How Gabby Petito's Death Exposed a Dark Side of #VanLife

Several years ago, Annie decided to buy a van. With her partner at the time, she made a pact: they were going to save $10,000 each and then hit the road for a year, living out of their van and hitting 49 states.

It was fairly early in the evolution of the #vanlife influencer community on social media. At the time, there were few depictions of the lifestyle on Instagram: cozy, sun-drenched selfies in perfectly appointed backseats with nary a crumpled Doritos bag or empty soda bottle in sight; bright red buttes and cliffs framed by flawlessly filtered vistas. But Annie was drawn to the idea of total freedom, of seeing places she’d never been before, of not being tethered to a schedule or agenda. “It’s a lot less destination and trail-focused, but focused on the concept of living outside, living freely, not being tied to the 9 to 5, being tied to my body and mind,” she says. 

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Annie, whose name has been changed, says that she and her partner had been dating for about six months before they set off on the road together. The relationship was not going well; she says her partner exhibited verbally abusive, controlling behavior, constantly interrogating her about her past romantic relationships and preventing her from going out with certain people. Then it started to turn physical, she says: he would punch walls, back her into corners, or scream while she cowered beneath him. But she felt hopeful that living their shared dream together would bring about a shift. “We’d been working towards a big project for what felt like a really long time. I felt like I’d feel remorseful if I didn’t just try to get on the road and maybe things would change,” she says.

As Annie describes it, they didn’t. As they traveled throughout the United States, the abuse continued apace, Annie says. “There was more isolation. We went all over the country and we were in the middle of nowhere most of the time,” she says. “All my belongings were with me and stress was really high.” Because they were together in a small space 24/7, she had no ability to communicate with her family and friends what was going on. “I thought ‘Can I endure this for another 24 hours? Is this the day I can sneak away and leave and get a flight even though i have no car and any way to get anywhere?,’” she says. 

Eventually, Annie says, she and her former partner got in a booze-and-jealousy-fueled argument, which culminated in him grabbing her by the throat. She says he later claimed he was trying to keep her quiet, so other campers wouldn’t hear her shouting. “I was scared and I was ashamed,” she says. “It was the most violent things had gotten at that point.”

Annie does not believe that her road trip with her then-partner caused or exacerbated the abuse. “It was already progressing over time anyways,” she says. “I think it was a form of isolation that he was able to use as a tactic.” Yet her experience reflects the darker side of the hyper-curated, Instagram-ready #vanlife couple aesthetic, in which the circumstances of the lifestyle — disconnection from one’s support system, social isolation, nomadism — create the perfect conditions for already-existing abuse to worsen. “This is a life of wanderlust,” says Travis Wild, a van life blogger who wrote a post on the subject of domestic abuse in the community in 2020. “But at the same time these are issues our community is facing and it won’t get any better by not talking about it.”

Domestic abuse within the van life community has gotten some attention with the disappearance and death of Gabby Petito, who with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie vlogged about their van life adventures on their YouTube channel, Nomadic Statik. Since her disappearance, details have emerged regarding Petito’s relationship with Laundrie, whom friends described as jealous and controlling. (Laundrie has disappeared and was thus unavailable to be reached for comment.)

Audio from a 911 call following a dispute the couple had in Moab, Utah supports the idea that the relationship was at the very least highly toxic, with one witness reporting that he had seen Laundrie slap Petito and another stating that the pair argued “aggressively.” Bodycam footage taken by police showed officers questioning Laundrie about scratches on his face, which he said were from Petito; Petito, for her part, seemed agitated in the footage, assuming blame for the entire incident.

On September 1st, Laundrie returned to Florida by himself, and on September 11, Petito’s family reported her missing. Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming on Sunday, and police are currently searching for Laundrie in Venice, Florida, where Laundrie last told his parents he was headed.

The Petito case has shaken the tight-knit van dwelling influencer subculture, which has grown tremendously in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of remote work. “This is the most united I’ve seen the van life community, ever,” says Amber, one half of the van life blogging couple Always an Adventure. It has also led to increased scrutiny on the community and questions as to whether van life is necessarily a safe and healthy choice for many couples, who agree that being in confined quarters for extended periods of time can be something of a pressure cooker.

