Viewers likely felt any number of emotions while watching singer R. Kelly melt down during a TV interview with CBS News’ Gayle King: surprise, outrage, sympathy, confusion. When the singer jumped up from his chair and started flailing his arms at King, many viewers undoubtedly worried about her safety.
Jennifer Freyd was a little more blasé than the rest of us. “It’s kind of predictable, sadly,” she said.
Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, has studied responses like Kelly’s for decades. In fact, she coined a term for the behavior pattern he exhibited in King’s interview: DARVO, an acronym for deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. In other words, as King said to Kelly during one of his outbursts, “You sound like you’re playing the victim here.”
That, Freyd said, is precisely the point. “I’m glad she labeled it, because that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
He’s certainly not unique in that respect. In just the past month, actress Roseanne Barr has accused, among others, both Michelle Obama and fellow actress Sarah Gilbert for derailing her career after they criticized her for a racist tweet. And Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson blamed the “liberal mob” for forcing advertisers to leave his program after a tape surfaced of him making several controversial statements, including saying it’s OK for men to ogle 14-year-old girls.
As for Kelly, he has been indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He has said he is innocent. During the King interview, he called his accusers liars who are out to ruin his career, adding that he was constantly being victimized because of his “big heart.”
“I just thought, ‘That’s DARVO.’ ” Freyd said.
DARVO, as she explains on her website, is “a reaction perpetrators of wrongdoing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior.”
One of the best tactics for avoiding accountability is to assume the role of victim. Freyd’s research has shown that doing so not only loosens the bonds of responsibility for the perpetrator, but it muddies the waters with a confusion that is so insidious it often extends to the victim’s own perception.
“We know that it can lead victims to blame themselves,” she said. “But even worse, I strongly suspect that it discourages other people from coming forward with their own accounts, because it looks extremely unpleasant to be on the receiving end of that kind of response.”
For outside observers, the shifting roles can make things so unclear that the result is often inaction — we no longer are sure where our sympathies should lie or how to address a situation that seems increasingly unclear. That confusion makes DARVO extremely effective.
When the people involved are high-profile public figures, the DARVO response takes on heightened drama. Freyd’s initial work in defining the pattern was inspired by the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the response to the testimony of Anita Hill.
“It seems to be a way to manage accusation and get what you want,” she said, “and for these powerful men, it seems to work. They may escape accountability and be able to go on with their lives or not have their ambitions thwarted. And to the extent it works, it is going to be reinforced. They’re going to keep doing it.”
Freyd’s research centers on abuse cases, where the pattern is common, activists have noted.
“Intensity. Volatility. Manipulation. Guilting. All unhealthy relationship behaviors that you can see clearly in this R. Kelly interview,” said Katie Hood, CEO of One Love, a foundation that works to educate the public about signs of abuse.
Fallout is inevitable
Freyd said that for some people, DARVO is a knee-jerk defensive response to confrontation, and therefore should not be considered a marker for guilt or innocence. But, under any circumstances, the response causes broad collateral damage.
“Even if we say we don’t know what happened,” she said, “we do know how these people are behaving right now, in front of us. And that behavior, itself, causes a lot of damage, to both the people involved and to society as a whole. It shuts down the conversation, and that’s bad for all of us.”
Freyd said there are alternatives.
“You don’t have to respond this way; some people don’t. You can respond with dignity and humanity. You don’t have to attack the person. You can do it in a way that doesn’t shut down conversation.”
Because of societal pressures that make it difficult for many people to talk about sexual issues, the situation is magnified when it involves sexual offenses.
“The response to sexual violence can be as harmful as anything about the violence itself,” she said. “How we respond is huge, and we’re screwing up.”