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Kemba Smith's Hard Time

It was July after sophomore year, Kemba and Peter had known each other for five or six months, and she had gone with friends to a basketball game in Philadelphia. Peter was due to meet her there. After the game, a guy she'd recently met grabbed her hand flirtatiously, and she looked up to see Peter in the crowd, watching her.

That night, Peter asked her to come to his hotel room. He accused Kemba of being naive, and told her that the casual acquaintance was trying to have sex with her.

"He was just saying, 'Well, I'm gonna show you what would have happened to you,' " Kemba says. ". . . He straddled me on the bed and he started strangling me and hitting me at the same time. And I can just remember it going through my head that 'I'm gonna die.' "

She quit fighting when she realized that made it worse. When he stopped, Kemba's face was swollen and ruddy. One eye was bleeding--badly enough that she later went to a doctor and said she'd been in a car accident. Peter comforted her and told her not to be frightened of him, that he was only trying to teach her.

That night in his bed, she curled up in a fetal position, afraid to move.

The next day, Kemba says, "I was like, when I got home, I'm gonna tell somebody or I'm gonna tell the police. . . . But in between leaving that morning and getting back to Virginia, my whole thought processes changed because of the [consoling] way he was treating me and the way I was thinking that maybe it was my fault."

At 19, Kemba was only too ready to blame herself. She was insecure. She deferred easily. She trusted easily.

Occasionally, she says things even now that suggest how easy a victim she must have been. She mentions in passing that a guy she dated in college before Peter also hit her a few times. No big deal, she adds quickly.

"I mean, I never had like a mark or anything."

What made her this way? The blame, the blame. In the aftermath of Kemba's incarceration, blame showered everyone.

Was it something she learned from Odessa, who is emotionally fragile; who married the first man she fell for; who is, in her own words, "very trusting, very trusting"?

"Maybe if my mom had talked to me about relationships and how they should be," Kemba starts to say. "But I don't like to fault my mom."

Was it something about Gus, the one with ready answers, the firm disciplinarian who aimed to protect his only child from a big, bad world?

"First thing we asked: Where did we go wrong as parents?" Gus says. Then he speculates: "You focus so much on the positive that they're somewhat sheltered from the negative."

Kemba grew up in a household where the power structure was clearly defined. Her father made the decisions. Her mother believed his judgment was often better anyway. Gus never hit her, Odessa says, but there were "great moments of anger. . . .

"He is the type of man who would never hit me . . . but to push, to grab my arm or something like that, she has probably seen," Odessa says.

As Kemba grew up, she says she noticed her father learned to control his temper. Later, when she was dating Peter, she expected the same pattern: that Peter would get better, rather than worse.

By the fall of 1991, Kemba usually slept at Peter's off-campus apartment, taking his clothes to the laundry, cooking him dinners as she'd seen her mom do for her dad. He bought her clothes and jewelry. He had beaten her twice since the incident in Philadelphia--once when Kemba shook another man's hand goodbye, and again when she opened the door for another man.

If Kemba had any doubts about rumors that Peter was dealing, an incident in September 1991 erased them. Peter was arrested in Hampton on trespassing charges that revealed at least one previous outstanding drug charge.

During the four months Peter spent in prison, Kemba says, "he would write me letters saying how he was glad what happened happened and that he could start a clean slate." He seemed so kind and sincere at these moments, Kemba says, "I wanted to be there for him."

She helped get Peter released by delivering a retainer fee to an attorney, money given to her by an associate of Peter's in the drug operation. After Peter made bond, he skipped out.

Motivation is a slippery creature. How to know whether Kemba operated at this time out of desire--for a man, a status, a lifestyle--or fear? Now, before the circumstances had turned entirely sinister, could she have left the relationship?

Kemba and her therapists say the Philadelphia incident was decisive. They argue that after the choking, a switch was thrown in Kemba's psyche. She felt threatened, helpless and determined to do whatever it took to survive.

Holly Maguigan, a professor of clinical law at New York University who specializes in domestic violence cases, says research supports the idea that a brutal first-time event can create enough fear to prevent a woman from leaving.

Back in December 1991, if you had asked Kemba why she helped bring Peter home, she would have said "love." Now, she believes the impulse to save him was really an impulse to save herself, because even when he was far away, she did not feel secure. He had friends. He would get out one day.

"I was in something that I had lost control of, and everything was just him--what he wanted me to do," she says.

In the summer of 1992, Kemba became involved in the drug ring in a number of supporting roles. Sometimes she carried a gun in her purse for him. Eventually, she flew to New York with money strapped to her body.

"I was scared," she says. "I couldn't believe he was asking me. I initially asked him, 'Why me?' And he exploded and was like, 'Don't ask any questions, just do it.' And he started getting the money together and pulling out what he wanted me to wear."

Later, she rode back to Charlotte in a van carrying cocaine, although she says she never knew drugs were tucked in a hidden compartment inside the vehicle.

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