I’ve studied the photograph of Rihanna that was leaked to the media a week after she was assaulted on her way home from a pre-Grammy party in Los Angeles shortly after midnight on February 8. It is impossible to recognize the face of the beautiful singer whose enormous talent had earned her legions of fans worldwide. Her left eye is swollen, discolored, and badly bruised. There are contusions on both sides of her forehead and cheeks, and lacerations on her lips and chin. If we saw any woman we cared about in that condition—daughter, sister, or friend—we would have absolutely no ambivalence about what should happen to her assailant. We’d demand he be locked up immediately, expect a jail sentence after his conviction, and many would want to exact a kind of punishment the criminal justice system doesn’t allow.
O.J. Simpson would have scored off the charts for lethality measures. I hope Rihanna understands the deadly nature of this victimization, before history repeats itself.
Why, then, is the reaction so very different when the assault is alleged to have occurred at the hands of an intimate partner of the victim, rather than a stranger or street predator? In this instance, by another young superstar in the music world who’d been Rihanna’s lover for a year and a half? So much of the public response centered on disbelief that the attacker was Chris Brown—such a clean-cut young man, whose charm and good looks, celebrity endorsements, and dazzling smile should give him a pass for this seemingly uncharacteristic behavior.
Nicole Brown was 18 years old in 1977, when she started dating the famous athlete who would take her life less than 20 years later. Shortly after their relationship began, Nicole documented the first incident of physical abuse by her lover. O.J. Simpson’s charm and good looks, his celebrity endorsements, and his dazzling smile also allowed others—relatives and friends among them—to overlook the escalating violence throughout the couple’s courtship and marriage. There were scores of witnesses to Simpson’s verbally abusive behavior toward Nicole in restaurants and clubs, neighbors often heard him scream threats at his wife, and family members saw photographs that memorialized the beatings he subjected her to—the infamous New Year’s Day assault in 1989—more than five years before her murder in 1994.
Like most victims of intimate partner violence, Nicole Brown called 911 to report her attacks more than eight times before she successfully separated from her husband. Police officers responded to her home on those occasions, sometimes making formal reports of their visits and often—when Nicole herself declined to press charges—left without making any record. At no point did anyone in her family or in law enforcement effect a successful intervention. O.J. Simpson was never arrested for assault, never forced to acknowledge the injury he caused his wife. He was never held accountable for any of the violence he perpetrated against Nicole.
After Rihanna and Chris Brown left the party last month, before reaching home, he is alleged to have argued with her over a text message he received from a former girlfriend. He stopped the car and tried unsuccessfully to push her out, then slammed her head against the window, punching her in the eye and face until she began to spit up blood. Mixed with the battering were threats—that he would "beat the shit" out of her when they got home. (There’s a haunting 911 call Nicole Brown made in 1993—it plays all over the web—when O.J. broke into her home a year after their divorce: “He’s going to beat the shit out of me,” she told the police operator.) Rihanna managed to reach her assistant on her cell, asking the girl to call 911. That triggered another series of punches and a death threat: “Now I’m really going to kill you.” When Rihanna grabbed the car keys, the popular Mr. Brown choked her in a headlock, nearly rendering her unconscious, and bit her fingers as she struggled to get his hands off her neck.
It tore me apart Friday when I heard that Rihanna was already planning to reconcile with her batterer. Maybe she’s too young to know about Nicole Brown. Maybe no one has given her the ugly numbers about intimate partner violence in this country, or talked about the factors that might help her assess the wisdom of her decision to reunite before her assailant has even been arraigned on the charges.
Safe Horizon, the country’s leading victim advocacy organization, keeps statistics that document the tragic numbers of these crimes, which are of epidemic proportion in America. Approximately 1.5 million women in the United States are physically assaulted each year by an intimate partner—that’s one every 15 seconds. Women between the ages of 16 and 24 face the highest rate of intimate partner violence. The American Medical Association estimates that more than one-third of all women seeking emergency medical care are survivors of domestic abuse, the leading cause of injury to women. More than four homicides each day are committed in this country by a partner or former boyfriend/girlfriend.
In the 1980s, law enforcement agencies began to develop ways to assess the likelihood of a batterer’s recidivist tendencies. These "lethality factors"—ways to predict the escalating nature of the violence inflicted on the victim—help police and district attorneys evaluate when to take the decision away from victims who declined to prosecute and move forward with a trial. We know these women's lives are in danger, often, when they choose to stay with their partners despite all the warning signs obvious to those around them.
Has anyone explored those factors with Rihanna? There are rumors that this was not the first time Chris Brown abused her. The danger assessment tools tally previous physical violence; the severity of the instant beating and the injuries sustained (severe and serious); whether choking was involved (yes); whether there were actual threats to kill the victim (yes, according to the police affadavit—a factor alone which makes Rihanna fifteen times more likely to be killed than her peers); the exposure of the perpetrator to intimate violence in his family—something Brown witnessed as a child from the ages of 6 to 13, as he has disclosed publicly. Jealousy, obsession with a partner, drug use—I can only speculate about those issues, but Rihanna knows the answers to whether each of them is part of the equation, and they figure into the assessment. Ignoring the consequences of his actions makes an abuser likely to reoffend. It’s easy to ignore the conduct when your victim forgives you, as Rihanna seems about to do. And the fact that Brown was seen clubbing in Beverly Hills until 3 a.m. the night after his first court appearance might be an indicator of his lack of remorse.
Despite decades of research, we don't know all the reasons that women stay with men who have been so abusive. Many who don't work and have no other means of support are crippled by the lack of options available to them when they try to leave. But these crimes happen in every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic class. Some women capable of supporting themselves tell us that they love the offender so deeply that they are unable to separate, believing that his behavior will change, or that they did something to provoke the attack and bring it on themselves. In many instances, the partner apologizes and begs for forgiveness. The dynamic of power and control over his victim is reinforced and she remains in place. What is clear from the numbers is that the two most dangerous times for a woman in an abusive relationship are when she attempts to separate from the perpetrator without a successful plan, and when she is pregnant.
The assessment tools can with some degree of reliability identify victims who are at greater risk of being murdered by their intimate partners. O.J. Simpson would have scored off the charts for these lethality measures, had they been available to the people advising Nicole when she declined to prosecute him time after time. I hope Rihanna understands the deadly nature of this victimization, before history repeats itself.
Linda Fairstein, former chief prosecutor of the New York County DA's Office Sex Crimes Unit, is one of America's foremost legal authorities on crimes of violence against women and children. She is also the author of the current New York Times bestselling crime novel Lethal Legacy and a member of the Board of Directors of Safe Horizon.