LAUREL — On a windy afternoon in March 2002, Ishaunna Gully hoisted her young son onto her hip and listened intently as her grandmother presented her case.
The grandmother had a bad feeling about Ishaunna’s ex-boyfriend, Sammy, who had been controlling and verbally abusive during their year-long relationship. In the last few days, he was behaving erratically and making violent threats towards Ishaunna and her son from a previous relationship.
The first time Sammy attacked her, he only escaped arrest because Ishaunna declined to press charges. Days after that incident, fearing he might try to kidnap her son, Ishaunna sought a restraining order at Hattiesburg police headquarters but was told she needed to come back the following week.
Because of Sammy’s sudden violent temperament, Ishaunna’s grandmother didn’t want her to be home alone or even go out at night. But Ishaunna, who was a few months shy of completing a business-administration degree at Antonelli College, wanted to unwind from the stressful week before going to work the next day. She decided to stay home, but agreed to let her son spend the night with her grandmother.
“At that point, I was tired of running from him,” Ishaunna said. “This is my house, and no one is going to run me away.”
It was one of the last times Ishaunna remembers being able to stand.
Later that night, the wind howled outside as she rested in her living room sipping a cranberry-and-vodka and watching a late-night talk show; the aroma of cinnamon-apple scented candles hung in the air.
Around 10 p.m., there was a knock at the door. It was Mitchell Jones, the father of Ishaunna’s son, with milk for their son, a request made at the behest of her worried grandmother.
As soon as she opened the door for Mitchell, her cellphone rang showing the name of Sammy’s mother on the caller ID display.
“Call the police! He is going to kill you and then himself,” Sammy’s mother said.
No sooner than she told Mitchell to remain inside, she heard the security system beep, meaning that the deadbolted interior door that leads into the living room had been opened. A thud. Sammy, gripping a pistol, crashed through the door and pulled the trigger, striking Mitchell in the stomach as he fell to the floor. A second bullet struck Isuanna in the back. After gaining his balance, Sammy moved toward Isuanna preparing to fire, but he was shot in shoulder by Mitchell. The men exchanged several more shots, and Sammy fled.
“When he shot me, immediately I knew that I was paralyzed,” she said.
As she lay on the floor, her consciousness fading, Ishaunna’s mind raced.
“I thought to myself: this cannot be the man who said he loved me and wanted to marry me,” she said.
Ishaunna had to be airlifted to a hospital in Jackson but survived the shooting. Doctors said she almost died. However, the bullet to her spine did result in paralysis from the waist down. Today, she uses a wheelchair.
Sammy was arrested at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg and charged with aggravated assault. A jury found him guilty of aggravated assault and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison with 20 suspended. He served 10 years.
Last year, Laurel (population 18,493) was also the site of the murder of 24-year-old Davokiee Ann Jackson, a mother of two. Jackson’s boyfriend, Eric House, was named the primary suspect and later surrendered to police.
“Domestic violence is a serious issue. Davokiee’s story has to be told, and she has to be remembered to prevent things like this from happening,” said Tracie Smith, Jackson’s aunt, with tears in her eyes at a domestic-violence awareness event last fall.
But the stories of women like Ishaunna, Davokiee and thousands of African-American women often go untold even though black women are more likely to experience domestic or intimate partner violence than women of other races.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2014 that four in 10 black women reported experiencing violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives, the highest among all racial groups.
The CDC also found that black women are murdered by domestic partners more than any race of women, with 57.7 percent of black women killed by a partner dying from a gunshot wound.
Eighty-five percent of black females killed by males were between the ages of 18 and 65. The average age of black female homicide victims was 35 years old, the agency found.
Overall, 53 percent of all murders of women between 2003 and 2014 involved a domestic or intimate partner.
In a 2017 study with data gathered between 2010 and 2012, the CDC estimated that 458,000 women in Mississippi were victims of sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner.
But intimate-partner violence in the black community has come into renewed focus in the era of Me Too, a movement started by activist Tarana Burke a decade ago that gained new life in recent years with revelations that scores of powerful men sexually abused and harassed women for decades.
The tales of black women who have experienced violence at the hands of black men have often not come to the fore. However, a number of high-profile cases — such as that of the Chicago-born R&B artist’s history of sexual abuse highlighted in the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” — has sparked dialogue in the African American community and led to calls to listen to black women and protect black girls.
