I’m So Glad FKA twigs Has Bravely Spoken Out About Shia LaBeouf

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to the Louis Theroux “Grounded” episode in which FKA twigs features as his guest. And I was utterly blown away by the level of calm, articulate detail she gave.

The podcast is a game of two halves: the first section was recorded in September and focuses mainly on FKA twigs’ musical achievements, and although she does mention the relentless racism she was subjected to at school and when she dated Twilight star Robert Pattinson, the segment overall has a lighthearted and teasing feel. (So far, so Theroux). But she doesn’t mention her relationship with Shia LaBeouf at all.

It’s the second section — recorded after the lawsuit against LaBeouf became public, and which Louis Theroux prefaces by explaining that FKA twigs had asked to return and talk some more about the details she hadn’t previously been able to refer to — that changes tone and really hits hard.

FKA twigs is the stage name used by the British performer Tahlia Debrett Barnett. She is 32 years old and she is deft, articulate, clever, and funny. She definitely knows her own mind and she has an uncanny ability to sum up a situation with unerring clarity in a few short sentences.

“The thing is, Louis,” she says at the start of the second section, her voice clear and precise and only wavering the tiniest bit, “when we spoke before you asked me what I’d been doing during lockdown and I couldn’t tell you the truth, which was that I’ve been training myself not to wake up between 4 am and 7 am having a panic attack because that was when [LaBeouf] used to wake me up to tell me everything I was doing wrong, all the ways I’d let him down.”

Her calm recollection of this is devastating. Her relationship with LaBeouf, she explains, began incredibly happily; an apparent meeting of soulmates. Because that’s what abusers often do, she explains.They create an amazing, never-before-matched honeymoon period, something to refer to and aspire to reclaim when things turn bad later. And it worked on her. For a while, the couple was very happy. (I can imagine. I have been there too).

And then little things began to happen. LaBoeuf began to tell her that she was too friendly to waiters, and accused her of flirting; gradually, it reached the point where she was forbidden to look up to meet anyone’s eye when they were out. He accused her of failing, every day, to meet a secret “quota” of hugs and affectionate touches, set by his ex-partner. (I cringed as I listened to this. My first husband had a similar nebulous schedule, according to which I was always failing).

Things escalated between FKA twigs and LaBeouf.  He began to list her shortcomings daily and she kept not making the grade. The honeymoon days seemed further and further away, and she couldn’t imagine how to get them back. At night, he would wake her in the early hours and force her to address the ways she had “failed” him. Once, he woke her by choking her.

Things came to a head in February 2019 when LaBeouf threatened to crash a car in which FKA twigs was a passenger. He’d undone his seatbelt, was driving recklessly on purpose, and he said he’d crash the car and kill them both if she didn’t tell her she loved him. She begged to be let out and when he finally stopped at a fuel station and she escaped from the car, he shoved her roughly against the car and screamed in her face.

This was all done publicly and yet no one intervened. No one helped.

FKA twigs explains softly in the podcast that this was a turning point — to be roughly pushed in public by a famous actor, and have everyone look in the other direction. She knew it wasn’t right, and she knew no one was going to tell her that.

She found and called a domestic violence helpline —but still, it wasn’t until someone on the end of the phone said to her “You are being abused. Can you get somewhere safe? This sounds very serious, you need to leave, we can help you” — that she fully accepted what had been happening to her.

Because she had her own money, a passport, and a house of her own in England to go back to, she said she was not “trapped” by her abusive partner in the traditional sense. This gave her a false sense of security; she did not realize the danger that she was in.She didn’t quickly recognize her experience as one of abuse.

As soon as she did, though, she was able to leave and get the help she needed. She recognizes that her position is one of great privilege in this respect. She could afford twice-weekly therapy until she was able to sleep through the night again.

I was spellbound by the interview. Utterly riveted by the power of her words. I too have been subjected to physical and psychological abuse by men at different times in my life, and she nailed the powerless, panicked feeling of that experience totally.

When I cheated, and when I realised later that X had been manipulating my emotions to an abusive degree, it took me far longer than it should have for me to accept what was happening — precisely because I knew that I was not helpless. Like FKA twigs, I told myself that I was fully in control, because I was financially independent. I told myself that I knew the difference between abuse and adult discourse.

I’d been helpless, back in my early twenties when my first husband hit me and refused to allow me access to our joint money to feed our daughter. Then, I’d been a classic victim, borrowing money to get away from him in the end. But in my thirties, with lived experience of abuse to fall back on, my own front door and bank account and letters after my name? Surely not. No way. I was in control, wasn’t I?

And yet it was just the same. Abuse is abuse, and I was losing my mind. I was just as powerless and just as vulnerable to manipulation. It was just a different sort of victimhood, all the more insidious for the way it crept up on me.

I am so grateful to FKA twigs for highlighting the way this can happen to absolutely anyone, and for specifically addressing the eternal and eternally frustrating question that everyone asks: “Why didn’t you leave him?”. There are a million reasons why a woman might not leave at first, and most of them have to do with the initial erosion of self-esteem that begins in the “honeymoon” phase.By the time the first blow is struck — if it ever is, because mental abuse can be just as damaging — they are likely to be in too deep even to feel it.

It’s for this reason that helplines, such as the one FKA twigs eventually contacted, are so truly vital. Hearing someone impartial say out loud that what you are experiencing is not normal — that you’re not insane, or too annoying, or just impossible to love — can make all the difference. That conversation can be the push that an abused woman needs to get away.

I finished listening to the podcast and I emailed a national domestic violence helpline straight away, offering to train as a volunteer for their phone helplines. I highly doubt I was the only woman rushing to do similar. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard.

Keeping those charity phone lines constantly staffed and resourced, though, is only half the battle. What women need and what we are lucky now to be getting is the support and voice of these brave women — women such as Evan Rachel Wood, who has recently spoken out against Marilyn Manson, as well as FKA twigs herself — who are now standing up, against all the shame this sort of abuse makes women feel, and using their public platforms to say out loud: this is wrong, this is abuse, and it stops here.

It must be incredibly difficult for them to do this, but they’re doing it anyway. On behalf of myself and of all women who have ever felt similar, I couldn’t be more grateful. I really hope it’s the beginning of the end for the carte blanche these powerful men have enjoyed, for so many years, to behave in the way that they have with no apparent consequence.

And the beginning of a world in which women don’t have to suffer in silence anymore, or be woken in the early hours to justify their very existence to a man who claims to love them but for whom, it seems, they’ll never be quite good enough.

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