Readers note: This recap may be triggering to those who have experienced sexual assault.
In season one of Surviving R. Kelly, we watched Michelle Kramer, Dominique Gardner’s mother, go on a risky rescue mission to save her daughter from R. Kelly’s captivity. Hours after Kramer found her daughter in a Los Angeles hotel room, Gardner left with her mother and they flew back to Chicago. In the fourth episode of Surviving R. Kelly Part II, we learn about the emotional struggles Dominique faced since leaving Kelly.
“She was fu**ed up,” Kramer said of Gardners’s first night back home. “I didn’t even sleep that night because I’m watching her because she couldn’t sleep because she was worried about what he was going to say.”
Before Gardner met R. Kelly, she was a bubbly teen. But after leaving him, she was dark and a loner, her mother said. She was only 98 pounds when she came home and was afraid to interact with men because Kelly’s rules still haunted her. She also felt guilty about leaving Joycelyn Savage, another woman in Kelly’s stronghold, behind.
“I felt bad for leaving her because it’s like we was all we had,” Gardner said. “That’s not my heart. I don’t just leave people hanging.” She left a letter apologizing to Joycelyn before leaving.
Gardner also detailed her relationship with Kelly and the dynamic between her, Clary, and Savage. Gardner was the most rebellious and faced “punishment,” such as being locked in a room for days at a time with little to no food. Kelly once pulled Gardner hair out to punish her.
When asked about rumors that Gardner’s masculine appearance was to please Kelly’s desire for her to be a boy, she declined to comment.
“I was not aware of Robert having attractions to boys until a couple of the girls in the house started to talk about there being a guy that he was involved with who would sometimes come into the bedroom with them,” said an anonymous, former employee.
After her mom’s rescue mission, Gardner went back to check on Joycelyn and Azriel and see Kelly. She left again after the singer didn’t allow her to attend her younger brother’s graduation and never looked back. “It took me nine years to leave,” Dominique said.
On Feb. 25, 2019, Kelly was released from Cook County, Illinois, jail after his friend Valencia Love posted $100,000 bail. Just days after being released, Gayle King interviewed R. Kelly, Azriel Clary, and Joycelyn Savage on CBS This Morning.
“I was so happy to see that his big TV interview was with Gayle King because it sort of mitigated a lot of things that he might have been able to get away with with a white journalist,” said W. Kamau Bell, stand up comedian and TV host. “There’s a narrative in American history of Black men being oppressed, being hunted, begin accused of things that we didn’t do, but when he sits across from Gayle King, she can sort of push aside that and go, ‘But what about you?’”
Robert had a breakdown and it appeared he was going to harm King during the sit-down. Survivors Asante McGee and Jerhonda Pace said that watching the interview was triggering because they remembered Kelly’s short-temperedness.
The CBS interview inspired a Saturday Night Live skit with Kenan Thompson playing Kelly and Leslie Jones as King. Both Dave Chapelle and Aziz Ansari included commentary about Kelly in their Netflix specials in 2019. People also used viral clips of Kelly’s interview and turned it into jokes.
“The response to the allegations against R. Kelly dating back to when he was dating Aaliyah, so much of it has been humor,” said writer and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux. “I don’t know that America deserves to laugh at R. Kelly because America has been laughing at R. Kelly for too long.”
Lemieux added: “What I don’t hear from Aziz Ansari nor Dave Chappelle in these routines is any sort of empathy for what happened to these girls and women.”
Toward the end of the documentary, viewers also heard from Halle Calhoun, R. Kelly’s ex-girlfriend. She met him when she was 20 at a South Carolina show with her mother. Calhoun describes a time when her mother came to visit Kelly and she became suspicious of her presence.
“When Joy and Azriel’s parents started making this a big deal, Rob was getting very paranoid and he didn’t know who was against him so when my mom wanted to see me, he did want her to go in the sauna with just a towel so he could know there were no cameras,” Calhoun said. Kelly also made Calhoun’s mother sign false documents.
Calhoun said that she and Kelly got into an altercation when he thought she was looking at another man. She shoved him because he was yelling in her face. After the fight, she had bruises on her face and neck, according to an anonymous former employee. Calhoun eventually broke up with Kelly, but she describes their interactions as something akin to normal fights significant others and family members have.
“Sometimes abuse at an early age teaches you love is violence,” said Dr. Jody Adewale, clinical psychologist. “It teaches you love is crossing my boundaries. Some of these men might actually love these women, but they hurt them. Some of these women might believe that love is hurt and most people’s book. Hurt does not equal love.”