The South, experts say, present a unique set of challenges because of the culture’s reverence for religious principles, the endurance of ideals about masculinity, gun culture, poor education and poverty.
“When Men Murder Women,” a 2017 report of the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center ranked the states by rates of females murdered by males. Of the 10 highest ranked, five were in the South. Mississippi ranked No. 17 in the study.
“The reason I believe black women are victimized more is because of the disproportionate experience of violence in the home, schools, on jobs and in our neighborhoods,” said Eva Jones, founder of Butterflies of Grace Defined by Faith, a Mississippi-based non-profit organization that empowers women and teens whose lives are directly and indirectly impacted by domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
“African American women are often fearful of reinforcing the stereotype of black men being violent. Although I can be debated on this, I believe this goes back to slavery,” Jones said. “Also, African American people often don’t trust the (criminal-justice) system, so they won’t tell because they feel it won’t work in their favor.”
She also points to a key African American cultural norm: “There is a saying in the community, ‘What happens in this house, stays in this house,’ which means, ‘Don’t air our dirty laundry in our community.’”
The Rev. C.J. Rhodes, the pastor of Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson points to other cultural teachings in the black community. For example, men sometimes manipulate women who were raised in the church to believe that no matter what problems exist “there won’t be any life outside of this marriage.”
“In some cases, with very, very religious women from certain church traditions, if (marital issues) are expressed to the pastor or other members of the church, there has been this history of saying, ‘Baby, just take it. Love your husband. Pray for your husband, and God will do something in the end. Tragically, and unfortunately, she dies as a result of his violence,” Rhodes said.
“For any number of reasons,” Rhodes adds, “African Americans don’t like to get help outside of faith traditions or not talk about it at all, so they don’t go to the therapist, they don’t go to the pastor until it’s too late. Then everyone is saying, ‘Why didn’t they talk about it?’”
Not talking about it is part of what he calls “the contradictions of respectability.”
“You don’t tell anybody what you’re going through at home,” Rhodes said. “You put on this façade that everything is O.K., so you go to church, to school and if you’re getting hit, cover it up with makeup or wear shades,” Rhodes said.
“You create this image of ‘Everything’s O.K.’ because you’re afraid that if anyone gets in your business they’ll talk about you.”
Patterns of behavior
Ishaunna tried to keep her and Sammy’s business out of the streets. The couple met in 2001 and dated for about a year until she could no longer bear Sammy’s jealousy.
“He was very controlling and had to know my every move,” she said. “I couldn’t really go out with friends without him somehow showing up there.”
After the relationship ended, Sammy revealed a violent temperament he had not shown while they dated. One day, Ishaunna met with Sammy in the parking lot of a barbecue restaurant to retrieve a cell phone she left with him. A relative had dropped Sammy off so he asked Ishaunna for a lift after giving her the phone.
“You can drop me off. I won’t bother you,” Sammy told her.
As they cruised down 4th Street, Sammy started strewing the contents of her purse around the car and ripping at her shirt. A Hattiesburg police officer noticed the car swerving as Ishaunna fought Sammy off and pulled them over. Sammy was detained when the police officer noted her ripped shirt, but Ishaunna did not ask that Sammy be arrested. She didn’t want to see him locked up — she just wanted him out of her car, and out of her life for good.
The police drove him home.
Days later, after receiving a threatening call from Sammy blaming her for his near arrest, she visited the Hattiesburg Police Department to ask about getting a restraining order or having the police take some other kind of action.
It was the end of the week, and the officer told her to come back the following Monday. That same police officer arrived at the scene of her shooting, she recalls.
According to the CDC, about 11 percent of victims of intimate partner violence-related homicide experienced some form of violence in the month preceding their deaths, and arguing and jealousy were common precipitating circumstances, the agency found.
“You have to understand that it is about a pattern of behavior,” said Wendy Mahoney, executive director of for the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Specifically, she adds, domestic violence involves coercive behavior where an individual uses their power and control within the intimate partner relationship to “humiliate, demean, degrade, embarrass and hurt the other individual.” She said the abuse can be emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual and, often, sexual.
Of course, couples disagree, Mahoney says, but not all spats rise to the level of domestic abuse. “What makes domestic violence is when it becomes a behavior and it is rooted in power and control,” she said.
Eve Williams, a Sharon, Miss. native, saw how central power and control are to abuse during her 28-year marriage to a minister, which ended after a brutal beating that resulted in a hospital stay. It started five years into the marriage, when he beat her and dragged her around the house.
