Why Are Rihanna And Chris Brown Back Together!?

Pop singer Rihanna recently announced she's back together with recording artist Chris Brown, after an abusive relationship and public breakup. She says he's changed, but many people say this shows just how complicated domestic abuse can be. Host Michel Martin finds out why victims reconcile and whether abusers can really change.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner.

Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice, and today - and I'm not being mean here - common sense is the one thing that seems to be lacking in what we're about to talk about because today we want to talk about pop superstar Rihanna. In this month's Rolling Stone magazine she talks openly about what she has actually been communicating to fans for some time now, which is that she is, in fact, back together with pop star Chris Brown. Yes. The same Chris Brown who pled guilty to a felony and was subject to a restraining order for attacking her on the eve of the Grammys back in 2009.

The leaked police photos showed her with bruised face and bloody lip, and in the wake of that, Rihanna gave a number of painfully emotional interviews saying she was done with the relationship. Now, though, Rihanna tells Rolling Stone that Brown is disgusted by what he did, that, quote, "we don't have those types of arguments anymore," end quote, and that she is happy.

But many of Rihanna watchers, including the writer of the piece, openly worry that Rihanna is naive, deluded, and even more, setting a terrible example for all the young women and men who watch her every move.

So who better to talk about this than with our own Leslie Morgan Steiner. She is a regular contributor to our moms roundtable and the author of the well-received memoir, "Crazy Love," about how she survived an abusive first marriage. She's a mom of three.

Also with us is L.Y. Marlow. She is the author of "Color Me Butterfly." That is the story of four generations of domestic abuse survivors in her family. She also founded the Saving Promise campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence. That's named for her granddaughter, whose life was threatened in an incident of domestic violence.

And for additional perspective, we're happy to have with us Oliver Williams. He's director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African-American Community. That's at the University of Minnesota. He's a professor of social work there and has worked with a number of groups, battered women's shelters, also intervening in domestic violence situations and so on.

So welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for talking with us.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

L.Y. MARLOW: Thank you for having me.

OLIVER WILLIAMS: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip of Rihanna talking to Oprah Winfrey back in August about her relationship with Chris Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

RIHANNA: We built a trust again, and that's it. Like, we love each other and we probably always will, and that's not anything that we're going to try to change. It's not something you can shut off if you've ever been in love.

MARTIN: Now, at the time, Leslie Morgan Steiner, I have to say that the implication was that she had a kind of a distant love of him. She kind of loved him at a distance, you know, and that that wasn't going to change, but now it's become very clear, and she makes it very clear, that they are, in fact, a couple again.

And I just - I was wondering, when you heard that, did you hear your younger self?

STEINER: In many ways I did. I heard the hopeful, naive part of myself, the hope junkie that was always convinced that my ex-husband would change, that he would never hit me again, that we could salvage the early greatness of our kind of fairy tale love.

But I tell you now, as an older, wiser woman, I would not trade places with Rihanna for anything. She is voluntarily entering into an abusive relationship with somebody who has already abused her, who witnessed family abuse as a child. It's very risky what she's taking on.

And I don't think that she is a role model. I think she is a cautionary tale, and domestic violence is so much more lethal than people realize, especially for women her age, 16 to 24, and in short I'd say that Rihanna is whack job crazy to get involved with Chris Brown again.

MARTIN: OK. Well, tell us how you really feel when we come back to you, sort of, next. L.Y. Marlow, we're happy to have you with us because one of the things that I know was very painful that you talk about in your memoir was that your grandmother, your mother, you - all experienced domestic violence, and then you were devastated when you found out that your 22-year-old daughter was in an abusive relationship, even though you had warned her.

And I'm just wondering why you think it is that your warnings didn't make a difference.

MARLOW: I think my warnings did not make a difference because for the same very reasons I suspect Rihanna's warnings is not making a difference, that young women have a very different perspective nowadays about what relationships are.

But what's interesting, however, is having come from four generations, as you mentioned, Michel, my grandmother, my mother, myself and then my daughter, who was 22 years old, that warning that I tried to give her then led to her being killed almost twice by this person. The second time she was strangled while her then baby girl named Promise lay on a bed beside her.

It would be that story that ultimately inspired me to found Saving Promise about my daughter's story, 22 years old, and Promise, whose life was also threatened by this person. His words: I'm going to bury her body where nobody can find it. So if that isn't warning enough to give me and now my daughter, who've survived that a understanding of how serious this is, here's the reason why I founded Saving Promise, to really get at the - what's more important in this conversation is to really get at why this is happening and why it's not stopping. And the primary reason is prevention, and that's ultimately what Saving Promise is focusing on - particularly that age demographic, women ages 16 to 24 - to increase prevention.