“Being in close contact with many people could lead to contentious relationships,” says Maureen Curtis, vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon, a national domestic violence hotline. “We saw it with Covid and the increase with physical violence, or family violence where we saw more reports of escalated violence between family members. People were confined to tight spaces. So yes, it’s not surprising if I’m traveling around in an RV, that could lead to an escalation of violence if there is already some type of DV.”

Such violence doesn’t necessarily have to entail physical abuse, she says — it could also involve forms of coercive control, or “the isolation, the humiliation, the stalking behaviors that are not physical but are still very threatening and even terrorizing and oftentimes indicators of what could be future lethal violence.” The nomadic lifestyle, she says, could potentially make it easier for abusers to continue such behavior unnoticed, because they are removing victims from their support systems. “One of the tactics abusive partners use is isolation,” says Curtis. “So it would be easier to isolate a person if you’re traveling around and don’t have time to develop a support system.”

Even in the healthiest of relationships, embarking on van life as a couple also makes it easier to lose your own sense of identity. Lisa Jacobs, an influencer and #vanlife mentor, broke up with her then-partner just a few weeks into their inaugural trip together; though she does not classify the relationship as abusive, she says he later sued her for ownership of their van. (Ultimately, they parties settled and in connection with that, and he agreed to a permanent injunction prohibiting him from contacting her, or posting information about her on social media.) “Once you’re in the world of a van, it’s a world where you can’t escape the problems of the relationship,” she says. She says the hardest thing about being in a relationship and doing #vanlife is losing your own sense of self in the process. “You make every decision together and you make more decisions than you do normally — where to stop, what to eat, what to look at. You’re no longer able to do your own thing,” she says. “You’re really part of this one unit together.” 

Being on social media and documenting your travels together for a loyal following also makes it more difficult to leave a toxic or abusive relationship. Jacobs says she felt “incredibly embarrassed” when she posted on Instagram that she had broken up with her then-partner. “You feel this pressure because the audience cares about the van. And there is this weird sort of identity crisis when you leave the van,” she says. When people leave the lifestyle, she says she sees a frequent type of post: “People almost come out. They’re like, ‘Hey, I’m not a van-lifer anymore, guys. I hope you still want to watch me live in a house now!’” 

Jacobs does not believe that #vanlife is inherently dangerous or bad for couples.” I have seen the healthiest, happy relationships ever in van life,” says Jacobs. “When you get two people who want to create their own path and not create their own norms, they’re limitless.” Annie agrees: “More what I see is people using van life as a resource to get out of bad situations. I know a lot of people who have left abusive partners, abusive households. I don’t think it necessarily cultivates a space for violence. I think it’s another avenue an abuser could use if they wanted to, but i believe at the end of the day abuse is because of abusers.”

Yet the Petito case has shone a light on the potential underbelly of the subculture and how it may make victims of emotional or physical abuse more vulnerable, as well as the potential red flags that Instagram followers or fellow travelers should watch out for, such as isolation — Annie says when she was with her partner, she barely encountered any other members of the van life community, and does so now on a regular basis — and skewed power dynamics, such as one partner trying to control another partner’s movement or communication. 

But the unfortunate reality of the nomadic lifestyle is that many of the traditional signs of domestic abuse may be hard for outsiders to spot, says Curtis — and even if they do, they may not want to intervene, as was the case with the witnesses who saw Petito arguing with Laundrie in Utah. “If you see a couple arguing, where one person clearly looks frightened of the other, one person is threatening the other, one person may be yanking at that person’s arm or pushing that person — it’s interesting even in this day and age, people are likely to walk away from that and say ‘that’s none of my business,’ and not want to get involved. Sadly a lot of people may just walk away from that situation,” she says. 

For Annie, who split up from her partner just a month after the Wyoming incident, when they cut their trip short early and returned home, learning the details of the Petito case has been triggering. She keeps having memories of being locked out of the van and running down the road, a light chasing her in the darkness. “It’s hard to think about anyone else having to experience that. It makes me so sad,” she says. 

But it’s going back out on the road and hopping back in the van — this time, as a solo traveler — that ultimately helped her heal. Just a few months after her breakup, she pooled all of her resources and headed back out on the road. She’s been in the #vanlife community on and off ever since. “I was able to go out in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks and think and cry and yell and process,” she says. “Van life has really saved me, and while the domestic abuse may have been a small piece in this chapter of my life, it is also the thing that has allowed me to really thrive and heal.”

If you are currently experiencing domestic violence and are seeking help, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or text “START” to 88788.

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