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What Did R. Kelly Steal?

by S. RufusJanuary 11, 2019
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Sometimes low self-esteem starts with high self-esteem.

R. Kelly is a famous rich man with millions of fans.

In 1994, the 27-year-old singer/songwriter/producer married his fifteen-year-old protegée, the singer Aaliyah. In 2002, he was indicted on 21 counts of child pornography stemming from a video depicting him having sex with and urinating on an adolescent girl. Acquitted of these charges after many trial delays in 2008, the platinum-selling and multiple-Grammy-Award-winning Kelly was accused in 2017 of corralling teen girls into an abusive sex cult.

In the new Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, nearly fifty interviewees embellish this icky history with shockingly detailed layers. One such interviewee, Jerhonda Pace — who began her relationship with the adult Kelly as a sixteen-year-old super-fan — said he slapped and choked her during arguments.

Lisa Van Allen, who started having sex with the adult Kelly at seventeen, described being "instructed to call him Daddy." Pressuring her into threesomes involving underage girls, "he told me, 'If you love me, you'll do these things for me,'" Van Allen said.

Even when #MeToo-type crimes are punished by law, it's never quite simple. Yes: While jailed, these predators lose temporary access to further potential prey. And yes, their potentially crushed careers and tarnished status shrink their fanbases — at least somewhat.

Yet the damage they've done, the spoils they've stolen, cannot be repaid and/or replaced, because the nature of their crimes is physical, spiritual and emotional.

#MeToo-type criminals steal safety, intimacy, self-esteem. This shapes the way survivors function — or malfunction — henceforth in a crowded, confusing and often-scary world.

But no, I don't know this firsthand.

At least, not the sexual part.

Nor one more major part: the having-high-self-esteem-then-losing-it part.

Lizzette Martinez, another interviewee, describes having been a "typical" seventeen-year-old aspiring singer when R. Kelly — whom she "thought of as just the world" — spotted her in a mall, hugged her, gave her his phone number and invited her to dinner. Rushing to fix her hair, Martinez thought stardom was a heartbeat away, that she was "gonna make it."

Others told similar stories of Kelly singling them out from crowds of beautiful people.

Watching those interviews made me realize something I'd always known yet barely addressed, because it was so alien:

Sometimes low self-esteem starts with high self-esteem.

Imagining oneself choose-worthy, then being chosen: self-love seemingly confirmed, a sparkly ascent, moments spent basking in bright light — then bam.

Having once given an acquaintance a copy of my book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself, I was stunned when after reading it she said, "It's your story."

No it wasn't, I protested. At least not only mine. The book detailed disparate routes to self-hatred, from bullying to hyper-discipline to parental neglect to mean friends and beyond.

But Surviving R. Kelly exposes with searing clarity another route to self-hatred that I should have explored further in that book.

Many of us who hate ourselves today never — except maybe as infants — thought ourselves choose-worthy. We never imagined ourselves smart or beautiful or talented enough to attract interest, honor, inclusion, awards, desire. If we sparked any notice, we imagined it could only be for mockery or penalty.  

We were not spoiled, flattered, pampered, praised. The only way we could picture ourselves being pursued was by pranksters taping kick-me signs to our backs. Our default self-esteem status was sub-neutral, sometimes rock-bottom — sometimes spiking upwards if we aced a test or escaped punishment, but only fleetingly.

How strange and different: Liking or loving oneself until a trusted figure shatters everything you thought you knew? How does it feel: that extra-long, surprising fall?

We owe fellow trauma survivors empathy, belief — even if their stories differ from ours. We who were never pampered, never spoiled but simply scared or silenced from the start should not be blinded by misguided envy for those who, long ago, loved themselves.


S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.


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Self-Esteem

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