MARTIN: So Professor Williams, you've worked with both sides of the equation - if I can call it that. You've worked with people who have experienced abuse and you've worked with people who are batterers. What is it about this aren't we getting?

WILLIAMS: Well, one of the things that I think is that, you know, we act surprised at what's going on with Chris Brown and Rihanna is occurring. And the reality is is the fact that it happens regularly. So some of the literature talks about the fact that women leave and return about six times before they're gone for good. And I think part of it is the fact that they think that they may be able to change him and that they've done something wrong, when in fact he's got to take responsibility for what he has done and he will be a carrier for violence until he accepts responsibility for it.

And that I think the other thing is that people equate conflict, and the natural consequence of conflict as violence when that's not true. People have conflict on a regular basis and they go from conflict to conflict resolution. But violence is a choice and we don't prepare people to think about the fact that it's a choice and that conflict resolution is something that people need to give some thought to and that they are two different sets of things. And I'm not sure we prepare our young people to be able to think about that in those ways.

MARTIN: Can people change, Professor Williams?

WILLIAMS: Well, I've seen...

MARTIN: Can they change?

WILLIAMS: I've seen people change. And, but, you know, I think that the difficult thing is that I'm not sure that we have the answers in terms of research with regard to who does and who doesn't. You know, when I've talked to men and seen them by testament of their family as well as other key informants over the years, you know, I think part of it is the learning skills that they might be able to get from a batterers intervention program, the behavioral change, the recognition that it was something that they did that was wrong rather than placing the responsibility on their partner. But I think the other thing is the fact that there's some insight into the fact that you can blame somebody maybe in the first relationship, perhaps in the second relationship that you're violent in. But in the third relationship perhaps, some men end up saying, well, you know, it's been her, that I blame her and these other situations but I can't keep doing that because I notice other people around me aren't doing it. Plus, you know, I lost people that I care about, and maybe there's something wrong with me that I need to get straight. So...

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the singer Rihanna. She's a superstar. She seems to be and has communicated with her fans and now in an extensive interview with Rolling Stone magazine that she is in fact back with fellow singer, star Chris Brown.

Now why are we talking about this? The numbers are huge. She's got 12 number one singles in half as many years, more digital sales than anybody in history, and 3.2 billion YouTube views, which says that people watch her and what she's doing. So we're talking about what are the implications of her decisions.

Here are guests are Oliver Williams of the Institute on Domestic Violence in African-American Community. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, L.Y. Marlow, author of "Color Me Butterfly." It's a memoir about her experience and four generations women in her family and their experience with domestic violence; and Leslie Morgan Steiner, one of our regular moms who also wrote about surviving abuse in her memoir "Crazy Love."

So, you know, Leslie, just let's just go right there. You recently gave a TED talk where you answered the question that a lot of people have is: why don't you go? Why do stay? And I think the reason that you're particularly positioned to talk about this is that, you know, people can't see you but you, you are, you're white. Many people may think that it doesn't affect white people. It does. And also, you're very well-educated, very accomplished. So people think what does she need, why would she be staying in that? So what did you tell people about this?

STEINER: Well, one of the things, the mistakes that I made, which I see very clearly in Rihanna too is that I didn't recognize that I was a battered woman and I didn't recognize how very troubled my husband was. What I thought was that I was a strong, smart woman. I saw myself so much the way Rihanna sees herself and that I could handle it, and that I was in love with a troubled man who I was going to help, and that love was going to conquer all. And I didn't understand that I was in a complex and incredibly dangerous psychological trap. And the Rolling Stone interview is fascinating because she says so many things that ring true with me because she thinks she's strong. And she is. She's very successful. She's a very, very powerful person. But I feel like she really doesn't understand how incredibly potentially lethal this relationship could be. And it could be very dangerous to her and also just totally derail her career and her future. And I think that it's, you know, I think that's why we're finding this so fascinating to watch, is that we feel like were watching a train wreck that's about to happen. And we know enough about domestic violence to know that it probably will happen again.

MARTIN: Well, L.Y., we talked about race, so we raised it, so let's just go right there began.

MARLOW: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Is there something about, you know, being African-American you think you may have affected your willingness to go to the authorities? Is there something about that experience that you think is relevant to talk about here?

