Content warning: Descriptions of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)
“If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straightaway,” FKA twigs tells Elle magazine in the cover story for its March 2021 issue. “Whereas if you put a frog in cool water and heat it up slowly, that frog is going to boil to death. That was my experience being with [him].” It’s a familiar analogy used to describe what twigs, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, alleges was “calculated, systematic, tricky, and mazelike” manipulation on the part of her ex-partner, actor-filmmaker Shia LaBeouf. Twigs went public with accounts of abuse from the actor in December, filing a civil lawsuit that alleged escalating emotional and physical abuse from LaBeouf over the course of a yearlong relationship that began on the set of his semi-autobiographical film Honey Boy, in addition to knowingly infecting her with an STD.
“It’s a miracle I came out alive,” she now says, later revealing that: “I’ve woken up to him strangling me multiple times. I’ve not been able to breathe at his hands.” One of those incidences was during the terrifying incident that took place almost exactly two years ago over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2019.
As she alleges in the complaint, after drifting off to sleep in the hotel, the singer awoke to find LaBeouf atop her, violently squeezing her arms. Putting his hands around her neck and beginning to strangle her, he whispered, “If you don’t stop, you are going to lose me.” The next morning, she claims, the abuse continued when LaBeouf threw her to the ground outside their hotel. Once inside his car and headed back to LaBeouf’s Los Angeles home, she says the actor began driving maniacally, demanding that twigs profess her love for him. As he swerved into traffic at an alarming speed, with cars beeping around them, twigs recalls bracing for the impact of the imminent crash. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I wonder what would happen to my body...if [we] smashed into a wall at 80 miles per hour?’ ...’Do I jump out of the car at 80 miles an hour?’”
LaBeouf eventually pulled over at a gas station, and twigs attempted to remove her bags to escape, but the actor slammed her up against the car and tried to choke her again. Screaming in her face, he forced her back into the car.
“People wouldn’t think that it would happen to a woman like me,” twigs now acknowledges, admitting that it was “pure luck” she managed to extricate herself from the relationship, which happened with the help of a therapist and largely due to the fact of her own album tour. “It can happen to anyone,” she adds (this writer agrees, as—full disclosure—it also happened to me in a past relationship). Deeply disturbing reports at the onset of pandemic indicating the unique dangers posed to victims of intimate partner violence (IPV) locked down with abusive partners compelled twigs to go public. “It made me realize I need to come forward and talk about my experience,” she told Elle.
As noted by our sister site Jezebel, LaBeouf has a history of toxic behavior predating his relationship with twigs, including a 2017 arrest in Savannah, Ga., which involved a racist tirade against the arresting officers. There was also a recorded 2015 incident of LaBeouf arguing with ex-girlfriend and actress Mia Goth, in which he told observers after leaving the scene, “If I’d have stayed there, I would’ve killed her.”
Since twigs’ revelations made headlines, others have come forward with their own reports of abuse and manipulation by the actor, including singer-songwriter Sia (who recently admitted her feelings for him remain “complicated”). LaBeouf responded with a statement (h/t New York Times), saying: “I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel. I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalizations. I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.”
According to Elle, twigs initially sought to “settle matters privately with LaBeouf,” submitting a list of demands which included seeking professional help, donating to an organization for abused women and making a public admission about his STD status. Though those negotiations failed, the actor was reportedly receiving help as of January; his lawyer has since said he is “willing to participate in mediation.”
Regardless, while the parties in this instance of IPV are famous, the “psychological warfare” twigs claims was inflicted—gaslighting, intimidation with a firearm, forcing her to watch true-crime about violence against women, forcing her to sleep naked and show affection a prescribed number of times per day, isolation from friends and family, and “love bombing” (a tactic commonly used by abusers and/or narcissists to disarm and emotionally manipulate their victims)—are frighteningly familiar to victims.
As noted by Elle:
Millions of women will experience IPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately half will experience psychological aggression; a third, physical violence; and more than a quarter, sexual violence. And a September 2020 meta-analysis in the American Journal of Public Health noted that 37.5 percent of trans individuals experience physical violence, and 25 percent, sexual violence.
Though IPV includes both physical and sexual violence, as well as stalking and psychological aggression, it is often codified as physical trauma within both the larger social imagination and the criminal justice system—so much so that the deeper, more sinister layers of abuse go undetected and unreported.
“I used to get this feeling of intense fear and shame, and I would evaporate from people’s lives,” twigs recalls, adding: “If you’re not talking to your friends or your family about what you’re going through, then there’s no one to regulate your emotions or affirm how you’re feeling. There’s no one to tell you that you’re in a dangerous situation.”
She also acknowledged disturbing racial dynamics that emerged in LaBeouf’s behavior, specifically his virulent jealousy of her interactions with locals while visiting her ancestral country of Jamaica (twigs, born in England, is also of Spanish descent). “That twigs’s white boyfriend was policing her movements in her ancestral homeland, one already burdened with a complicated colonial history, was all the more disturbing,” Elle contributing writer Marjon Carlos notes, “especially given that Black women are statistically more vulnerable to IPV: 53.8 percent of Black women have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 51.3 percent of Black adult female homicides are related to IPV.”
Nearly sidelined in her own story by abuse (and still working through PTSD), this month, twigs and Getty Images centered Blackness in the release of a treasure trove of Black historical imagery via the Getty Archive. Twigs credits artist Kandis Williams with alerting her to the wealth of imagery largely hidden at Getty, saying in a statement: “We were discussing how powerful it would be to make this content available to Black creators and educators—enabling us to put these pieces together and make our history accessible for generations to come.”
As noted in a press release:
Launching in 2021, Getty Images will donate visual content from its Hulton Archive, the world’s largest privately held commercial archive, and Editorial Collections for non-commercial use in support of learning about and reflecting on Black history for Black storytellers and not-for profits. As part of the project Getty Images will also provide research support for educational, research and mentoring initiatives focused on Black history at its Hulton Archive.
More details on access to the archive are to come, but twigs made another creative statement this February with the aptly named duet “Don’t Judge Me,” a collaboration with British rapper Headie One. The video features a sculpture from Kara Walker and a painfully evocative hook, but “‘Don’t Judge Me’ isn’t really about me,” twigs says. “It’s about our whole community. I’m just a small voice, working with Getty to hopefully start some generational healing.”
As for her own healing, “It’s very fresh, for me, obviously,” she tells Elle. “But I hope if I can make little steps, and people can see me taking my life back, it will inspire them. I’ve given [LaBeouf] back his dysfunction now...I was still holding it. But now I’ve given it back. Now he gets to hold it. And everyone knows what he’s done.”