HBO’s Big Little Lies reached a feverish conclusion with Sunday’s episode. After seven episodes of drawn-out suspense and remarkably good acting and directing of Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel adaptation, the finale revealed who was killed and how and a few other character surprises along the way (if you don't want all kinds of spoilers, I suggest you stop reading now).
As the limited series comes to a close, I can’t help but applaud the producing collaboration between Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon with director Jean-Marc Vallée. The series managed to preserve the novel’s tragi-comic tone while still telling a story of authentic, if complicated, relationships among women. Madeline (Witherspoon) hides the pain from a past divorce and infidelity; Jane (Shailene Woodley) grapples with the truth about her son’s violent conception; Celeste (Kidman) comes to terms with the fact that the man she loves beats her. What’s so relatable about the show, as the book, is that we all have one or more of these little lies in our own lives. Some are bigger than others.
My big little lie was similar to Celeste’s (minus the wealth and the house on the beach). And as a woman who had been caught in an abuse cycle, I found Kidman's portrayal to be a wonderfully bright light on an abuse narrative that is often not discussed. Conditioned by so many poorly portrayed abuse stories (Sleeping with the Enemy for example), I believed that victims couldn’t be strong...or angry. Victims didn’t fight back. But Celeste does like I did. Now, years after having left and received therapy of my own, I know how my fighting back didn’t make me less than a victim. I just wasn't the victim you usually saw on screen—until now.
My story might not have blown up as spectacularly as the crashing waves of Big Little Lies and the fatal climactic ending we saw last night. But I was in a marriage very much as violent as Celeste's, one as hard to let go of, and one I'm very thankful to be free from. And I can say that one of the most impressive things about HBO's production of Big Little Lies is the realness of its depiction of domestic abuse.
In the show’s first glimpse of the couple’s violent dynamics, Celeste's husband, Perry, roughly grabs her as he tries to block her from leaving the room, and she fiercely shoves him back, revealing a victim type Hollywood has long deemed either invisible or unworthy. Series writer David E. Kelly describes it when he says, “it’s different from the more conventional versions of domestic violence. A lot of these situations can occur with two very strong partners. And Celeste is such a woman.”
Comprehending abuse dynamics eludes many, which makes Big Little Lies' feat even more of an accomplishment. As it happens, I read the book with my mother and my sister just weeks after I’d left my abusive husband. The novel served as a bridge between my family members and me to translate much of what was incomprehensible to them and incommunicable from me about the man I’d left. How did I end up with an abuser? And why did I stay so long? Through Celeste, the novel provided answers to these elusive questions that I was unable to provide.
As the novel came to life in the series, Vallée, who also directed Witherspoon in Wild, was masterful with the fractured coherence of post-trauma. Like Celeste, I was in denial about the dangers of my relationship. It took me months before I could even use phrases like “abuse” or “domestic violence” or even describe the assaults without minimizing and excusing them. Just like Celeste’s character to her therapist, for months I would spit out words like, “Look, I’m not a victim here,” going over preambles to arguments and my anger in response, believing that those elements freed me from the constraints of victimhood. Celeste seeks therapy to repair her relationship, but she is blessed with a therapist who sees her marriage for what it really is: a deadly threat.
My life with my ex- was varied, challenging, fun, full of fascinating conversation. The physical violence made up mere minutes out of several years together. It took me a long time to realize that the few bad minutes—minutes in which I would have feared for my life had I not been so numb—were all it took to define the entire relationship. I now know that just as there are many temperament types, there are many ways a person can react to being the target of domestic abuse: desperate attempts at de-escalation, flight, freezing, or fighting back. And, as Celeste pointed out to Perry, fighting back in self-defense is not “mutual abuse.”
The show also expertly captured that abusers are not one-dimensional monsters, with violence as their leading characteristic. They are people with vulnerabilities and moments of goodness. Perry struggles with his vulnerability and shame in therapy as he confesses his abuse to the therapist. He reveals his crippling fear that the gorgeous and brilliant Celeste would “figure [him] out” and leave him. He tenderly embraces Celeste moments after slamming her around their bedroom.
For a long time, I was silenced by the fact that domestic violence and abuse have an everydayness to them. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt when your husband attacks you. My ex- didn’t start smoking when he became abusive. Life goes from a mundane discussion to being knocked to the floor and strangled, and just as quickly, it goes back to straightening the furniture and getting ready for bed amid apologies and vigorous resolutions. I never could explain why I didn’t leave.
After watching Perry's tenderness and Celeste's conflicted hope on Big Little Lies I recalled a time when I regained consciousness after my husband gave me a knock-out concussion only to hear him on the phone with 911 dispatch, carefully giving them the details, voicing his concern for my well-being. When Jane says of her rapist, "I'm so desperate to believe that Ziggy's father (who turned out to be Perry) is a good person" I knew exactly what she was talking about. When your life intimately intersects with an abuser, particularly one you’re in love with, there is a deep yearning for his redemption; and you can start to believe that your own redemption is tied to his.
This problematic logic is more mainstream than you may think. Take a look at so many love and friendship themes in the typical Hollywood film: film after film applauds a persistent, hopeful, naïve character (usually a woman) for persevering in a relationship with a damaged, often unkind protagonist. Recent films with this theme range from Moana to Beauty & the Beast to 50 Shades Darker. Redemptive story arcs about forgiveness and change are good things, but at what point is it okay for one to walk away, realizing that waiting for another’s redemption is destroying you?
In the final episode, as Perry begs Celeste to believe in him and wait for him to change, viewers hear both his desperation for support, and her need to recover her autonomy, sense of worth, and safety. Learning as she does that his behavior has affected the children, she realizes that while a divorce is a terrible reality, it is not always the worst evil.
This production of a story written by a woman and co-produced by the amazing Kidman and Witherspoon captures the uniquely female experience. Difficult topics like abuse are ones that deserve thought and attention and spotlight, but too often they’re shown as either deceptively attractive or one-dimensionally evil. As Vallée said, “Domestic violence—it can happen anywhere.” Victims don’t earn abuse through calculated choices any more than other people earned their safety. Kidman’s character was always strong; it’s just that for so long, she employed her strength to fight for her relationship and cover up for her abuser. Once she reached the clarity to tear down her denial, she could begin to use her strength to free herself.
I, too, remember that shift. I moved out; I started attending a support group; and I soon realized that while our marriage was irreparable, my life wasn't. My vulnerability became one of my strengths as I could take what I learned from my experiences, grow from them, and help others avoid them as well. Given the realness of Big Little Lies on both page and screen, it's clear to me that someone also close to this issue provided inspiration behind the scenes. If that's not taking a weakness and making it a strength, I don't know what is.
*The author of this piece is Julia Hawthorne. That is not her real name. A pen name was chosen to protect her and her family.
Photo Credit: HBO