Reality TV shows are often nothing but a cesspool of one or all of the following: cat-fighting, bickering, hooking up, and has-been celebrities (or celebrities who have never made it above the C-list). The reputation that these shows have -- that it's just mindless entertainment -- is something I've often disputed, especially when it comes to shows like 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom, and the Real Housewives series. I think this is especially true in tonight's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion special (part one), during which Taylor Armstrong's abusive relationship with her late husband Russell was discussed in pretty candid detail.
Yes, these vivid descriptions of emotional and physical abuse -- coupled with the psychological trauma they cause -- were sandwiched between arguments about Lisa calling Adrienne's dog "Crackpot" instead of "Jackpot," and debates about who sells stories to tabloids. But what Taylor shared with the world provides an honest look at domestic violence that people need to know about -- it's not as simple as Russell yelling at her or hitting her, and then her leaving. It's a continuous cycle that is complicated; that pushes people away; that leaves people feeling empty and lost.
"I would often say, 'Just hit me so we can get this over with,'" Taylor told host Andy Cohen, concerning Russell's abuse. She explained that it gets to be routine, that it becomes easier not to fight the inevitable rather than make things worse. That she was at such a loss for how to stop the domestic violence, she invited cameras from BravoTV into her home in hopes that their watchful gaze would reduce Russell's violent behavior. Adrienne commented that she thinks the cameras saved Taylor's life -- I agree.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one-third of female homicide victims were killed by their partner. In 70 to 80 percent of intimate partner homicide cases, the man had a history of abusing the woman. There are 16,800 domestic partner homicides each year -- a number higher than the death rate of HIV, emphysema, or gun-related assaults that ended in death. Russell's rage was so uncontrollable that, according to Taylor's new memoir, he once told her that he was afraid he was going to kill her.
In the end, the cameras did put pressure on Russell to shape up, as he lamented Bravo's painting him as a villain during the show's first season. He blamed the show for slanderously ruining his life, career, and marriage, but more than anything I think he really blamed the show for putting a spotlight on his abusive ways and for publicizing his abusive actions -- something he most certainly wanted to keep private.
Her plan was an interesting twist that showcased both her privilege and vulnerability -- few women could end abuse by inviting cameras from a reality show inside their homes, yet her struggle was similar to any woman of any class who is dealing with domestic violence -- she was trapped in a state of financial insecurity, destroyed self-confidence, and constant fear.
"Some days I still wake up and think, 'Am I supposed to be doing this, am I supposed to be doing that?' because I'm used to someone being there and telling me what I can and can't do ... I'm able to make my own decisions now and it's hard," Taylor told Andy. Camille chimed in, citing ex-husband Kelsey Grammar's emotional abuse and controlling nature, and the complexity of this violence really reared its ugly head. You try to please that person, but nothing is good enough, and eventually your own self-image is tarnished by this abuser ingraining his own ideas in your head -- that you're dumb, worthless, and constantly disappointing.
And even more confusing to the ladies was Taylor's insistence that, after sharing with them details of Russell's abuse, they come to be friends with him. "I was very confused by it because one moment she's telling this story that's horrific to hear ... but on the other end she wants us to like him," Camille said. Lisa described one of the texts she saw from Russell to Taylor, in which Lisa said that "[Russell] called her an f-ing whore to start off with, he called her a piece of shit."
It's a tough road to walk -- in trying to piece together her marriage, Taylor really couldn't undo the months and maybe years of confiding she had done, telling her friends about Russell's violence. She might've thought things would be better if Russell felt more welcome around her friends, that maybe even being around her friends more and at more social events could help reduce the violence -- no one knows but Taylor. Some of the women took this as evidence of Taylor's dishonesty, but really it speaks to her really hoping that starting from scratch would provide a different outcome -- that her friends and Russell getting along would ease tension and change the abuse. But it was merely trying to put a band-aid in the wrong place, not an attempt to deceive her friends. Perhaps in convincing her friends it wasn't that bad, she was hoping to suppress the abuse in her own mind, too.
Something Taylor said at the beginning of the episode was very telling: Russell was extremely narcissistic, often telling Taylor how much everyone loved him. This self-importance and ego perhaps drove him to react violently when questioned, to demand control over every aspect of Taylor's life, to think that Bravo was the reason that his life was tumbling down -- not able to see the wrong in his own actions or take any responsibility for them. When it comes to dating, this extreme narcissism is a definite red flag.
And so I've been writing about domestic violence for paragraphs and paragraphs, and I know it might not be as scintillating as the gossip about Adrienne's chef, Bernie, dissing Lisa. But it's important that this show, the epitome of glitz and glamour, not shy away from these real life problems that people of all classes face. What am amazing, public platform for raising awareness about domestic violence -- its complexity, its heartache, its tragedy.
I don't care if people are attracted by the drama of it all -- I just hope they leave the reunion special with more education on the topic. Yes, it's ridiculous that one of the housewives' friends owns a pair of $25,000 sunglasses -- but it's also ridiculous that so many women are assaulted and murdered each year by their partners. And I'm glad this realty show is at least introducing this conversation into the world.