Two American women. Both victims of relationship violence. Two horrifying photos.
Four years ago, on the eve of the 2009 Grammys, the world learned that one of our most famous young pop stars, Rihanna, had been viciously beaten by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, in his automobile.
The police photos documenting Rihanna’s bruised, bloodied face were leaked to the media. The world saw proof of how distinctively unglamorous and devastating domestic violence is.
Rihanna did not choose to show the world those photos. She didn’t want to talk about what had happened that night or throughout the volatile relationship. Nor did Chris Brown.
But the photos told a story no one could deny.
Those grim images shined a spotlight on relationship violence. Unwittingly, Chris Brown and Rihanna shattered many people’s delusion that violence between intimate partners only happens between poor, uneducated, faceless victims. The contrast between Rihanna’s glossy publicity photos and the police pictures dispelled the misconception that violence in a relationship is somehow less damaging than a crime inflicted by a stranger.
Now, once again at the time of the Grammys, another photo of a bruised and beaten American woman has made headlines. But these headlines are very different. In large part because the victim wanted the world to see what had been done to her, and she posted the photos online herself.
Her name is Kim Lee. She is an American mother of three children, a teacher from Florida living in Beijing, married to a famous and successful Chinese businessman. He beat her repeatedly, finally so savagely that she fought back by taking a picture of her own bruised, misshapen face, and posted it online via the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, using her husband’s fame to expose the brutality he inflicted behind closed doors.
When she made that photo public, Kim Lee showed the world that she, and other abuse victims, have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, when a loved one beats them.
Then Kim Lee filed for divorce and petitioned for custody of her three daughters. She chose to fight her abusive husband in Chinese courts instead of seeking asylum via the American Embassy. This was a particularly brave act because China has no laws against domestic violence.
On February 3, Kim Lee won. A Beijing court awarded her custody of her three children and $2 million in marital assets. This is particularly impressive in contrast to U.S. family courts, which are infamous for treating battered wives and their children unfairly, both in terms of granting custody and visitation decisions that endanger victims, and withholding financial support from victims.
The moral here?
Domestic violence happens to everyone. All education levels, all races, all nationalities, all income levels. No one wants to believe that a beloved celebrity, successful businessman (or woman), or parent could attack his (or her) own loved ones. We all want to tell ourselves that domestic violence couldn’t really be so bad. And it certainly couldn’t happen to us, or our sisters, our daughters, our mothers. Subconsciously, we all want domestic violence to just go away.
But these powerful photos speak ten thousand words. Silence (by the victim, the abuser or their community) allows abuse to continue. Speaking out, whether with words or a photo, makes it far more difficult for abuse to thrive.
We may not have heard the end of Rihanna’s domestic violence story, especially because she and Chris Brown are once again a couple in love. There will, in all likelihood, be more photos to come. But hopefully we have heard, and seen, the end of Kim Lee’s victimization.