A brief history of violence. Chris Brown and the question of redemption.

February 13th, 2012

Did you watch the Grammy’s last night? We did, and enjoyed almost every bit of it (I’ll be sending Nicki Minaj’s people a bill for psychological damages). My kids were especially excited when Chris Brown took the stage. His arrest and conviction for assault happened long before they discovered his music, and I haven’t gotten around to talking to them about it yet. The same way I haven’t gotten around to telling them that John Lennon abused women, when we listen to Beatles music. Or that Lewis Carroll had a questionable interest in little girls, when we watch Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Or that Michael Jackson was tried for child abuse. It’s not that I’m withholding the information on purpose. It’s just that I’m not sure what the failings of the artist have to do with an appreciation of their art.

My friend Liz does not share my ambivalence, and she has a terrific conversation going on over at Mom101 about Chris Brown and the Grammys. As I tweeted a little while ago, Liz is one of my very favorite people to disagree with. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it forces me to think really hard about what I think, and why. She sets a tone where people can disagree with affection and respect. In another era, Liz would be presiding over lunches at the Algonquin hotel, or hosting a salon in Paris. And I would be there faithfully.

In responding to one of my comments on her post, Liz wrote,

viscerally, I felt sick to my stomach watching him be lauded last night–at the very same time that we were mourning another talent, whose downward spiral was part because of an abusive relationship and its effects.

I think our gut feelings should generally be given the last word, but it got me thinking about my own history with violence between men and women.

I’ve never been a victim of violence, though as a vain and foolish young woman, I often got a perverse charge out of enraging the men I was involved with. I suppose it felt powerful, or I simply loved the drama. Thankfully, their mothers and fathers had raised them to know it was never acceptable to raise a hand to a woman, no matter what. They clenched their jaws, dug their nails into their palms and walked away. I once threw a plate at Patrick’s back and hit him with it. He kept walking.

That was an act of violence on my part. I’m not proud of it. I don’t laugh about it. Those were crazy, long-ago times, and I never did it again. If he had been the one to hit me with something, conventional wisdom would insist that I should walk out the door and never look back. That he was a chronic abuser.

This is not a defense of Chris Brown’s violent assault. Or even Chris Brown himself, who seems, at best, an extremely troubled person, and does nothing to help his own case. I get that there’s a difference between my throwing a plate at a man’s back, and a man punching a woman in the face. But I’m reticent to pass a sentence for life on him or his musical career. As I wrote on Liz’s post

I haven’t followed his story all that closely, but does he beat up “women” or was it a single assault? Obviously, once is way too often, but I hate to see anyone, especially a young person, refused an opportunity to grow past a mistake. If it’s been established that he’s an habitual abuser, that’s one thing, but being an habitual asshole isn’t sufficient grounds for lifelong censure in my opinion.

Liz thinks “mistake” is a weak term for what Brown did, but I don’t mean it was an accident. I mean it was a grievously bad choice, which is what criminal acts are.

In my early twenties, I trained as a volunteer responder for abused women, and I did get some first-hand insight into the pathological dynamic that is habitual (and often generational) domestic abuse. I remember looking at a little girl one night, as her mother backpeddled once again with the police, and despaired that she was watching her own destiny play out. She would be in her twenties now. I hope I was wrong.

For a long time after that, I did have ironclad assumptions about violent offenders. Then I came to know addicts in recovery, and I came to believe that some abuse is situational. Not in any way justified. But a form of temporary insanity from which it is possible to recover.

The insanity of addiction was certainly present in Whitney Houston’s tragic life. I suppose asking whether it caused violence, or stemmed from it, is one of those useless chicken-and-egg questions to which we’ll never have the answer. Either way, her musical legacy transcends the personal one. Is that redemption? What about the artist who makes life hell for a few in his lifetime, but brings joy to millions for generations? Is that atonement?

I think it’s better than no redemption, no atonement at all.


If you are interested in learning more about domestic violence issues, and contributing to its prevention, Futures Without Violence has some great resources, and is highly rated by Charity Navigator.

10 Responses to “A brief history of violence. Chris Brown and the question of redemption.”

  1. erniebufflo says:

    Part of what has bothered me about the Chris Brown case and the way it has been handled is that he seems to have no remorse whatsoever about it. It’s constantly framed as something “that happened” instead of something he *did*. And when Usher actually said something about Brown’s lack of remorse for his actions, he was later forced to apologize. Even the Grammy organizers themselves framed themselves as the “victims of what happened” in their statement, as if they, not Rihanna, were the ones beaten about the face. And then today, Buzzfeed precisely illustrated the problem by highlighting the tweets of a bunch of young women who say they’d happily “let Chris Brown beat” them. So yes, I believe in redemption. I believe someone can do something awful, realize something about it, and make a change. But if Chris Brown really had learned something and changed as a result, maybe instead of bragging about how his fans, Team Breezy, gave him a win last night, he’d also call them out about how having a man hit you is never cool and never something you put up with just cuz you think he’s sexy. I don’t think his pop music is atonement enough on its own.

