By Ashley Young
The beating death of Sheryl Outerbridge by the hands of her poly lovers weighed heavy on my heart this season. According to The New York Times, Sheryl, a 38-year-old mother of three, was murdered by her two poly, married lovers, Malik and Devonne Wilkerson. When police asked Ms. Wilkerson about the couple’s motive, she explained that Sheryl had broken a boundary in the relationship: she got a tattoo of Ms. Wilkerson’s pet name for her husband, “Bish Baby.”
As an open, poly practitioner, I was shocked to hear about the death of another black woman exploring multiple relationships but was even more shocked at the commentary from readers that it was the act of polyamory that caused Sheryl’s death.
People in poly relationships break established boundaries all the time. Boundaries can be broken in any type of relationship, but the breaking of those boundaries are not to be settled with fists. They are explored through communication. Unfortunately, if the person was not raised around relationships where communication was used to work through partnership issues, they have no example of how to communicate in their own.
Sheryl met the Wilkersons while she was in another abusive relationship. Her cycles of abuse stemmed from witnessing violence as a child—her mother was a victim of spousal abuse with a drug and alcohol problem. When Mr. Wilkerson confronted Sheryl’s abusive ex, she may have thought he and his wife where rescuing her from more heartache, unaware that she was only entering back into yet another cycle of abuse.
Sheryl experienced violence by the hands of Mr. Wilkerson before she lost her life. Friends and neighbors said after the couple moved into her Manhattan apartment, the fights, the bruises and the broken bones came. When the couple moved Sheryl to their home in Queens, the abuse only continued in the form of black eyes, busted lips and cigarette burns. The night that Sheryl tried to flee the couple’s home, the Wilkersons found her and brought her back to their residence where they killed her.
This murder has less to do with polyamory and more so to do with jealousy and rage. Ms. Wilkerson responded to the breaking of a poly boundary with anger and violence, an action she most likely experienced at the hands of her own husband. And even if she did not directly experience the type of violence Mr. Wilkerson had previously inflicted on Sheryl Outerbridge, she lived with a man who encouraged violence.
I decided to become polyamorous to break violent relationship cycles. Like Sheryl, I witnessed abuse as a child. My mother fled from my father’s abuse when I was only a toddler. I stood between the two of them fighting over child support, visitation and whatever else they could manage to dispute over. By example, I entered my first abusive relationship at 15 and I consider myself lucky for getting out when I did, lucky that the guy I dated only yelled in my face instead of putting his hands on me.
I fight my own pathology every day. Not only do I fight entering into violent relationships, I fight against inflicting violence on others in response to my own pain and I fight against inflicting pain on myself.
I imagine Sheryl was fighting her pathology as well, but it’s hard to run away from abusive relationships when you are in them, regardless of whether they take the form of monogamy or polyamory. I thought of Sheryl throughout the holiday as I mustered up the courage to write this and what continues to feed my aching about this case is the fact that her three children celebrated Christmas without her and will do so for the rest of their lives. I only hope her children can break the pathology and the cycles of abuse their mother fought and died for.
Ashley Young is a Black queer feminist writer and poet working as an editor in New York City. She received her B.A. from Hampshire College where she studied education and theater and is earning a certification in copyediting at New York University. She is a 2010 Voices of Our Nations Art Foundation Poetry Fellow and a 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Creative Non-Fiction Fellow. Her feminist poetry and prose have been published in Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal, Autostraddle, Her Circle Magazine and more. She authored a chapter in “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion” (Seal Press, 2012) and will appear in Wisconsin Press’ anthology “All About Skins: Short Fiction by Award Winning Women of Color” and Andrea Boston’s anthology “Oddflower.” She is working on her first novel, an Audre Lorde-inspired biomythography titled The Liberation of the Black Unicorn.