In hindsight, she says she saw it building up over time.
“Things happen, and before you know it you are caught in a situation where you are asking yourself, ‘How did I get here?’” Williams said. “Things were up and down throughout the marriage, but I had thought we had gotten to a place where we were good, but out of nowhere things went bad.”
“I shut down. I literally shut down. I was in shock. I didn’t talk about it for two years, nobody knew about it. I was mad at myself for years after that because I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I just leave?’ If I would have left then, I wouldn’t have almost lost my life years later.”
There are many reasons why women don’t simply walk away from abusive partners, including economic barriers such as the inability to save up for travel or pay the deposit for a new place or utilities, say advocates who work with abuse victims.
In 2017, Mississippi utility regulators adopted a rule allowing women referred from domestic-violence shelters to put off paying utility-deposit fees so they can establish accounts in their own names.
Mississippi’s domestic violence statute covers simple assault, aggravated assault, simple domestic violence, simple domestic violence third, aggravated domestic violence and aggravated domestic violence third; each charge carries a different penalty.
In 2017, Mississippi became a flashpoint for national outrage when then-state Rep. Andy Gipson, a Republican, blocked legislation establishing domestic violence as the 13th ground for divorce, saying at the time, “We need to have policies that strengthen marriage. If a person is abusive, they need to have a change in behavior and change of heart.”
After the backlash, Gipson relented and pushed through a bill that broadened the ability to cite domestic violence as a reason to end a marriage, but did not establish domestic abuse as a ground for divorce.
Despite these recent changes, Mahoney says escaping domestic violence is tough particularly for poor women and women of color, who in Mississippi tend to have less access to financial resources. She notes that most of the women in the shelters her organization operates are African American.
And black women in Mississippi face the highest wage gap in the nation when compared to white men. According to a report published last August as part of the Black Women’s Equal Pay Day campaign, black women working full-time, year-round earn 56 cents on the dollar less based on median wages compared to white non-Hispanic men. The study also found that the disparity means a black woman could make $830,800 less than the average white man over the course of a 40-year career.
“If you think about it, it is mostly individuals with low socioeconomic status and they may not have any other resources or support to help them,” Mahoney said.
‘Look at me’
More than fifteen years have passed since the night Ishaunna Gully-Bettis lost her ability to walk, and nearly her life.
Today, she works for a non-profit organization call LIFE (Living Independent for Everyone) of MS, which works in 17 Mississippi counties. She also helps young people with disabilities with peer counseling, advocacy, information and referrals, independent living skills and transition services to equip them for living independent lives.
She is also a Christopher Reeve peer mentor for the state of Mississippi, counseling people with new spinal cord injuries and teaching them how to regain their confidence and live self-sufficiently.
“I have learned that life is really what you make it. Sometimes in life you can’t control or change what people do to you but you can control how you react or deal with it. I am no longer the victim but a survivor — an overcomer,” Ishaunna told Mississippi Today, stressing that she has forgiven Sammy.
“God gave me a second chance at life. I felt the grace and mercy that God showed me and I believed he deserved the same thing,” she says.
Eva Jones said it’s important to make women feel safe when they ask for help and are ready to talk about the violence they are experiencing.
“You have to realize that until a person is ready to get out of that, you can talk to them until you are blue but they have to be ready to get out that abusive situation,” Jones said. “They have to make the decision.”
Advocates also urge men to make better decisions — and to encourage their peers to do the same. In 2014, the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence launched a men’s working group in the wake of the viral video of professional football player Ray Rice knocking his fiance unconscious in an elevator.
“Understanding … that men are more responsive to other men, we set out to encourage men to stand up against domestic violence,” reads a newsletter the organization published promoting the program, which urged men to pledge to be a “stand-up guy” against domestic violence.
Eve Williams finds strength through writing poetry. One particular poem she wrote when she was 16, has helped her to cope with sexual abuse that tormented her as a child.
Last fall, Williams recited her poetry in front of an audience at the Mississippi Capitol for a domestic-violence awareness month observation. For her, the poem wasn’t just for introspective healing. She hoped it would help heal others who have had similar experiences.
Her poem, titled “Me,” reads:
Look at me
Can’t you see?
I am as beautiful as can be?
God created me just like you, so you should feel the same way too
Don’t let anybody put you low
When I look in the mirror, I know what and who I see
Somebody, somebody, and that somebody is me.
