Short answer: We don’t know, and it’s not for us to know or judge.
[Trigger warning for domestic violence]
An untoward amount of discussion, following Ray Rice’s February domestic violence arrest for beating then fiancee Janay Palmer (now wife Janay Rice) in a casino elevator, strayed to the fact that she stayed with him after the assault. How bad could it really have been, some asked, if she stayed with him? Married him? After all, we only saw the video of him dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator — we don’t know what when on inside that could explain what happened.
Now, of course, we do have video that explains what happened inside: He hit her twice and knocked her unconscious. And while much reaction ranges from a public That monster! to the NFL’s anemic Well, that changes everything, still some people feel the need to point out She stayed with him. It couldn’t have been that bad. She should just leave. Obviously she’s getting something she wants, or else she’d leave.
Janay Rice’s reaction to her assault is her own. The only person who knows why she made the choices she’s made is Janay Rice. And making a judgment on the seriousness of Ray Rice’s actions based on her reaction is basically implying that there is, in fact some “other side of the story” that could justify him abusing her. I’m not saying she deserved it, but… Always a “but.”
To quote a friend of mine, “Bless y’all who have no idea what an abusive relationship looks like. You are the lucky ones. Your daughters, I worry about.”
The trending hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhenILeft offer heartbreaking answers (many collected at Vox.com) from women who have, like Rice, been in and stayed in relationships with abusers — He told me no one would ever love me. I had nowhere to go. Because I thought if I could just be a better wife, he would stop. And then, of course, there are the women whose stories will never make it to Twitter, because they aren’t around to tell them.
At ForHarriet, therapist and doctoral candidate Racine Henry talks about the cycle of abuse, in women in general and concerning Rice specifically (albeit speculatively).
[I]f you think about what keeps you in a relationship people to your life that are healthy relationships: your friends, your family, your coworkers, all of those components whether it’s money, love, history, you’re related to this person, you have kids with this person because you live together, because they care about you, because they were there for you, etc, etc. All those things are the very same reasons why women in those situations won’t leave. The good things can also be the reasons why you stay in a bad relationships. So it’s not about, “Well, she should’ve just left.” It’s never that simple or that easy if they have children together, if he’s the only source of income in the family, if she has strong religious beliefs about marriage or what it means to be a good girlfriend or wife, all these things, which you can’t really separate out from the others, play a role.
So I’m not surprised that she’s with him. I’m not surprised that they’re married. I’m not surprised also that she’s getting a lot of the flack when no one’s really talking about Why did he do this? What made him hit his wife or his future wife? Why did he then marry someone who obviously is a trigger for him rather than seeking his own mental health help?
She also comments on the stereotype of the “angry black woman” and how, for instance, it turned Rice’s motion after Ray slapped her into a violent lunge from which he had to defend himself.
Well, there’s always the image and the discourse around the angry black woman. That black women are feisty. We have a lot mouth on us. We don’t take any crap from anybody. We’re probably the ones to hit you first or hit you back, and we won’t be as docile as a white woman might be. And so I think there’s an expectation that if a black woman was hit, she either did something to cause it or she’ll be strong enough to leave. It’s almost like we can’t be victims. We can’t be innocent victims in the way that women of other races can be. We have to be either infallibly strong, meaning “I’ll leave a man before he hits me” or “You’re not gonna hit me. If you hit me, I’ll kill you.” Or we have to be the one who somehow precipitated this event by some cause of our own.
And the Guardian’s Hannah Giorgis asks us not to feed an appetite for other people’s lurid trauma by watching the video of Ray assaulting Janay Rice, but to focus on her humanity and the humanity of other survivors of partner violence, to defend them from further victimization both from their abuser and from victim-blamers and tragedy spectators.
But in a world in which one in four women is the victim of intimate partner violence and black women are disproportionately targeted, this victim blaming is not just irresponsible; it is lethal. Black women are punished when attempting to defend themselves: 94% of black female homicide victims are killed by people they know and 64% of those victims are wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of their killers. Who will support victims when abuse is not recorded and pre-packaged solely for our consumption but subtle and drawn out, or when the state itself commits violence?
If we viewed victims as more than a link to be tweeted, more than statistics to be reported to a broken criminal justice system, we would have to grapple with their complex humanity. We would have to offer meaningful solutions to violence, holistic responses to trauma, and accountability for abusers whom we may love. We would have to do more than just watch.