In case you haven’t heard yet, last night at the MTV VMAs, Rihanna and Chris Brown kissed. On the lips. In public. During the ceremony. In front of the entire music industry. In front of thousands of young viewers. Rihanna recently admitted in an interview with Oprah that she still loves Chris Brown, and she said that when she left him she felt like she lost her best friend. Jezebel noted today, “On Oprah’s Next Chapter, she sort of defended Brown as a person and compared him favorably to her father (who hit her mother regularly).”
Two weeks ago, Joan Rivers came under scrutiny for cracking a joke about Rihanna’s inability to let go of her abuser. The legendary comedian tweeted, “Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her.” It’s a hilarious, well-written, totally succinct joke with clear undertones of concern for Rihanna. I don’t begrudge Rivers for making the quip, but the problem is, Rihanna’s inability to let go of her abuser isn’t funny. The joke is funny, but the problem isn’t. And confusing pain with love is such an enormous problem suffered by so many women and girls in this country. So while it’s fine to face the issue with humor, we need to also really try to bring sincere awareness to abuse victims as well – without mocking them. Calling an abuse victim an “idiot” isn’t going to do much but make them feel bad about themselves and reinforce the resentment they have toward those who are mocking their inability to stop obsessing over the person causing them pain. A victim of relationship abuse – especially a young one – thinks, “You just don’t get it. You don’t get the passion and intensity of our relationship. Yes, I know it’s fucked up, but I love him! And in his own twisted way, he loves me, too. And if you think that makes me an idiot, then you’re an idiot.” And nothing changes.
Here’s the thing, Rihanna. I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you are a broken spirit looking for love in all the wrong places. I think, like so many women – and men, too – you have learned to confuse intensity with intimacy. You have intertwined the concepts of love and pain. You don’t understand that love is not abuse.
And I’ll tell you this, because it’s very important to me. It means so much to me, it means the whole world to me right now: the problem with the way we shake our heads, wag our fingers and tsk-tsk at victims of domestic violence, emotional abuse, psychological warfare, is that we – no matter our best intentions – are so willing to view the abuse as the victim’s issue. (Snarky condescension from Jezebel’s post today: “Ohh, Ri-Ri. You break my heart.”) Abusers are so good at shifting the blame and making themselves victims. And they are victims – who have gone on to victimize. It’s so, so, so, so just unbelievably sad. Because an abuse victim’s instinct is actually to sympathize with their abuser and feel sorry for what they have been through. The victim can’t face his or her own pain because it’s too much to bear so they focus instead on healing someone outside of themselves. And that’s how they stay trapped in the cycle. And it is a trap. It is incredibly difficult to get out of, to walk away from. It is not a joke. It is a horror show.
But just like abusers do, us bystanders point fingers and place the ultimate blame with the victim. “Well, she’s bringing this on herself,” we think, “because she refuses to leave.” This kind of thinking completely ignores the learned helplessness and lack of self-esteem and self-love that victims are plagued by, and the physical and mental addiction to pain that victims face. So many if not all victims of relationship abuse are victims of some kind of child abuse as well, or, as in Rihanna’s case, they had relationship abuse modeled for them. Or both. I don’t know Rihanna’s history with her parents, but it’s easy to imagine that a man who hit his partner also hit his children. This physically abusive treatment creates a wound that victims look to heal either by replicating the abuse (Chris Brown) or seeking out similar abuse (Rihanna). This dynamic is everywhere. It is all around us. I guarantee you several people you know have experienced relationship dynamics like this. Some people are able to escape it earlier. For others, it takes longer, likely depending on how severe the wounds they’re trying to heal are. This is an enormous problem. For everyone. Broken, dysfunctional people are a burden on society, their families and themselves.
That’s why I think maybe instead of cracking one-liners about and shaking our heads at Ri-Ri (ugh), maybe, just maybe, those of us stupidly gawking from behind our televisions and computer screens should continue to tell the truth about the dynamic of her relationship with Chris Brown. We should continue to offer encouragement to her, not scorn. I mean, for Christ’s sake, every single one of her amazing pop songs that we all love to dance and jam to and belt out at the top of our lungs is a cry for fucking help, and yet the best we can offer her is the side-eye, pursed lips and a wagging finger? Bullshit. Total and utter disappointing, sad bullshit. Joke about everything, yes. Heal pain with laughter. Illuminate the truth with humor. But be conscious about who is a deserving target. Know if you’re helping or hurting. Or be just like every other jerk.
Photo credit: still from MTV VMAs via US Weekly