The sunshine that poured through the windows of Warwick Country Club and caused the churning waters off Warwick Neck to twinkle on the first official day of spring was an ever-appropriate setting for Drea Kelly – professional dancer, choreographer, mother and survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of R&B superstar R. Kelly – to share her message of triumph over fear, intimidation and violence.
“I know that my today is for someone else's tomorrow,” she told the full room of attendees, brought together as part of the celebration for the 40th anniversary of the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center. “What I went through then is for someone sitting here listening to me right now.”
Drea’s story begins, regarding R. Kelly at least, when she auditioned to be in the music video for his song “Sex Me.” Her assertive personality, dancing and choreographing skills caught the rising star’s attention, and after a long romantic pursuit, the two married. She said that he would shower her in material items – designer bags, clothes, even baby sharks for an aquarium.
But it soon became apparent that the altruistic, charming side of R. Kelly was just the lighter side of a much darker personality. She said he would forbid her from wearing even slightly revealing clothing for fear of getting attention from other men, and was told she was “unappreciative” for wanting to be able to work and retain her independence after they wed.
Such an attitude, she pointed out, is part of a damaging cultural norm that is fundamentally harmful to young girls today, and that it starts as early as the playground – when girls are told from parents or mentor figures that the little boy pulling on their hair aggressively is only doing it because he is trying to express that he likes her.
“As little girls we're conditioned to think that pain and aggression are love,” she said. “Then we grow up. What do they tell us? Go get a good man. That you don't have to work. He'll pay all the bills. You stay at home. You'll be a good wife. Now I'm with a financially abusive man who controls all the money, who pays all the bills. But I shouldn't say anything because I'm supposed to be a good wife. I don't know the difference.”
“We've been conditioned to believe that the monster and the prince are the same man,” she conditioned. “So, when you're in an abusive relationship, everything that that voice tells you to go against, society has been telling you to believe is right.”
She said that society often discourages women from wanting to break free from the controlling forces of a dominant partner.
“We're not taught what economic abuse is and what financial abuse is,” she said. “We're being told that a man that takes care of you is a good thing. You've arrived as a wife when you don't have to work. You've arrived when all you have to do is shop.”
But in her experience, which generated nods of approval from members of the audience, that type of situation can lead to something much darker. She said that she became what essentially amounted to “property” to her husband, only allowed to go out and dress how she wanted when he gave permission. But, as a religious woman, and pressured by the societal belief that she must sacrifice for her marriage, she would ignore the mounting signs that something was wrong.
“You're supposed to sacrifice yourself for your family and your husband. And you think this is the right thing,” she said. “So, I'm going to stay, because I took a vow. And in that vow, I said 'Til death do us part.'”
“But here's the problem with that vow,” she said. “Nowhere in there does it say you get to be the death of me.”
Drea said she put up with physical abuse as another sacrifice to ensure that her kids would have a better, more prosperous life than what she experienced growing up on the south side of Chicago.
“You will justify the beatings because I have food in my refrigerator,” she said. “You will justify being intimidated, and slapped, and punched, and kicked because at least my kids won't know about powdered milk.”
Drea said she believes that those going through abusive relationships adjust as though they’re playing a role – even though deep inside they understand that their fabricated rationalizations do not hold up to scrutiny, even from themselves.
“When you're dealing with abuse, people don't realize you wake up to die every day. It's a slow, silent, painful, dark death every day,” she said. “They don't realize sometimes as a survivor, you are an Oscar Award-winning, Emmy-nominated actress. Because you will get up every day and pretend it's okay.”
Her experience rationalizing her own abuse actually began as a small child, when she witnessed her grandfather, a Baptist preacher, violently choking her grandmother while staying at their house. She recalled in detail how her grandmother not only apologized to her grandfather directly after the incident, but made him a full breakfast the next morning and finished his prayer after he said grace.
“That was the beginning of the end, I say for me,” she said. “It taught me one thing – domestic violence is normal. Pain is normal. You don't talk about it. You just go on like it never happened.”
She said that the experience conditioned her that if even a man of God could act that way, of course it shouldn’t be surprising that her husband could fly off the handle. It took years of incidents before Drea finally had an epiphany.
She had been on vacation in Florida with her oldest daughter – then just a young child – and R. Kelly. A random person photo-bombed one of their pictures, causing R. Kelly to go into a fit of rage about attracting the attention of other men. He started yelling at her in front of their daughter, causing Drea to remember the incident she experienced as a child.
“He says to me, I'll never forget, 'Drea, I'm not a monster. You make me act like this.' I see everybody's head nodding,” she said. “We know that statement, or, 'If you would just listen, I wouldn't do this. You make me act like this. It's because of you that we have days like this.'”
She was left in the top suite of another hotel during the same trip when a hurricane came through. Too terrified to leave for fear of retribution from R. Kelly, she stayed in the bathtub while the storm raged on. The next morning, she described how she came close to ending her own life.
“I thought to myself, 'If I have to live another day with him, I'd rather be dead,'” she said. “I crawled up on the balcony...and I'm up there like Spiderman. And I looked down. And God gave me a preview of what that was going to look like...The thing that saved my life, in the back of my head I heard my kids, and they said 'Mama, mama why did you jump? Why did you leave us?'”
The trip down from the balcony railing marked the beginning of her escape from R. Kelly. Once back in Chicago, she described how she managed to hide a duffle bag of clothes and $2,500 in cash from him at their pool house, and how she gathered the kids and left during the night as he was out of the house. She went to live with her father and stepmother, and now she and her children have no contact with R. Kelly.
Today, she still battles PTSD and is a strong advocate for counseling for those who have suffered any form of abuse from their partner. Drea cautioned anybody listening who is going through abuse to be wary of the “it’s not that bad syndrome,” where victims will rationalize their abuse as not being severe enough to warrant action or to seek help.
“It was that bad the first time you felt like you had to dim your light for him to shine brighter. It was that bad the first time you felt like you didn't have your God-given right and freedom to wear what you want to wear. It was that bad the first time he put his hands on you,” she said. “The thing people need to realize is that the physical abuse is the aftermath of all the abuse you've already been through. It's like chopping down a tree. You don't swing the ax one time and the tree falls. It's many swings of the ax that makes the trunk weak to the point where all you have to do is blow, and you fall over.”
She pointed to a tattoo on her arm that read “Fearless,” and explained that it is a trophy she wears proudly to demonstrate her escape from the fear that once consumed her life. Her story is not one only of darkness, but of hope.
“Sometimes you have to face your demons head-on,” she said. “You've got to fight the fight. And it's not always with your abuser, sometimes the fight is with yourself. But know that you're fighting for your freedom, you're fighting for your happy ending. Because I have one. I want my life to be a living example that there's love on the other side of that thing. There's happiness.”
If you are experiencing domestic abuse of any kind, the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center has resources and individuals that can help. Contact their domestic abuse hotline at 401-738-1700 or their business line at 401-738-9700. Visit their website at ebccenter.org.