Why Didn’t You Leave? is a Toxic Question for All Abuse Victims

This is how FKA twigs responded when asked why she stayed in a recent interview with Gayle King.

Matilda Swinney
Feb 23 · 7 min read
Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Recently, FKA twigs, the British singer, spoke to Elle about her abusive relationship with Shia LaBeouf, the American actor. The interviewer describes FKA twigs “sitting cross-legged on the floor of her London home, where she’s been sequestered due to the COVID-19 Tier 4 lockdown. (She) manages to exude a raw vulnerability her audience has come to expect from her.”

During the Zoom interview with Elle, twigs describes the worst times of her almost year-long relationship with LaBeouf.

She talked to Elle because she wants to help other women. She thinks abusive relationships aren’t talked about enough, especially in Hollywood.

And guess what? She’s right.

When she attempted to speak out at the time, she was shut down by members of LaBeouf’s team with this chilling response, “it’s Sundance.” Meaning, let’s focus on Sundance and we can deal with your claims later.

Like, she wasn’t going through one of the most challenging times of her life. She was described as being a shell of her former self. She felt isolated and terrified. And as she put out her tentative olive branch, she was immediately closed down.

That “Sundance” person has a lot to answer for.

As if twigs hadn’t been through enough, when she finally managed to get out of the relationship and speak openly to Elle, several days later (during her first TV interview) Gayle King had the audacity to ask her why she didn’t leave her abusive relationship with LaBeouf immediately.

Amazing.

Let’s talk about why King’s question is so terrible and why she asked it. Was she being audacious? It’s important to understand her reasoning and perspective. It’s also useful to consider twigs’ response and what that question in particular means to victims.

One of the key problems with abusive relationships is that people feel they cannot speak out. They have nowhere to turn to. They are totally isolated. They live in fear every day of their life.

Sometimes even friends and family fall out of touch because the person in question becomes distant, challenging to talk to, and unreliable (often cancelling last minute and not showing up to social events.)

As Better Help explains,

“Someone who may be your best friend may seem withdrawn or cold toward. You may be angry at this person and think they just do not care about their friends anymore since they found a relationship. However, this could be a sign they are in an emotionally abusive relationship and possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or other disorders such as anxiety or depression.”

And when a person is finally able to claw their way out of the claustrophobic terror of domestic abuse and leave, they often go back.

“On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good, according to The National Domestic Violence Hotline.”

Why does this happen?

Gaslighting “is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power. Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.”

On this domestic violence website, a message pops up when visiting the homepage for the first time, which says, “internet usage can be monitored and is impossible to erase completely. If you’re concerned your internet usage might be monitored, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800–799–7233. Remember to clear your browser history after visiting this website. Click the red “X” in the upper-right corner at any time to leave this site immediately.”

This is a perfect example of the immediate danger a person can be in daily, in an abusive relationship. No area of a victim’s life is left unturned. Often everything is monitored — internet usage, phones, friends, family. It can even feel like your mind has been infiltrated too.

You are left with no space to think, no space to breathe, no space to be yourself. You forget who you are and what it feels like to be safe.

As Psychology Today explains, abusers do this because they have low self-esteem and a lack of control and power within themselves.

“Abusers feel powerless…. The one thing they all have in common is that their motive is to have power over their victim. This is because they don’t feel that they have personal power, regardless of worldly success.”

The answer? Because I was screaming in my head, I couldn’t move inside my own thoughts, there was no chance to acknowledge why I had a feeling of impending doom, my adrenaline was constantly high it became normal, there wasn’t a moment’s privacy in my mind or my life to plan an escape.

It feels like you could put your life in danger by even thinking about escape.

And then there’s the fact that everyone is human. Humans are emotional, in need of love, attention, and certainly not perfect. FKA twigs speaks about being strong, ambitious, and having a successful career and supportive family at the time of her abusive relationship, but she still couldn’t escape LaBeauf immediately.

Perhaps, a robot would have left immediately. But even without gaslighting, the victim may feel love and empathy which makes them hope things will be OK. They might stick around because they feel bad for their perpetrator, or perhaps they don’t want to acknowledge the extent of how bad things have become.

As humans, we always hold on to the last scraps of light, hoping what we fear isn’t true. No one wants to be abused.

And how about if you need the love? You like elements of their controlling behaviour because it means they cook for you, keep checking on you, and maybe, strangely, you feel protected sometimes, you convince yourself you’re in love.

In-between fights, they’ll make you laugh, buy you presents or tell you sad stories of their past which pulls at your heartstrings and makes you understand the constant and painful struggle within them.

Plus, a lot of abusive relationships do start out good. Sure, they feel intense, but it’s easy to confuse intensity with romance. As twigs describes so eloquently, you aren’t thrown in boiling hot water instantly. You’re placed in warm water which is heated up over time until you’re boiling alive, but it’s become your norm.

“If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straight away,” twigs says, attempting to explain the incremental and insidious nature of the abuse. “Whereas if you put a frog in cool water and heat it up slowly, that frog is going to boil to death. That was my experience being with (LaBeouf).”

The reason why “why didn’t you leave?” is such a dangerous question, is because it simplifies abuse. It puts abuse in a rational area of life. It puts it in the same category as a bad job, dead-end relationship, or slow service restaurant.

It encourages a total misunderstanding of what abuse victims go through. It further isolates victims, blames them, and encourages the idea of victims being weak which is an unfortunate stigma that often surrounds victims.

However, Gayle King asked the question, “why didn’t you leave” in an explorative way, vocally acknowledging the potential offensiveness of it. The question was asked to give twigs the chance to talk about why it shouldn’t be asked. I’m guessing it wasn’t a genuine question. It didn’t feel aggressive. Instead, it matched the gentle and calm tone of the interview.

“It’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

In response to King’s question Twig says,

“I think we just have to stop asking that question. I know that you’re asking it, like, out of love but, like, I’m just gonna make a stance and say that I’m not gonna answer that question anymore because the question should really be to the abuser, why are you holding someone hostage with abuse? You know, and people say oh it can’t have been that bad because else she would have left. It’s like, no it’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

Hopefully, King’s use of the question and twig’s response will shine the spotlight on its danger. By speaking out, twigs has encouraged a powerful conversation about the complex techniques used during abusive relationships which make the question, “did you leave?” both irrelevant and offensive.

The quicker we stop blaming the victim, the quicker we bring clarity to the never-ending maze of abuse victims suffer. We need to understand how abuse works, recognise that freedom of choice and movement is taken from a victim, and admit the deep level at which we still do not understand abuse as a society.

We still blame the victims, still see them as weak, and still think an abusive relationship is really just a bad relationship.

And so, until we start changing as a society, until we fully realise the impact of gaslighting in abusive relationships, until we are willing to reach out to our friends after the fifth, sixth time, they go back to their abusers, only then will we get any closer to bringing the numbers of domestic abuse cases down.

Only then can we begin to stop the harm which is caused to victims on an intrinsic level.

It takes years, if ever, to heal from domestic abuse but help, support, all-encompassing love, and understanding from friends, family, and society will last forever too. So, please become a person who listens to abuse victims, wholly and without judgement, and who never asks the question, “why didn’t you leave?”

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories…

Matilda Swinney

Written by

Sex, life & mental health | P.S I Love You | Mind Cafe | Find out how to go from 0 to $1k on Medium with my free six-day writing course pages.matildaswinney.com

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

Matilda Swinney

Written by

Sex, life & mental health | P.S I Love You | Mind Cafe | Find out how to go from 0 to $1k on Medium with my free six-day writing course pages.matildaswinney.com

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

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