Surviving R. Kelly

The Lifetime Network has released a six−part docuseries on the crimes of Robert Sylvester Kelly, building a case against him with testimony from victim after victim. All six episodes can be streamed on the Lifetime app with a cable subscription, but will soon be available on other formats. In the series we hear extended (and horrifying) details from the survivors, parents of the victims, ex−wives and former employees. The series is just about the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever watched. I’m still nauseous.

The subject matter of the series is dark, and so it is appropriate to issue a warning here. This is an uncomfortable, indeed, sickening conversation to have, and yet it is extremely important that it be part of our national conversation. Exposing that which is dark and depraved is not only unseemly but also scary, and something that shakes one to the core. But awareness is the first step towards systemic reform. There is a sense in which we all need to shed some tears in lament for what was done to these poor innocent girls—who were really children, not grown women—and know that there are surely countless more that have yet to escape from predators across the country.

For over twenty years, R. Kelly has been fetishizing, brainwashing, and preying upon young black girls, beginning with a his marriage to his young protégé, Aaliyah, in the 1990’s, a trend that grew progressively darker and depraved as his resources, fame, and power grew in the ensuing decades. Despite the fact that he repeatedly and compulsively chose to film his crimes, and ended up in court for fourteen counts of child pornography, he was acquitted in 2008. One of his victims, Jerhonda Pace, met him as a supportive fan outside of this very trial at the age of 15, and by age 16 was living in one of his houses enduring psychological, sexual, and physical abuse along with several other young women in a cult−like atmosphere.

The series seeks to set the record straight and cut through the morass of noise, distractions, and rationalizations that surround celebrity culture, the music business, fame, and stardom. Celebrity creates a sense of false intimacy and trust not only for his fan/victims, but for the culture at large, that gives rise to a cognitive dissonance in that we do not want to believe that a person we think we “know” could be such a monster behind closed doors. R. Kelly embodies perhaps the archetype of Pascal’s notion of “the greatness and wretchedness of man,” where his greatness in musical talent is so, so great, but his wretchedness in his systematic, calculated, and premeditated psychological and sexual predatory behavior is so very depraved. One of the victims puts it this way: “R. Kelly is this fun, laughing, loving guy. But Robert is the devil.” This false intimacy between his public persona and the hearts and minds of the people who worship him has allowed him to mask his crimes for years, and as we allow the truth to wash over us through the series, we are shocked back into reality: we don’t actually have a relationship with our celebrity heroes. In fact there is no relationship.

Through the series we experience things that we perhaps already knew on some level, but don’t really know in any meaningful or actionable way. The series is devastating, certainly for the man, Robert Kelly, but also for us, our society, our celebrity culture; our trivializations, jokes and distractions; our systems of cover−ups, rationalizations on behalf of predators, victim−blaming and victim−shaming; as we leave the weakest and most vulnerable of our society in harm’s way; in the wake of countless ruined lives and families as the cycle continues.

We need to watch this, because we need to know about the psychological components of domestic violence. We need to know about the patterns of abuse. We need to know about the difficulties victims face when they speak up. We need to know about how we have been shaming them into silence. We need to know about the people surrounding him that looked the other way. We need to know about the ways in which trauma like that never completely goes away. We need to know about the false intimacy. We need to know about the juror who voted not guilty because he didn’t like the look of the accusers (translation: they were black). We need to know about our systemic racism. We need to sit with the fact that the quest for justice is messy and uncomfortable and that our discomfort is a small price to pay compared to the lifetime of psychological pain experienced by the victims. We need to know about the predatory tactics of isolation, gas lighting, and humiliation; and about the targeting of the helpless and the vulnerable, those without resources or safety nets. God have mercy.