My Big Little Lie

When I watched the first episode of HBO mini-series Big Little Lies, I really didn’t know very much about the show, or its source material. I knew that it was based on a best-selling novel by a woman named Liane Moriarty, and that in the book, the story takes place in Australia, not the craggy, salt-soaked cliffs of Monterey.

At first, Big Little Lies grabbed my attention with its soapy, hook-y, Rich White People components. It offered equal parts torrid fantasy, delicious, operatic confrontations, family drama… add to that a dreamy visual world and delectable soundtrack and… sold. Despite the .0000001% of the population it depicts, Big Little Lies deals deftly with universal themes — Themes I can relate to and that I connect with daily. Themes like marriage and parenting and children and female friendships and struggling to balance motherhood and work… but most resonant for me, amidst all of these connective threads, is the theme of abuse. At first glance I probably don’t “look” like an abused person. Or at least, the abused people we see depicted on TV and in movies. I don’t have any noticeable bruises, I don’t cower at human contact, I’m in a happy marriage with a wonderful, loving man… I’m deeply satisfied by my work and I have two magical children who fill my life with joy. I have a loving support system of family and friends… I am not a victim of abuse.

But I was.

And even though those years are far behind me now, what I lived through has shaped and changed me indelibly. It actually took me forever to even be able to say it out loud. I have been abused. I was in an abusive relationship. I would whisper it to myself for years, gasping back the words as they tumbled out of my mouth because it was so hard to even admit that abuse is what happened to me. Deeply sensitive to the millions of abuse victims out there, both psychological and physical, who were obviously far worse off than me, got it worse than me… for some reason I felt like that made me some kind of a fraud. How can you be a victim of abuse? You weren’t thrown down a flight of stairs. You weren’t punched in the face… I felt deep shame. And that is one of the cornerstones of abuse. Its victims often can’t admit that that is precisely what they are. Because victimization and yes, abuse, come in all kinds of forms, it took me a long time to get there. I worked long and hard to own it, all of it, while being careful to not fall easily into self-blame and self-loathing, another cornerstone of abuse. Thankfully, those years have long past. They remained dormant for, well, years. Until now. Until Celeste.

What Big Little Lies gets right for me is exactly that which is evasive about our preconceived notions of abuse. Despite its dramatic overtones, the show, and particularly Celeste’s storyline, avoid falling into the usual stereotypes and misconceptions. The series shines a light on the dark little corners in which abuse can grow and fester… a quiet, unassuming dust bunny or a seemingly harmless speck of mold. Abuse knows no socio-economic limitation. It knows no race, no religion, no political allegiance. Like cancer, it strikes without warning and it grows.

In my experience, it grows out of almost nothing. A chance encounter. A shared look. A seemingly profound connection.

A little context: many years ago I was in the throes of what could be called a quarter-life crisis. I was living in a big city, working a sort-of dead end job, drinking too much, sleeping too little. I felt like a young woman lost. Unmoored and unhinged. Like many 20-somethings in a big city, I met a guy. We were immediately and mutually taken with each other and in retrospect, I think it was how he made me feel that grabbed me. He made me feel “seen”. He made me feel like I mattered, at a time when I couldn’t generate that kind of self-assuredness for myself. In retrospect, my attraction to him had everything to do with how little I could do for myself, emotionally speaking. My psyche harbored a big, gaping chasm, and he seemed to fill it. Too easily. Too perfectly. We liked the same things. Joy Division and French films and cooking big dinners. We moved quickly. I left my big city and my sort-of dead-end job and set up shop with him. Red flags were everywhere, but I stubbornly ignored them, too naive and too easily influenced by my own denial mechanism to take stock in any real way. We consumed movies and books at a break-neck pace, and at first, my creativity bloomed. I was writing. I was inspired. I was in love. But those feelings faded and something else took hold, slowly. Something darker.

At first, along with secret love notes, candlelight dinners, and the kind of romance we all dream about, he was garden-variety overbearing. Jealous. Intolerant of most if not all of my family and friends. Controlling. Desperate to feed the gaping void inside me, I bowed in his direction at every whim, which only seemed to feed his fury. A sad sunflower bending at the will and movement of a tyrannical sun. Weeks became months, and I drifted deeper into unemployment. I drifted deeper into depression. I surgically, resolutely excised anyone in my life who irked him. I gained fifteen pounds. I grew my hair as long as it could possibly grow. I hid in every way a person can hide without straight up crawling under the bed or running away. And my desire to be as hidden and as invisible as possible only seemed to enrage him more. Our fights got more frequent and more psychologically damaging, more verbally abusive. He would hurl insults at me and little by little, he chipped away at my well-being, at whatever confidence or liveliness I might have had. He accused me of being shallow. Spoiled. Selfish. Vain. Ignorant. Disloyal. Broken. Useless. Lazy. And worse. If I so much as looked at anyone else in a restaurant, he would fly into an indignant rage, accusing me of begging for attention. If men looked at me, it was my fault. If I attracted any kind of attention, it was my fault. He berated me so badly in a restaurant once that a nice old waiter came up to our table and gently scolded him, saying, “it’s not nice to make such a pretty girl cry.” Of course I was terrified.

