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When I was a freckled, churchgoing kid in Idaho, my impressions of domestic violence came from made-for-television movies. In these movies, the perpetrator was always a terrifying one-dimensional monster. Even when he was acting charming, I could see the coldness in his eyes. I, the viewer, had access to information that the movie victim did not. And the victim? One-dimensional as well. She—it was always a she—was a good victim: kind, innocent, trusting, and beautiful. Ultimately, another (better) man came along and saved her.
The writers of these movies seemed to understand something fundamental about our culture, which is that we’re not good at embracing nuance or understanding gray areas. We like our victims to be good and our perpetrators to be bad (we also like to feel smug in the knowledge that we can see what the victims cannot). We don’t want multitudes in our accepted victim-abuser dynamics.
Give it to us simply: She either deserved it or she didn’t.
So, I’ll say this simply: When my ex-husband chased me into a street in front of witnesses, I didn’t deserve it. When Egor Tarabasov chased Lindsay Lohan onto a beach and twisted her arm behind her back—anguish spreading across her face, her breast exposed from the assault, all of which was caught on a video that emerged last week—she didn’t deserve it either.
The difference between Lohan and me is that I was a “good victim,” and she was a “bad victim.” What does this mean? It means that, when my ex-husband abused me, I was the grownup version of that freckled, churchgoing kid—middle-class with a graduate-school education and parents who had been married for over 40 years. No one had any reason not to believe me, and unless they were directly connected to my ex in some way, no one disbelieved me.
I will not go into the reasons why our culture might consider freckled 30-year-old Lohan to be a “bad victim,” because I don’t want to perpetuate that kind of stereotyping. But suffice it to say we all know why Lohan has been placed in the bad victim category, and those characterizations still don’t matter.
Unlike the recently released video of what appears to be Johnny Depp throwing a wine glass at estranged wife Amber Heard or the footage of NFL player Ray Rice knocking out his now-wife Janay Palmer in an elevator, the media has largely ignored the Lohan-Tarabasov beach incident. Some outlets have even reported it with troubling headlines like Radar Online’s “Lindsay’s Lies!” in a story about her possibly returning to Tarabasov (she has since called off their engagement and told the Daily Mail, “I realise now you can’t stay in a relationship just for love,” a story which has also received little media attention). At a time when we should be questioning why this man would abuse his ex-fiancée, we are questioning Lohan instead, talking about if she will ever make that comeback we’ve been trying to hold her to.
And yet there is a common thread between Lohan’s and Heard’s situation: Most of the commentary—both from the media and the public—has been focused on discrediting the woman.
The Washington Post called what has, and is happening, between Heard and Depp “a feud.” And just like whatever Heard did before the alleged wine-throwing incident, none of Lohan’s personal struggles made it OK for the person she loves to chase her and assault her. Whatever vulnerabilities she had when she entered into a relationship with Tarabasov, there is a great chance that he exploited those vulnerabilities and attempted to make them worse. It is through this exploitation that the abuser has a unique access point with which to control the victim. As a result, it’s common for victims to behave in ways that seem erratic, to sometimes be dishonest, and to stay with the abuser out of uncertainty. None of this behavior justifies the abuse.
What I already know about intimate partner violence also tells me that this was not the first time Tarabasov had abused her—as a matter of fact, neighbors called the police in July after they heard her screaming for help in her apartment. Consider how emboldened he must have felt to chase her onto that beach? How powerful he must have felt not to be burdened by worry about how that might look to others?
It’s a myth that abusers lose control; they usually know exactly what they’re doing. And his decision to chase her on to that beach was likely designed to tell her that she had no one—no one—who would support her.
The day that my ex-husband chased me on to the street was the day that I knew I had to leave him. I ran away from him because I was afraid, but that split-second decision was also an action of survival on my part—of telling him that he could no longer control me.
My ex-husband chose to chase me as a way of saying, “Yes, he could control me,” and his decision to put his own reputation at risk was the most terrifying thing that he had done to that point (he was extremely invested in his own respectability). I have no doubt that the same dynamic was occurring between Lohan and Tarabasov. He wanted her to feel powerless—and likely she did.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one watching those made-for-television movies when I was a child. Maybe I wasn’t the only one letting my opinions of intimate partner violence be filtered through a lens that expected victims to behave in certain, impossibly perfect ways. Maybe we need to broaden the scope of how we perceive such violence and understand that abuse also happens to people who, on a personal or professional level, we might not place on a pedestal.
Still, as ethical citizens, it is our responsibility to make it clear that, regardless of our feelings toward the victim, we should never condone (and ignoring is an inadvertent way of condoning) abuse. We don’t have to like Lindsay Lohan, and we don’t even have to respect her, but in this—her struggle to feel safe—we should support her because everyone deserves to feel safe.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines. Her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” about surviving domestic violence, was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2015, and her memoir, which is based upon that essay, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2018.