And I may not be perfectly wise, perfectly witty, or as perfect as you want me to be
But I will always, always, always be perfect
The way God created me to be
About Eric J. Shelton
Eric J. Shelton is a 2018 corps member in Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms, and joined the team as Mississippi Today’s first photojournalist. A native of Columbia, Eric earned his bachelor’s in photojournalism from the University of Mississippi. He has worked as a staff photographer for the Natchez Democrat and Texarkana Gazette after serving as photojournalism intern for the Associated Press. He was a multimedia journalist for Abilene Reporter-News, chief photographer for the Hattiesburg American and photo editor for the Killeen Daily Herald before joining Mississippi Today’s team in June 2018. Eric’s photojournalism has won awards from the Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors and the Arkansas Press Photographers Association.
TOUGH LOVE?: Pastor Creflo Dollar's mug shot from his arrest on Friday, June 8.
This is not the type of story I was expecting to read just before Father’s Day.
According to news reports,Atlanta-areamegachurch preacher Creflo Dollar was arrested for allegedly assaulting his 15-year-old daughter. The two were arguing over the daughter attending a party. According to the Fayette County police report, the argument turned physical when the preached clutched his daughter’s throat, slammed her down, punched her, and beat her with his shoe. His 19-year-old daughter corroborated the story, police said. Dollar was arrested on charges of simple battery, family violence, and child cruelty. He was released on $5,000 bond.
Being a father of a 19-year-old daughter, I have an idea of how this went down:
Dollar: Look young lady, no God-fearing daughter of mine has any business being out there “droppin’ it like it’s hot” like some video chick on BET, or worse.
Daughter: Oh, so you calling me a ho now, Daddy? You worried about me or your preacher reputation? I’m grown. I can do what I want to do. You don’t own me.
Dollar: Little girl, I brought you in this world and in the name of Jesus, I’ll take you out.
Daughter: To hell you will!
Dollar: No you didn’t! I’ll kick your …
And that’s about where the similarities end for me. Raising my hands to my daughter or to my wife is out of the question. My older sons? Well, they’re different cases. But not my only daughter who (technically) is no longer my “baby girl,” even though she’ll always be just that.
As a father, rearing a daughter is more than a notion. Especially if you know what’s out there awaiting them because of your own pre-Jesus experience running “the game” in the streets. We dedicated fathers worry about dogs … I mean, young men — many of whom do not have their fathers around to train them. We worry they’ll disrespect our daughter or outright abuse her. We have thoughts of willingly doing prison time after tracking down some punk who harmed our precious girl.
We remember the “sweet talk and conquer” mentality we had as teens and twenty-somethings and wonder if our daughter will reap what we sewed. Combine this with that neck-jerking, eye-cutting nasty attitude that often comes with the terrible teen years, as a parent you sometimes don’t know whether to pray or pull your hair because of your daughter. It’s a blessing if teens like Dollar’s daughter truly understand this.
My daughter and I have gotten into it particularly over some of her choices in skirts. I don’t like seeing her legs the way I like looking at her mother’s thighs. We also get into it because we’re stubborn debaters. We enjoy frequent rounds of verbal handball. But to get so out of control that I clutch her throat, slam her down and ball my fist? No. That’s not fatherly strength; it’s the ultimate sign of male weakness.
CELEBRITY REV: As an author, TV personality, and pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia, Creflo Dollar gained an international following.
My daughter got spanked on the butt when she was a little girl, but I didn’t hit her when she was a 15-year-old hormone terror. You can bet your bottom dollar that I would never sink so low.
The police report for the Dollar family incident says Pastor Dollar told authorities that he tried to restrain his daughter when she “became very disrespectful” after he told her she couldn’t go to the party. Dollar admitted to spanking his daughter and wrestling her to the floor, but said it was because she hit him.
In these types of domestic cases, it’s always unwise to leap to conclusions. There are always more sides to the initial story. The truth of what happened in the Dollar household will eventually seep to the light, regardless of how the preacher will try to keep things shrouded.
Dollar later released a statement through his lawyer saying, “As a father I love my children and I always have their best interest at heart at all times, and I would never use my hand to ever cause bodily harm to my children. The facts in this case will be handled privately to further protect my children. My family thanks you for your prayers and continued support.”
You certainly have my prayers for your entire family, brother. But my respect for you as a man and a father?
