Ali and Ana Abulaban were one of TikTok’s favorite couples. On social media, the young love birds seemed happy, dancing to music and documenting heartwarming moments with their 5-year-old daughter.
Fans swooned over the seemingly perfect, “drama-free” relationship. That is, until Ana was found dead on Oct. 21.
Ali, 29, was taken to San Diego Central Jail last month, booked on two counts of murder.
Prosecutors say Ali was nothing like his cool and collected online persona. They say the TikTok star (@JinnKid) was controlling, emotionally abusive and even installed a listening device on his daughter’s tablet to spy on his wife, who was in the process of ending the marriage. After confessing to detectives, he pleaded not guilty to fatally shooting Ana and a man she was with, according to the Associated Press.
The tragedy had fans wondering what they failed to see while watching the videos the couple posted. But experts say the pressures of quick “highlight reels” on social media make it difficult for domestic abuse victims to speak out about a reality that differs from their “perfect” image.
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Most people ‘fakebook’ to some extent. But for victims of abuse, the incentive is greater.
Some people questioned how someone like Ali, a handsome, respected influencer, could be accused of murder. Or how Brian Laundrie could be accused of killing girlfriend Gabby Petito. Fans thought Laundrie seemed caring and sweet in her YouTube travel vlogs.
But Julie Owens, a domestic abuse survivor who consults about violence against women, isn’t surprised.
“There’s a stereotype that abusers are lower class, tough guys. But that’s not always true. Most abusers are the guy next door, and the fact that they can act calm, cool and self-confident in public is no different than most abusers.”
For the person doing harm, it’s important to not only control others but also to control their image. That’s why they often put on a “nice guy” front on social media, says Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at University of Maryland Law School.
“The abuser is invested in an image of themselves as in-control, positive, well-liked and loving, because all of that helps to undermine the claims that their victim might make if that person chooses to tell anyone,” she adds.
However, there are a variety of reasons why the victim may also perpetuate the narrative of a healthy romance. Sometimes, it’s about worrying what will happen if they admit the truth. Other times, it’s about shielding family members and friends from a dark reality.
“Victims are prone to depression because they feel trapped. They’re afraid if they reach out, there will be retaliation or it’ll get worse,” Owens says.
Experts say victims are also at higher risk for anxiety, PTSD, drug addiction and suicidality. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), survivors of intimate partner violence are twice as likely to attempt suicide multiple times.
Why it’s hard to spot signs of abuse — until it’s too late
Domestic violence is a preventable and widespread public health problem that cuts across race, age, income, sexual orientation, religion and gender, in terms of both victims and perpetrators. Experts said individual instances of intimate partner violence – particularly when it involves a celebrity or when that violence turns fatal for a white victim – capture public attention.
Public awareness matters to the extent that it helps people understand the dynamics of domestic abuse. More people who can spot abusive behavior can help intervene. More people who understand the barriers survivors face in ending an abusive relationship can offer tangible support once they are ready to leave.
But despite decades of advocacy, stereotypes about domestic violence persist, including that all perpetrators look like “monsters” or that abuse always begins right away. Domestic abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic and psychological, according to the Justice Department. Many victims say the physical abuse isn’t even the worst part.
“Physical abuse is horrible and there’s a range that goes from slapping to murder,” Goodmark says. “But when you isolate someone, when you convince them they’re worthless, when you prevent them from interacting with others — those effects can be much more long-lasting than some of the effects of physical abuse.”
If you are a victim of domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety for themselves and their children.
Safe Horizon’s hotline offers crisis counseling, safety planning, and assistance finding shelters: 800-621-HOPE (4673). It has a chat feature where you can reach out for help from a computer or phone confidentially.
Contributing: Alia Dastagir