How Stoicism Might Have Saved Tonya Harding
“That wasn’t my fault.” -Tonya Harding
That’s the reoccurring line tying together the many head-shaking, heart-breaking missteps of Tonya Harding, as seen in the recent biopic, I, Tonya.
For those unfamiliar, Harding is the infamous figure skater known for her involvement in the 1994 attack on fellow Olympian, Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly.
It was the scandal that shook the early 90’s and helped crystallize the 24-hour news cycle. It’s also the story of a young girl with phenom talent who just couldn’t break away from her toxic environment and stay out of her own way. But what makes the movie special is that it is, “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.
Watching Harding (played by Margot Robbie) in the interviews, one can’t disagree that much of her misfortune wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her fault her father abandoned her with a physically and emotionally abusive mother. It wasn’t her fault that, because of this, she was wired to seek out an equally abusive partner in Gillooly. And it wasn’t her fault that the National Figure Skating Association refused to separate the girl on the ice from the slums she came from.
Yet, what magnifies the ongoing string of disappointments in the film is watching Harding in the interviews, years removed from it all, clutching onto a cigarette and an unrelenting defense that none of it was ever her fault.
“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” -Epictetus
Through grit and perseverance, Harding defies the odds of her upbringing and becomes one of the top figure skaters in the world. She consistently out-skates the competition but is given low scores by judges, who admit to her, “You just aren’t the image we want to portray.”
Harding responds by flinging curses at the judges while still on the ice. She fires her long-time skating coach (the only reasonable human being within her orbit) by throwing a skate at her head. Harding takes the unfairness of the situation not as an opportunity to rise above, but to kick and scream and solidify her role as an antagonist in the sport.
When we are unable to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor Frankl
To be fair, Harding does change the situation in an extraordinary way when she becomes the first American woman to ever land a triple axel in competition, silencing her doubters and making her the top-ranked female skater in the world.
It doesn’t take long for her new found glory to unravel, however. “After the triple axel, everything changed,” says Harding, referring to her abusive relationship with Jeff.
Now that she had fame, “Jeff didn’t even need a reason to beat me anymore. I’d walk in the room, I’d get hit.”
A series of knockout fights, restraining orders, and divorce papers flash across the screen leading up to Tonya’s appearance in the 92’ Winter Olympics. It would be her chance to make history. She would be the first woman to even attempt the triple axel in Olympic competition.
Harding explains her failed attempt, “So I’d broken off my skate blade two days before and they put it back on a little off. That wasn’t my fault.”
We next see Tonya Harding waitressing in the town she grew up in, just like her mother, already forgotten by the sport she’d given her life to. But in a flash of hope, her old skating coach appears and offers to help her train for the next Olympics. She tells Tonya, “The world is giving you a second chance.”
In an all too familiar montage of redemption, we see Harding training in the woods, Rocky Balboa style. We watch her climb back up the mountain. She’s not going to waste this opportunity, not this time.
And then the other skate drops. We hear Tonya call Jeff and say:
“I don’t think I can make the Olympic team without you.”
Even after the black eyes, bloody noses, and restraining orders. After he showed up at her house and fired a gun at her. She personally invites him back into her life. It’s something Jeff can’t believe himself. “I’ll admit, I was pretty surprised when Tonya called.”
It would be this decision that would lead to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee being pummeled and the ultimate undoing of everything Tonya Harding had ever worked for in her life.
Above all, keep a close watch on this — that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. . . . You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends . . . if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” -Epictetus
Despite the national frenzy around the scandal, or perhaps because of it, Tonya Harding was allowed to skate in the ’94 Winter Olympics. It’s there that we watch her beg the judges to let her repeat the first round because of a broken lace on her skate. She explains, “My lace breaks, which is my fault…But also really isn’t. And I don’t get the marks because I never had a chance with the judges to begin with.”
She finishes in 4th place, with Nancy Kerrigan taking home the silver medal.
Imagine if Tonya Harding had, at any point, took responsibility for her decisions. What if she hadn’t caved in a called Jeff that day? What if instead of kicking and screaming all those years, she had made allies within National Figure Skating Association? Would that have helped overturn the lifetime ban handed down to her? Would she be remembered today for something besides scandal?
There is one last line from Harding in the film that sticks out. She looks into the camera and says, “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline.”
“Begin to live at once. And count each day as a separate life.” -Seneca
We all face trials in life, forced to reckon with the mistakes of others and our own. But when we fall from grace, will we push the blame outward and refuse responsibility? Or will we use the lessons of yesterday to create a new, separate life?
It may not be easy, but one thing we can learn from Tonya Harding is that the insidious stance of, “That wasn’t my fault,” makes it impossible to ever truly begin again.
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