In the two weeks since video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice knocking out his wife in a hotel elevator, the issue of domestic violence has come out of the shadows and forced the NFL—and the media—to address a number of uncomfortable truths.
In the past these horror stories—from Ike and Tina Turner to Axel Rose and Erin Everly—provoked tabloid fascination, a lurid look into celebrity dysfunction (money and fame cannot temper a violent temper). But in this age of social media, where everyone is a pundit and can instantly render moral judgement, there is a tiny silver lining in the grotesque behavior of elite athletes.
With the case of Ray Rice and his battered-but-still-loyal wife, Janay Rice, it was the creation of the #WhyIStayed hashtag on Twitter, in which victims of partner and spousal abuse attempt to answer the question on everyone’s mind: when a massive, hulking NFL star knocks you out and drags your limp body out of an elevator, why would you ever choose to forgive—and, in the case of Palmar, even defend—the monstrous actions of your abusers?
To those who have never experienced abuse, it’s a rational question. But for those who have been on the receiving end of domestic violence—and chosen to stick by their partners—it provokes complicated answers. After TMZ released the now-infamous Rice video, finally prompting the NFL to take action and release the Baltimore Ravens running back, Janay Rice took to Instagram to defend her husband, blasting the media and “unwanted opinions from the public.”
“To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of [sic] for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific,” she wrote. “Just know that we will continue to grow and show the world what real love is!” What was taken away, incidentally, was a $40 million-plus contract.
It didn’t take long for criticism to be heaped on Janay Rice for defending her husband, with many questioning how anyone who had endured such an abusive relationship could characterize it as a loving one, tempered by occasional bursts of physical violence.
That’s when author Beverly Gooden stepped in, creating the hashtag #WhyIStayed to empower victims of domestic violence like Rice.
“The focus was on her and her actions, as opposed to him and his actions,” Gooden recently said during an appearance on Dr. Phil. “I wanted to defend all survivors of domestic violence.”
The hashtag quickly gained traction (it was used more than 100,000 times on Twitter in the subsequent two days). And those 140 character explanations inspired even more women to tell their stories in harrowing and more expansive detail on other platforms.
Last week, in a personal essay on this website, an anonymous woman whose husband beat her when she was pregnant explained why she stayed with him for “five more years... five loveless, lonely, but quiet years, mostly due to my own complacency and learned ability to compromise for my kids’ sake and our safety.” It was only after realizing “that I was not responsible no matter what he said or I said or anyone else said” that she could break free.
Earlier this week, Lauren Browne, a British victim of domestic violence, recounted her version of Janay Rice’s plight, highlighting the complicated psychological reasons why some victims of abuse choose to deny that they’re being hurt, along with the practical reasons for not leaving, like being “trapped in financial or social binds that mean their money and friends and pretty much everything they have is tied up with their partner.”
The shocking stories crested this week when Meredith Vieira, the American Sweetheart of daytime television, recounted chilling details from an abusive relationship on her eponymous talk show.
"It started out with, we would have a fight and he'd just sort of grab my arm," the former Today host recalled. As the abuse escalated, the abusive boyfriend threatened to ruin her career. And during one particularly terrifying episode, “he threw me into a shower, naked, in scalding water, and then he threw me outside into the hallway...I hid in the stairwell for two hours until he came, again, crying. [He said], ‘I promise I won’t do this again.’”
Vieira also addressed the misconception that only women with no means of independence—financial or otherwise—would endure such abuse. “A lot of people say, ‘Who would stay in that situation?’ Somebody maybe doesn't have the wherewithal to get out, the means to get out—I had that. I had a job at the time, and I kept in this relationship,” she said.
It was fear and guilt, Vieira said, the kept her from leaving. And in an apparent nod to Janay Rice’s expression of regret over “the role I played in the incident that night,” Vieira admitted she often felt as though “maybe I contributed somehow to this.” It wasn’t until she was offered a job in another state that Vieira found the courage to leave.
While Janay Rice felt her and her husband’s privacy had been invaded, in the two days following TMZ’s video scoop, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s call volume increased 84 percent. And the #WhyILeft hashtag has drawn significant attention to an often underreported issue.
Indeed, ours is an age in which tragedies provoke big social activism campaigns, from the kidnapping of Somali girls to individual cases of spousal abuse. But do they effect change? The girls are still missing, Joseph Kony is still roaming the jungles of Uganda, and another NFL player, Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals, was arrested this week for beating his girlfriend.
But the first step towards change is awareness, the pervasiveness of which may previously have been underestimated. Domestic violence doesn’t just exist in dark corners and amongst our celebrities and star athletes. It is a society-wide problem.
Janay Rice says she has forgiven her husband and that we should all mind our own business. But there is much to be said for a private, hellish experience becoming an issue of public debate.