Aug 28

“I May Destroy You”: The Therapy Scenes

Michaela Coel‘s powerfully told HBO series I May Destroy You is now fully available to stream. Its description on IMDB: “The question of sexual consent in contemporary life and how, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, we make the distinction between liberation and exploitation.”

Several episodes of I May Destroy You feature snippets of therapy received by lead character Bella (full name Arabella), a writer. Some thoughts on these follow. Thus, spoilers ahead.

Episode Four: “That Was Fun”

Arabella has been drugged and raped. Sometime later she meets with a counselor. Monica Castillo, Vulture, describes what we see:

She wants Arabella to start talking about her sexual assault, but unfortunately, Arabella still struggles to find the words to recount her experience…Eventually, Arabella begins to open up about how she’s coping, mentioning the flashbacks that continue to interrupt her thoughts and how she’s struggling to focus on the next draft of her book. Her therapist suggests taking care of herself even under pressure, listing a number of soothing activities like coloring…

This form of treatment is often labelled crisis intervention, in which the therapist is providing a directive response to a client’s recent trauma. The aim is to support the client’s efforts to stabilize and to feel better in her current life, not to delve deeply into the issues.

Episode Six: “The Alliance”

Meghan O’Keefe, Decider: “This week’s episode opens with Arabella visiting a sexual trauma support group run by an old school mate, Theo (Harriet Webb). She opens each session by saying, ‘I hate abusers. I think that abuse, grooming, assault, domestic violence are the most abhorrent qualities of our species.'”

Group support, whether led by a therapist or a peer—in this case, a peer—can be one of the most powerful ways to heal following trauma. It decreases emotional isolation by connecting a participant to others who share common issues.

We learn over the course of the episode, however, that in addition to Theo having a history of victimization she has also been a perpetrator—not that group members are aware of this.

More on this important plot point from O’Keefe:

‘The Alliance’ might offer the clearest articulation of I May Destroy You‘s central thesis: abuse is everywhere and there is no obvious way to fix it…In most television betrayals of assault, we have an obvious idea of whom to condemn. I May Destroy You is unflinching in its refusal to give us an easy out with Theo’s story. That’s why the episode is so haunting and so necessary to watch.

Episode Nine: “Social Media Is a Great Way to Connect”

Bella freaks out late at night and shows up at the Episode Four counselor’s home. The reaction of Micha Frazer-Carroll, Independent, is similar to what I had. She also makes an important clarification about therapist boundaries.

…’Night-time therapy?’ I thought, half-expecting the scene to quickly reveal itself as some sort of metaphor, hallucination or dream sequence. But it wasn’t…

At some point in the scene, there is a faint acknowledgement that this is unusual – Arabella apologises for ‘turning up’, to which her therapist responds that that’s what the ’emergency line’ is for. This struck me as incredibly odd. Yes, in very rare cases it might be possible that therapists would allow this kind of emergency session (distinct from crisis lines). But make no mistake, in the context of the real world, rocking up at your therapist’s house in your Halloween costume after a failed night out would be highly, highly unusual.

And therefore, as Frazer-Carroll adds, this is yet another in a too-long list of annoying and/or unrealistic portrayals of therapist boundaries in TV series and movies. (See previous posts here, here, here, here, and here for some other examples).

Jan 15

“Know My Name”: Famous “Emily Doe”

Miller’s new memoir echoes her powerful victim-impact statement, which was viewed more than 18 million times on BuzzFeed alone before it was read in its entirety on both CNN and in Congress. The book is a wrenching and intimate story of sexual assault, survival, self-discovery, trauma, family, and friendship. It’s a beautiful, revealing self-portrait. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s an inspiration. The Daily Beast, regarding the 2019 Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller

When in 2016 the victim-impact statement of rape victim Chanel Miller, then known as Emily Doe for the purpose of anonymity, went viral, she received a letter from Vice President Joe Biden. “I see you,” he said. Also: “You have given them the strength they need to fight. And so, I believe, you will save lives.”

As important as this kind of visibility can be to a trauma survivor, Miller’s process was anything but easy as she navigated the judicial system over the course of a few years, a period that ended with the appeal of found-guilty perpetrator Brock Turner being denied.

Olivia Messer, The Daily Beast:

She spent those years in the thick of PTSD. She was depressed, she was anxious, she cried. She was unemployed and unable to sleep, afraid that being unconscious again would make her vulnerable to attack.

