Denial & Domestic Violence in Big Little Lies

I recently asked a friend of mine, a prominent District Attorney, what the hardest cases to work on are; his answer surprised me. “Domestic violence cases are the worst,” he said. “Ninety percent of the time, the victim recants on the stand. Most of the time, they return to the abuser. I know some of them will end up dead.”

I thought about what he said as I watched last night’s episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies. In a scene with her couple’s therapist, Nicole Kidman portrayed with bone-chilling accuracy the high levels of self denial inherent in survivors of domestic abuse. Denial is a defense mechanism that protects our minds from overwhelming anxiety and crushing self-judgment. One reason many women stay in abusive relationships is that each time it happens they vehemently deny, especially to themselves, that they are victims of domestic abuse. Frequently, they even think that the fact that they fight back means that they are somehow complicit in the violence. It doesn’t make sense, but no one, wants to see themselves, feel themselves, as a victim.

Even a highly intelligent woman like Celeste — in a previous episode, she shows off her extremely sharp intellect in a scene where she defends her friend’s play against the town’s mayor with aplomb — can be the victim of abuse. In real life, I’ve had Harvard-educated friends who were lured in by the charm of abusers. Celeste is a master of language, able to wield it to convince high-powered folks to agree with her argument. But the thing about violence is that it frequently obliterates language. Finding a way to articulate domestic violence, especially in a culture which doesn’t always legitimize the abused, is a complex task. How is Celeste to articulately make sense of her experience when the act of violence causes a defensive spiral of self-judgement? The violent relationship with her husband that Celeste has doesn’t fit with her image of herself, or her marriage, and therefore cannot find space to exist in her mind.

The dichotomy of the victim/abuser is littered with shame at this particular time in our history. We publicly and frequently question the victims of high-profile abuse cases, questioning whether they were somehow complicit. Celeste is very aware of this social shame. When her therapist peppers her with well-meaning, simple questions about whether or not her husband is abusing her, Celeste reacts defensively. You can see her thinking: “This person thinks I’m a victim. I’m not a weak person, therefore I cannot be a victim.” There is logic there, but it’s built tenuously upon obscuring the truth: Celeste is a survivor of assault by the person she loves, soon to fall under attack once again unless she starts to re-think the defensive framing devices she’s built up in her mind.

The saddest part is that Celeste has annihilated herself because of the abuse. She is gaslighting her own experience. This warped experience of trauma — call it Stockholm Syndrome or whatever else you will‚ — isn’t uncommon. And it is perfectly laid out in Big Little Lies.

Side Note: IF you want to help women who survived domestic abuse but don’t have the lux resources of Celeste, donate to Empower Yolo: an organization that serves survivors of assault, domestic abuse and human trafficking.