“Big Eyes”: Effects of Having a Manipulative Spouse

Recently Amy Adams won a Golden Globe for her starring role in Tim Burton‘s Big Eyes, based on the true story of Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter (1915-2000) (Christoph Waltz) for many years took credit for her famous love-’em-or-hate-’em big-eyed paintings.

The trailer for Big Eyes:

The following may contain some SPOILERS regarding the story of their lives, which is said to be pretty accurately represented in the film.

History Vs. Hollywood notes that Margaret has described herself as having been “extremely timid and shy” in the marriage. From SFGate: “Back then, women kind of went along with their husbands, didn’t rock the boat,” Margaret says. “He finally wore me down. While we were fighting this out at home, the paintings were just flying off the walls. Posters were selling. It was unbelievable. It snowballed overnight. I kept getting in deeper and deeper…I lost all respect for him and myself, and lived in a nightmare.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times, writes of Walter’s “sadistic, controlling behavior,” while Tony Bartolone, Huffington Post, says Big Eyes shows him as a “relentlessly charming and manipulative merchandiser.”

Preston Ni (Psychology Today) cites four characteristics of a manipulative person:

  1. They know how to detect your weaknesses.
  2. Once found, they use your weaknesses against you.
  3. Through their shrewd machinations, they convince you to give up something of yourself in order to serve their self-centered interests.
  4. In work, social, and family situations, once a manipulator succeeds in taking advantage of you, he or she will likely repeat the violation until you put a stop to the exploitation.

What are the effects of living under such circumstances? More from Bartolone:

There are only two possible outcomes that can occur when a sly brute attempts to slowly suffocate what should be free. The oppressed will either turn into a coward and die quietly or they will turn into a hero and fight with tremendous volume. This is the virtue in being bullied. As long as the oppressed survives, there becomes a great strength in their capacity for endurance. And that developed strength can be focused into a power that does not know defeat. Though it is torturous to watch somebody be bludgeoned by a dominating ego, there is genuine understanding of understated anguish inside a human being who is starving for their art. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment when Margaret becomes a badass, but the gradual burn turns into a raging inferno of justice.

Because of her husband’s specific threats should she reveal the truth and/or leave him, Margaret lived in fear of being killed for quite some time. Despite this, she did in fact eventually leave him, did in fact win her court case against him, and is alive and remarried today. However, Walter, who died in 2000, never actually admitted he’d stolen her creative identity.

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