Not only does Michelle read it herself, but she inserted prisoner recordings with Nikki and other such sounds and voices that create a wonderful book-podcast feel,” she wrote. 

Raff said, “The thing that stood out the most to me is how Michelle had no idea what Nikki was going through, which is very very common and very very frightening.” She added: “I hope that the book makes people more aware.” 

Bren ended her correspondence with a reminder that support resources are available at the College for abuse survivors.

“On a totally different note: if any Vassar student or staff needs support, the SAVP [Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention] has a trained advocate on call 24/7. Just dial x7333 and ask to speak to an advocate.”

Additional reporting by Will Sorge.

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