To casual fans, Like a Prayer, Madonna’s fourth studio album, is epitomized by the gospel-inspired title track—and its Vatican-shamed music video—as well as the female empowerment anthem “Express Yourself.” But it’s the portions of the album that ostensibly explore the pop superstar’s crumbling relationship with actor Sean Penn, whom she divorced while recording it, that sees Madonna at her most vulnerable, and introspective. One of these tracks is “Till Death Do Us Part,” a soul-baring, urgent anthem dressed up as a cheery pop song.
“I think I interrupt your life. When you laugh it cuts me just like a knife. I’m not your friend, I’m just your little wife,” she sings. “They never laugh, not like before. She takes the keys, he breaks the door. She cannot stay here anymore. He’s not in love with her anymore…He takes a drink, she goes inside. He starts to scream, the vases fly. He wishes that she wouldn’t cry. He’s not in love with her anymore.”
In court documents filed Thursday, Madonna spoke publicly about the history of abuse allegations against Penn for the first time, claiming that while her relationship with the famously hotheaded actor was indeed turbulent, he never went as far as hitting her.
“I am aware of the allegations that have surfaced over the years accusing Sean of incidents of physical assault and abuse against me,” Madonna testified in the amended complaint. “Specifically, I am aware of the allegations concerning an alleged incident that occurred in June, 1987, whereby (according to tabloid reports), Sean allegedly struck me with “a baseball bat.” I know the allegations in those and other reports to be completely outrageous, malicious, reckless, and false.” She continued: “I am also aware of allegations concerning an incident that occurred in December, 1989, which purportedly resulted in Sean’s arrest for domestic assault and battery against me. I know those allegations to be false. While we certainly had more than one heated argument during our marriage, Sean has never struck me, ‘tied me up,’ or physically assaulted me, and any report to the contrary is completely outrageous, malicious, reckless, and false.”
The amended complaint, which included Madonna’s statement, was filed by Penn as part of a $10 million lawsuit he’s brought against Empire co-creator and Oscar-winning director Lee Daniels for comments he made in a September interview with The Hollywood Reporter. In discussing his Empire star Terrence Howard’s long, sordid history of domestic abuse, Daniels said, “[Terrence] ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some fuckin’ demon. That’s a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America.”
In Penn’s lawsuit, which can be read here in full, it says, “Daniels falsely equates Penn with Howard, even though, while he has certainly had several brushes with the law, Penn (unlike Howard) has never been arrested, much less convicted, for domestic violence, as his ex-wives (including Madonna) would confirm and attest.”
Madonna met Penn when he visited the set of her video for “Material Girl,” and the two married in 1985. The first year of their marriage was seemingly blissful—if her lovey-dovey 1986 album True Blue, named after Penn’s favorite expression, was any indication. “This is dedicated to my husband, the coolest guy in the universe,” Madonna wrote in the album’s liner notes.
But not long after its release, things got complicated. The pair was constantly stalked by the paparazzi, including on the set of their disastrous 1986 film Shanghai Surprise. It was there that Penn, by his own admission, assaulted Leonel Borralho, a stringer for the Hong Kong Standard, after the photographer snapped a picture of Madonna in Macau.
Penn recounted the incident in Richard T. Kelly’s authorized biography Sean Penn: His Life and Times. He described how, after entering his hotel, someone “lunged at him.” So, with the aid of his bodyguard/kickboxing coach, Penn “grabbed the guy, ran him through the room to the balcony and hung him over—on the ninth floor.” Penn claims he then realized the man was a photographer, let him go, and was thrown in a Macau jail cell. When he noticed the cell door was open, he fled with his bodyguard and escaped Macau (the country later pardoned him, he claims).
People magazine also recounted an alleged incident from April 1986. “In an L.A. nightclub, Penn sees songwriter David Wolinski bussing Madonna, an old acquaintance, and savagely attacks with fists, feet and a chair. He’s fined $1,000 and gets a year’s probation. ‘The marriage had been undergoing stress all the time,’ says a friend of Madonna’s, ‘but this was the first major stress, the first really traumatic episode for her. Wolinski was someone she knew, and it really shook her up.’” The piece further claimed that Madonna “sought psychiatric help” shortly after their wedding for Penn’s “drinking and temper tantrums.” But as far as tabloid rumors concerning the stormy Penn-Madonna relationship go, the alleged 1989 incident at their Malibu home always stood out.
In 1991, The Seattle Times published a story titled “A Marriage Filled With Abuse.” The piece contained excerpts from a recent book titled Madonna Unauthorized by Christopher Andersen.
Here are portions of what the Times printed concerning an alleged incident over Christmas weekend, 1989—the details of which Madonna claimed Thursday in her court filing were “completely outrageous, malicious, reckless, and false”: “Penn, frustrated and drunk, staked out the Malibu house. Around 4 p.m., after Madonna had given her small household staff the rest of the day off, he scaled the fence encircling the estate, broke into the house and confronted a terrified Madonna. After slapping her around, he bound and gagged her, then strapped her to a chair with twine. He berated and beat her for two hours, then stormed out of the house.”
“Gagged, tied up and trembling with fear, Madonna waited for hours for help to arrive. Incredibly, Penn returned, swigging tequila, and began tormenting her all over again. This time, she managed to persuade him to untie her. Once free, she dashed out of the house, jumped into the coral-colored 1957 Thunderbird Penn had bought her for her 28th birthday, locked the doors and called the police on her car phone. She then sped off to the Malibu sheriff’s station to swear out a complaint against her husband.”
The Times piece further claimed that Penn told police “Madonna had trumped up the charges to get even with him for dating a stripper,” and a week after the incident, on the same day Madonna filed for divorce from Penn, “she met with Deputy District Attorney Lauren Weiss and told her she had decided to withdraw her complaint against Penn.”
Of the alleged Malibu incident, according to the New York Post, “Lieutenant Bill McSweeney recalled: ‘When Madonna staggered into the station, she was distraught, crying, with makeup smeared all over her face. I hardly recognized her…she had obviously been struck.’”
In recent years, things have been amicable between Madonna and Penn. The two have been spotted in public on numerous occasions, and in September, she serenaded him with the song he inspired, “True Blue,” during her Madison Square Garden concert.
“She’d had enough, she says the end,” sang Madonna on “Till Death Do Us Part.” “But she’ll come back, she knows it then. A chance to start it all again. Till death do us part.”