If the police report is true, you’re too weak for that.
"When their young are threatened, mockingbirds take action," but in the case of Karly Sheehan, there was "a silence of mockingbirds," says author Karen Spears Zacharias. (Photo by Stephen Savage)
In the decade that American troops have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,397 soldiers have been killed. During that same time, 20,000 American children have died from child abuse and nobody is talking about it, author and journalist Karen Spears Zacharias says. “It’s not making the headline news. There’s no national policy. There’s no outrage from the public.” In her gripping new book, A Silence of Mockingbirds: The Memoir of a Murder, Zacharias tells the story of three-year-old Karly Sheehan, who was suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend while investigators targeted her father, David Sheehan, as her abuser and medical professionals misread tell-tale signs of abuse. Karly was murdered in 2005. In 2008, Karly’s Law was enacted in Oregon. It mandates that children who exhibit signs of abuse receive medical attention from a specially trained medical professional within 48 hours. In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, UrbanFaith talked to Zacharias about the alarming national tragedy that her book was written to highlight. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Often the news media fails to report with equal zeal on stories like Karly’s if the victim is a person of color. Although her mother is biracial, Karly was a fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed child. Do you think this book would have been published if she wasn’t?
Karen Spears Zacharias: Karly is beautiful. She is that iconic blond, blue-eyed darling. There’s no question in my mind that there’s a bias toward people of color. I live in a community that is 40 percent Hispanic. If this had been a Hispanic child I was writing about, I probably never would have never gotten this book published. There’s an inherent resistance to these kinds of stories. When such stories involve children of color the resistance is even greater, the biases even more profound.
I wonder if this murder had involved a child of color, would the media have been as drawn to it? Would the community-at-large have related to it? Would legislators have been so quick to respond with a law to protect other children? We are a media-driven culture and the white child plays to a broader audience base. Elected officials are keenly aware of that. I know Rep. Sara Gelser, who sponsored Karly’s Law, so I know it would not have mattered to her. I just think she would have had a much more difficult task had this been a child of color.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 28.1 percent of child abuse fatalities were African Americans, 16.6 percent were Hispanic, and 43.6 percent were white. What, if anything, do these statistics tell us?
A tragic death that led to change: beloved child Karly Sheenan. (Photo courtesy of David Sheehan)
Oftentimes in talking about the rate of child abuse among minority groups, they’re looking at percentage per capita. They’re saying it’s higher in those groups, because you’re dealing with smaller populations. In reality, because their population is larger, the bulk of child abuse is perpetuated by whites. The National Children’s Alliance says there is a certain segment of child abuse that goes hand-in-hand with poverty. We know that when families are under economic stress, as they have been since 2008, child abuse rates increase.
Has that happened in the past four years?
In the counties I’m dealing with in Oregon and Washington, there have seen steady—if not increasing—numbers, but it depends upon the population and the economic development of the community. Where you have struggles financially, you see an increase. For instance, in Benton County, Washington, their abuse center treated 500-some clients last year. That’s been pretty steady for them for the past few years, but they have a steady employment base. In a community like Linn-Benton County, Oregon, where Karly died, since Karly’s Law has been enacted, they have seen a huge jump.
Is that because Karly’s Law mandates better screening?
They’re not exactly sure of all the reasons. They do think that Karly’s Law plays into that. There’s no question that it puts parameters around the reporting, but here’s the other statistic we’re puzzling over: In 2009, 13 children died in the state of Oregon as a result of child abuse and in 2010, 22 children died as a result of child abuse. That’s after Karly’s Law. So, maybe we’re not doing a better job reporting. That’s part of the problem. We have no national policy that addresses child abuse, which helps explain why we have the highest abuse rate of any industrialized nation. It’s not important to us.
How did Karly’s Law come about?
Rep. Sara Gelser was a mother and representative in Linn-Benton County, where Karly was killed. She was reading about this in the headlines every single day. After the case closed, she and Joan Demarest, the prosecutor in the case, who is also a mother, got together and worked to push this law through. The medical director testified that if she had seen Karly, she would have known early on that this was child abuse, but the average doctor gets four hours of training in medical school for child abuse. So they don’t know what to look for and they’re busy. I’ve had police tell me that usually child abuse work in law enforcement is done by rookies because nobody else wants to do it. It’s time consuming, it’s paperwork, and it’s court. So we have Karly’s Law in the state of Oregon, but part of the problem, in the county where I live, is that we don’t have a trained medical professional. There is no doctor or nurse in this whole county who can assess child abuse. So, when we have children that are suspected to be victims of child abuse, they have to be transported to another community up to three hours away.
