FKA twigs Sues Shia LaBeouf, Citing ‘Relentless’ Abusive Relationship
Just after Valentine’s Day in 2019, the musician FKA twigs was in a car speeding toward Los Angeles. At the wheel was her boyfriend, the actor Shia LaBeouf. He was driving recklessly, she said in a lawsuit filed on Friday, removing his seatbelt and threatening to crash unless she professed her love for him.
They were returning from the desert, where Mr. LaBeouf, the star of “Transformers,” had raged at her throughout the trip, FKA twigs said in the lawsuit, once waking her up in the middle of the night, choking her. After she begged to be let out of the car, she said he pulled over at a gas station and she took her bags from the trunk. But Mr. LaBeouf followed, and assaulted her, throwing her against the car while screaming in her face, according to the suit. He then forced her back in the car.
The gas station incident is at the heart of the lawsuit that says Mr. LaBeouf, 34, abused FKA twigs physically, emotionally and mentally many times in a relationship that lasted just short of a year. Her aim in coming forward, she said in an interview, was to explain how even a critically acclaimed artist with money, a home and a strong network of supporters could be caught in such a cycle.
“I’d like to be able to raise awareness on the tactics that abusers use to control you and take away your agency,” FKA twigs, 32, born Tahliah Debrett Barnett, said.
Mr. LaBeouf responded Thursday to the concerns raised by Ms. Barnett, and a second former girlfriend who has accused him of abusive behavior, in an email that broadly addressed his conduct.
“I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel,” he said in an email to The New York Times. “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 lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, says that Mr. LaBeouf knowingly gave Ms. Barnett a sexually transmitted disease. It accuses him of “relentless abuse,” including sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress.
Mr. LaBeouf and his representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Karolyn Pho, a stylist who is another of Mr. LaBeouf’s former girlfriends, described similarly tumultuous experiences to The Times, some of which are also outlined in the lawsuit. Once, the suit says, he drunkenly pinned her to a bed and head-butted her, enough that she bled. Afterward, she began to grapple with the idea that he was abusing her. “So much goes into breaking down a man or woman to make them OK with a certain kind of treatment,” she said in an interview.
Presented with a detailed account of the claims that the women made against him, in interviews and subsequently in the lawsuit, Mr. LaBeouf, responding in a separate email, wrote that “many of these allegations are not true.” But, he continued, he owed the women “the opportunity to air their statements publicly and accept accountability for those things I have done.”
He added that he was “a sober member of a 12-step program” and in therapy. “I am not cured of my PTSD and alcoholism," he wrote, “but I am committed to doing what I need to do to recover, and I will forever be sorry to the people that I may have harmed along the way.”
Mr. LaBeouf has a long history of turbulent behavior. He has been arrested several times on charges that have been dismissed, including assault and disorderly conduct, according to newspaper reports and public records. In 2015, strangers recorded video of him arguing with his girlfriend at the time, the actress Mia Goth, telling her, “This is the kind of thing that makes a person abusive.” After the men recording Mr. LaBeouf gave him a ride, he told them: “If I’d have stayed there, I would’ve killed her,” according to the video.
Ms. Barnett said Mr. LaBeouf would squeeze or grab her to the point of bruising. But she did not go to the police, she said, first out of a misguided concern about harming his career, and later because she thought her account would not be taken seriously, and it would be futile.
Though many states have laws that treat gender-based, sexual or domestic violence as a civil rights violation, tort suits of the kind Ms. Barnett is pursuing, with a daunting account of painful moments, are relatively uncommon; most often, allegations arise amid divorce or custody proceedings, or while seeking orders of protection. But there has been a slight uptick in civil claims since the #MeToo movement, amid more attention on the complex nature of abuse, said Julie Goldscheid, a law professor at CUNY Law School who studies gender violence and civil rights.
