What The ‘Facebook Murderer’ Can Teach Us About Domestic Abuse
By Melody Capp
I see myself in Joy Lane—and I recognize the criticisms being used against her.
O n Easter Sunday, Steve Stephens uploaded a video to Facebook. In it, he told his audience that he was a “good guy” and that “this bitch” made him snap. He said he’d already killed several people that day. Then he got out of his car, approached a 74-year-old man, and pulled the trigger. Before he murdered his victim, he asked his victim to say “Joy Lane,” the name of Stephens’ ex-girlfriend. “She’s the reason this is happening to you,” he said.
Shoved into the public eye, Lane released a statement. She apologized to the families who had lost their loved ones, and she referred to Stephens a “really nice guy” who was always kind to her and her children. If you’ve never experienced domestic violence, her response sounds strange; not only did she willingly accept fault in the murder Stephens committed, she even went so far as to clean up his image, to support Stephens’ image of himself as a good man driven to crime.
In our ignorance, we take on so many narratives about abuse that simply aren’t true. We are taught that abusers and their victims are like Ike and Tina Turner, that they are loud and they like to make us bleed. What our culture fails miserably to convey is that an abuser isn’t an abuser because they hit, but instead they hit because they are abusive. In Joy’s case, she displayed no bumps, no bruises or broken bones, and she even defended Stevens to the public. Our limited knowledge of abuse leads us over and over to the same unfortunate conclusion: If she isn’t hurt and says he’s a good guy, and he looks distraught but says he’s a good guy, then he must really be a good guy who snapped. We then apply the “mentally ill” label to Stephens as our only way to understand why a good guy would murder, while quietly wondering: What did Joy Lane do to make this poor man snap?
Our limited knowledge of abuse leads us over and over to the same unfortunate conclusion: He must really be a good guy who snapped.
The answer is that she did nothing to make him snap, and Stephens’ mental state does not absolve him from what he is: an abusive spouse. His murder of an innocent man in her name is debilitating and serves as a desperate grab to control her mindset. In return, Lane’s defense of Stephens was a classic example of how victims often do PR for their abusers. Victims of domestic abuse become short-term thinkers, as each hour and day is dedicated to surviving without a fight. They will do whatever they can to placate the ego of their abuser. In Lane’s case, her abuser was still at large, and considering 75% of women who are murdered by their abusers are killed as they attempt to leave or after the relationship has ended, it was in her best interest to show public support for Stephens. She didn’t want to make him angry. But what every victim can tell you is the abuser will always find a reason to be angry. Always.
“Why don’t victims of domestic abuse leave at the first sign of abuse?” — Facebook comment
If we are either Tina or Ike, and abuse is like the movies, then why do we Tinas stay after the first time our partner punches us? We stay because that isn’t how abuse begins. Abuse alters reality.
One day I was smart, and then the next two to three years I was suddenly so stupid that I could not help but ruin everything in my relationship. I failed every test that he gave me. When we were long distance, I expressed feeling uncomfortable with phone sex. He would get angry, then after the fight claim he just missed me oh-so-much, that was all, and if I loved him the way he loved me, I’d understand. I wanted to prove to him that I loved him, so I moved in with him.
Two weeks into living together, he suddenly had no tolerance for my diet. Meat was unhealthy, he said, and made him sick. He once smashed a pan full of sausage to get his point across. He tossed out my juice and powdered flavors for water because it was an unhealthy habit from my childhood days that my parents let me have because Black people are ignorant.
My looks became a problem. He scolded me for wearing false lashes and laughed hysterically one day when the heat caused one to slightly fall off in public. It became easier to not wear them. He demanded I keep my hair natural and told me that I could not wear straight hair around his daughter because I’d teach her self-hate. He inspected every piece of clothing I wore and claimed it was all see-through — HOW COULD YOU MISS THIS DO YOU NOT LOOK IN THE MIRROR? It became easier to buy clothes he approved of. Then he used my insecurities against me. Nobody likes me, he told me, because I don’t know how to speak to people. It became easier to speak how he wanted me to. One day he told me that my own mother had told him she knew I was crazy, and that he was the only person willing to tell me the truth.
He had to be right, I told myself. Why would the man I love want me to suffer? Why would the man I love be so cruel?
When I got sick, he threw the antibiotics that my mother sent me in the trash. Antibiotics don’t do anything, he said. Your mother doesn’t know better, remember when she and your father let you eat meat and drink juice? Straighten your hair? I wanted to argue back, but I had been wrong about so many things, how could I be right now? It was easier to lie. I lied to him, told him I believed him. I lied to my mother, told her I took the antibiotics. I avoided her calls for two weeks as the sickness persisted. I had already lied to her; if she found out I was still sick and that I lied, she’d be so angry. Then I’d tell her that my love had told me not to take them and then they’d be angry at each other. No, it was easier this way. He had to be right, I told myself. Why would the man I love want me to suffer? Why would the man I love be so cruel?
“Victims like Joy Lane provoke their attacks.” — Comment on a gossip website
When Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancee, Janay Rice, in the elevator, women I considered actual feminists blamed Janay. They said she provoked him because she walked up on him. He was only defending himself.
