Last night, the Rihanna episode of Oprah Winfrey's series, Oprah's Next Chapter, aired on OWN, and as Oprah gently probed Rihanna with questions about Chris Brown, the singer tearfully replied that they are friends and she still loves him. This may not be what anyone wants to hear, but it's incredibly important that we do hear her.
Because the thing is, a lot of people approach this situation from a simplified, black-and-white perspective: Chris Brown is awful, Rihanna should not be speaking to him, the end. You may have seen the album review which stated, "Chris Brown hits women. Enough said." But the truth is a hell of a lot more complicated. People who don't understand why Rihanna keeps Chris Brown in her life just don't get abusive relationships. This is not to say that she is to blame — she is not. But often after an assault and in unhealthy relationships, there's fear, embarrassment, hope that the other person will change. And emotions — love — can continue to run strong and deep.
Rihanna touched on this during the interview, saying: "I was hurt the most. Nobody felt what I felt… It happened to me, and it happened to me in front of the world. It was embarrassing, it was humiliating, it was hurtful."
Obviously Rihanna has nothing to be embarrassed about — she did nothing wrong. And even if she did do something, no matter what she did, it could not possibly warrant being beaten bloody and choked by her boyfriend. But she's being honest about the the power dynamics and intricacies in her relationship. An important step. Vital for the recovery process.
She also seemed very honest about how Brown is still in her life. As seen in this clip, which aired on the Today show this morning:
R: I have to move on. It happened to me, so I can't tell people how to feel about it, they're entitled to feel angry, because it wasn't a good thing that happened.
O: But you have forgiven him.
R: I have. I have. We've been working on our friendship again, and now we're very very close friends, we've built a trust… and that's it. We love each other and we probably always will.
O: What happens when you see him?
R: It's awkward. It's awkward because I will always love him.
We may loathe Chris Brown, but it doesn't really matter. She loves him. And right now, she believes she will always love him. She's only 24 years old — things change — but she's probably correct; he will always have a place in her heart. Though their romantic relationship is over. And this is not uncommon for women (and men!); once you have let someone into your heart, they stay. This is something we have to accept and understand, even if we don't like it. She's human. We all know what it feels like when the heart wants what it wants, even if it doesn't make sense. We cannot judge her, say she's crazy to continue speaking to him, that she's setting a bad example. Who among us hasn't been young and in love? Who among us hasn't made what other people thought was a really really bad decision?
For Rihanna, there's the added impact of having grown up in an abusive household. As VH1's Sabrina Rojas Weiss writes:
All of Rihanna's feelings about Chris were confused with her feelings about her father, who abused her mother when she was a child but was a "great" father. When Rihanna healed her relationship with her dad, she was able to forgive Chris.
But perhaps what's really frustrating for many of us about how Rihanna's handling the Chris Brown situation — the forgiveness, the friendship — is that she is so damn famous. Because she is on her own journey, but much of it is happening in public. As Nation magazine correspondent Ari Melber points out, Rihanna has at least 60 million fans and followers. More than the population of countries like South Africa, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Canada.
So— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) August 19, 2012
@rihanna has 24m Twitter followers and about 60m people on FB - her online fan base equals the 14th largest country on earth.
Whether she wants to be or not, she is a role model to women in similar situations. Yet it is not her responsibility to guide or advise her fans. She can only do what feels right for her. Of course, by virtue of being so well known, she is a beacon, to some. Just this morning — hours after Oprah's interview aired — we received a desperate email:
Can u help me talk to rhinna
Im a single mother has been attack and hit and head into the floor over and over. I wanted to talk to rhinna I need help with my case I win a restaining order but I have a little girl now he want to see her but I'm afraid for her life now thanks u I will give u my phone but please don't put my phone where he can see my phone or get it thank u I have change my phone four time in two months and close my house thank u
Just one heartbreaking example of the terrible, complicated emotions that can plague someone who's been assaulted and/or abused. Understanding that while the answers may seem obvious to those of us outside the relationship (cut off all contact! forget him!), they are, without fail, much less clear-cut, a lot more confusing and unbelievably painful for those on the inside. Rihanna also said that she was "worried" about Chris after he assaulted her, and felt "protective" of him. Though she was the one bruised and bloodied. It's critical that we listen to and understand this mindset. Because for millions of young fans, it might seem like Rihanna is excusing or defending Chris Brown. But what she's actually doing is vocalizing her emotions, which are neither right nor wrong. The just are. And hopefully, they shed light on how a victim of violence might not do or say what we all think is the right thing for them to do or say. It's important to recognize that Rihanna's love for Chris Brown is not unusual. She should not be made to feel ashamed of her feelings, and we should accept them, remember them, understand them. With hard truths come healing.