Three women die each day at the hands of their abusers, according to the National Organization for Women. The pandemic has exacerbated dangerous situations by forcing partners to stay without interruption in close quarters, law enforcement officials said, and hotlines around the world have reported an increase in calls for help.
In the lawsuit, Ms. Barnett describes how she met Mr. LaBeouf in 2018, when she was cast in “Honey Boy,” a mostly autobiographical film he wrote, and they started dating after the movie wrapped. The early days of their relationship were marked by his “over-the-top displays of affection,” she says in the lawsuit, which helped earn her trust.
In an abusive relationship, there’s often a “honeymoon phase,” as some experts call it, that builds intimacy and sets a benchmark for how happy the romance could be. It serves as a powerful lure; though flashes of bliss may remain, they are meted out through increasingly controlling demands and impossible standards of behavior.
In the lawsuit, Ms. Barnett and Ms. Pho said that Mr. LaBeouf did not like it if they spoke to or looked at male waiters; in an interview, Ms. Barnett said she learned to keep her eyes down when men spoke to her. She also stated in the suit that Mr. LaBeouf had rules about how many times a day she had to kiss and touch him, which he enforced with constant haranguing and criticism.
Mr. LaBeouf convinced Ms. Barnett to stay with him in Los Angeles, she said, rather than move back to London where she and her professional circle lived. It was a step toward her isolation, she said. And he would often say that her creative team used her, a message that eventually led her to doubt them.
But living with him became frightening, she said. The lawsuit says that he kept a loaded firearm by the bed and that she was scared to use the bathroom at night lest he mistake her for an intruder and shoot her. He didn’t let her wear clothing to bed, and would spin a trifling disagreement — over an artist she liked and he didn’t, for example — into an all-night fight, depriving her of sleep, the suit says.
The situation came just as she was completing what became her most critically lauded album, “Magdalene.” Ms. Barnett said she found herself in stasis, struggling to fulfill her professional duties, and confounding her friends and colleagues. “Twigs is always the driving force behind her career — always a step ahead of everyone else,” said her longtime manager, Michael Stirton. “This was an extreme change in her personality and character.” The album’s release was delayed multiple times, and a tour was rescheduled at great cost, Mr. Stirton said, as Ms. Barnett receded. “I could speak to her,” he said. “But I couldn’t reach her.”
As Ms. Barnett grew more isolated, she said she felt as though her safety nets were unraveling. The gas station incident had happened in public, she said, and no one stepped to her aid; an early attempt she made to tell a colleague was brushed off. “I just thought to myself, no one is ever going to believe me,” she said in an interview. “I’m unconventional. And I’m a person of color who is a female.”
Slowly, with the help of a therapist, she began to strategize her exit. While she was packing to leave in spring 2019, Mr. LaBeouf turned up unannounced and terrorized her, according to a sworn statement from a witness, her housekeeper, in the lawsuit. When Ms. Barnett wouldn’t leave with him, the statement says, he “violently grabbed” her, picked her up and locked her in another room, where he yelled at her.
Escaping him began to seem “both difficult and dangerous,” the lawsuit says. And even as she grew in resolve, she felt overwhelmed, she told her therapist, in an email The Times has reviewed. Though she had the means, it took several attempts for Ms. Barnett to extricate herself, she said in an interview. And it was only afterward that she realized how broken down she had become.
“The whole time I was with him, I could have bought myself a business-flight plane ticket back to my four-story townhouse in Hackney,” in London, she said. And yet she didn’t. “He brought me so low, below myself, that the idea of leaving him and having to work myself back up just seemed impossible,” she said.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Barnett said she plans to donate a significant portion of any monetary damages to domestic-violence charities. “It was actually very expensive, and a massive undertaking of time and resources, to get out,” she said in an interview.
Her status makes her situation unusual, she said. But she wanted to share her story because it was otherwise so common.
“What I went through with Shia was the worst thing I’ve ever been through in the whole of my life,” she said. “I don’t think people would ever think that it would happen to me. But I think that’s the thing. It can happen to anybody.”
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