(Trigger Warning: This piece discusses physical and mental abuse.)
‘It can happen to anyone.’ - words that are meant to be comforting and yet warning, words that almost never have a positive connotation, words we’d rather not believe.
These are also the words used by FKA Twigs when talking to Elle Magazine, about her experience of being in an abusive relationship with actor, Shia LaBeouf.
And this is why her story is so unsettling and yet important.
It Won't Happen to You Until It Does
When the story broke—with Twigs filing a lawsuit against LaBeouf for ‘relentless’ abuse—as it often happens, the internet had a lot to say.
Of course, there were the counter accusations of ‘attention-whoring’ and ‘money-grabbing’, and public gaslighting that are unfortunately common responses to famous women speaking up about abusive relationships.
It also made way for public discourse about domestic abuse or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), with people vocally wondering, ‘how could this happen to her, and why did she put up with it?’
Let’s put a pin on the question itself for a second, and look at why it’s one of the first things that pop in our collective heads when a woman comes forward with her story of abuse.
Comparative Optimism, a kind of cognitive bias, makes us believe we have a better chance than others of not experiencing some negative or unforeseen event.
It’s our brains’ way of keeping panic from incapacitating us at the thought of possible disaster, like say, being the subject to domestic violence.
We’d like to believe that we’re smart enough and secure enough to be impervious to manipulation, as well as astute enough to take the most rational course of action for our personal wellbeing.
After all, domestic violence is what happens to passive, financially dependant women who lack agency and social support systems, and have no way out, right?
But when a successful celebrity who has financial security, a home she could fly back to, and a network of support, recounts the harrowing details of being in a mentally and physically abusive relationship for a year, it can be hard to reconcile with the buts, the whys, and the hows of it.
“People wouldn’t think that it would happen to a woman like me. The biggest misconception is, ‘Well, you’re smart. If it was that bad, why didn’t you leave?’. It can happen to anyone.”FKA Twigs
If it’s not being in a position of vulnerability itself, then what is it that makes women get caught up in a cycle of abuse?
“If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straight away,” she says in the interview, attempting to explain the incremental and insidious nature of the abuse.
“Whereas if you put a frog in cool water and heat it up slowly, that frog is going to boil to death. That was my experience being with [LaBeouf].”
'Why Didn't You Leave?' and Other Questions You Shouldn't Ask a Survivor
“I’m not going to answer that question (why didn’t you leave) anymore because the question should really be to the abuser, why are you holding someone hostage?”FKA Twigs, when asked the question by Gayle King during a CBS interview
The thing is, when you ask a survivor this, chances are, you’re speaking to them only because they did get out. However, most will also tell you that it isn’t as simple as walking out of the door and calling it quits.
Even if it is coming from a well-meaning place, the question can oftentimes feel accusatory, shifting at least some of the onus of the abuse from the abuser to the victim.
Moreover, IPV is often codified as physical trauma, both by the justice system, and the larger social imagination—so much so that the deeper, more sinister layers of abuse are often not even considered abuse, let alone reported.
This means that people themselves don’t acknowledge what's happening to them as ‘abuse’ until things escalate to the point of serious physical violence.
Until there aren’t bumps and bruises they rationalise that it isn’t as bad as it could be. And the escalation is slow. ‘At least he didn’t hit me, can quickly turn to at least he didn’t kill me.’
Dr Soumiya Mudgal, Consultant, Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Psychiatrist, Max Hospital, Gurgaon speaks of other common factors for women staying in abusive relationships.
- Fear of consequence of leaving: One of the most dangerous times for survivors is when they’re trying to leave. They often feel like the tether of the ‘relationship’ is what’s keeping the abuser from completely snapping. There is fear of aggravating and pushing them to more violent retaliation with the threat of leaving.
- Normalising the violence: This is especially true in the case of those (both men and women) who grow up seeing such abuse in their households and internalise the violence, believing it's okay.
- Playing on their Insecurity: Victims are often made to believe that they wouldn’t be able to survive without their partners and that their worth is derived from being married/in a relationship.
- Alienation: Victims are often cut off from their loved ones and left to feel like there isn’t anyone they can talk to. Twigs talks of how she had tried to tell a colleague of the abuse early on in the relationship, which was brushed off, leading her to think that "no one is ever going to believe me. I’m unconventional. And I’m a person of colour who is a female.”
