They were California girls: one blond, one brunet, sisters as close as best friends.
Still, Denise Brown says she didn’t know Nicole Brown Simpson was battered, even as she witnessed it.
“I never knew about the cycle of violence,” Brown said, in a call from her California home last week. “I didn’t realize what was going on until after she was murdered.”
Now, she said, she’s learned and wants to teach others.
Monday, Brown will lead Spokane schoolchildren in a workshop titled “Hands Are Not for Hitting” at the YWCA. At 7 p.m., she’ll present “Children Hiding in the Shadows: the Unseen Victims of Domestic Violence” at the Met.
The appearance has the YWCA, a leading advocate for diversity in Spokane, on high-alert for controversy.
Brown was the first family member to publicly accuse O.J. Simpson of killing her sister and her friend Ronald Goldman. Her message may appear tainted to African Americans who saw the murder case hinging on race, not domestic violence. Other critics say she’s one more person made infamous by the tragedy.
YWCA staff say it’s Brown’s record since the trial that counts: She’s made violence education her career, testifying before Congress on behalf of victims and speaking at shelters and universities for little or no fee.
“I think she’s gotten a bad rap,” YWCA development director Barbara Little said. “Her mission is to try and protect children.”
“I swore I was going to do this for the rest of my life,” Brown said. “That was a commitment. I told Nicole, I made a promise to her and myself.”
Organizers say Brown brings rare celebrity to an issue whose victims are rarely safe enough to speak out. They were so impressed with her passion on television talk shows that they focused this week’s events around her.
“What kind of experience does Denise Brown have? She has the most unfortunate kind of training. She has personal experience,” said Joanne Shiosaki, a YWCA spokeswoman.
It was Brown who told jurors in 1995 how Simpson had humiliated her sister at a crowded bar during the 1980s, grabbing her crotch. Another time, she said, he physically threw both of them out a door.
That night the sisters stayed at a hotel and Nicole vowed never to go back. The next morning, she did.
Brown said it was only during the trial, when her father found Nicole’s diaries and she herself visited a women’s shelter, that she understood what her sister was going through.
“The diaries explained it all; they explained everything,” she said.
The day Brown testified to such violence, CNN posted its highest ratings of the trial. Her 26 minutes on the stand were riveting, all the more for the resemblance between the two.
“This is the dead sister in black hair,” attorney Gerry Spence observed.
Defense attorneys tried to discredit Brown, focusing on her “selfadmitted drinking problems.”
She has since stopped discussing the case and helped create the Nicole Simpson Brown Foundation, which her father now runs.
Simpson was acquitted of the killings. In a civil trial a year later in which the diaries played a huge role, Simpson was found liable and was ordered to pay more than $33.5 million to the victims’ families.
Brown won’t discuss either case.
Two weeks a month, she leaves her 11-year-old son with her parents to teach violence prevention nationwide. She focuses on children, speaking most recently to 3,000 kids in West Texas.
“She needs to know her sister’s life meant something,” longtime friend Shakti Chen said.
The workshop Monday, based on a Minnesota school curriculum on family violence, will be attended by children from the YWCA Transition School, Catholic schools and home schoolers. Members of the Spokane Braves Hockey Club plan to attend.
Denise and Nicole Brown were born in Germany to an American father and German mother. They grew up in Long Beach, Calif., taking dancing lessons together, reigning as homecoming queens at Dana Hills High School, hanging out with the same crowd.
After Nicole died, Brown took over caring for her sister’s children, Sydney and Justin, who were in their grandparents’ custody. Sydney asked her to dye her hair blonde so she would “look just like Mommy.”
Single and 40, Brown lives in Orange County with her son, Sean; two cats; and two Rottweilers, Tyson and Niki, named for Nicole.
Before the murders, the former model who posed frequently for Cosmopolitan, earned a living selling clothing and antiques.
Since the murders, she’s lectured, accepting fees only to “keep a roof over my head,” not to become wealthy.
“I’m not rich,” she said. “People think you’re rich because you’re on TV.”
That’s likely to change. Last March, Brown signed a $1 million book deal to tell Nicole’s story, a deal that could earn her up to $4 million. Brown said she doesn’t think the more than 60 books already written about the case have shown who Nicole was.
Friends say she is in a “tug of war” with the publisher over whether the upcoming book is too “tabloidy.” Writing it, she said, “is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s really hard going back and reminiscing.”
There isn’t a beach that doesn’t remind her of her sister. Asked her age, she said, “I’m 40 now and she’s 38.”
Whenever Brown feels overwhelmed, she drives to Ascension Cemetery in Orange County, where above the green trees and flat stone engraved “Always in My Heart,” she talks to Nicole.
There she clears her head of all the negatives. Moving in a positive direction, she said, keeps her sane.
“Do I feel guilty? I can’t. I didn’t know (about domestic violence) at the time, and thinking what I could have done will drive me crazy. There’s no point. I can just move forward.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: When and where Denise Brown will speak at 7 p.m. at the Met. Suggested donation is $15 for adults or $7.50 for students to benefit the YWCA Alternatives to Domestic Violence and Safe Shelter. A special wine and cheese reception to benefit the shelter will begin at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the YWCA Comstock Room. Tickets are $65 and include the lecture. There also will be a vigil for victims at noon Wednesday at STA Plaza, 701 W. Riverside.