This weekend, I disappeared into the seductive drama and beautiful beachfront properties on HBO's Big Little Lies. I started binge-watching the series on Friday night, influenced by the show's many glowing reviews and the promise of Sunday's much-anticipated series finale. Like most people, I went into the series expecting a dramatic "whodunit" plot line played out in the wealthy seaside town of Monterey, California. What I didn't expect was a stunningly frank and nuanced portrayal of domestic violence that gave me flashbacks to my own experiences growing up with an abuser. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Big Little Lies is centered around the events leading up to a murder, but in reality the scandalous murder plot is a backdrop for exploring the complex inner lives of a group of women. Through vignettes and town gossip, we get portraits of each character's weaknesses, secrets, and bad qualities. But, much like in real-life abusive situations, the show's central domestic violence plot -- and its many ramifications -- lies just out of plain sight for everyone except the abuser and his victim.
Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, is a former attorney who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to twin boys. She's married to Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), an attractive and extremely successful man who seemingly treats her like a queen -- but he slaps, pushes, punches, and suffocates her behind closed doors. Like most of the abusive partners we see on TV, Perry showers his wife with expensive gifts following his transgressions, and she uses makeup to cover her bruises. But Big Little Lies goes far beyond these shallow portraits of abuser and victim, and it challenges the one-size-fits-all abuse narrative we're so used to seeing.
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Perry is not the flat, singularly evil nemesis we've come to associate with abusive characters. He's a good father -- "I couldn't think of a better father," Celeste says during therapy -- he appears to harbor genuine affection for his wife, and he even admits his abuse. Similarly, Celeste is conflicted and complex. She vascillates between accusing her husband of wrongdoing and trying to take some sort of joint responsibility for what she calls their "volatile" relationship. She justifies her decision to stay by talking about how madly in love she is with Perry and how he'd never ever hurt their children. In a therapy session, she confidently rejects the label of victim.
I grew up in a home with domestic violence. My parents split up when I was 8, but prior to that, I witnessed arguments that ended in bruises, bloodshed, and sometimes frantic calls to the police. Like Perry, my dad was a good father and the kind of man you'd never expect to hurt his wife. He was successful, charismatic, good-looking. My mom was beautiful, strong, and intelligent -- the kind of woman who'd never put up with an abuser or allow that sort of thing to happen in front of her kids.
But it did happen, because as Big Little Lies so deftly shows, abuse can happen in any home and to any person -- and it changes the way every single person in that household interacts with the outside world. For Celeste, hiding the abuse is a full-time occupation. Not only does she cover the physical marks, but she distances herself from people as well. When she and her friends meet for coffee, they share details of their lives and their dramas but she doesn't. Her silence is easy to overlook, unless you've lived with that kind of a secret. For me, my father's abuse diminished my capacity for intimacy among friends because I knew my homelife wasn't normal, and I couldn't openly share it the way other people did.
Celeste also tries to compartmentalize the abuse in another way: hiding it from her children. Celeste says over and over again that Perry is a wonderful father who'd never hurt his kids, and she uses this fact and the fact that her kids never witness the abuse as a justification for staying in her marriage. But, by the final episode of the series, the audience knows that Celeste's son is viciously bullying a little girl at school -- choking her and biting her, and threatening to kill her if she tells anyone. We also watch as her son walks into his parents' room just seconds after Perry sucker-punches Celeste. Perry tells his son that his mom is hunched over because she isn't feeling well, but as Celeste says later in the episode, the kids know -- they can hear it, they sense it.
My father never directly abused me. He physically and emotionally abused my mother in heinous ways, but on the weekends we played catch in the front yard and he taught me everything he knew about cooking. By any outside account, he was an amazing father. Yet, I live with the repercussions of abuse every day. I am intimately familiar with the rage, shame, terror, and confusion Celeste displays throughout the series.
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What Big Little Lies did was masterfully capture every subtlety of abuse -- every lie and excuse, every justification, every way that an abuser struggles to reconcile his own actions, every way children sense and are harmed by the abuse that surrounds them, every way a victim wonders whether or not she should leave and how to do right by her kids and how to reconcile the feelings she has for her partner with a life-threatening pattern of abuse that's completely out of her control.
It's uncomfortable to watch, because it's so familiar to people who grew up in abusive households like I did. But it's also uncomfortable because it challenges our idea of what abuse looks like. It's not deadbeat meathead versus weak victim. Abusers and their victims are human, and the emotions surrounding abuse are extremely complex. Roughly one in three women is a victim of intimate partner violence, and yet we rarely talk about abuse as if it could happen to anyone we know.
Maybe if we had more honest portrayals of abuse, like the one in Big Little Lies, the complex realities of dosmetic violence wouldn't be met with so much silence.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of domestic abuse, you can find help and support at DVIS.org, the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or by contacting your local women's shelter.