My abuser claimed he was defending himself, too, when I had the strength to fight back. I did fight back, in the beginning. I matched every retort he made, and I could inch my voice just a tiny bit over his, for at least a little while. But I was a sprinter, not a marathon runner, and when it came to arguing, he was an Olympian. He thrived on anger, even relished it. He could go to sleep angry and wake up with insults on his tongue. He could push his language past boundaries that I never even knew were there until he crossed them. He was a name-calling demon, rattling off epithet after epithet, as I grew delirious and confused on what we were fighting about. “It’s just pillows!” I once cried to him after a two-hour showdown that started when I altered his arrangement of decorative pillows on the couch. “It’s more than pillows! It’s about pride!” he wailed. By day three, it would be not about pillows but about my stubbornness, or my inability to listen, or how I didn’t know how to talk to people. He’d worked hard on organizing those pillows and I didn’t even care. It was easier to never ask him to organize the pillows again.
There were other things to fight about, from my dying libido to whether or not I was right to ask him to close cabinet doors. The fights always ended days later with me whimpering and rolling on the floor in absolute hysteria — only then did he calm down because and shush me and tell me, Baby, we’re going to get you help. Everything is going to be alright. He loved me most when I was helpless. He loved me like his favorite little rag doll.
He loved me most when I was helpless. He loved me like his favorite little rag doll.
Then things started breaking. First, it was a dish, then a punch to a wall. Knuckle marks in the cabinets, an entire door missing from our second bedroom — he’d torn it down in a fit. “If he breaks things then he’ll break you,” my mother warned me. “No, he’d never hit me,” I defended. “He’s really a nice guy.”
“Joy Lane isn’t a victim because he never hit her.” — Text message from a friend
People often ask me how my abuser hit me, and I always tell them, my abuser never hit me. He never hit me because I left before he had the chance.
Leaving wasn’t simple. Every time I thought it couldn’t get worse, it got much worse. Every time I tried to leave, it became easier to stay. He got too angry. Too much property was ending up broken and too many words that could never be taken back had been hurled my way. It became easier to just stay.
The night before I left, he was video-recording me crying and leaning against a door. He said our names and announced into the camera that I was holding him hostage. He laughed and taunted me, as he had several times before, but something was different this time. Other times had felt humiliating; today it felt like a provocation, as if he could not wait for me to walk up on him and swing. In that moment, I knew he was capable of putting his hands on me. And maybe what scared me more is that I hoped he would put his hands on me as much as he hoped I’d put my hands on him. If I hit him, he had an excuse to “defend himself,” but if he hit me? At least then I’d know. I’d know for sure that I was a victim of abuse.
If he hit me? At least then I’d know. I’d know for sure that I was a victim of abuse.
Our official breakup was our third fight that day. The first fight, he said he was leaving because I refused to fulfill his needs, and I did something I had never done before: I let him leave. The second fight, he called women in front of me, telling them that I was terrible and he couldn’t wait to be single and party. Our third fight, he accused me of breaking his things. He walked up on me, screaming, and instinctively I forced myself to stand my ground. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were lions facing off, and if I backed away, he’d pounce. He reached for a painting I owned and threatened to smash it in retaliation. I took the bait and lunged. “My brother gave that to me!” I cried. I held onto the frame as he tried to swing me off, we twirled and grunted. I’m a big girl and an ex college athlete. I’m not so easy to handle. He put more umph into it and snatched left. I let go. His elbow popped up and knocked out a window. “Look what you made me do!” he yelled. “You are crazy!”
He then looked at me with a hatred I imagine could not be saved for anyone you claim to love, and he yelled, “You spoiled bitch!” Until then, bitch was the only name he had not called me and now he had run out of words. I realized, as I watched his lips shape the word, that he had dehumanized me in a way that both he and I knew he could never come back from, and in that moment, I knew there was no other word he could say that would give him even the temporary satisfaction of cutting me down. There was no hurtful word left in his arsenal, only strength. His parents showed up at the door and ushered him away. On their way out, his mother rolled her eyes. “You guys make up and break up all the time.”
I packed four suitcases and dropped three of them off at the post office. I bought a plane ticket on my way to the airport. They had no more room for dogs, so I smuggled my toy Pomeranian onto the plane in my purse.
I live across the country now, too far for my former love to reach me without some effort — but I remember when he told me that if I ever left, he’d come for me. Sometimes I wake up in the night and check the front door for the boogieman. Other times I simply relive ugly memories as I sort out reality and come to the terms with how far I fell for what I believed to be love. I got word that he, in public, refers to me as a toxic and crazy ex, the reason for his recent woes. Like Joy Lane, I have no visible bruises, and my vigilant participation in his image management has no doubt branded me a a villain in the mind of many.
Like Joy Lane, I have no visible bruises, and my vigilant participation in his image management has no doubt branded me a a villain in the mind of many.
Still, I lie and I lie, He was always nice to me, I tell the public because I’m terrified. I’m terrified of being perceived as bitter or seeking attention as a conniving vain woman. I’m afraid he’ll take it as an excuse to come find me and hurt me, whether it be mentally or physically, and tell me that this is my fault because I brought it on myself.
Women like Joy Lane will never forget their abusers even when they no longer walk the earth. Even on our best day, when we are at our peak and the world bows at our feet, we jump at the shadows in the corner of our eyes. I expect him to be there, ready to finish me.
Joy Lane narrowly avoided having that worst fear come true. She deserves our compassion, not our blame.