“I’m a reflection of the community“ – Tupac Shakur
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger” – Nietsche
Following Part 3 of this series on intimate-partner violence, Part 4 looks at controlling – those words and actions which keep the partner in line, often in an increasingly narrow ‘zone of approval’ as time goes on. The controlling partner is always positioned as the one with the power (even if, in reality, this is not the case and both of them know it deep down).
Although each relationship has its own set of rules, these are also guided by widely accepted standards of gender behaviour, and supporting beliefs about gender (see previous posts for details on this).
The partner who is the target of controlling behaviour is rarely a person who’s unable to take care of themselves, is indecisive or easily frightened. In other words, the control is entirely for the psychological comfort or pleasure of the controlling partner and not in any sense for the good of the one being controlled.
Reeva had a quote from her Italian grandfather tattooed on her upper back: “Only God will judge me”. He was right – only God should judge, but that doesn’t prevent us from judging ourselves or permitting others to judge. What’s more, when a woman invites or allows the judgement of her man, she’s following accepted rules of being a good woman (Rules 3 4; Belief b).
Reeva seems to have been a woman who allowed others to judge her, and may have been trying to change that. Modelling helped her get her confidence back after a previous abusive relationship – yet she just seemed to be trying so hard, so much of the time. Before she met Oscar, Reeva tweeted about being ‘so disappointed’ in herself – it seems she was in the habit of aiming high, but also of reading her own inventory if she came short.
Oscar inspired the world by refusing to let his disability define him, by overcoming pain (racing on his blades was extremely painful, something not everyone knew about him because he hid it so well). Off the track, he did as he pleased and in spite of the way his mother brought him up not to expect different treatment, that’s exactly what he ended up expecting.
It wasn’t like that for Reeva, and when a woman is that hard on herself it sets her up for emotional abuse from a controlling partner. To live with Oscar, it seemed, meant accepting a double standard – that it would be one rule for him and quite another for her. Yet Reeva never did accept this, completely. In a text to Oscar that was read out in court she actually called it a “double standard relationship” and expressed her resistance to continuing along those lines.
In setting up a double-standard relationship, Oscar was only doing what he’d done before. In 2012, former soccer star Marc Batchelor said he’d seen Oscar “be controlling around women”. He was engaged in a dispute with Oscar that had taken an ugly turn, but there were objective descriptions of Oscar treating previous girlfriends, and also Reeva, in this way.
Driving the car is a way of exercising control (and Oscar drove how he liked regardless of his passengers’ feelings, as more than one account has testified). Cecil Myers, with whose family Reeva lived, noted that Oscar would pick Reeva up and drop her off without coming in to greet the family – though later on she would drive herself, perhaps having experienced too much of Oscar’s driving.
Not allowing connections to form between himself and Reeva as a couple, and others closely involved with her, is a further strategy of control: Cecil later said he found Oscar’s change of attitude downright rude and unacceptable, but Reeva seemed to accept it or at least accept that she had no power to change it, even though this type of brash disrespect wasn’t her style at all.
Oscar might also try to micro-manage Reeva’s life. Her friend Maddie Sims was upset to hear Oscar criticise Reeva for being late, for wearing her hair in a pony-tail and for dressing too casually. Casual is the way professional models often like to dress when they’re not ‘on show’; but Oscar apparently preferred Reeva to be ‘on show’ regardless of her own choice. That is inappropriate – it’s one thing to ask your partner to dress up as a favour, and quite another to criticise when she has not done so.
Then there was the time, also observed by Sims, when he criticised Reeva’s chattiness to a waiter (she was a warm, outgoing person and always down-to-earth). Did Reeva’s open friendliness not fit with Oscar’s ideas about how she should behave? What on earth gave him the right to judge her? According to Sims, it was embarrassing and she thought Reeva felt hurt by it.
No matter what we have tattooed on our skin, the tattoos we carry in our minds run deeper. And criticism that is intended to undermine us personally may be difficult to confront, as each incident appears petty in itself. It’s only when considering the bigger picture that a pattern emerges and it’s possible to see that fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG for short) are being deliberately used to break down defences so that the mind can be colonised and controlled. This is a very different process to the natural sharing of perspectives that occurs between people who spend a lot of time together.
After Reeva died, friends finally spoke of their disquiet about Oscar, his ‘bad reputation on the street’. A fellow model said that society people were scared of his hot temper, reluctant to stand up to him. Oscar could enjoy making others afraid. He would show them no sympathy – after all, he’d got none himself when he was a small, disabled boy. In Oscar’s world it is each person for himself and devil take the hindmost, apparently. But when these bullying patterns recur in love relationships, things get messy.
When June Steenkamp received a panicked phone call from Reeva who was in Oscar’s speeding car, she demanded to speak to Oscar, warning him that if he hurt her baby she would “wipe him out”. That was in December 2012, and Oscar probably hadn’t accepted a stern reprimand in many years. He meekly complied and slowed down – but Reeva’s mother and the man who called Reeva “the love of his life” never met in her lifetime. Effective controllers know their limits and make sure to avoid people who signal that they intend to be involved but won’t be controlled.
