Emma Yapp looks back at Nina Simone’s life and how #MeToo could do better by black and mentally ill women

Content warning: this piece contains descriptions of partner abuse and domestic violence, as well as content on the stigmatisation of Bipolar and mental illness. There are also references to suicide.

The #MeToo movement has made huge strides towards breaking the silence on the harassment and assault of women. It got everyone talking; from the deniers, the proponents of how “you can’t even say hello to a woman anymore”, to those who are bravely sharing their stories; but the loudest voices weren’t necessarily those we most needed to hear.

Most of the accounts have come from wealthy, white celebrities – Lupita Nyong’o was one of the few women of colour to have her say and yet hers was one of the only stories that was explicitly pushed back on by Weinstein and his team. Women of colour have less visible representation in the discussion and are more prone to being silenced when they try to rectify that.

There has also been virtually no exposure for women who are suffering from domestic abuse or mental illness, both of which are currently at epidemic rates for women in the UK. We urgently need to include the experiences of more women onto the platform that has been created, so let’s also start talking about domestic abuse, mental illness, racism and the intersection between all three. Following in the star-studded footsteps of #MeToo – let’s talk about Nina Simone.

Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon) would have been 85-years-old last month. Remembered now as a fierce talent who redefined the world of jazz, she was also powerfully portrayed as a victim of domestic abuse in Liz Garbus’s 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was also co-produced by Simone’s daughter, Lisa. As well as being a visual tribute to Nina’s musical talent and her command of the stage, the film is interspersed with extracts from interviews and letters written by Simone that reveal the abuse she endured from her husband, Andrew Stroud, whom she married in her late twenties.

Women who are mentally ill are one of the demographics most vulnerable to domestic violence

In her letters, Simone describes the physical violence she experienced at the hand of Stroud – “The beatings, Andy, I can’t take. They destroy everything within me” – and the wider context in which he controlled her life. The UK government definition of domestic violence and abuse was revised in 2013 to acknowledge the fact that abuse of partners and spouses often occurs within a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, which serves to disempower the victim. Stroud not only became Simone’s husband but also her manager, giving him total control of her at all times: “I kept thinking Andy would let me rest. He never did.”

While the extent of the coercive control or the abuse itself can really only be speculated, there are many aspects of Simone’s experience in this documentary that seem typical of intimate violence: her repeated allusions to fear or lack of freedom, her increasing reliance on sleeping pills and even eventually becoming an abuser herself. However, Simone also represents a special and important case of domestic abuse, as she is now widely considered to have been suffering from mental illness for much of her life, diagnosed with Bipolar in her final years: “Andy hit me last night (swollen lip). Of course it was what I need after so many days of depression”.

Women who are mentally ill are one of the demographics most vulnerable to domestic violence. Young women are at the greatest risk of domestic violence in the UK and women in general are automatically at greater risk of this type of violence than men. Recent analysis of Official National Statistics shows that women make up 74% of the victims of domestic violence, but that they also experience such violence with greater frequency and severity: 83% of all the domestic violent crimes analysed were inflicted upon women and 91% of those crimes caused an injury.

If Nina Simone were alive today, she would experience a cultural triple whammy of silencing: as an abused woman, a mentally ill woman and a woman of colour

Most recent UK research indicates that between 30-70% of women with mental illnesses have experienced domestic abuse, whether they suffer from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or arguably more stigmatised mental illnesses, such as Bipolar and schizophrenia. Not only is the prevalence higher among these women, but the impact is arguably more grievous and makes them more vulnerable to suicide and drug abuse than their mentally healthy counterparts.

Nina Simone was no exception to these effects and the film touches on both how she suffered and how poorly supported she was: “Andrew and I talked of my possible suicide, he let me know that he would not only not suffer, but he would be relieved”. Despite the increased care requirements of such women, they are frequently ill-attended by mainstream services in the UK. Mental health services often struggle to identify women experiencing abuse, as many professionals lack the confidence to undertake such a personal enquiry and refuge services are already stretched for funding, so subsidising mental health support for these women is increasingly difficult. If the government’s proposed reforms to welfare housing go through, refuge funding is predicted to drop by a further 53%.

Domestic abuse is a silencing experience, just like sexual assault is a silencing experience

Insufficient funding for these services disproportionately affects those who need them the most, be it women with mental illness, women of colour, or any further marginalised group. For example, four out of five transgender people have experienced domestic violence in the UK and yet there is now just one domestic violence service provider for the whole LGBTQ+ community (Galop), following the closure of Broken Rainbow on account of financial mismanagement.

Yet these women are not merely silenced by service provision and funding. If Nina Simone were alive and young in the UK today, she would not only represent one of the highest risk groups for domestic abuse, but she would experience a cultural triple whammy of silencing: as an abused woman, a mentally ill woman and a woman of colour.

