One of the biggest struggles in educating people about the realities of domestic violence is the question, “Why does she stay?” There’s a million ways this question is asked, but sadly most of them implicitly blame the victim and imply that the only reason someone would stay is that she’s stupid. Women claim that they’d leave after the first punch, men assure us they’d run interference if they knew that a man they know is abusing his partner. Many of these people are dead wrong, unfortunately. Feminists try to make it understandable. We explain that abusers often do a great job at portraying remorse, which, coupled with a systemic stripping down of the victim’s self-esteem, can be an extremely effective tactic at getting forgiveness. A woman who has started to believe no one could love her—which abusers usually tell you—is often sadly grateful when the abuser whips out the flowers, tears, and pleas after a beating. Remember, the time leading up to the beating is often a time of escalating tension, which means that her self-esteem is lowered more than usual by a combination of reminders that no one else will love her and having that reinforced by the abuser making a show out of how he can barely bring himself to be kind to her pitiful self. Pulling away from affection, sharp comments, that sort of thing. Then, beating. Then tearful apology and elaborate show of love. Most people aren’t rocks, and this kind of manipulation is startlingly effective, even on victims with a lot of intelligence.
Feminists will often also point out external factors—the abuser separates the victim from her support system. Abusers are often highly charming people and may themselves have a lot of friends, so the victim will start to live in a world where everyone she encounters is through her abuser, and will side with him should she try to leave. Some feminists try to emphasize the financial dependence issues, but while that’s important to point out as a tactic, it’s also important to realize this doesn’t mean victims that are ensnared by purely emotional methods are less deserving of our sympathy. I think one can often grasp how it works intellectually, but still hit a wall emotionally in understanding how shameless abusers can be about emotional pandering to get their way. Which is why Chris Brown may have done us all a favor with this performance:
When I first read about it, I actually thought his emotional manipulation of his audience would be more sophisticated—never bet against an abuser in terms of really thinking through his performance for getting everyone to flock to his side and turn against his victim. And by “everyone”, I also mean the victim herself, who is often subject to the most elaborate display of “but I’m such a great guy and you’re so worthless, so clearly this is your fault and really you should be the one begging forgiveness”. But this was pretty overt and corny. No matter—one thing abusers usually have on their side is the cult of masculinity. We’re all conditioned to think that men don’t cry, so when one does, we snap to and assume it must be really serious. You know, unlike those manipulative woman tears. You know women—they just want attention.
Truth is, Brown’s display worked as intended. A whole lot of people are feeling bad for him now. I even overheard a couple of 20-somethings debating this out in public today. The dude was skeptical of this display, but the woman ate it up. She felt sorry for him! He’d suffered enough!
So I have to point out that if an abuser’s arsenal of tactics works so well on a bunch of strangers who don’t know anything about him but a few public images and some pop songs, imagine the impact these tactics have on victims and the people around the couple that have to be manipulated so they side with the abuser over his victim. If you ever wonder why women don’t leave, just think about how shamelessly Chris Brown cried at the BET Awards, and you have a pretty good idea how this works.
It’s worth pointing out that Chris Brown has faced a lot more crap for domestic abuse than most famous abusers do, which shouldn’t make you feel sorry for him so much as outraged that this kind of incident doesn’t usually create this kind of public display of outrage. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is that Brown doesn’t have the strategies down as well as some—he went for the face when beating Rihanna. Practiced abusers often realize that visible marks just bring more trouble for them.