This is your fifth book, and even though you’ve written a memoir about your father’s death in Vietnam, you’ve said this one is the most exhausting to talk about. Why?
The book about my father was emotionally hard for me. It was a personal journey. This book is combating evil. That’s a completely different kind of exhaustion. I’m bringing to light something that is really dark, that people don’t talk about. Even atheists and agnostics will admit that there’s a sort of demonic evil to child abuse. When I’m speaking, I’m very aware of the importance of helping every individual out there understand the need to be a voice for a child.
What should people look for in the children they come in contact with to recognize signs of abuse?
In Karly’s case, her day care provider did a terrific job of noticing. She was paying attention. Karly’s first sign was that she was more sleepy than usual during the day. She became more whiny. Of those 20,000 kids we’ve lost in the past 10 years, 80 percent of them are ages four and under. These children are being targeted in a way, because either they don’t have the verbal skills to identify their attackers, or they do have the verbal skills and they won’t tell. I asked a medical director why children don’t tell. She said, “Because they love their mommies.” And so, if an abuser tells a child, “If you say anything, you’ll never see your mommy again,” they will never tell.
People who are abusing children aren’t wailing on them in Wal-Mart. Child abuse is insidious. Do you have a neighbor, a friend, or a family member who is constantly bullying their child or perpetually ignoring that child? If so, have you spoken up? Stopping child abuse means living with our feet in the mud. It’s messy, but we have to get involved. We have to be better neighbors. Children are dying.
GOOD GIRL GONE BAD BOY: Rihanna and Chris Brown perform during a 2008 concert. In 2009 Brown brutally assaulted Rihanna, his then girlfriend, on the eve of the Grammy Awards. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Newscom).
As a woman who is closer to 40 than to 30, I’m a bit annoyed at myself that I’m writing about R&B and pop sensations Chris Breezy, aka Chris Brown, and his kinda former girlfriend RiRi, aka Rihanna, who just celebrated her 24th birthday.
But as a woman who has loved wrong more than once and has lived to tell about it, I feel I ought to offer my thoughts in the frenzied Internet discourse that has erupted following the recent musical collaborations of the abuser and the victim of his abuse. In case you are not an Internet fiend as I am or don’t have the music of Chris Brown and Rihanna on your iPod playlist, let me update you.
On Monday, Rihanna’s birthday, she, without the official backing of her music label, released via Twitter a remix to her sadomasochistic song “Birthday Cake” which features Chris Brown on the vocals. On the very same day, Chris Brown tweeted his remix to his song “Turn Up the Music,” featuring Rihanna without the official backing of his label. This would be oh-so twenty-something cute if Chris Brown would have not have assaulted Rihanna right around this time of the year three years ago on the eve of the Grammy Awards. And if their music reunion is not enough, it has been reported that the two are seeing secretly seeing each other again and have been for some time.
But for Chris Brown and Rihanna fans, their reunion, whether in public or private or both, is probably not a complete surprise. Although a restraining order was filed against Brown following the assault, last year the restraining order was reduced per her request, and the two began following each other on Twitter as well. And in her 2010 collaboration with rapper Eminem in “Love the Way You Lie” Rihanna co-signs on the dichotomy of pleasure and pain in an abusive relationship.
So what does a woman hopefully old enough to know better make of all us? The sometimes repentant celebrity gossipmonger in me is like, “That’s so juicy!” And to get people talking (and buying) may be their ultimate goal in these collaborations. But I don’t think that is all there is to it.
The woman who knows what is it like to choose someone who is not good for you is dismayed to see a young girl go through this life lesson so very publicly. To be clear, lest my parents read this somehow, no man has never, evah, evah laid his hands on me. But I have dated men that I knew were not the best choices — in spite of what others may have thought.
I’m not a star and so I’m not obligated to spill all of the details of my missteps, but I will reveal this: until the pain is greater than the pleasure of dating the bad boy, there is very little that can be done. I just hope that those who love Rihanna will pray that she be released from the seemingly magnetic force that is attracting her to Chris Brown before he shows his bad side again.