    • KyranP says:

      I agree that he has done nothing, other than sing and dance astoundingly well, to make himself one bit sympathetic. Either he is incredibly arrogant, or incredibly ill-advised by his management. Probably both. And yes, everyone should be speaking up and objecting to the buzzfeed comments. Especially Brown and the Grammy organizers.

  2. sweetney says:

    I love what you’re saying here and agree. I also happen to firmly believe people can make horrendously bad choices – things others would consider ‘unforgiveable’ – and still deserve a shot at redemption and forgiveness. Everyone deserves a second chance.

    One of my favorite posts ever is on this precise subject. It really articulates this perfectly:http://www.mamapop.com/2009/06/consulting-gandalf-regarding-mike-tyson-chris-brown.html

    Yes. That.

  3. Mom101 says:

    I see your points. I too can’t say that I’m ready to pass a lifetime sentence on him–but has he ever seemed contrite? Truly sorry? I want to save my second chances for people who seem to deserve them.

    I just read this
    http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1606481/chris-brown-police-report-provides-details-altercation.jhtml
    And it got me all riled up again.

  4. Deb says:

    I wholly believe in change, forgiveness and redemption. And the ability to appreciate an artist’s work without co-signing all of his behavior. This case is pretty tough, though. The violence was grotesque and in fact could have cost Rihanna HER ability to perform her art–if not more. The common perception is that Chris Brown hasn’t asked for forgiveness by showing awareness or shown humility, so it’s hard to want to offer it. The big thing is that that was so repulsive about the attention given to Brown was that Rihanna was there. The absence of bearing witness to what happened to her and the absence of meaningful accountability, directly juxtaposed with positive attention from the audience to Brown, that was a bit different than abstractly knowing about an abusive event in an artist’s biography and hoping that he has evolved beyond repeating those behaviors while we sing along to his latest hit. Mostly, though, doesn’t redemption requires more than merely giving powerful people (whether the source of that power is institutional, talent, moneymaking ability, athletic position, or simple popularity) a pass just because we appreciate their gifts or position?

    • Mom101 says:

      “doesn’t redemption requires more than merely giving powerful people a pass just because we appreciate their gifts or position?”

      You said it better than I could (or did) Deb.

      Let’s hope he earns it. I prefer a world full of good people, all things being equal.

  5. I am overwhelmed with disappointment that Chris Brown is more popular than ever. It seems as though the media frenzy over his bizarre acts of violence and otherwise have propelled him into more stardom then he otherwise would have had. I have friends and acquaintances that have been in abusive relationships, physically and mentally, and I cannot forgive someone who behaves in a way that Chris Brown has unless he truly shows remorse and gets the help he needs. I’m sure it’s a product of his upbringing and he needs some type of long term therapy to resolve those issues. His winning a Grammy and further feeding the ego of an abuser does not help this man realize he has a problem and needs help, in fact it encourages his poor behavior in my opinion. It’s as though he can do no wrong.

  6. Kyran says:

    I appreciate all these insightful comments. The questions raised continue to linger and ferment with me. Where is the boundary between performer and performance/art and artist? Who deserves second chances, and who gets to decide? What do celebrities and the celebrity machine owe the public? What’s the statute of limitations on public shunning? What’s appropriate/satisfying public penance?

    And at what point does a gifted person’s toxic personal behavior pollute or nullify the gift?

    These are abstract, philosophical questions, to be sure. And I hope my raising them doesn’t obscure my heartfelt reproach of Chris Brown’s act of violence. There is no possible cause or context that makes that action any less reprehensible.

  7. Arkie Mama says:

    I dated an abusive man for 3 1/2 years. Eventually, to get away from him, I transferred to a college nearly four hours away and even then, he stalked me.

    These men don’t change.

    I say that from my own experience with my abuser. I say that as someone who spent several years interacting (professionally) with incarcerated abusers. I say that as someone who volunteered at a women’s shelter.

    Nature? Nurture? A combination of both?

    I don’t know.

    But I can say with certainty that someone doesn’t just hit a woman once. He’s done it before. He will do it again.

    I guess I see these men as rather hopeless when it comes to rehabilitation.

    Sure, alcohol and drugs can play a role. But there is something inherently wrong with these guys that just isn’t “fixable.”

    The cycle of abuse involves not only the abuse, but apologies and promises that it will never happen again.

    And then it does.

  8. Noelle says:

    I’m relieved to read this & know I wasn’t the only one who thought his critics were being a bit harsh or that perhaps we’re judging him when we actually know little of what occurred. I do believe in second chances. If Michael Vick, for one, has changed his ways, who am I to not offer him my forgiveness & give him a second chance, though what he did was terrible. And I too, hit my husband once as you described, Kyran, but with a can of Lysol. I haven’t since. Thank God he forgave me. Maybe Chris Brown is a serial abuser. Maybe he isn’t. But none of us know.

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