It’s no secret that James Brown had a dark side. This summer’s biopic Get On Up left out many of the weird, uncomfortable, and simply violent incidents that Brown instituted or participated in. But it wasn’t until now that we’ve been able to get a look at just how frightening the singer could be. Earlier this month, his daughter Yamma Brown published a memoir titled Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me (co-written with Robin Gaby Fisher) that details her life growing up with her often volatile dad. In the excerpt below, Yamma flashes back to a moment when Brown beat her mother in front of her and her sister, then writes about how that violent legacy stayed with her into adulthood.
The beatings always begin the same way, with the same terrible sounds. My parents are in their bedroom, behind closed doors. First comes the boom of my father’s voice. “Dee Dee! Goddamn it, Dee Dee!” Then I hear what sounds like thunder rolling through the house. That’s Mom hitting the wall. I wait for her to scream, but she doesn’t. She whimpers. She must have learned long ago that screaming incites him.
I swear that during those fights, I could feel the whole house shake with my father’s crazy rage. Whenever he’d start, my sister Deanna and I would run for cover, usually in a closet or under our beds, and cry quietly into our cupped hands. I shook a lot as a kid. My hands. My face. My knees. A 5-year-old with tremors. As my grandma used to say, “Ain’t that just the saddest thing?” Sometimes the fights lasted only minutes. Sometimes longer. The monster would appear, wreaking havoc on our lives, and then the rumbling would stop and we’d hear our mother’s muffled cries. After that, the house would go completely quiet. The sound of the silence was the worst because that’s when Deanna and I would wonder if our mother were alive or dead and if we would be next.
My father never beat us, but sometimes I think a beating would have been less hurtful than hearing the sounds of him using my mother as his punching bag. Sometimes I threw up in my hands when they fought. Usually I just shook like a damn leaf trying to hold on during a brisk fall breeze. When my father was in that crazy-ass way, everything was my mother’s fault. She couldn’t do anything right. When he started, she took it to the bedroom and closed the doors—I presume to spare Deanna and me from seeing her battered.
As much as I loved my father, and I sure loved him, I hated him during those times. And I didn’t like my mother much, either. I didn’t understand why she let my father treat her like that. If she couldn’t stand up for herself, how would she protect me? What if I slipped up and did or said something Dad didn’t like and he decided to turn on me, his little Yammacakes? I didn’t think he’d hurt me, but I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t possibly defend myself against a strong man like my father, especially not when he was in one of his rages.
After a while, I did what my mom did and acted as if the beatings hadn’t happened. I’d pretend the Browns were just like everyone else, a happily married couple with their two great kids.
But it was hard to pretend after I witnessed one of those brutal beatings, the first and only time I actually saw, and not just heard, the brutality that my father was capable of.
It was a sultry summer day, and Deanna and I were happy to be playing a game in our air-conditioned house when the screams and the banging began. We knew the drill and quickly climbed under the coffee table in the living room and held our ears, waiting for the sounds to stop. But this time was different. Waiting for the silence, I heard the bedroom door slam and the sounds of footsteps rumbling down the hallway. The footsteps got louder and closer. Louder and closer. Deanna and I squeezed each other tightly, holding on for dear life. From our hiding spot under the coffee table we could see my mother pad past the living room in her bare feet, with my father on the edge of her heels. Cowering under the table, I watched as the two pairs of feet moved toward the front door. My mother was crying. I saw my father lunge forward to grab her, and she leaped forward and screamed. “James! Stop! James! Please! Ahhhhhhh!” I had never heard her sound so afraid. The front door flew open, and they were outside. “Daddy’s going to kill her,” I said to my sister. “We have to do something.”
I was 5 years old.
I ran to the front door and peered outside. My mother was dressed in her blue and white robe. Her legs were splayed wide open and my father was straddling her, pummeling her with clenched fists. Doosh. Thud. Doosh. Thud. Blood spurted from my mother’s face. She started thrashing around, kicking her legs, holding up her arms to ward off the punches and trying to break free, trying to save herself. I froze in place, but then something inside of me took over and I knew I had to do something. I felt no fear, only rage. I ran outside, screaming, “Leave her alone! Stop punching Mommy!” He didn’t even turn around. He just kept punching. The next thing I knew I was on his back, trying to pull him off of my mom. Sweat was dripping off his face and his eyes were glazed and wild. When he first looked at me, it was as if I was looking into the eyes of a stranger—and a mad one at that. “Stop!’’ I screamed. “Leave Mommy alone!” My father looked stunned. It was as if he’d awakened from a bad dream. His head dropped and his shoulders slumped. I looked down at my mom. Her eyes were purple and her face was bloody. She didn’t look back at me.
Years later, when I asked my mom about the beatings and reminded her about the only one I ever actually saw, she said it was that very day she made up her mind to leave my father. That day, something inside her said that if she didn’t leave, someone was going to end up dead, and she was pretty sure it would be her. But by the time she made her decision, the damage had already been done to me. I’d been programmed to accept abuse as part of life.
Years later I read a quote by Stephen King that summed up what it was like living with the abuse: “People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, ‘How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?’ And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; ‘I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.’”
