Larry King’s interview last night with Mel Gibson’s estranged girlfriend and baby mama, Oksana Grigorieva, might have set our efforts to inform and educate people about the realities of domestic violence back by about 100 years.
Everything about the interview, from his demeanor and body language to his incessant repeating of the same three questions (Why did she even answer the phone? Why did she tape him? Why didn’t she leave him sooner?), screamed “I don’t believe you! And if I did believe you, I’m sure its all your fault!"
Yes, as a journalist, King needs to play devil’s advocate and ask the tough questions. To do his job well he must address rumors that Grigorieva doctored the recordings in an effort to extort Gibson. But the sheer lack of empathy, the nearly contemptuous way he questioned her, and the dismissiveness with which he received her answers looked a lot like blaming the victim for what appears to be a serious case of physical and psychological abuse. At one point, King actually referred to Gibson as "vulnerable."
Come on. Like the rest of us, King has heard the tapes. The clips he played last night include Gibson threatening to take a bat to Oksana Grigorieva’s head, vowing to take their daughter away from her forever, and screaming full force a barrage of hateful, dehumanizing epithets. While Gibson’s fans insist the recordings are doctored, Gibson himself has not challenged their veracity. Gibson has also admitted to hitting the woman while she was holding their infant daughter. None of this was enough to elicit a modicum of empathy from King or, it seems, from many of his viewers, who happily bashed her on King’s blog after the show.
Anyone who has done as many stories on domestic violence as King has over the years should know that there are plausible, if extraordinarily complicated, answers to the questions he was posing.
When you have a crazy man calling you and calling you and calling you, you answer the phone for several reasons: one, you’re terrified that he might actually be on his way to your house. So you pick up to try and get a sense of where he is. You pick up because you’re afraid that if you don’t, he might actually get in his car and come to you.
You also pick up because in addition to being terrified, you’re furious and filled with adrenaline. Five zillion calls in the space of a few hours has a way of wearing one down, just as a string of threatening, hateful voice mails has a way of sparking one’s rage. It can be difficult for a person to act consistently or rationally when they’re being brutalized, and even more difficult to explain, after the fact, why they didn’t take any of several seemingly obvious precautions.
Why did she tape him? As critics have pointed out, it might seem a bit curious that she could activate the necessary voice-recording applications so deftly in a crisis situation. So maybe it was premeditated. That doesn’t mean her allegations of abuse are false. Again, listen to those tapes. Gibson is screaming and irrational; he’s making violent threat after violent threat. He is out of his mind, and the fact that he called her so relentlessly across so many hours shows that he was out of control, too.
He’s also a rich and powerful celebrity; Grigorieva had every reason to worry that his word would trump hers in the court of law, not to mention the court of public opinion. Is it really so hard to believe that after multiple episodes of violence, abuse, and threats on his part, she would eventually think to document it for a variety of perfectly acceptable reasons?
In fact, it's not that uncommon for women in situations like this to tape their abusers. Grigorieva alluded to one of the reasons during her interview. Most abusers are not psychotic 24/7; the insanity is often punctuated by bouts of clarity, remorse, and affection. Many women reason that if Dr. Jekyll could only see what Mr. Hyde actually looked or sounded like, the good would conquer the bad forevermore.
Why she didn’t leave sooner is a question that even a cursory study of domestic violence or battered woman syndrome could answer. Again, I understand King’s responsibilities as a journalist, but a big part of me can’t help but feel that even asking the question—especially in the callous and prejudicial way King did—is tantamount to blaming the victim. The unspoken sentence being “you brought this on yourself by not running for the hills immediately.” It puts the burden of the responsibility on Grigorieva to respond to Gibson flawlessly, in a way outsiders decree is appropriate for the situation, while taking any pressure of Gibson to not, say, be a raging, abusive, alcoholic.
Which brings us to the question of why she got into a relationship with Gibson in the first place. As King pointed out, Gibson’s infamous 2006 debacle happened well before the couple even met, so Oksana should have been on the lookout for unhinged behavior from the get-go. As her many doubters and critics have pointed out, he’s not the first celebrity she’s procreated with; she has a 13-year-old son with actor Timothy Dalton. So maybe that makes her an attention whore. Or an opportunist. Or maybe it just makes her a woman who is easily seduced by money and good looks. Or maybe she fell in love with a handsome, successful, damaged man and thought she could fix him. Reasonable people can debate what that says about the quality of her character, but it doesn’t change the bottom line. Either way, she is still the victim of physical and psychological abuse. She is also enmeshed in a legal battle to keep her daughter from being placed in the full and permanent custody of a violent lunatic with lots of money and plenty of influence.
An interviewer as skilled as King could have encouraged Grigorieva to detail her experiences without putting her on the defensive. By choosing not to do that, he has reinforced a stereotype that women far less glamorous, privileged, and connected than she have worked decades to dispel.