Jenice Armstrong: 'Miss Pauline' counsels victims in abusive relationships

Rihanna and Brown: At Diddy's digs?
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Posted: March 10, 2009

IT WAS A POWERFUL moment last week when TV talk host Oprah Winfrey looked straight into the camera and warned Rihanna, "If a man hits you once, he will hit you again."

But the pop princess singer apparently isn't ready to accept Winfrey's advice. Singer Chris Brown and Rihanna reportedly are still a couple and according to her lawyer, she doesn't want Brown to be prohibited from seeing her while he awaits trial for battery.

I once had a friend whose boyfriend beat her with a belt. When she refused to leave him, it doomed our friendship. I couldn't understand why she stayed and I let her know it.

But Pauline Brown, who for years has counseled battered women in the living room of her Philadelphia rowhome, understands why women take their abusers back over and over again. She knows why they stay. And when they call her with yet another story, Brown listens.

"They really have to want to leave a relationship. It's almost like a drug. You have to want to get away. Most women at first feel like they've done something wrong. It's their fault. [They think] 'What can I do to make him stop?' So, they're walking on eggshells," explained Brown, 55, who has been victimized herself. "They see it building. The men start cursing you out and they start becoming inflamed over any little thing.

"Battery is a learned behavior. If all you ever saw was people fighting, you think it's the norm. What you're used to is the cursing and the screaming and the hollering and the fighting," she said.

Even though Brown isn't affiliated with any social service agency, in her North Central neighborhood she is a one-woman referral service when it comes to domestic abuse. Her name gets passed from friend to friend.

When she's not at her day job as a family service school representative for the Philadelphia School District, she's at home answering distress calls from women in trouble."They'll ask me, 'Are you busy? Can you talk to me?' 'Where do I go? How do I get into a shelter?' " Brown said.

Last week, three strangers rang Brown's number, looking for help. Some weeks, up to 20 women track down "Miss Pauline" as she's known in her neighborhood. Women sometimes just show up on her stoop. Once, Brown said, she looked out and found a naked woman standing there. They come because they've heard Miss Pauline will listen and not judge.

A sense

of shame

Karen Thompkins, a psychiatric nurse at Mercy Hospital, is one of those who turned to Miss Pauline after she'd had enough of the abuse she experienced.

"I always kept hoping that he would change . . . I would feel sorry for him. I thought he needed me and the guilt would make me stay," Thompkins explained, when I asked her why she hadn't left her abuser sooner than she did.

"I'm pretty sure Rihanna is feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I used to blame myself. When he would hit me, I would tear him down verbally. I would call him a weak man. I would call him the p-word."

During their last violent encounter, her former lover broke her nose and pulled out a gun, threatening to kill himself. That finally made Thompkins realize that she couldn't ignore his violent outbursts any longer.

If she could talk to Rihanna, Tompkins said, "I would tell her that she deserves a better life . . . and love is not fear. Love is not pain."

Lesson learned

That was a lesson Brown had to learn herself. She was still a newlywed when her former husband first beat her.

"I didn't do things to his liking. I was 18. He was 21," she recalled. "The very first time, he took a white glove and he went on top of the door jamb . . . He called me to him and said, 'I thought you cleaned today.' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'You see this? This is not clean to me.' "

Over the years, more beatings followed. And once she was finally free of her husband, she began a relationship with another man who beat her.

"Our church tells you, 'this is your husband' . . . churches do not promote women leaving their husbands," Brown said.

She began to realize how wrong the treatment she'd experienced was after she started volunteering for Women Organized Against Rape and Women Against Abuse. Brown also took classes these groups offered so she could become a better advocate.

On Sunday, I met with Thompkins and Brown. Thompkins is best friends with Brown's daughter, Naima Prince, who had an abusive relationship with a former boyfriend. As we were chatting at Brown's home, Ruth Birchett, a neighborhood block-captain, stopped by.

"I don't know if you saw the shingle outside, but everybody knows it's there," she told me. "[Brown] doesn't do it with a badge. Pauline naturally shows concern for other people and her neighbors. When she's sitting on her stoop . . . that's how she develops relationships, so she is close enough so she can say something to a young woman who is being victimized or even to a young man who is a perpetrator."

At one point while I was there, Brown beamed with pride at her protege Thompkins. After seven years of abuse, Thompkins is finally free. She has a daughter at Spelman University, and has written a novel, "Double Insanity," that deals with domestic violence. She plans to self-publish it next month and donate a portion of the money the book makes to groups such as the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County, which helped her.

And her ex? He's getting counseling.

"Dag, Karen, I sure gave you some good information," Brown said proudly.

Thompkins smiled in agreement. *

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