And it is not the first time that Rihanna reunited with Chris Brown. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Rihanna revealed why she went back to him AFTER the incident in February 2009. “It’s completely normal to go back. It’s not right. I learned the hard way, but again, this is what I want people to know,” she said. “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn’t be held responsible for going back.”
And it’s not that I think Chris Brown is the devil or anything, but he was wrong and more plainly horrifically abusive. And while three years have gone by since the altercation, I’m not sufficiently convinced that Brown is truly repentant for his actions or even fully aware of the gravity of those actions. In spite of the incident, I wanted to root for Chris Brown because he’s cute, can sing, and can dance like Michael Jackson. But his meltdown on Good Morning America, where he reportedly broke a window at the television studio, ripped off his shirt and walked the streets of New York like some escaped animal after being asked a question about the Rihanna incident did not convey maturity or anger management. (He was ordered to take anger management classes following the incident.)
The truth of the matter is sometimes it takes a few bumps on the head — literally and figuratively — and counseling before you finally and truly understand that love does not inflict harm. A thorough examination of 1 Corinthians 13 wouldn’t hurt either. Hopefully, Rihanna and other women — both young and old — will learn this lesson soon enough to celebrate more birthdays.
Last week, controversy swirled around the release of Rihanna’s latest music video, “Man Down,” which depicts a rape victim (portrayed by Rihanna) seeking revenge against her attacker. Critics immediately questioned the video’s violent and disturbing imagery.
“Instead of telling victims they should seek help, Rihanna released a music video that gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability,” said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, which led the charge in denouncing the video.
Fair or unfair, as a celebrity abuse victim, anything Rihanna says or does for the foreseeable future will be examined inside and out for insight into her current state of mind. The problem that most critics are having with Rihanna is that she often contradicts her words with her lyrics, or as one critic put it, “(Rihanna says) yes I’m mad, no I don’t want to talk about it, but yes I will sing about it, but no don’t hold it against him, but yes revenge is okay.” But what I think Rihanna does well is portray the schizophrenia that anyone who has ever been a victim of domestic violence faces. There’s no coincidence that victims of abuse often become the abuser or find themselves in a series of abusive relationships. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. And, over 40% of victims of domestic violence are involved in more than one incident. No other type of crime has a rate of repeat victimization as high.
Perhaps, it is uncomfortable for us to witness the frail state of a victim, but the rawness is something that deserves to be put on screen if the artist chooses. If it is acceptable to portray abuse in its raw state in films like Precious, then it should also be acceptable for a young woman to fight the demons she wrestles with on screen as well. In the film Woman Thou Art Loosed, Michelle, played by Kimberly Elise, kills her longtime abuser in a church, yet the film was widely received by Christian audiences. Why can’t Rihanna tell her story? In the Loosed, Michelle seeks repentance. In “Man Down,” Rihanna expresses similar regret: “I didn’t mean to end his life. I know it wasn’t right. I can’t even sleep at night.”
Unfortunately, simply taking a woman out of an abusive situation is only the first step to healing. She will have moments where she is able to suppress her past and have intimate healthy relationships, but she will always be in a tug-of-war with pain and feeling worthy enough to deserve peace. This is the sort of reality they do not teach you in Sunday school. I have known far too many people that have been in abusive relationships, and I know that you can be removed from the situation but still have a battlefield in the mind.
Rihanna may be even more vulnerable than the average person. As a celebrity, her private life is subject to constant examination by the media. She’s regularly asked to relive her past over and over again through interviews, and it’s still unlikely that she’s sought professional therapy. Everyone wants Rihanna to be a spokesperson for domestic violence, but they don’t want to give her time to heal. Patriarchal societies often re-victimize its female victims, whether intentionally or subconsciously.
Meanwhile, through her music and messages to her fans, Rihanna is trying to communicate her feelings the best way that she can:
“Young girls/women all over the world…we are a lot of things! We’re strong innocent fun flirtatious vulnerable, and sometimes our innocence can cause us to be naïve! We always think it could NEVER be us, but in reality, it can happen to ANY of us! So ladies be careful and #listentoyomama! I love you and I care!” (Rihanna via Twitter).
Rihanna, perhaps this is just your way of coping with the past, but if this is how the world is going to react to your vulnerability, maybe it’s time you go talk to someone who cares. Simply put, the media is not your friend, Rihanna, and certainly not your counselor. This may be a hard pill to swallow when you are always in the limelight, but it’s something to consider the next time you decide to share your pain with the world.