6 Questions We Are All Asking After Watching ‘Surviving R. Kelly’

When major cultural catastrophes occur, the Internet can feel like one of the most cathartic places to go

Photo: Unsplash/@glenncarstenspeters

Photo: Unsplash/@glenncarstenspeters

When major cultural catastrophes occur, the Internet can feel like one of the most cathartic places to go. We rely on our digital community to develop our collective memory, debate and react, and even enforce social change.

In the wake of the the revelation of who Robert Kelly really is — as expected, digital communities of color have convened to debate and react to the six-part Lifetime series, Surviving R.Kelly. Since airing, what was once a whisper, a childhood “knowing” between siblings in many families, became a roaring dialogue. The collective secret was out: Black and brown communities have long locked away a history of excusing sexual abuse.

Our women, girls, and boys have been violated by systems of sexual abuse and power. Familial systems. Church systems. Law enforcement systems. Racial systems. Cultural systems. And until now, we’ve all suppressed the resulting community trauma. As our community begins to digest the effects of generational sexual violence together (instead of individually, as we once did behind closed doors), it is critical that we analyze the topic thoughtfully and professionally.

That’s why we’re borrowing from a very successful tactic used in Surviving R. Kelly, and sat down with licensed psychologist, Atlanta-based Dr. Ayanna Abrams, founder of Ascension Behavioral Health and outspoken advocate for the mental wellness of people of color, to breakdown some of the larger questions that came about after watching Surviving R. Kelly.

Why Do People Continue to “Support”  R. Kelly and Other Famous Predators?

The documentary unearthed troubling degrees of what looked like support for a man who has committed some of the most heinous acts in modern memory against young women of color. Streaming services reported increases in R.Kelly streams of more than 16% since Sunday, and some celebrities, like 50 Cent and Master P, have spoken out in, what appears to be, his defense.

On its face, these responses were disheartening. However, they may be a reflection of a much deeper psychological process many of us are having.

“Often, we engage in what psychology calls ‘cognitive dissonance,’” Dr. Abrams explained. “When it becomes too stressful to reconcile things in our minds that don’t align with each other [i.e. discovering a person who gave you deeply rooted, joyful memories has committed disgusting crimes], we tend to do one of three things. We either choose one and discard the other, gather more information to make one of the choices more clear to us, or tell ourselves that the [unfavorable thing that doesn’t align is] less important to us.”

“With regards to R. Kelly, many have compartmentalized the parts of this narrative that are too abhorrent … and [we] keep what we can deal with or what we like, such as, the music [and] the nostalgia. It has become our way of disconnecting from him while being able to stay connected to the parts that serve us.”

But who loses when we choose to keep R.Kelly’s music and throw the man away?

“[For those who have] ‘disconnected’ from the parts of R. Kelly that they don’t like, they have, by default, disconnected from the community trauma he has inflicted through these criminal sex behaviors against young black & brown women and girls. The more we separate ourselves from him, the more we abandon [the girls] and perpetuate this terrible cycle,” Abrams suggests.  

“[To fix this] we would need to check ourselves and our belief systems, which is hard to do. It has been easier for many [people] to blame girls for what happened to them or neglect thoughts of these girls all together.”

Why Do Victims Remain Connected to Their Abuser?

Aside from public responses, the private reactions from victims of R. Kelly also baffled many. Recently, a video surfaced of his ex-wife, an outspoken activist against him, Drea Kelly, singing along to his songs as recently as 2017. And, as stated in the documentary, many of the victims themselves continue to remain in his home.

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Still, Dr. Abrams offers that victims’ reasonings for supporting or staying with him may be more layered than what we see on the surface.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen a lot these past few days in the community response, and what we’ve seen often across the #MeToo movement, is a blaming and shaming of women who continue to be violated by men who have hurt them already.”

“The commentary that suggests that these girls ‘knew what they were doing,’ or ‘should have just left,’ completely undermines the entire movement, and shifts responsibility from the perpetrator to the one who has been perpetrated against, which is harmful and increases shame.”  

Victims’ behavior, we learned, may sometimes be in response to what they perceive to be a dangerous situation, which explains why we see some survivors of Kelly’s abuse, such as Dominique Gardner from the documentary, returned to R. Kelly after running away.