Domestic abuse in general is a silencing experience, just like sexual assault is a silencing experience, which is why the revelations of the #MeToo movement and the conversations that they have forced to happen, feel so empowering. One of the reasons that #MeToo has been so vindicating for many of us is that we’ve been having these conversations with our friends for years. For victims of domestic violence, isolation is often not solved by talking to friends, but perpetuated by it. Disclosing the abuse to a friend is typically only met with one answer: “You need to leave” and for women who are not ready to, or who don’t intend to leave their partners (which can often represent the least dangerous or most rational choice in the short term), this can mean the end of the conversation. These women are then left with no one to discuss that which they are questioning and so they stop questioning. In Simone’s words: “He was brutal, but I loved him and I guess I just believed he wouldn’t do it anymore”.

Mentally ill women and women of colour are further forced to confront the barriers of historical and cultural silencing. “Hysteria” was one of the first words used to describe mental illness, rooted in the Greek term, hystera, which meant “uterus”. Hysteria was an affliction thought only to apply to women and this attitude ultimately served to invalidate the experiences of these women, by dismissing the illness through relegating it to the ravings of a fundamentally ‘irrational’ sex. Not only did this mean that a ‘hysterical’ woman would be unlikely to be believed if she disclosed experience of violence and abuse, but it also fails to acknowledge the bi-directional association between abuse and mental health – perhaps a woman was acting so-called “hysterically” because she’d just been assaulted.

We perhaps believe that we are being complementary when we refer to a “Strong Black Woman”, but by attributing this omnipresent quality to her we afford her less time to grieve when she experiences loss … we expect her to be less upset when she is abused

These attitudes have not been entirely eradicated – when I’ve told friends that women in the UK are more likely to suffer from a common mental disorder than men, they ask if that’s because men are stronger, rather than asking what might be causing the problem. In many ways this just seems like the modern take on “hysteria” – a new way to make mental illness about some intrinsic inferior quality within women compared to men, a new way of making it her problem and a new way of reneging on our responsibility to help her. Language that defers responsibility away from the socio-political system and onto the woman is commonly centred around attributions of “strength” or “resilience”; it’s routinely damaging for how we conceive of abuse and mental illness and is perhaps most keenly exemplified in the stereotype of the “Strong Black Woman”.

In a piece for The New Black Magazine, Wambui Mwangi writes of the “Strong Black Woman”: “It is really terrifyingly, astonishingly and ineffably well-crafted, this myth. Insofar as, so long as we are kept either desiring, or believing ourselves actually to be, Strong Black Women, there is no amount of pure nonsense, abuse, overwork, ingratitude, exploitation, underappreciation and just plain shit that we will not put up with.” We perhaps believe that we are being complementary when we refer to a “Strong Black Woman”, that we are merely in awe of her historical ability to endure past (or imagined) difficulties, but by attributing this omnipresent quality to her in isolation of any other human personality, we afford her less time to grieve when she experiences loss, we expect her to be more able to help us with our own problems and we expect her to be less upset when she is abused.

Standing back to applaud the strength of women who endure multiple hardships can be to place the responsibility for those hardships upon those women. The emphasis is then on her strength, rather than on the numerous systemic factors responsible for both creating the hardship and then silencing her.

Let’s start talking about domestic abuse, mental illness and the Strong Black Woman and maybe then we can start eroding the barriers that are preventing these stories from being heard

I can’t help but feel a ring of the Strong Black Woman in Liz Garbus’s story of Nina Simone. There is great emphasis put on her ability as a fighter, her no-nonsense attitude to her audience and enduring political battles – and to me this felt like a hand out to the viewers: don’t feel too bad for her, she was a Strong Black Woman, she was alright.

I’m hoping that 2018 finally represents a change in the tides, a time that we stop finding reasons not to take responsibility for these women and start to speak up on their behalf. There’s now a government commissioned Women’s Mental Health Taskforce in the UK and a report published by the World Bank this month indicates global progress in improving laws on domestic violence; the UK is to introduce its landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse bill later this year.

All of these represent positive changes in how we approach mental illness and domestic violence and abuse “from the top-down”, as it were, but if #MeToo has taught us anything it’s that the drivers of change come from media exposure and changing the conversation. Let Nina Simone’s story be a lesson to us all. Let’s start talking about domestic abuse, mental illness and the Strong Black Woman and maybe then we can start eroding the barriers that are preventing these stories from being heard.

Image description: The image is of a piece of street art, a black and white illustration of Nina Simone’s profile.
Image credit: This image is free to use under a Creative Commons license, with credit to Jeanne Menjoulet.

Emma Yapp is a Research Assistant working in the Section for Women's Mental Health at Kings College London.