Why I Stayed In A Violent Marriage, Then Left and Became Part of The Solution

James Brown’s daughter’s opens up about her triumphant story of breaking the cycle of domestic abuse.

The idea to write a book came to me sometime after my father died in 2006. I thought it would nice to write personal stories about what it was like to be the daughter of The Godfather of Soul.  I had so many sweet stories about my Dad.  Like the time when I was five and wandered away from our house in Beech Island, S.C. to visit my pony, Sugar, a couple of fields away. No one saw me leave and my poor father ran through acres of hills and thickets in the dead of summer trying to find me.  I’ll never forget how he dropped to his knees when he finally did. Then there were those mornings I spent with him during summer vacations when I would sit as his knee while my nanny, Miss Ella, rolled his hair in giant pastel-colored rollers and he told stories from the road.

But with the sweet recollections from childhood came the memories, so vivid, of my father’s very dark side, the side that allowed him to haul off and thrash my mother without any sense of remorse. I wrote about it in my new book, Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me:

“The beatings always begin the same way, with the same terrible sounds. My parents are in their bedroom, behind closed doors. First comes the boom of my father’s voice. “Dee Dee! Goddamn it, Dee Dee!” Then I hear what sounds like thunder rolling through the house. That’s Mom hitting the wall. I wait for her to scream, but she doesn’t. She whimpers. She must have learned long ago that screaming incites him.

I swear that during those fights, I could feel the whole house shake with my father’s crazy rage. Whenever he’d start, my sister Deanna and I would run for cover, usually in a closet or under our beds, and cry quietly into our cupped hands. I shook a lot as a kid. My hands. My face. My knees. A 5-year-old with tremors. As my grandma used to say, “Ain’t that just the saddest thing?” Sometimes the fights lasted only minutes. Sometimes longer. The monster would appear, wreaking havoc on our lives, and then the rumbling would stop and we’d hear our mother’s muffled cries. After that, the house would go completely quiet. The sound of the silence was the worst because that’s when Deanna and I would wonder if our mother were alive or dead and if we would be next.”
I was just five, but I can still see my father straddling our mom on the front lawn of the Beech Island estate, pummeling her with clenched fists as sweat poured from his forehead into his wild eyes, and blood spurted from her mashed face.

Even at the tender age, I knew what he was doing was wrong, and I swore I wouldn’t ever let someone do that to me. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I married an abuser. He nearly killed me during our last fight. Thank God I was aware enough or strong enough - whatever it was that made me leave.

My memoir is not the one I intended when I first got the idea to write a book. I intended to write about my fantasy childhood with Dad. That one that was only half true. Once I began to dig deep, I knew I couldn’t write one part without the other. I wasn’t even sure I wanted a book. My father was gone, after all, and I’d left my abusive marriage, so what was the point?

It took some real soul-searching, but I finally decided that my story – my true story, not the fairytale I had initially envisioned – might help someone else who was living the same hell that I once had. In the end, what resulted is, I think, a raw but truthful story of daughter who loved her very flawed father more than anything in the world, but who finally had the courage to break a long cycle of abuse that had been passed down by him.

In recent weeks, I’ve been asked, too many times to count, about the Ray Rice story and what seems like rampant domestic violence by NFL players.  I don’t know Ray Rice, so I called my friend, Tutan Reyes, who played in the NFL, to get a better understanding of what was happening.

While he is not an abuser, what he told me about the culture of the league was really enlightening. He told me that pro football players have been taught since they've started playing to be "aggressive and physical on the field." They've been told, “Don't stop until you hear the referee's whistle,” and sometimes it’s difficult to disconnect from that mentality when they’re not on the field. There's a heightened response when something triggers them, whether it is a confrontation or a shove, and the natural reaction is to respond in an aggressive manner.  It's no excuse, he said, but it needs to be addressed and a good start would be requiring players to get some sort if psychological or anger management training.

Domestic violence is a societal problem and we need to be open about addressing it before a solution can be found. I want to be part of that solution.

I have no doubt now that I made the right choice to write the book I did. Since its publication on Sept. 1st, I’ve been inundated with stories from women who are going through the same struggles with domestic abuse that I did. Many have said that my story gave them the strength to want to leave their own poisonous relationships, and that has made it all worth it. If the price of helping to save someone from being injured or even killed means a bit more tarnish on my dad’s legacy, then so be it.  If it saves a life, I’m okay with that.

Dr. Yamma Brown is the author of Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me (Chicago Review Press; September 2014). Available wherever books are sold.

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