“Trauma can often result in irrational thoughts and behaviors; especially if you are younger and your brain [and] emotional psyche is less developed,” Abrams explains. “There is often a psychological change or break when we are violated by someone who we trust, and reconciliation does not come swiftly, as the media would allow us to believe. Many people assume that the next steps after assault are justice, police involvement, and court testimony. Realistically, the first course of action is typically making yourself safe in any way possible that you can. Which sometimes looks like staying with the abuser and doing what they say.”

Unfortunately, that is when the danger can heighten. “This leads to [the victim] not knowing what is actually healthy or unhealthy. [They] are no longer in emotional control of themselves.”

How Can Older Women Who “Should Have Known Better” Fall Victim to Abuse?

“Stockholm’s Syndrome is very real, regardless of age,” Abrams broke down. “While age is a factor in some ways, age does not guarantee protection from manipulation. R. Kelly mastered ways of control over women he preyed upon and depending on your own history, upbringing, relationship models, you are not invincible from psychological manipulation. It happens in every-single-day relationships, not just in extreme cases like this.”

A victim’s personal experience can make them more susceptible to the kind of abuse R. Kelly committed, despite their age, which is why compassion and empathy are necessary if we want to help heal all the victims, both older and younger, and our community as a whole.

How Could R. Kelly Become a Predator When He Was a Victim Himself?

https://www.instagram.com/p/BnzEycfBDWR/

Many learned from the documentary, and in further detail from his 2013 book Soulacoaster, that R. Kelly was once a victim of ongoing sexual abuse. For at least six years, he admitted, he was molested by a family member (whose identity he tellingly chose to protect).

“In learning more about R. Kelly’s sad history of being sexually violated at such a young age and for so long, his predatory behaviors fit into a ‘cycle of trauma’ that has been widely researched in psychology and behavioral studies,” Dr. Abrams explains. “His early childhood experiences likely play a role in how he views sex, sexual desire, power, and relationships with others. His initial experiences with trust, body autonomy, arousal & personal safety were violent. That can change how a child views the world and their role and control within it.”

“What can happen — not always and not in the majority of children — when children are victims of sexual violence, is that their interactions from [the point of abuse] on can be very confusing, reactive, inappropriate and unhealthy. This can continue into adulthood if not addressed, validated and if they are not taught to not blame themselves for being taken advantage of.”

“However, with most sexual violence comes secrecy, fear, and protection of the perpetrator as a means to protect one’s self from more harm. These very disorienting experiences become mapped onto interactions with others who are not the initial abuser. Sexual violence just cannot be swept under the rug and ignored, because it can manifest in a multitude of ways.”

Why Is Sexual Violence Often About Power — Not Sex?

“Understanding that rape is about power, not about sex, is very important,” Abrams explains. “We have to avoid protecting people in our lives who [are] harmful and inappropriate, simply because it feels uncomfortable for us. [It only] perpetuates these cycles and leaves children in our lives largely unprotected. In not understanding child and adolescent development, we are doing our families a disservice, and by not calling out every single incident of harm, we teach perpetrators that they are implicitly in power.”

“Holding people (ourselves included) accountable to how they treat others, regardless of who they are, is integral to the protection of women & girls [of color].”

How Can Black and Brown Communities Do Better When Having These Conversations?

The heaviest reality of the documentary came with the outpouring of suggestions that R.Kelly is not the only one who is violating these young girls and women. Those who do not handle these stories properly may also spark painful outcomes.

“While this has all been focused on R. Kelly, there are norms in the community that were already in place, that allow and create room for a man to sexually abuse women for decades,” Abram reflects on the truths about communities of color. “These tragedies did not begin with R. Kelly, and they will not end until the community faces these difficult dialogues and confronts the difficult questions.”

Education and ceasing the spread of misinformation are critical.

“From denying and dismissing that rape culture exists, to deflecting to our racist justice system [instead] of listening to black women, to viewing and treating our children as though they are adults, we must do better [and become] more educated and share this education widely.”

Abrams also severely cautions against spreading misinformation in these discussions.

“Information that does not come from experts in these fields, or stories being told that are not from the actual victims, can be harmful to spread.”

“I would suggest that [people] get attuned to how they are feeling and reacting [to the documentary], because secondary and vicarious trauma is real.  What we took in for six hours may be difficult to forget for a long time coming. Reach out to and love on your support system, and challenge yourselves to create more space in your lives for the uncomfortable, because therein lies the growth and the change that our community deserves.”

In this Article

#MeToo music pop culture R. Kelly Sexual Abuse Sexual assault Sexual violence Violence against women WOC
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