On Friday The New York Times reported on FKA twigs’ lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf; she is accusing him of “sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress”. She and Karolyn Pho, who also dated Shia, were both interviewed by the NYT and provided details of the abuse they experienced during their relationships. As twigs, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, shared on social media, she went public with her story because she wants to raise awareness about violence, emotional and physical, in intimate partner relationships and let those who’ve been there or who are currently there know that they are not alone, that it can happen to anyone – even if you have the resources, even if you’re a famous artist, even if you have money.
Per the NYT, twigs “said she plans to donate a significant portion of any monetary damages to domestic-violence charities. “It was actually very expensive, and a massive undertaking of time and resources, to get out.”
And while that’s not the most important point, it is an important point – because financial compensation is one of the ways those who undermine abuse survivors criticise and attempt to discredit their claims: by accusing them of going for a payday, as if the only true victims are the ones who walk away with nothing but their honour. It’s so gross, thinking like this, but probably many of us have been guilty of it, conditioning to think of money in part, large part arguably, by way of the patriarchy. Through history, it’s been men who’ve had access to money, so they’ve defined the how, when, where, and why it should be obtained. All of this, of course, relates to value, and where we place it. And, as we know, women have traditionally been UNDERvalued. Which means that what women consider to be valuable is less valuable than men. A woman’s safety. A woman’s agency. If those things aren’t valued as highly, or at all, then of course a woman suing a man for jeopardising them is going to be seen as a cash grab.
So while I definitely appreciate twigs’ explanation of what she plans to do with any financial settlement out of this lawsuit, and donating it to support domestic violence victims, I equally appreciate and am frustrated by the fact that she had to spell out what it COST her (the expense and the “massive undertaking of time and resources”) to “get out”.
Of course what’s most significant here is that her story is so relatable for so many – which is why she decided to come forward. She and Karolyn describe disturbing incidents during which Shia made them fear for their lives but also the small and gradual ways he began to control them: forbidding them from speaking to or looking at male servers; twigs says he insisted that she sleep naked, she was required to tell him every day a specific number of times that she loved him; she even had to agree with him even on which artists they admired. In the moment, these commands are presented as requests from a position of devotion – “I just love you so much and I need to know that you love me back” – which is really camouflage for manipulation. The abuser weaponises his love and when that becomes the “excuse” for the abuse, it becomes harder and harder for the victim to separate love from harm. He makes you think like he’s the one who’s hurting the most and that somehow, you’re the one who has all the power. After a while, his pain becomes the only pain the matters, and the only pain to avoid. And it happens so incrementally, you can’t remember what it means to be happy on your own terms. Over time, as twigs lays out in her lawsuit and her interview with the Times, these insidious daily mental assaults, combined with the physical threats, began to break her:
“The whole time I was with him, I could have bought myself a business-flight plane ticket back to my four-story townhouse in Hackney,” in London, she said. And yet she didn’t. “He brought me so low, below myself, that the idea of leaving him and having to work myself back up just seemed impossible.”
In a couple of statements to the NYT, Shia has suggested that what twigs and Karolyn Pho are saying isn’t entirely true while offering a half-ass explanation for his abusive behaviour: his alcoholism and PTSD. And while over the years we have no doubt seen Shia struggling with this disease and working on recovery, twigs’s lawyer, Bryan Freedman, told PEOPLE in a statement that:
"We tried to resolve this matter privately on the condition that Mr. LaBeouf agree to receive meaningful and consistent psychological treatment. Since he was unwilling to agree to get appropriate help, Ms. Barnett filed this suit to prevent others from unknowingly suffering similar abuse by him."
It’s not just the addiction then. He can be in recovery from addiction and still abusive and violent – and that requires “meaningful and consistent treatment” too, which evidently he’s been “unwilling” to participate in. And this is what twigs and Karolyn are trying to address, because it’s not enough that he’s committed to sobriety, there is still significant risk that someone else will be hurt, is perhaps currently being hurt, even when he’s sober.
The danger here is that society, and Hollywood, will give him a pass on domestic abuse because he’s no longer drinking. Professionally Shia’s had a good year. Honey Boy, which he wrote and starred in, based on his own life, was warmly received, as was The Peanut Butter Falcon, in 2019, after which he was referred to as “the greatest actor of [his] generation”. Brad Pitt once called Shia “one of the best actors I’ve seen”. Shia and Brad, by the way, were both part of the Fast Times at Ridgemont High virtual read for charity a few months ago along with Sean Penn. Well there’s an interesting trio, non?
All three, given their histories, can probably relate and empathise with each other – and THAT’s the f-cking problem, not just in Hollywood but society at large. We’ll always be able to relate to the struggles of men, because for forever we’ve only been told of the struggles of men. For a lot of people, then, the fact that Shia is in recovery for alcoholism, which is labelled as the source of ALL of his problems, will be enough of a pass to rationalise any ongoing endorsement of him.
But here’s the thing: nobody, not even twigs, is saying that he should suffer and be blacklisted and cancelled or whatever; what she’s saying, and it’s what all victims of abuse and harassment are pushing for, is for their abusers to call it what it is, and not call it something else as an umbrella for the thing that they know to be true. If you can’t name it, how can you change it?
Since the NYT initially published their report on twigs, they’ve followed up with another article about how other abuse survivors have responded to her courage and they’re sharing their own stories, with striking similarities. These are the stories that need to be amplified so that they become familiar, as familiar if not more, than the stories of the abusers.