Reading Janay Rice’s interview with Jemele Hill of ESPN, in which Rice explains why she is standing by her husband, Ray Rice, after he punched her out cold in an Atlantic City elevator, is hard. It’s hard reading her make excuses for his behavior and hard reading her blame herself. It’s hard reading about how much she lives in his world, which no doubt makes it that much harder to imagine life without him. It’s hard reading about how Ray Rice put his wife in a position to comfort him and tiptoe around him, like he was the victim, mere hours after the incident. But it is important reading, if you want to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse and really get answers to that perennial question of why she stays.
“We know our incident led to very important discussions to hashtags of ‘why I stayed’ and ‘why I left,’ ” Janay Rice told Hill. “If it took our situation becoming headline news to show domestic violence is happening in this country, that’s a positive.” A lot of feminists, when discussing why domestic violence victims stay, put the emphasis on financial dependence and fear. Rice’s testimony, however, shines light on some of the more personal reasons that victims stay: They believe their abusers’ apologies. They believe they are the ones to blame for the abuse, which leaves them to believe they can prevent future incidents. They are so accustomed to catering to the abusers that they don’t have much room for concern about their own well-being. As Rice explains, “I still find it hard to accept being called a ‘victim.’ ” In a culture where accusing someone of “playing the victim” is a common discrediting tactic, it should be no surprise that victims will minimize their own experiences rather than be sneered at in just this way.
Rice clearly hopes that the interview will exonerate her husband, but it does the opposite in many ways. For one thing, she shows that her understanding of what happened that night is mostly, perhaps completely, filtered through her husband. “The only thing I know—and I can’t even say I ‘remember’ because I only know from what Ray has told me—is that I slapped him again and then he hit me,” she says. When she did crack and watch the video of the incident, she turned to her husband to interpret it for her:
The video didn’t make me rethink our relationship, but I did want more of an explanation from him. I asked him why he left me on the floor like that. I asked him how he felt when he saw that I was unconscious. He told me he was in shock. I asked him what happened when we got out of the elevator. He told me he was terrified because security was there. I asked him how he felt seeing me like that. He said he was thinking, “What did I just do?” I didn’t watch the video again.
Because physical violence is so jarring, it sometimes overwhelms discussion about the emotional aspects of domestic abuse. But in many ways, the emotional aspects are just as, if not more, important. While there’s no way to know for sure what’s going on in the Rice marriage beyond what Janay Rice has told us, it’s fairly typical for abusers to manipulate their victims to become dependent on the abusers to interpret life events for them. One common strategy is called “gas-lighting,” defined by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as “an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity.” Constantly telling victims they remember things wrong, they are hysterical and over-reacting, or that others are filling their heads with ideas are common strategies. In the end, according to the NDVH, “they start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.”
Janay Rice has done us all a favor by opening up and explaining her thought process. She repeatedly expresses a desire for this openness to “humanize” herself and her husband, and in this interview, she definitely succeeds. It’s easy to judge from the outside, but hopefully her narrative will show how much various social and emotional pressures make it seem, for the person inside the relationship, like staying is the best idea. Yes, leaving is overwhelmingly understood by experts as the long-term goal for someone in an abusive relationship—hanging in and hoping the abuse stops has a dismal track record—but shaming the victims and judging them in hopes of hurrying the process along tends to backfire and makes them more defensive of their relationships. As Janay Rice’s interview shows, if you listen, they may just tell you.