Earlier this week, TMZ released video of a February incident involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his then-fiancee Janay Palmer. In the video, Rice is seen punching Palmer in the face, knocking her unconscious, and then dragging her lifeless body out of a casino elevator. Amid outcry, the Ravens released the 3-time Pro Bowl running back, and the NFL quickly followed by issuing an indefinite suspension.
Twitter — as cruel and ignorant as it can be — flooded with messages ranging from “she hit him first” (as Rice outweighs Palmer by at least 80 pounds, please just stop) to “she married him after this, so isn’t this her fault?” This messaging was amplified by Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” morning program, which joked about how Palmer should have “[taken] the stairs.”
The dynamics of an abusive relationship — and Palmer certainly appears to be in one — are complicated, and not so easy as saying that anyone who stays with an abuser is “asking for it” or that someone who stays with an abuser is a fool. This is far from accurate.
“[Abusive relationships are] not always about being slapped around,” Michael J. Formica wrote at Psychology Today. “Abusive relationships come in all forms along with physical abuse – social abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, etc. Abuse is about a dynamic of extremes, domination and submission. It is about giving and withholding, also in the extreme.”
In a November 2012 TED talk, writer Leslie Morgan Steiner detailed her own tale of abuse, discussing the violence brought upon her by her ex-husband, Conor. Her story is a textbook example of a physically abusive relationship.
“Why did I stay? The answer is easy. I didn’t know he was abusing me,” Steiner says. “Even though he held those loaded guns to my head, pushed me down stairs, threatened to kill our dog, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, poured coffee grinds on my head as I dressed for a job interview, I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man, and I was the only person on Earth who could help Conor face his demons.
“The other question everybody asks is, why doesn’t she just leave? Why didn’t I walk out? I could have left any time. To me, this is the saddest and most painful question that people ask, because we victims know something you usually don’t: It’s incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser. Because the final step in the domestic violence pattern is kill her. Over 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship, after she’s gotten out, because then the abuser has nothing left to lose. Other outcomes include long-term stalking, even after the abuser remarries; denial of financial resources; and manipulation of the family court system to terrify the victim and her children, who are regularly forced by family court judges to spend unsupervised time with the man who beat their mother. And still we ask, why doesn’t she just leave?”
“Why doesn’t she leave?” is never as simple as the question implies, and as Steiner later says in her talk, many use it as code for, “It’s her fault for staying.” It’s not, and it never is.
It’s my hope that Janay Palmer figures out what’s best for her. A thousand voices screaming, “You need to leave him!” are unlikely to provide the help she needs to actually make that happen. And even if she were to leave, how many of those voices will be around to provide her with support and protection moving forward?