A new TV series, The People vs. Simpson, has called up memories twenty plus years later of the OJ Simpson trial. In 1994, Simpson, an American football legend and occasional actor, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman. The trial, glamorized from the get-go with Court TV and other outlets, was broadcast live for 134 days. In the end, after just four hours of deliberations, a verdict was reached. Meetings were postponed, stock trading was down, press conferences were delayed as 100 million people stopped what they were doing to hear the verdict. Simpson was acquitted. And life went on. The opportunity to label the murder committed by an ex-husband as domestic violence was gone. Today we see domestic violence ads during the Super Bowl and former golden child athletes like Oscar Pistorious serving time for murder, we have a long way to go to stop domestic violence. Part of the problem, as always, is the simple act of naming abuse for what it is.
Even twenty years later Nicole Brown’s best friend, Kris Jenner, who still feels guilty for not being more available to her, doesn’t call Brown’s vicious murder (the fatal “incised wound” which exposed her larynx and part of her vertebrae; multiple stab wounds to her neck and to her hands) “domestic violence”. And yet, she worried about Brown, worried that she (Kris) wasn’t as available for Brown as she could have been and that OJ’s “love” for Nicole was “obsessive”.
Jenner’s inability to call out what was happening to Brown as domestic violence speaks to a bigger issue: clarity around what domestic violence actually is. When we can’t identity something, we can’t describe it and of course we can’t solve it. Jenner illustrates this lack of clarity perfectly when she says, “I think that when I look back on it now and how obsessive he (Simpson) was about her, and how much he had to have her, maybe that was a sign. I have no idea. We’ll never know.”
Actually, we do know. Not only is there a paper trail that proves exactly how abusive Simpson was to Brown but love that looks “obsessive” is one of the warning signs for/of domestic violence.
Domestic violence abusers early on in a relationship often impress unsuspecting victims with love that looks “storybook”: lots of fireworks and passion; insistence on spending a lot of time together; talk of having kids right away (sometimes many kids); wanting to “take care” of that unsuspecting new person and/or know everything about them and yes, a love that often appears obsessive to the outside eye. The abuser is usually someone in a greater position of power (age, background, social or financial status, etc.) than the victim which makes it even easier to fall into their trap.
Brown’s abuse seems to have followed this typical domestic violence pattern. She was eighteen and working as a waitress when she met Simpson. He was a married, famous football player twelve years older than she. They started seeing each other while he was still married. Not two years later, Simpson divorced his wife. Five years later and eight months before their first child was born, they were married.
Domestic violence abusers can’t keep up the guise of perfection very long, however. The victim starts to notice subtle things: intimidations, being made fun of them (“can’t you take a joke?”), shaming them for choices they made or things that happened in their past, anger when they want to see friends or family and lots of blaming. When emotional abuse starts, it doesn’t usually end until the abuser has moved on. The victim can try to end things but the abuser doesn’t take well to not having the power and control and usually continues to manipulate the victim even after the relationship has been declared over.
Physical abuse may or may not start at some point. But it definitely did in Brown’s case. Simpson pleaded guilty to spousal abuse in 1989. This was likely not an isolated incident. Survivors don’t call often the police the first time abuse happens. It’s startling and unreal and easily forgotten when the abuser asks for forgiveness and promises never again. But it happens again because the abuser got away with it. In Brown’s case, there was a 911 call in 1993 in which Brown pleaded with police to help her because OJ had busted down the door to her home (where he no longer lived) and was “going to beat the shit out of me,” (People magazine print edition 2/8/16 p59). The police can only do so much and even if Simpson was still playing football, the NFL doesn’t have a good track record of dealing with domestic violence. Brown was alone, without even BFF Jenner’s help. She divorced Simpson in 1992 but as domestic violence survivors know well, the abuse doesn’t usually end when the relationship does. In 1994, Simpson was still trying to reconcile with Brown and like many survivors, she’d given him multiple chances. Because, love.
And then OJ Simpson finally stabs his ex-wife Nicole Brown to death and the nightmare is finally over. But domestic violence continues on, usually unnamed and undiscussed, every 9 seconds in America. That’s a DOJ 1995 statistic but this is the one time in my life that I am unconcerned with using “old numbers”. Those numbers don’t change. Why would they? Our awareness about domestic violence as an issue may have increased but our ability to label concerning behaviors or scary language as abusive is no more likely now than it was twenty years ago.
Survivors need us as much as they ever did. We cannot rely on them to tell us about the abuse. Sometimes they will but often they won’t. Sometimes they aren’t even aware that what is happening in their isolated, lonely relationship is abuse. It is up to us to watch and listen. To notice when something seems off. To name our concern in a safe, non-judgemental way to our friend, sister, sister-in-law, co-worker.
As outside spectators in others’ lives, we sometimes see things that don’t look right. Say something. Don’t be like Kris Jenner, regretting for the rest of your life that you stayed silent.
I am starting a Domestic Violence survivor support group in early April at Durham Crisis Response Center. It’s free and confidential. Email me at ejohnson AT durham crisis response DOT org for details.