- Stockholm syndrome: When you invest a lot of time and energy into a relationship, you are more inclined to stick around. Victims will often make allowances for their partners’ abuse and focus on the things they love about them.
When asked about how she was able to escape it, Twigs responds that it was sheer luck. “I honestly wish I could say that I found some strength and I saw this light. I wish I could say, ‘[It is] a testament to my strong character,’ It’s none of that. It’s pure luck that I’m not in that situation anymore,” she says.
He Said, She Said; The Case of the Missing Accountability
LaBeouf’s past records of violence and abuse, of which there are many, have been publicly known. And yet, he has rarely been held accountable for them.
His aggressive tendencies have often been attributed to childhood trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse, or brushed off as a part of his erratic ‘method artist’ persona.
This trope of the tortured artist who gets so consumed by his art that he’s unaware of the real world around him or the way his actions affect others, has not only, in the past absolved him of his very serious crimes, but also helped ascend his career.
LaBeouf’s pattern of aggression and violence is reduced to little bite-sized anecdotes that make for good talk show chat.
The host jokes about LaBeouf having ‘gone crazy’ as he recounts one of his slew of arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, to a backdrop of laughter from the audience.
LaBeouf may be open about his violent tendencies, but owning up isn’t the same as taking accountability.
When the Twigs of the world are questioned for allowing themselves to be abused, the LaBeoufs of the world get that much more allowance from shouldering the responsibility of their actions.
Of course, it's far-fetched and far too idealistic to expect an abuser to turn themselves in, but this problem stems from the social and cultural indoctrination that women’s safety is solely their own responsibility, and violence against them is a ‘women's issue’.
Particularly in the case of famous women, the victims are left to carry the burden of emotional distress on top of the safety and success they risk by coming forward.
And more often than not people close to the abuser are aware of their personality and abusive tendencies but are reluctant to ‘get involved’.
“There [were] people who have worked with Shia that I openly spoke to about the abuse that I was going through. The reaction that I got [from his team] was pretty much, ‘Okay. Well, it’s Sundance’.”FKA Twigs
What little semblance of accountability might have existed in ‘normal times’ has further plummeted in the pandemic.
During lockdown season, though, cases of domestic violence and emergency calls have increased, the limited capacity under which the justice system has been operating has meant a decrease in actual arrests, and in turn accountability.
It shouldn’t be a woman’s job to educate men on doing better and taking responsibility for their actions.
Taking accountability for your actions first requires that you recognize your actions as being problematic. “If they don't feel guilty about what they’re doing, why would they feel the need to change?” says Dr Mudgal. “Change can’t be forced into adults.”
Gaslighting and Other Red Flags
“When I look at what happened with [LaBeouf], I think now the most frustrating thing is...a lot of the tactics the abuser will use are things that if I would’ve known, I could have spotted in the first month of my relationship.”FKA Twigs
Dr Mudgla too warns of certain tells and patterns of behaviour to be wary of. She specifically points to volatile temperament, constant meltdowns, and inconsistencies between their words and actions.
“Perpetrators disarm their victims by being unpredictable, making it difficult for the victim to gauge what their response will be like, making them anxious and trapping them in a perpetual guessing game.”Dr Soumiya Mudgal
She also brings up how an abuser will try to convince their partners that their violent outbursts are only momentary losses of control, creating a smoke and mirrors facade of remorse and apologies.
“They will trivialize the situation, gaslight, blame the victim, and convince them that they are sorry and will change, but it’s important to recognise a pattern in such behaviour.”
One of the ways in which abusers absolve themselves of guilt is by turning the blame on the victim. “I don’t want to hit a woman, but I’m being pushed,” is what Shia Labeouf was heard saying publicly back in 2018, after a fight with his then-wife, Mia Goth.
Victims of abuse are slowly but surely, through subtle and not so subtle remarks, made to feel like the abuse they face is merely a reaction, that they are to blame for their plight, and asking them to share the responsibility of not putting an end to it, is as good as reinforcing these beliefs.
(If you or anyone you know are a victim of domestic abuse, you can reach out to The National Commission for Women via their Whatsapp number - 7217735372)