Reeva was scared of Oscar at other times too – she said as much in a text message, and told June about it. So much for fear; what about obligation and guilt? There are signs of both in Reeva’s behaviour. For instance, she tweeted about escaping the “stigma” of her famous FHM pictures. That makes little sense, unless someone whose opinion was important had criticised them. Was Oscar trying to interfere with her career?
Reeva was an experienced model who’d made a smart career move with a popular and successful fashion shoot. Being somewhat short, curvaceous and older she wasn’t an ideal classic model, but was great at looking natural. And that’s how she looked in FHM – a lovely girl-next-door like Mermaid in John van der Ruit’s Spud story. There’s no “stigma” whatsoever in those pictures – unless you are a jealous, controlling man who doesn’t like your girlfriend being a high school pin-up (Rule 5).
When their intimate relationships are in trouble, women often feel responsible for putting things right (Belief c). Reeva made comments to a British newspaper shortly before her death, which hint at this misplaced sense of obligation. She said she didn’t want to speak with them because “lies about us will ruin our relationship”. She also voiced a fear of the relationship being ‘tainted” (a worrying choice of word suggesting notions of purity are involved) and gave “Reeva cheats on Oscar” as an example of the kind of headline that might ruin things for the two of them.
There must be more to this story, which seems to come out of left field. Since there is no context in the real world that anyone knows about for “Reeva cheats on Oscar”, its context must be private communication between herself and Oscar – and it sounds very much like jealousy on his part with an inappropriate drive to control what Reeva said and did – apparently with some success.
It looks as though, like Caesar’s wife, Reeva must remain above suspicion (under threat of being dumped if she did not) and was now full of anxiety about making Oscar angry through making mistakes. That is the classic position of an abused partner, and once again the ‘double standard relationship’ is evident.
In truth, no one in her right mind would volunteer to protect Oscar’s public image, since he often went out of his way to cause outrage in public places. If Reeva really did feel responsible for protecting Oscar from “lies”, then she’d already lost her way in the relationship and was at risk of abuse. Reeva told June that she wanted to ‘give everything to the relationship’, but in the end, giving up her own sense of right and wrong in favour of Oscar’s distorted moral vision might have been too much to ask, even for a woman in love.
Perpetrators of abuse make certain that benefits of the relationship are available to them on their own terms and when it suits them. This includes sex. It’s never easy for abused partners (men or women) to talk about this, because in South Africa as elsewhere, we generally expect sexual matters to be kept strictly private (Rule Five). Few other areas of life are as set about with unwritten rules, as subject to practices and beliefs that isolate people from real help or empowering knowledge. And few other areas of life are as central to the abuse of power in intimate relationships.
But quite apart from all that, sex that is not safely segregated from our emotions (Rule Four) has a ‘mutualising’ tendency that abusive men struggle to deal with. Only by introducing distance, control, objectification of body parts, even violence or punitive elements can sexuality be neutralised and made emotionally “safe” – which is why pornography relies on these elements for its appeal.
At the same time, any sexual problems including failures, disappointments and betrayals will be squarely blamed on the abused partner who is likely to face physical or emotional punishment. Blaming and shaming them thoroughly enough, will discourage any attempt to talk about the problem (to anyone) as well as being a form of emotional abuse in itself.
In abusive relationships, unwanted acts are intended to hurt or humiliate, they’re not simply experimentation gone wrong, or any kind of ‘harmless fun’. Reports that Oscar downloaded pornography on the night Reeva died might not mean much taken out of context – but are disturbing all the same. It’s not what the average woman hopes for on Valentine’s eve, but if a perpetrator is clever enough in manipulating her sense of obligation and guilt, it is amazing what she can be forced to accept and even feel responsible for.
Was Reeva trying to deal with a threat to intimacy in her own way? It’s clear from most of her texts to Oscar as well as messages she posted on social media, that intimacy was very important to her. The photographer who took her last sultry shots said they were meant as a private gift for ‘someone special’. Reeva was no prude. She was comfortable with her body and with showing open affection. No one who knew her would have been concerned by her Valentine gift – unless they also knew that Reeva’s honey would prepare for his Valentine tryst with her by downloading pornography and searching for his next luxury car.
As Reeva herself said in a desperately sad message to Oscar after he’d humiliated her on another occasion: “I think of myself as a lady, but you didn’t make me feel like one tonight”. This is Reeva speaking of abuse – but also of resistance to abuse. Instead of allowing herself to be ‘named and shamed’, she named and shamed the practice of abuse, making a clear statement of how she prefers to see herself and be treated by a man. That is the kind of person she could be – honest, and brave.
In an ideal world, only God will judge us, in an ideal world we are free to be who we are and to live the identities we choose for ourselves. If Reeva had survived her romance with Oscar, she might well have become wiser and stronger. She could have been a wonderful mother and grandmother…but never more of a “lady” than she was right then, speaking her truth in love.
The following two tabs change content below.
These businesses support MyPE: