Big Little Lies Confronts the Aftermath of an Abusive Relationship

The latest episode makes a strong case about the effect of gaslighting on a survivor of sexual trauma.

Updated21 Jun 2019, 09:57 AM IST
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5 min read
Big Little Lies Confronts the Aftermath of an Abusive Relationship

(This blog reveals details from the second episode of the second season of Big Little Lies)

For anyone who has come out of an abusive relationship, the months of healing thereafter are hard, especially with a tendency to think of the past with a tinge of nostalgia. What is important to remember is that the survivor doesn't do it consciously and neither do they want to relive those moments. It just comes from a place of thinking and believing that all of it couldn't have been so terrible.

Sexual abuse often comes hand in hand with gaslighting – a phenomenon in which a person (the abuser) makes another person (their victim) question their reality. Repeated instances of gaslighting not only make it difficult for someone going through sexual assault to identify what’s happening but also make the recovery difficult.

The latest episode of HBO's Big Little Lies makes a strong case about the effect of gaslighting on a survivor of sexual trauma.

Based on a novel by the same name, the award-winning series focuses on the life of four women, played by Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and (Jane) Shailene Woodley, whose seemingly perfect lives unravel to the point of murder. The second season takes forward from the murder and how the women deal with its aftermath.

This murder that changed them was of Celeste’s husband, Perry, who as we find out over the course of the first season, was a violently dangerous, mentally unstable man who had been abusing his wife regularly while repeatedly making her feel that it was all love.

The latest episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies makes a strong case about the effect of gaslighting on a survivor of sexual trauma.

This episode features a string of powerful scenes where all its main characters face the coming out of a well-guarded secret in front of people they are close to. But for me the one scene that stood out most wasn’t a secret slipping out. It was one where Celeste confides in her therapist that she misses Perry, and is then asked to recount her abuse. She does this painfully and then stops. Even before she has dried her eyes, the therapist asks her to imagine the same instance again but with her friend, Madeline, in her place. She does so reluctantly and even before we know, she’s exploded with a rage and fury that we haven’t seen her use for herself before.

A still from <i>Big Little Lies</i>.
A still from Big Little Lies.

It’s a powerful scene that almost had me breaking down because of how true it felt. I’ve seen and heard survivors going around recounting their stories of being assaulted with a straight face knowing fully well that if this was to happen to anyone close to them, they would have done anything and everything to protect the person and get them out of the relationship.

What is most interesting about this scene is how it starts off with her genuinely telling her therapist, “I still miss him, I don’t think it’s ever going to stop”. Anyone who’s ever been at the receiving end of violence and gaslighting knows how this feels. Your entire perspective is shaped by the fact that this person, who might be doing awful things to you, is an important part of your life, and that you truly believe you cannot go on without them. And once you are out, it still becomes difficult not to miss having that person around.

“When you spoke to me about dating again, it felt like an affront… preposterous even,” she continues. Healing takes a lot of time and a lot of unlearning. It’s a widely known fact that victims of such abuse find it difficult to fall in love again, or have trouble with intimacy, but what is scary is how bizarre just the idea of being open to love someone else, feels.

A still from <i>Big Little Lies</i>.
A still from Big Little Lies.

This scene is critical in reminding survivors of why it takes an extra amount of effort to not fall back into the same cycle of dependability on the person abusing you either emotionally or physically. It ends with her therapist asking her, “Did Madeline deserve that? Should Madeline stay in that relationship?”

Celeste can’t bring herself to answer this but she knows what’s right for her and still finds herself drawn to the memory of her assaulter. This is how trauma affects you, driving you to the point where such harm is normalised in your own memory and thoughts.

It’s a widely known fact that victims of such abuse find it difficult to fall in love again, or have trouble with intimacy, but what is scary is how bizarre just the idea of being open to love someone else, feels.

Watching such stories on screen can be cathartic for people who have been through similar experiences. It’s reassuring to see these moments because it carries with it the hope that this is not a singular feeling, but shared by so many others living and fighting their trauma every day of their lives. This season of Big Little Lies is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Andrea Arnold, and it should come as no surprise that there is a marked difference. A story about women and their sufferings, desires, thoughts, longings, can only be fully realised if it has a team of women writing and directing it.

A still from <i>Big Little Lies</i>.
A still from Big Little Lies.

Interestingly, we are in the middle of seeing men who were implicated in cases of assault and harassment return to the limelight. Be it Aziz Ansari selling out shows on his comedy tour, to Alok Nath shooting for a new movie, to Super 30 having a release date and being promoted like its director Vikas Bahl was never accused; it seems like our world is suffering from collective amnesia.

In such times, a scene that makes a sexual assault survivor recount her experience just for her to feel righteously angry about it, is critical to our understanding of how such horrific incidents affect people and change their psyche forever. Instead of these men being given a chance to come back, what we need is a normalisation of these stories, these moments, and more women-led writing and directing. It becomes even more important to bring forth women and their stories and not just on-screen but also behind the scenes.

A still from <i>Big Little Lies</i>.
A still from Big Little Lies.

This one moment from Big Little Lies is a reminder for survivors to not remember their pain with a rose-tinted nostalgia. Here’s to healing ourselves with our onscreen counterparts.

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Published: 21 Jun 2019, 09:40 AM IST
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