If she were alive today, 27-year-old Rachel Elizabeth Imani Buckner would likely be on the cusp of passing her bar exam or perhaps she’d have already passed it—blazing a trail that one day her young daughter could follow. She might be standing in front of a small crowd at an open-mic night sharing her story of resiliency and survival through her spoken-word poetry.
We can only speculate what Buckner’s life might have been like and who she would have become.
When I reached out to Buckner’s mother about the possibility of sharing a piece of her daughter’s story during October, which also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness Month, she understandably asked if she could take a look at some of my work. I pulled a few columns, including my most personal piece that has turned into a book awaiting its publisher.
It’s a story about a woman who advocated for victims of dating violence and taught students about healthy, consensual relationships by day, while enduring all the things she advised against in her personal life. It’s the story of a woman who made her life smaller to avoid triggering a storm in her relationship. It’s the story of the long, treacherous, nonlinear path to finding one’s way out of an abusive or unhealthy relationship, which takes an average of seven attempts. And it details the act of swallowing all pride to reach out for help from a place like a Family Justice Center, which offers wrap-around services.
When Buckner’s mom called me, she thanked me for sharing the column and said she wished she’d have read it sooner—like in May, when it came out. Almost as quickly as I began to ask her why, I felt a weight on my chest. At that time, Rachel Elizabeth Imani Buckner was still alive and although her family and friends sensed she needed support, they didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to.
Chances are, neither did Rachel Elizabeth Imani Buckner. On July 20, 2023, around the same time that Buckner was slated to graduate from Golden Gate University Law School, she was found dead and dismembered by the Alameda shoreline.
The question is, why and by whom? Without Buckner here to share her story, we’ll never know for certain, and nobody is readily claiming responsibility. The man police identified, whose DNA was found on the duct tape of her dismembered body and the one who has been ordered to stand trial, is Buckner’s significant other—Joseph Roberts.
Roberts ironically tugged on the heartstrings of many Americans, particularly men, during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure and Betsy Devos’ Secretary of State era, as he went public with his story of being harmed by #MeToo and stringent Title IX policies that he said cost him his education at Savannah State University after women “falsely accused” him of sexual harassment without due process.
Roberts was celebrated by male interviewers, including one—who seemed to be salivating from the stardom Roberts had achieved with his op-eds in national newspapers like USA Today and the Washington Post, and his connection to the secretary of state—who stated, “If I had a son, I’d want him to grow up to be just like you.”
With an impending trial, I’ll stop short of drawing any conclusions about the suspicious and tragic nature of Buckner’s death. I will, however, share some noteworthy facts. Between January 2022 and June 2023, police reportedly responded to 17 calls for disturbances, suspicious circumstances and suspected incidents of domestic violence. As Buckner got deeper into her relationship with Roberts, her connections with family and friends, and her spoken-word appearances, largely dwindled away.
Neighbors reported hearing and seeing disturbing things, and loved ones reported having a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. On a social media platform, people who were moved and sickened by Buckner’s story expressed sadness for her prematurely punctuated life and anger with the primary suspect—her significant other. The gist of the comments boiled down to this: He must have known she was going to leave.
Statistically speaking, that conclusion makes sense. To people who ask the often unanswerable question—“Why doesn’t she just leave?”—to someone in the throes of an abusive relationship or after it’s already too late, here’s something to consider: Leaving is the most dangerous time. A woman is killed by an intimate partner every 11 minutes, and nearly 50,000 women lose their lives this way per year. The likelihood of death at the hands of an intimate partner, loved one or family member goes up for Black women, the group more vulnerable to homicide than any other group in the United States.
What can we do to curb those statistics and interrupt these cycles of violence? First of all, just as tough love doesn’t necessarily work for helping people in a cycle of addiction find sobriety, it doesn’t necessarily help people in an abusive relationship find safety either. Instead, it tends to isolate them further, which embeds them deeper into the unhealthy relationship. What works instead is planting seeds, introducing resources and making a safety plan—including a safe place to stay and a safe person to call when things fall apart.
If the person causing harm happens to be narcissistic, there’s a specific shape and pattern the relationship takes, which can be intoxicating. In the early stages, they exude a sense of awe and astonishment at how wonderful their partner is, in what is called the “love bombing” stage. In stage two, there’s a pattern of devaluing their partner—picking apart words, offering seemingly well-meaning criticism, critiquing loved ones and friends, and ultimately distancing their partner from their communities. The devaluing can also be physical.
In stage three, there’s an act of discarding, either through infidelity or the abuser threatening to leave while reiterating that nobody else will love as they do. In stage four, just as the victim may start to make peace with the loss of their partner, who they likely still love even as they begin to consider the impending freedom from this type of weighted relationship, the narcissistic partner hovers—either drawing the victim back in with false promises or more love bombs, or simply by refusing to let go.
Leaving such a relationship is hard and doing so safely is even harder. This is why we must not let shame silence us. Instead, let’s normalize the act of talking about relationships, even when they’re great, so that when they’re not so great we’ve got a safe place to turn. If we find ourselves cutting back from the activities and the people that give us joy for the sake of curbing someone else’s jealousy, make some adjustments. Relationships are meant to feel good for the most part, and while a healthy relationship likely includes some conflict or differences of perspective, an egalitarian relationship shouldn’t feel punitive or leave a person calculating their next step.
If you or someone you know needs help with transitioning out of an unhealthy relationship or in staying afloat as you weigh out your options, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233 or text 88788. If you are moved to support the family of Rachel Elizabeth Imani Buckner or to contribute toward the care of her three-year-old daughter, who is now part of the third of Americans being raised by their grandmother, you can do so by visiting: https://www.gofundme.com/f/rachel-elizabeth-imani-buckner.
Rachel Elizabeth Imani Buckner will be laid to rest after a service at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland on Nov. 8, just a few days after many people celebrate Dia de los Muertos, which is dedicated to keeping the loved ones we’ve lost along the way alive with stories, memories and celebrations. Even though Buckner’s story ends too soon, she will undoubtedly rest in power alongside so many other women whose lives ended in violence, often at the hands of someone who was once a loved one.