FKA Twigs Describes Escaping the Abuse from Ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf as “Pure Luck”

Months after filing a lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf for the abuse he inflicted upon her during their relationship, FKA Twigs, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, has come forward with more harrowing details about her escape from him.

For ELLE‘s March cover story, Barnett described the “calculated, systematic, tricky, and mazelike” tactics that LaBeouf employed over the course of a year, ultimately alienating her from friends and family, and demolishing her self-confidence to leave him. “If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straightaway,” she told the magazine. “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 [LaBeouf].”

LaBeouf was unavailable to comment on the cover story, though his lawyer said he was “willing to participate in mediation,” before the magazine issue went to press. But at the time that the lawsuit went public in December, LaBeouf said in a statement to The New York Times, “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.”

The singer told ELLE, “What I went through with my abuser is, hands down, the worst thing [I’ve experienced] in the whole of my life. Recovering has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.” She also credited luck with leaving LaBeouf, whom she met on the set of his 2019 semiautobiographical film, Honey Boy. “I honestly wish I could say that I found some strength and I saw this light. I wish I could say, ‘[It is] a testament to my strong character,’ or ‘It’s the way my mother raised me,’” she said. “It’s none of that. It’s pure luck that I’m not in that situation anymore.”

The “Cellophane” singer said that she hopes coming forward with her story will encourage others to identify possible symptoms of intimate partner violence in their own relationships. “When I look at what happened with [LaBeouf], I think now the most frustrating thing is … a lot of the tactics the abuser will use are things that if I would’ve known, I could have spotted in the first month of my relationship,” she said. Later, she added, “It’s hard to do this publicly … but I want people to know my story. If I can’t help people through my experience, it makes my experience 10 times worse. There has to be a point to this—a reason why this happened to me. It’s not just about my [personal] recovery.”

One tactic Barnett can now identify as a red flag was LaBeouf’s intense love bombing. “He would send me between 10 and 20 bunches of flowers a day for 10 days. Every time I would sit down to work or watch something, the doorbell would ring, and it would be another three bunches of flowers. On the tag, each time, it would say, ‘More love,’ ‘More love,’ ‘More love.’” Looking back, she said, “It was a bit too much. It felt uncomfortable. I look back now, and it feels like really aggressive love.”

Things escalated when the singer relocated to Los Angeles to live with him. “I realized then I wasn’t just dealing with a tortured person who was going through a divorce. Or that outside factors in his life [were] making him act out on me,” she said. “I was involved with an inherently abusive person.”

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LaBeouf would set quotas for her to kiss and touch him a certain amount per day, and if she didn’t follow through, he would harass and verbally attack her, calling her a “disgusting” and “vile” woman, and threatening to break up for hours into the night. Barnett said that she thinks depriving her of sleep through these kinds of arguments was part of his abusive strategy. LaBeouf would also instruct her to sleep naked, and if she refused to press her body against him, he would compare her to his ex, saying, “She would never do that.”

Before they would go to bed, the songwriter revealed that LaBeouf would also force her to watch graphic true-crime documentaries that detailed women being violently murdered or sexually assaulted. “I would say to him, ‘I really don’t want to watch stuff like this before I go to bed. I’m sensitive, it affects me,’” she said. “It was so dark, and I was just like, ‘I can’t be totally immersed in this all the time.’ I was very intimidated living with him. He had a gun by the side of the bed and was erratic. [I never knew what would] make him angry with me.”

Speaking of the gun LaBeouf kept in their bedroom, according to Barnett, she took a picture of the weapon and sent it to her manager as the relationship worsened. “I thought to myself, ‘If he shoots me, and then if there is some sort of investigation, they will put the pieces together. I need to leave little clues.’”

She also said that LaBeouf had boastfully disclosed to her that he shoots stray dogs to “get into character,” and then accused her of being an unsupportive girlfriend when she pushed back on him for that disturbing behavior. “I said to him, ‘That’s really bad. Why are you doing that?’ And he was like, ‘Because I take my art seriously. You’re not supporting me in my art. This is what I do. It’s different from singing. I don’t just get up on a stage and do a few moves. I’m in the character,’” she said. “He made me feel bad, like I didn’t understand what it was like to be an actor or to do this … Method [acting technique].”

During a vacation they took together to Jamaica, where Barnett has strong ancestral ties, she recalled LaBeouf accusing her of having sex with one of their waiters and demanding that she not make eye contact with any of the resort staff. “I’m Jamaican. These are my people. I’ve been here many times before. I’m just trying to be nice,” she recalled saying to LaBeouf, trying to calm him. “Now I realize that this is how an abuser tests your boundaries. Can he get me to look at the ground in my own island where I’m from? Yeah, he could. If he can get me to do that, how far can it go?”

She also said that she found irony in LaBeouf being hailed as an ally of the Black community, as he was treating her poorly behind closed doors. “I’m half Black, and yet he’s being hailed as an ally of the Black community during Black Lives Matter [protests]? … I’ve woken up to him strangling me multiple times. I’ve not been able to breathe at his hands.” Further, Barnett revealed that her casting in Honey Boy was tokenized, with LaBeouf explicitly telling her she was cast only because they needed a Black woman to sparse out the white male homogeneity in the film.

The troubling behavior at the hands of LaBeouf continued, even as Barnett attempted to come forward about the details of their relationship with members of his team. “There [were] people who have worked with Shia that I openly spoke to about the abuse that I was going through. The reaction that I got [from his team] was pretty much, ‘Okay. Well, it’s Sundance,’” she said, adding that she felt pressure to sideline his abuse in favor of his Hollywood comeback. “Of course, it’s such an honor for me to be asked to be in a film or sing a song. I love what I do, and [filming Honey Boy] was an incredible experience. But then I ended up being preyed upon. At what point does Hollywood stop looking at money and start looking at people’s safety?”

At first, the singer tried to amend things privately with LaBeouf, because she was “sensitive to his recovery,” which included intense public scrutiny over the years due to his erratic and sometimes law-breaking behavior. Her demands, per ELLE, were for the actor to “(1) Seek meaningful and consistent professional help to address his issues around abuse; (2) Donate money to an abused women’s shelter; and (3) Admit he had given twigs an STD and promise transparency around his sexual health status to future sexual partners.”

But negotiations stalled as both of their legal teams claimed that the responsibility lied with the other party. The singer’s lawyer, Bryan Freedman, said in a statement that LaBeouf was unwilling “to receive meaningful and consistent psychological treatment.” Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s legal representative, Shawn Holley, told Variety that “Shia immediately accepted responsibility for the many things he had done wrong,” and that Barnett’s legal team canceled mediation.

“It’s very fresh, for me, obviously,” she said of surviving intimate partner violence. “I know [this journey] is not going to be perfect. 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 went on my whole Magdalene tour holding that dysfunction—it was with me onstage, every time I did an interview, on every red carpet. I was not enjoying any of it. Because 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.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from intimate partner abuse, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). For more resources, go to thehotline.org.

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