After Rihanna and Chris Brown dropped their collabo for her song “Birthday Cake,” reaction from the Twitterverse, entertainment blogs and feminist sites was swift and often merciless. Commenters seemed to be divided into three factions: Those who believe the Bajan beauty is continuing a cycle of abuse and letting down her young fans; people who celebrate the reunion and say RiRi is her own woman; and #TeamBreezy fans who feel the “Turn up the Music” singer has served his time and deserves to be forgiven.
I’m still trying to process how I feel about this musical olive branch extended between the once-volatile songbirds. Part of me feels disappointed that Rihanna seems to be in collusion with the boyfriend she once feared enough to file a restraining order against. Another part of me wants to reserve judgment because I understand the incredible burden survivors of abuse carry. We’re considered stupid for letting our partners hit us in the first place, and even more idiotic for staying in the relationship.
Yes, I said we.
I’m a survivor of domestic violence.
At one point, I would have advocated harsh justice for anyone who ever raised his or her hand to an intimate partner. It would be politically correct to advise RiRi to sever all ties with the man who once assaulted her, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with an abusive ex, especially one who claims to be redeemed. If I had the chance to talk to Rihanna, speaking from my scars as well as my heart, this is the story I’d tell.
I was only a few years younger than Rihanna when my nightmare of abuse began. At 17, I lost my virginity to a man I both hated and feared. Jeff was one of the neighborhood drug dealers. He cruised the streets of our small town in his mud-colored Pontiac, a giant beetle in search of other invertebrates. I knew he was trouble the minute he lowered his tinted windows. In another world, I wouldn’t have given him a second glance. Instead, I gave him my phone number.
I wasn’t physically attracted to my soon-to-be boyfriend. He was short, four years older than I was, and a dropout. But he had money and tempted me with gold earrings and Gucci totes. I had just entered my senior year of high school and felt rebellious. We dated secretly because my mother would have never approved of the relationship. Jeff must have observed my nonchalance toward him or sensed the way I instinctively flinched when he touched me. Whatever the case, he was determined to make me love him. If some men can’t have a woman’s love, they’ll settle for her submission.
My first boyfriend tried to reshape my will into something that resembled romance. He extorted me for my emotions, and when I wouldn’t relinquish them he resorted to physical violence. He held me hostage in his bedroom for hours, alternately smothering my face in the pillow or twisting my arm behind my back until I thought it would break. Every time I vowed to leave him, Jeff begged me not to, crying that he couldn’t control his temper. Similar to Chris Brown’s upbringing, Jeff watched his mother being whipped into subservience on the regular. In a sick way, my boyfriend loved me–with his fists. And in a sick way, I was afraid to leave him even though I hated him. I fidgeted at the bus stop whenever he drove up to my high school because he bullied me in front of my friends in the quiet voice he used right before he put his hands on me. He wouldn’t hesitate to smack me in public. Once while we were eating breakfast in a crowded Denny’s restaurant with our friends, Jeff reached across a plate of pancakes and backhanded me. The waitress rushed over to our table and told Jeff to take his abuse elsewhere. She seemed to be sending the message that my boyfriend could stomp me, just not on Denny’s property.
Only a few friends were aware that I was being abused because I was too ashamed to ask for help. I was too afraid to tell my parents, too embarrassed to alert my guidance counselor. I was in gifted classes, but I felt foolish for not having the courage to walk away. I was too frightened to dump a guy who spied on me while I watched TV in the basement of my row house at night, who stalked me at my job and had to be escorted off the premises by security, who yanked my hair, tried to break my arm, and who tortured me in his bedroom for hours one winter until I fled down three flights of stairs, out the front door, and down the street barefoot with no coat.