But through therapy, support from her family, the justice of the trial—and then the injustice of the sentencing and then Internet fame—and with the help of art and performing comedy and writing and gifts from strangers and elderly foster dogs, Miller slowly recovered.

‘I survived because I remained soft, because I listened, because I wrote,’ she said. ‘Because I huddled close to my truth, protected it like a tiny flame in a terrible storm.’

When I saw the excellent Netflix series Unbelievable it reminded me of cases like Miller’s. I wasn’t the only one—I’ve come across several mentions of this same observation. Megan Garber, The Atlantic, for example: “Chanel Miller’s memoir, like the show Unbelievable, is a reminder of the painful alchemy that turns trauma into art.”

As reviewer of Know My Name Rebecca Liu, The Guardian, puts it: “In a world that asks too many survivors to keep their experiences to themselves and shrink their suffering to preserve someone else’s potential, Know My Name stands unapologetically large, asking others to reckon with its author’s dazzling, undiminishable presence. To read it, in spite of everything, inspires hope.”

Selected Quotes from Know My Name

The friendly guy who helps you move and assists senior citizens in the pool is the same guy who assaulted me. One person can be capable of both. Society often fails to wrap its head around the fact that these truths often coexist, they are not mutually exclusive. Bad qualities can hide inside a good person. That’s the terrifying part.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

My advice is, if he’s worried about his reputation, don’t rape anyone.

What was unique about this crime, was that the perpetrator could suggest the victim experienced pleasure and people wouldn’t bat an eye. There’s no such thing as a good stabbing or bad stabbing, consensual murder or nonconsensual murder.

I always wondered why survivors understood other survivors so well. Why, even if the details of our attacks vary, survivors can lock eyes and get it without having to explain. Perhaps it is not the particulars of the assault itself that we have in common, but the moment after; the first time you are left alone. Something slipping out of you. Where did I go. What was taken. It is terror swallowed inside silence. An unclipping from the world where up was up and down was down.

Jan 12

“The End of the F***ing World”: In 8 Episodes

The End of the F***ing World Isn’t Nearly As Bleak As It Looks. Jen Chaney, Vulture

Well, without the italics, it probably would be as bleak as it looks. But with italics it’s just a great Netflix series that caught my attention via a review headline.

The End of the F***ing World turns out to be a very binge-able eight episodes, of 20-ish minutes each, about bonded misfit teens James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Darden).

So, what’s their deal? As you read the following series intro from Rob Lowman (Los Angeles Daily News), keep Sophie Gilbert‘s words (The Atlantic) in mind: it’s “a surprising tour de force, mashing up the pitch-black humor of British alternative comedies with the visual punch of an auteur-driven indie film.” Pitch-black humor, of course, is not for everyone’s tastes.

James and Alyssa are your average 17 year-olds, except James really wants to kill someone and Alyssa is about to blow at any moment.
When they meet, Alyssa, who is struggling with manic depression, says this about James, ‘I’m not saying he’s the answer, but he’s something.’ James sees her as somebody who would be ‘interesting to kill,’ so he pretends to be into her.

James, you see, thinks he may be a psychopath—and has valid reasons to think so that he’ll illustrate for you in quite brief but stomach-churning scenes.

Sonia Saraiya, Variety, notes additionally that both James and Alyssa are “full of fury: At their parents; at their stupid small town; at the other idiots in their school.”

More from Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter, about where and how this all goes:

The End swings wildly between deadpan hilarious, shockingly violent and a sweetness that’s occasionally just as shocking. It’s not a tone that will hit with every viewer, but you’ll know pretty quickly how much you’re able to forgive, much less embrace, and then The End keeps pushing into murkier and murkier complications. Nothing in the narrative is all that surprising. What’s satisfying is how even the outlandishness is grounded in the two main characters and defended through extensive and candid internal monologues that serve as counterpoint to the characters’ halting getting-to-know-you conversations.

Kevin Fallon, The Daily Beast: “For all their coldness and cynicism, both clearly just want to feel and to experience. There’s a sort of blanket sadness and compassion surrounding both characters, which is an interesting antidote to their saltiness and reckless behavior.”

