After I walked out on an abusive boyfriend, I felt desperate to talk to anyone who would listen. I had friends who asked, “Why did you stay?” I cried to a therapist who said, “Is it possible that you are teaching people how to treat you?” Fearing for my safety, I approached a police officer who told me, “You need to ask yourself what it is about you that keeps getting involved with these men.”
These felt like questions without answers, and it didn’t take many of them to make me feel alone and, worse, culpable.
When the Marvel series Jessica Jones came to Netflix, I watched it simply because I thought a reimagining of the old comic book superhero sounded fun. I didn’t expect the show to speak to my darkest memories, or to powerfully articulate what had come to seem inexplicable. But it did.
Despite her superpowers, Jessica Jones has a weakness: a man aptly named Kilgrave. Kilgrave has a superpower too: He can control minds with simple verbal orders. Whether the command is “play the cello” or “put a bullet in your head,” the addressed person simply does it, despite the small voice in her/his head that fights back. This superpower allows him to take advantage of every person he meets, leaving them haunted by the experience of doing what they didn’t want to do. In short, his superpower is rape. In the case of many of his female victims, Kilgrave uses his mind control to actually rape. Jessica was one of these victims.
By using the metaphor of mind control, Jessica Jones illuminates a crucial truth about abuse: It is not that abuse victims are doing anything wrong, but rather that the abuser uses tactics and terror to systematically strip away their ability to do anything right. Jessica Jones stands up for all abuse and/or rape survivors by telling their stories empathetically, and by showing all its viewers why blaming the victim is never okay. Here are my three biggest takeaways:
- Jessica’s superpowers show that it can happen to anyone.
Would you ever ask Jessica why she stayed with Kilgrave, or what it was about her that told Kilgrave to control and rape her? Obviously, no. Jessica’s abuse had nothing to do with her inabilities and everything to do with Kilgrave’s abilities.
In episode 5, we learn that Kilgrave becomes attracted to Jessica after watching her save a man from two muggers. Kilgrave applauds her, saying, “That was tremendous. You are a sight to behold.” He then turns to his two model-beautiful escorts and says, “You bore me. Leave.”
As I watched this scene, I realized that Kilgrave did not choose Jessica because of her weakness. He chose her because of her strength. That a psychopath chose me—that does not mean I’m weak or inherently flawed. He saw I was gifted with the empathy he lacked. That does not make me a victim. That makes me a superhero.
But the most common question that I, and perhaps every abuse survivor, encounters is this: “Why did you stay?” Jessica Jones challenges this question in episode 10, with one of my favorite scenes of the season: Kilgrave shows up unexpectedly in Jessica’s apartment and tries, yet again, to convince her that they “make a good team.” What’s worse, he brings up a memory of their time on a rooftop together, in order to make her (and us) believe that she stayed with him willingly. “It had been 12 hours,” he says to her. (His mind control wears off after 12 hours.) “I timed it. I hadn’t told you to do anything, and then for 18 seconds I wasn’t controlling you. And you stayed with me. With me, because you wanted to.” We then get a view of Kilgrave’s memory, which includes a smiling, perfectly happy Jessica.
Jessica’s memory of this moment is different. In her memory, she remains on the roof as Kilgrave goes inside. She then climbs onto the roof ledge and looks down, imagining herself jumping onto a white horse and riding away. Obviously, this is an unattainable fantasy. But the white horse is the only part that is unattainable for Jessica. Jumping great distances is one of her superpowers. She could have jumped and gotten away. But Kilgrave puts her in such a desperate mental state that she yearns for even more: for a grand fairytale rescue, white horse included. As soon as Kilgrave stops controlling Jessica, her learned helplessness takes up the reins. “Getting you out of my head,” she says to him, “was like prying fungus from a window. I couldn’t think.”
So why did I stay? Because he had become a fungus in my head. Because I couldn’t think. Because a white horse never came to rescue me—I had to figure out how to rescue myself.
- The show validates every survivor whose ‘yes’ meant ‘no.’
Growing up, I learned that the word “rape” applied to very specific contexts. Basically, I thought, don’t go anywhere alone at night, and you won’t get raped. Unfortunately, statistics show that you’re far more likely to get raped by the boyfriend walking you to your car than you are by a stranger. Many of us, like me, have had to learn this the hard way.
This is not to say that American society has put no effort toward understanding and stopping rape. There is, of course, the whole “No means no” campaign. But what about those of us who never said “No”?
In abusive relationships, the targeted person is conditioned to take the blame, no matter what the situation. Sadly, this is also part of being a woman (or being anyone other than a cis-gendered, white, heterosexual, middle class male). When things go wrong for us, we are asked (and so learn to ask ourselves) what we did wrong. It doesn’t matter if someone cornered you and tore off your clothes—that same someone will deny until the end that he/she did anything wrong.
Again, Jessica Jones helped me understand why it was so hard to say with confidence “I was raped.” Kilgrave’s ability to control minds makes it clear that, even though Jessica never said “No” aloud, what he did to her was rape. Jessica tries to explain this to Kilgrave in Episode 8. As we might imagine, Kilgrave is not keen on her accusations. “Which part,” he says, “of staying in 5-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever you wanted, is rape?” Jessica sees through his manipulative tactics and responds, “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it.” So Kilgrave tries instead a pity play: “How am I supposed to know? That is not what I was trying to do.”
Then, on behalf of all survivors, Jessica says to him: “It doesn’t matter what you were trying to do.” To all survivors out there, it does not matter what the person who violated you was “trying to do.” Unless you 100 percent wanted it too, it wasn’t right.
- Trish is the hero abuse helped me become
As much as I love and admire Jessica (an actual superhero), my real hero from this show is Jessica’s best friend, Trish. After dealing with an abusive mother for years, Trish recognizes abuse as soon as she sees it.
In episode 10 a police officer named Simpson shows up at the apartment where Trish is looking after Kilgrave’s father. Trish is in the process of helping this father make a vaccine that might disempower Kilgrave completely, when Simpson knocks on the door. As soon as she lets him in, she notices there is something off about him. “Your pupils are dilated,” she says. Simpson dismissively responds, “Yeah, that’s because I’m on my meds.” (These supposed meds put Simpson in an Adrenaline pumped trance, which then enables him to commit violent acts.) Simpson suddenly grabs Kilgrave’s father and pins him down. Trish attempts to pull Simpson off, but Simpson throws her against the wall. This is when he snaps out of the trance.
He attempts to excuse himself (“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to”) and convince her “that won’t happen again.” And Trish agrees with him. “It won’t happen again,” she says, “because you’re leaving. Go.” She pushes him out the door.
The next day, Simpson attempts to apologize for being “an asshole.” Trish looks him in the eye and says: “Assholes are a nuisance. I deal with them every day. You were violent and scary.”
I will never say I’m glad I went through abuse and rape. I will never tell anyone these things happen for a reason. Abuse is violent and scary, and it is never okay. What I will say is this: Despite how hard someone tried to take everything from me, in the end I am the one who gained. I gained the ability to recognize signs of abuse, even the seemingly innocuous. I gained the ability to speak up for myself, and shove, without hesitation, any source of abuse out the door. No longer do I focus on pleasing others. I focus on caring for myself. I focus on surrounding myself with love and compassion, and accepting nothing less.Tweet This