I had a female relative who was physically abused by her husband. She would often show up at our home after her husband, in a drunken rage, had taken out his anger on her. I was only a child but somehow I understood that what she was suffering was not right. My mother would comfort her (once having to pick her up at the hospital), and encourage her to leave her husband. In the 1950s, women didn’t leave their husbands, even for physical abuse. Most women didn’t work outside the home and wouldn’t be able to support themselves. That was the excuse this woman used for staying all those years.
But that wasn’t Rihanna’s situation. As a huge star in her own right, she didn’t need Chris Brown to support her. Yet she stayed, even went back with him although he was abusive.
And now we have Janay Palmer, Ray Rice’s wife who, as his fiancé, suffered a beating in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino, a beating so brutal that she was rendered unconscious and then unceremoniously dragged out of the elevator and dumped in the lobby. That first video was enough to get Rice a two game suspension by the National Football League, a punishment so lacking that a public outcry finally served as a wake up call to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Now, after viewing the complete video (what took so long?) the Baltimore Ravens terminated Rice’s contract, costing him millions of dollars, and the NFL has suspended him, perhaps for life.
Upon hearing this news, my first thoughts were for Janay Palmer. With her husband’s career now in tatters, will he blame her? Is she safe? Will she stay with him?
Why do women stay with men who abuse them? Young girls, too, stay in abusive relationships. When Margaret Sagarese and I were researching our book, Boy Crazy! we held a focus group with high school girls in Maryland. We asked if any of them had suffered dating abuse or knew someone who had. Virtually everyone in the room raised her hand. We wanted to know why they stayed. Some hoped they would change the behavior. Others didn’t want to lose the status of dating, particularly if the boy was an athlete. Surely Janay has enjoyed sharing the spotlight with a star football player, enjoying not only the attention but the financial benefits his career has made possible.
There are no easy answers. As Janay sat quietly during Rice’s press conference after his two-game suspension, he called her an “angel” and took total blame for the entire episode. But in an abusive relationship, there is never just one outburst. There is always a pattern to the abuse, just like I observed with my relative. Her husband would periodically shower her with attention and gifts, and then the abuse would start again. I think about the Julia Roberts film, Sleeping with the Enemy, where her husband would render her nearly unconscious and then show up the next afternoon with a huge bouquet of red roses. All is forgiven – until the next round.
Janay and Rice have a daughter and perhaps she’s staying because she wants her child to have a father. But a child in that situation suffers too. Former Yankee Manager Joe Torre has talked candidly about how growing up in an abusive household affected him. He started a foundation – Safe at Home -aimed at combating domestic violence. My relative had a son, and I don’t believe growing up, watching that pattern of abuse, served him well. He’s had multiple marriages and strained relationships with his children.
I’ve been reading opinions online about Janay and Ray, one saying that even talking about the event says more about us than it does about them, that we somehow get a rush reading about this woman’s pain, making her a victim all over again. I’m not sure that’s accurate. When I read about Janay, I fear for her safety and her future. I’m sure there are many like me who know or once knew someone like Janay and hoped she would find the courage to walk out and save herself.
All the public scrutiny could have a positive effect. It’s a lot harder to justify staying with someone who is abusive when so many people are watching. Certainly Rihanna felt the pressure from constant press coverage. And certainly the video of Charles Saatchi grabbing Nigella Lawson’s throat in a restaurant hastened their breakup. If my relative’s relationship was forced to undergo such public scrutiny, perhaps she would have found the courage to leave. Her life, I’m sure, would have been much better.
Charlene Giannetti is the co-author of Boy Crazy! Keeping Your Daughter’s Feet on the Ground When Her Head Is in the Clouds. Her new book is Parenting in a Social Media World.
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