R. Kelly Played the Victim—And It’s a Tactic We’ve Seen Before

Gayle King called it

Ishani Nath
R. Kelly stands and yells at Gayle King during an interview on CBS
(Photo: CBS/Lazarus Jean-Baptiste)

On March 6, CBS This Morning aired a sit-down interview between Gayle King and R. Kelly—and it was a whole lot.

The exclusive on-camera discussion, which taped for nearly 80 minutes, was Kelly’s first interview since the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly aired and Chicago prosecutors charged him with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Police say that of the four women pressing charges, three were underage when the alleged crimes took place. Kelly has pleaded not guilty and in the on-camera interview, he vehemently told King that all the women who have accused him of physical and sexual abuse are lying.

“Everybody says something bad about me. Nobody said nothing good,” says Kelly, referencing the more than 50 people, including his ex-wife, tour manager and multiple women he allegedly abused, who spoke out in the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries.  “They was describing Lucifer. I’m not Lucifer. I’m a man. I make mistakes, but I’m not a devil, and by no means am I a monster.”

This is Kelly’s first time addressing the docuseries and the recent charges and the interview involved denial, tears and emphatic pleas, all designed to encourage viewers to sympathize with him, rather than the women coming forward. He claimed that people betrayed him, and that the parents of these women were out to destroy his career.

“Stop it. You all quit playing! Quit playing! I didn’t do this stuff! This is not me! I’m fighting for my f-cking life! Y’all killing me with this sh-t! I gave you 30 years of my f-cking career!” Kelly shouted while looming over King, who stayed seated, staring straight ahead and staying calm.

The cameras paused briefly to let Kelly calm down, and when he returned to his seat, King called him out for flipping the narrative. “You sound like you’re playing the victim here,” she says. That’s exactly what Kelly was doing—and it’s a tactic that we’ve seen before.

As multiple Twitter users pointed out, Kelly’s response was reminiscent of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings last September. After a stoic testimony from professor Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh responded to her allegations of sexual assault by breaking down in tears and citing how hard the trial was for him.

“This has destroyed my family and my good name, a good name built up through decades of very hard work and public service at the highest levels of public government,” Kavanaugh stated during his testimony.

Psychological experts cited Kavanaugh’s testimony as a classic example of DARVO. A concept developed by University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd in 1997, it describes the way perpetrators of wrongdoing, particularly those accused of sexual assault, often respond by denying the behaviour, attacking the individual doing the confronting and reversing the roles of victim and offender. In addition to Kavanaugh, experts have also used DARVO to describe tactics employed by Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.

And we can add Kelly to the list, too. After watching the CBS interview, Freyd says that he is yet another example of someone accused of sexual assault attempting to flip the narrative.

After denying that he ever abused young women, Freyd points out that Kelly, “attacked the credibility of the individuals making the allegations by referring to them as liars. And then, the really pronounced thing—and he was called on it—is the ‘reverse victim and offender’ where he referred to himself as being assassinated.” (At one point in the interview with King, Kelly states, “I have been assassinated. I have been buried alive, but I’m alive.”)

Freyd’s research indicates that when perpetrators use DARVO in responding to allegations, it hurts victims because it prompts feelings of confusion and self-blame. In cases like Kelly’s interview, she says it can also cause confusion for those watching. And while admitting wrongdoing may be a big ask for Kelly since the charges he’s facing could earn him up to 70 years in prison, Freyd explains that there are better ways to respond than DARVO.

“Let’s say the person believes that they’re innocent, or they really are innocent. Then, they’re going to deny it,” she says. “At that point, they can say, ‘Well, I’m very disturbed by this, I don’t have any recollection of doing this. I don’t believe I did these things, but these are very serious allegations and I need to understand what led this to happen. I hope we get a full investigation and everyone is treated with compassion and respect. This breaks my heart, but I know this is a serious matter and has to be dealt with in a very careful way.’”

She says while this type of response still denies the allegations, it doesn’t attack the credibility of everyone or “play the victim card,” as King pointed out—and that that is important because when we see perpetrators use DARVO, as seen with Kavanaugh, Trump and now Kelly, it does us all a disservice.

“It stops the conversation,” she says. “It’s not going to help us move forward.”

Related:

When Will We Believe—and Protect—Black Women?
Opinion: We Should Use the Right Word for R. Kelly’s Alleged Actions, and That’s Trafficking
R. Kelly Responds to Sexual Assault Allegations in a Song Called ‘I Admit’

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