This post contains spoilers for season two of “Greenleaf.”
It’s often uncomfortable to discuss domestic violence. Based on my own experiences, I know it’s also painful to confront. It’s October. We should be honoring 30 years of Domestic Violence Awareness Month and having a public dialogue about abuse. Instead, we’re searching for distractions. My personal distraction? A good drama. I live for a layered storyline with complex characters and twisted endings. Right now, I’m fixated on “Queen Sugar” and “Greenleaf,” two dramas on OWN.
But this fall, I experienced some new feelings while watching “Greenleaf,” which tells the story of a black megachurch in Memphis that is led by a powerful family with painful secrets. The Greenleafs’ issues — from infidelity to church scandals — are masterfully woven into each storyline. The show carries several multi-generational story lines, but one of my favorites is about the Greenleaf granddaughters, Zora and Sophia. For them, it is a coming of age story. They experience love for the first time, prepare for debutante balls and do all the things teenage girls do.
But the “Greenleaf” writers couldn’t leave these 16-year-old characters be.
Zora, played by Lovie Simone, has a boyfriend named Isaiah Hambrick. Naturally, Zora thinks Isaiah — portrayed by Roshon Fegan — is “the one.” He’s a recording artist who sings in the church. He seems respectful, drives a nice car and even has some book smarts. Sometimes, he helps her with her homework.
But there is something about this little boy that I don’t like. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Then, the abuse begins.
Wait a minute. What is happening? Did he just push her? Did he just grab her? Did he just purposefully slam on the brakes of his X-class BMW so that her head would hit the dashboard?
I was 17 and experiencing my “first love.” It started out innocently enough with dates and late-night phone calls. It remained that way for about a year. And then the reality of graduating high school and leaving for college arrived, and he became violently jealous. He would call me early in the morning to tear down my self-esteem before school and attempted to isolate me from my friends. He would even throw food or drink in my direction, then laugh it off as though it were a joke. All of this was so foreign to me. I didn’t know how to process it. Did I do something wrong? What did I do to make him “change”? I didn’t know the answer. I was like sweet Zora — confused, embarrassed, determined to make it better.
It only got worse with time. He hit me for the first time right after our high school graduation. We were standing in his front yard, casually talking about something. Then he became angry about a joke I made. I don’t remember any of the details, but I remember the sting on my cheek — and the shock.
It didn’t dawn on me then that he hit me in public. We were standing out in the open for the entire world to see. And even with that, he still lost control. It didn’t occur to me to tell someone or to get help. The unwelcome touches became more frequent — an occasional grab, a shove, and then slaps, and then punches, and then — I don’t even remember.
I do remember the pain, the isolation, the shame that I carried with me all throughout college as he made his presence known. Even when the relationship ended, I remained on edge. I feared that he would pop up at any moment.
I feel Zora’s fear, waiting for it to escalate. I am on the edge of my seat watching my own teenage self on screen. Maybe he will get more physical, or make her feel ashamed about their sexual relationship. Maybe he will sabotage her success in some way. Maybe people will think she’s weak, or that she deserved it. Maybe her friends will think she’s stupid. Maybe this is all she will ever know of love.
The season finale didn’t do anything to ease my concerns. Isaiah’s abusive ways came to light, and her family’s discovery of this secret appears too much for poor Zora to deal with.
I don’t know what the writers have in store for Zora’s future, but I know how this story ends for too many of us. Some of us live through it, some of us die from it. Some of us face it head on and move on with healthy, loving relationships, like I have with my husband. But some of us never find our way out of the darkness.
“Greenleaf” took me there — to that difficult and uncomfortable place. While that experience triggered a lot of emotion and painful memories, I also am reminded of the victory of survival and resilience. If you have been down this path and have come out on the other side — hold yourself tight and celebrate your victory.
Though you may not see splashy advertising campaigns, or nary a purple ribbon commemorating this important month, know that you are not alone. Know that this is not madness of your own creation, and it is not your fault. Tap into your strength — or find the strength in someone else if you don’t have any left. You may be traumatized in this moment, but you can be triumphant in the end.
That is what I would tell sweet Zora, and that is my prayer for you.