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In July of 2017, a story broke that seemed almost too absurd to be true—famed ‘90s rapper Robert “R.” Kelly had been holding young women hostage in a sex cult. Desperate parents were stepping forward asking police to help them get their daughters back, at least one of whom said she wanted to be with Kelly.
“It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner — it was horrible,” said one of the moms of the young women who Kelly reportedly controls. She last saw her daughter in 2016.
“I hugged her and hugged her. But she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her.”
According to BuzzFeed News, members of Kelly’s “inner circle” reported up to six women—as young as 19—lived in properties rented by the 51-year-old Kelly in Chicago and Atlanta, and that the rapper was dictating every aspect of their lives—what they wore, ate, when they slept and what types of sexual encounters they should engage in.
Kelly denies all allegations. Police conducted a welfare check on at least one of his supposed victims in Atlanta. Police concluded the 21-year-old was unharmed and not being held against her will, despite her parents telling ABC News she was in “horrible condition” the last time they saw her.
By October, additional survivors stepped forward, accusing Kelly of not just control, but abuse. A former Dallas radio DJ, Kitti Jones, told Rolling Stone she had dated the 51-year-old rapper for two years in 2011 and that his abuse was physical—kicking, slapping, pushing—verbal, sexual and psychological. She had to ask his permission to do anything, including go to the bathroom. And, he demanded she address him as “Daddy.”
Jones said Kelly used starvation as a form of punishment when she didn’t follow his orders, and also, she wasn’t the only victim—she lived in Kelly’s recording studio with two other women who were also being strictly controlled.
Can You Love Someone Who Abuses You?
Many suspect these victims have unknowingly fallen prey to Kelly’s seductive, but twisted, charms. A veritable expert in grooming young women, in 1995, Kelly married his 15-year-old protégé, singer Aaliyah. The marriage was annulled after it was revealed Aaliyah had lied about her age in order to bypass the laws that forbade a minor from marrying without her parents’ consent. Aaliyah then tragically passed away in an accident in 2001.
In 2008, Kelly was cleared of 14 counts of child pornography after a videotape was released showing him having sex with a 14-year-old girl. At least a dozen other civil lawsuits filed by girls or their parents have been settled out of court over the years, exchanging cash payouts for nondisclosure agreements that forbid the victims from talking about what occurred.
But when the victims are legally of age to consent, their family and friends are still left wondering why they ever would. For any survivor of domestic abuse, the reasons a survivor might stay with an abuser are wide-ranging and complex. The abuser could be threatening to hurt her or her family if she leaves. The survivor could be dependent on the abuser. Or, the survivor may be hoping for change. Though they may hate the abuse, they may love the abuser.
Stockholm syndrome might also be at work, which describes when people who are oppressed develop a powerful and loving connection to their oppressor, also known as trauma bonding.
Lisa Orban, speaker, survivor and author of It’ll Feel Better When It Quits Hurting, which details her account with Stockholm syndrome and abuse, says abusers often begin by separating victims from their support network, which would explain why so many parents of the young girls under Kelly’s supposed control are reporting they’re unable to contact their daughters.
“They [abusers] make the person completely dependent on them for any kind of mental, emotional or financial support,” says Orban. The next step, she says, is often a cycle of reward and punishment—reprimands for not following orders and lavish gifts for what they deem “good behavior.”
“They might incrementally step up the severity of the punishments in such a way that they are not jarring to the victim, but instead are almost acceptable, normal occurrences,” says Orban. “The abuser will often say things like ‘I don't like to do this, but it's for your own good’ or ‘Why do you make me do these things to you?’, making survivors believe that it's their fault. It gives the victim some feeling of control over the situation, even though in reality, they have none.”
Survivors become reliant on their abusers for their own self-worth, and the abuser exploits this, reassuring the survivor that they will be a better person by taking to heart the abuser’s criticisms.
“The survivor wants to feel wanted and valued, and can begin to justify their abuser’s actions,” says Orban. “It makes it difficult to break away, even as the abuse continues to escalate.”
Could It Be a Survival Tactic?
Of course, only a mental health professional can diagnose any psychological conditions that may arise from enduring abuse. But what may appear as love or justification for an abuser’s actions could just be a creative coping method on the part of the survivor, says Rita Smith, national expert on violence against women with more than 30 years experience.
“The coping skills of those abused are phenomenal efforts to stay alive and functioning in an incredibly stressful and dangerous environment,” says Smith.
What can loved ones do when they’re worried someone is being brainwashed by an abusive partner?
Janice Miller, director of client services at House of Ruth in Maryland says the most important response a friend or family member can give is, ‘I’m so sorry this is happening to you.’ Acknowledge that this is a terrible thing they’re expressing.”Then, you can share your concerns, says Miller.
“The goal in this conversation is not to get her to leave; the goal is to make sure she feels heard and validated.”
To learn more about helping someone who is being abused, watch our newest video, "I Know Someone Who Is Being Abused, What Should I Do?"
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