MARLOW: I think that it's not an issue of race or creed or nationality. I think it's an issue of shame and silence. That goes across any indicators of whether or not you come from a low-income family, which my family did come from at the time, or you come from, you know, upper echelon. It doesn't matter. The thing that matters is the silence and the shame that unfortunately, we don't want to talk about. We don't want to talk about this as a society, so how do we expect a young woman like Rihanna, or my daughter, to talk about it and to be comfortable sharing what they're really feeling?

I would venture out to say that part of the focus that has not been spent - and particularly around this issue because the world is watching, because of Rihanna, leads us to ask the question why is this happening so frequently and why are we not talking about it?

MARTIN: Well, we are talking about it, though. I mean, the fact is this is one of the things that she's given us an opportunity to talk about it even though, you know, one would not wish this on her. I certainly don't wish this on either of them. But she is, so what should we be saying?

MARLOW: I think what we should be saying is how can we all get involved in that situation? I think it's going to take a village to raise a child in terms of addressing this issue. One of the things that Saving Promise is focused on, as I mentioned, is introducing a national call to action to create greater prevention, education and awareness to break the silence and the cycle and ask America to make a promise for change.

MARTIN: Professor Williams, what should we be talking about now that we are talking about this, and obviously recognizing that, you know, Rihanna's circumstances are different? But one of the things that is so fascinating about this is, number one, she's in everybody's eyesight on the one hand. On the other hand, there is very little we actually know about what's going on in their relationship. We don't know whether that incident that led to his being arrested - was that the first time, was that the third, the sixth? We don't know. So many things we don't know, even though they are in the public spotlight. So given that, what conversations do you think we should be having? What conversations do you wish we would all be having perhaps when we go home today, when we all go home today?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the thing is how do we communicate to people who are victims of abuse? And I do - hi, L.Y. This is Oliver.

MARLOW: Hello, Oliver.

WILLIAMS: And I think that the issue about making this a sort of a public statement to the community is something that's important. And one of the things I think is that we don't have those conversations within diverse communities and I do think that there's a cultural element associated with it in this sense, that sometimes and we have our conversations people don't feel drawn in because I'm not so sure that they think that you're talking to them.

In different African countries there is no word for domestic violence because - and people are socialized to sort of see this as a part of the natural occurrence of what happens. The types of when we talk about sexism. Sexism gives men license to be violent but we don't talk about different brands of sexism. It's not experienced in the same way in every community, although the overarching issue is the fact that it's subordinating women and it's putting them in a circumstance where they can be victimized in a particular way.

But the question that I've asked women in the past is: if you were going to go for help where would you go? And some of them will identify battered women shelters, some of them would identify other places. Sometimes churches are those places that people go to first. And many times they're disappointed by going to churches and that's not the place where they're getting help. In other situations they are the place that absolutely responded to their needs and knew how to either get them to support services or provide the support services after being trained on how to do it within their particular church.

So do we reach out to those places that exist within our communities so they're the first line of defense, rather than the backdrop of being, you know, calling the police? And African-American women clearly do. Even low income African-American women call the police. Oftentimes they called the police in order for them to stop him, not necessarily end the relationship initially, but over time they absolutely want to be gone and it's safer, even though it's dangerous for women to leave, it's in the long run they can be often safer for them to be out of the circumstance. So I just think, you know, where can we make connections in the community to talk to young men about their behavior, the alternatives to violence, that conflict is not a natural circumstance...

MARTIN: OK.

WILLIAMS: ...circumstance that leads to violence.

MARTIN: And I'm going to ask for a final thought from Leslie. Now Rihanna says she's not a role model. She's not trying to set an example for anybody's daughters. But you've got two daughters as well as a son and I just like to ask, you know, what would you like to say? What would you like to say to her? What would you like to say to your own kids about this?

STEINER: Well, when people focus so much on Rihanna here and why she's going back with him and why she stays with him, I think that we're getting it all wrong because what I would say to anybody following this case, including my own kids who are watching it, is what about Chris Brown? Why isn't anybody asking why is he, why did he beat somebody who loved him? If he does again we've got to ask why is he doing it? And I think we take it for granted that men do attack women and we somehow do accept that it's OK. And instead of asking again and again - as if it's her fault, you know, why she loves an abusive man, why don't we ask why he is abusing somebody who is so in love with him?

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is author of "Crazy Love," the memoir of her abusive first marriage. She recently did a TED talk that can be found on TED.com. It currently has some 400,000 views - so worth checking out. She was here in Washington, D.C. with us, along with L.Y. Marlow. She's the author of "Color Me Butterfly" and founder of Saving Promise, a campaign against domestic violence. Oliver Williams is director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in African-American Community at the University of Minnesota. He was with us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

MARLOW: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thanks a lot, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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