Importantly, we do learn more about each teen’s upbringing and how they came to be where they are. Saraiya: “…(W)hat emerges is a portrait of two characters who find in each other a refuge from an uncaring and often cruel world. Our teenagers can be violent, but as the show makes clear, violence has also been heaped upon them…”

Do you think you now get the gist of this series? If not, you’re not alone. “The best thing about ‘The End of the F***ing World’ is that it’s hard to describe,” notes Saraiya. “It’s funny, and it’s sweet; it’s violent, and it’s romantic. Its leads are both reprehensible and totally sympathetic; both scared kids and responsible adults.”

In addition to garnering much enthusiasm from viewers, including an 8.5 on IMDB, The End also has a phenomenal retro soundtrack featuring songs from a wide variety of genres.

Wanna know how it all winds up for James and Alyssa? Just look at the title, says Jen Chaney in the aforementioned Vulture review. “[It] tells us pretty clearly,” she states, “that this show won’t have a happy ending. But even in its tragic moments, there are still glimmers of loveliness in The End of the F***ing World. You just have to be patient, and watch closely, to fully see them.”

Jan 13

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”: Woman Flees Abusive Cult

A current and well-reviewed film from first-time director/screenwriter Sean Durkin is Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). The plot according to IMDB: “Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult.” Following her escape, she winds up staying with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

Explanation of the title: Lead character “Martha” is given a cult name of “Marcy May” by the cult leader and is also dubbed “Marlene” by a fellow cult victim. She’s played by Elizabeth Olsen (sister to the more famous Olsen twins), who’s received stellar reviews.

Cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) is described thusly by reviewer Anthony Lane (The New Yorker): “Like any good cult leader, he is a terrifying parody of a father figure, intent on making his kin feel at home. He has them fed, housed, and warmly encouraged—’You’re my favorite, and I won’t lose you,’ he says to Martha. He also rapes them.”

Selected Reviews

Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post: “Durkin depicts a horror that some among us actually live, where the search for family leads to something familiar and dangerous.”

Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: “Olsen inhabits Martha’s broken world completely. And at the movie’s end – a jarring, boldly ambiguous end – we’re in her head, too, not sure what is real, and what is not.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “…an utterly gripping ride that will keep you guessing until the last second about what is real and what imagined, and whether Martha has entirely snapped the tether of sanity.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “It’s acted and directed like a sensitive drama, rather than a scary movie, and is all the scarier for it.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “[Martha] remains a blank space in the middle of a film that is an impressive piece of work without achieving quite the emotional impact it intends….Patrick periodically criticizes his disciples, including Martha, for failing to be open enough with him, and that is also a shortcoming of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene,’ which is a bit too coy, too clever and too diffident to believe in.”

Jan 12

“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: Women and Trauma

Two well-received and current films, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Martha Marcy May Marlene, deal with serious trauma issues in the lives of women. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the second of these films.

The most recent film adaptation of Stieg Larsson‘s book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), directed by David Fincher, is now in theaters. If you’re not familiar with the themes of this film, you may be interested to know that sexual violence against women figures prominently. The book, in fact, was originally titled Men Who Hate Women (the English translation).

RAINN, or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, states on its website that the film “…illustrates the real life effects of sexual violence on victims and survivors, emphasizing the importance of getting help. Dragon Tattoo is the first of a trilogy of best selling mystery novels, about a ‘disgraced journalist and troubled young female computer hacker who investigate the mysterious disappearance of an industrialist’s niece.'”

An additional point: “…Interwoven in the film’s main plot line is a series of incidences of violence against women. Each occurrence of sexual abuse, incest, and rape highlight the severity of these crimes against the victim: while an assault may only last moments, the effects of this serious crime can haunt a victim for his or her lifetime.”

The character of Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), the “troubled young female computer hacker,” is a victim of violence who becomes a perpetrator of violence. Some viewers, whether ever victimized themselves or not, will identify with her and revel in her kick-ass attitude, and some may be unable to tolerate all the actual kick-ass. If you’re at all concerned, further reading and/or research on the film’s content may be in order.

One possible aid comes from A.O. Scott‘s (New York Times) film review: “Sexual violence is a lurid thread running through ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ and Mr. Fincher approaches it with queasy, teasing sensationalism. Lisbeth’s dealings with Bjurman include a vicious rape and a correspondingly brutal act of revenge, and there is something prurient and salacious about the way the initial assault is filmed. The vengeance, while graphic, is visually more circumspect.”