I was in college before I stopped trembling every time my father raised his voice. He could be shouting at a business associate over the phone and I’d be quaking in a corner somewhere. I didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that witnessing my father beating on my mother like she was a Mexican piñata would have a profound effect on me.
It probably would have helped if someone had warned me that children who live with abuse often become abusers or victims themselves. But no one warned me about that. So, by the time I was old enough to date, I promised myself that no man would ever treat me the way I saw my father treat my mom. God help the man who took a hand to me. I wouldn’t stand for it. Never.
But when it did happen, I didn’t know it was an elephant. I thought it was part of the furniture.
When I met my future husband Darren Lumar, I was working clinical rotations at DeKalb Medical Center in Atlanta and was the resident pharmacist on the medical team caring for his stepfather. You couldn’t miss Darren. He was a bear of a man at six feet, five inches tall and 280 pounds. He was also charismatic and smart. And he was a real flirt. “Oh, you look so cute in your lab coat!” he’d say. “Please don’t tell me you have a boyfriend!” At first, I stuck to conversations about his stepfather’s heart meds. But the more he talked, the more interested I became in him. He said he was an investment banker with his own international company and that he had played professional baseball for the New York Mets. He was well educated, an honors student who had earned his undergraduate degree at Loyola University in New Orleans and pledged Kappa Alpha Psi at Tulane. When he asked me to dinner, I accepted. That was February 1998.
I didn’t tell Darren who my father was. Not at first. I didn’t need another person using me for my namesake. A couple of months into the relationship, when I finally did fess up, Darren acted as if he had no idea my father was James Brown.
Things between Darren and I moved fast after that. After dating for just two months, we went to Beech Island to visit Dad. To my surprise, Darren asked Dad for my hand in marriage. That was before he even asked me! I thought it was kind of old-fashioned, but sweet. Dad was impressed by Darren’s success. I think he was relieved that I wasn’t with some freeloader who was more interested in his bank account than his daughter. “If you’re happy, Yamma, then I’m happy,” Dad said. A month later, I was formally engaged. I was overjoyed at the prospect of spending my life with Darren. But within just a few weeks, I would see a side of him that frightened me: an angry, aggressive side that seemed to come out of nowhere.
We had just moved in together in a luxury high-rise in Atlanta. We had the normal adjustment problems, bickering over things like where pictures should be hung and how to arrange the sofa in the living room. Living with someone is so different from dating. I quickly noticed that Darren was quite jealous. I could sense him tense up when I said hello to the doorman or came home a few minutes later than I said I would.
One day, I had planned to go shopping for things for our new place, but Darren, for reasons I have never known, decided I must have been going to meet a man. He started arguing with me about leaving the apartment. I was stunned by his belligerence. I couldn’t reason with him. I tried walking away from him, but he wouldn’t let up. He followed me around the apartment, pushing his finger in my face, calling me stupid and worse. When I’d had enough, I picked up my car keys and headed for the door. “I’m going shopping,” I said.
Darren followed me from the apartment into the hallway. He followed me into the elevator, still ranting like a madman. “Okay, Darren,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Enough. We had our argument; now let’s cool off.” Darren wouldn’t let it go. He was all up in my face. I was really scared. The elevator stopped at the lobby, and I walked off and headed out of the building to my car. Darren was on my heels, still cursing and shouting. “Bitch! Slut! Whore!” When I finally got to my car, he grabbed my keys from my hand and threw them to the ground. I bent down to pick them up, and he pushed me to the pavement. I would get in the car when he was finished talking, he said, not before. Did I understand? “Okay,” I said. I tried getting up. He pushed me down again. I finally picked myself up and headed toward the busy street. Darren stalked me to the road, still screaming at me. No one stopped to help, and I’m pretty sure I would have waved anyone away had they tried. “Leave me alone!” I cried. “I don’t want to argue with you!”
I should have run and never looked back. But I didn’t. God knows why. We headed back up to the apartment, where Darren eventually cooled down and then apologized.
He was so sorry, he said. He never meant to hurt me. It was just that he was under so much stress. He didn’t know what to do with his frustration. It would never happen again, he promised. I was his princess, and going forward, he would never again forget to honor and respect me as much as he loved me.
“Okay,” I said.
Why hadn’t I run and kept running? Probably for the same reason that my mom stayed with my father for as long as she did.
In her book, It’s My Life Now, Meg Kennedy Dugan wrote:
There were probably many factors that kept the relationship going and kept your love alive. There were all his promises. “I promise this will never happen again.” You believed him the first time. And the second. As the abuse continued, he became increasingly remorseful, his promises more insistent. You continued to believe him; you wanted to believe him. After all, you loved him.
And that’s what I told myself when I made the decision to stay with Darren. I loved him.
It wasn’t until a decade later, when I was lying on that cold tile floor, with my head pounding and my vision blurred from being punched in the face, that I finally saw my marriage with absolute clarity, and I knew it was over. I’m not sure what was different about that time. Maybe Darren had finally beaten the pretense out of me, but suddenly after 10 years of false hope and make-believe, there was nothing left but the bare and brutal truth.