I was screaming inside to be helped but completely without a voice. I began suffering night terrors. My hair started falling out. I felt helpless. Worthless. I felt my life was over. My friends and family were in some cases too scared to say anything for fear of losing me entirely. Many were just totally unaware that any of this was happening. The great cloaking and masking devices that people like me can put into practice to protect their abusers. Irony? Maybe. Tragedy, for sure.

It got to the point where some of his friends became concerned. One of them even reached out to me surreptitiously to make sure I was okay. This person basically told me that the way I was being treated was abusive and that I had to get out. That he couldn’t stomach being around us anymore. Of course, I disagreed. Funny, that. How we can veil our own eyes to that which is so obvious, and so inherently counter to our own survival.

I loved him.

I was completely and utterly at his behest. And that was my doing as much as it was his. My need to be whole coupled with my inability to find the tools to empower myself left me shivering on his doorstep. Equal parts addicted and devastated. Hooked and repelled. What a maddening place to live. His outbursts were violent. He would punch walls. Throw things. Rip up books in white hot rages. Scream in my face. Not all the time. But enough to worry me, to shrink me, to annihilate me. Months passed. Winter took hold of the landscape. After our particularly bad fights, which seemed to increase in number with every passing week, I would rush out of our apartment, my prison… I would trudge through virgin snow to a nearby park. I would lie on its bench in the icy cold and wish myself away, feeling that chasm inside taking over. I would cry and look up at the stark night sky and pray to become stone. Pray to become ice. I imagined walls of ice surrounding my heart, protecting me from his hateful words, his rage. His growing menace just shattered me. He hated that I was well-known in my community. He hated my Jewish roots. Hated my family. Hated my friends. Hated the secure upbringing I now felt I should be punished for having enjoyed. I didn’t know it at the time, but his vile hatred of himself was so expertly projected out and onto me that I didn’t even see it coming. A freight train at top speed and I was stuck on the rails, frozen in the oncoming headlights.

But. And here’s the insidious, hateful little bastard that is abuse — it absolutely requires two individuals, locked in a poisonous dynamic, for it to grow. It’s a dark, macabre dance.

So… what did it take to get me out? To wake me up?

A bad fight. A violent fight. And here’s the reverse punchline — we had just gotten engaged. Ha! Seems ridiculous now but there it is. When he put a ring on my finger I cried. Not out of joy, which is what he must have assumed those tears meant, but because I felt absolute, earth-shattering sadness. I was locked in for a lifetime of this misery because I didn’t have the strength to just walk away. He made me swear never to take it off. Of course I obliged. But then… that fight. It got physical. He was yelling at me and throwing things and I don’t know what came over me but I took that ring off and I threw it across the room. He yelled in my face so ferociously in reaction to what I had done and I don’t know. Something in me snapped. A tiny, angry voice awoke inside of me and I pushed back. He looked at me, stunned, and pushed me into the wall. Hard. The rest of that evening is a blur. The neighbors freaked. The police came.

And I woke up.

I took a hammer to all that stone and ice and remembered myself. That was the beginning of a separation that took me months to fully enact. Years to overcome. I thought I had it beat. Ancient history. Over the years he popped into my head here and there, increasingly infrequently. A handily sequestered bad dream, fading with time. I did my work. I put my head down. I went to therapy. I worked hard. I worked through so much shame, so much doubt. I cried rivers. But even that subsided over time.

Until Big Little Lies. The show quickly took hold of my Sunday nights, and as Celeste’s story of abuse unfolded, so too did mine. Old feelings came rushing back in a heated swirl. Shame and pain and fear and sadness. I knew exactly where Celeste was and why she stayed. I knew exactly how that voice of reason, that soft-spoken shrink and her logical, loving words, grated Celeste so hard. I knew why she kept it all quiet, under the lid. I felt so deeply Celeste’s inner anguish, her veneer of calm and togetherness when she was in fact a prisoner. A prisoner to the abusive cat and mouse dynamic — the slap/kiss insanity. The rush of forgiveness, the willingness to sweep it all under the rug, to sweep it all away, to pretend, to lie.

The season finale was a culmination of these thoughts and feelings. And by the end, I was sobbing. Deep, full body sobs. I cried for Celeste. For myself. For the thousands upon thousands of women in this world who are stuck in cycles of domestic violence that they cannot escape. For the women who lose their lives to the violence perpetrated against them. For my own past powerlessness. For the relief of female friendships, the sisterhood that enabled me to survive and live through that awful time in my life. And when the crushing final moments of the final episode rushed across my screen, I yelped — more like a croak actually. A battle-weary victory cry. She made it. She got through it. She can begin again.

I’ve read criticisms of the show’s finale. Valid ones, too. Problems with how everything at the end is resolved too neatly. That the problems presented throughout the show and across various character arcs are all wrapped up in a bow. And I get that. But here’s the thing — many women and certainly any past or present victim of abuse know that things are never totally okay, not really, not ever again. Sort of like how pregnancy can give us stretch marks, or accidents can lead to scars. These markings represent the biggest life moments that if we’re lucky, don’t kill us, but rather shape who we are.

That’s how I feel about my experience.

Celeste reminded me that those feelings still live in my heart. And more importantly, that they have a right to be there. And those desperate, dark, gasping, fleeting feelings will probably always live in hers, no matter how much twirling she does on a beach with her radiant, smiling sister-wives. She might move on, find inner peace. She might even love again. But the experience of abuse, especially as acutely dangerous and terrifying as hers, will never not live inside of her somewhere. To deny that would be to deny a part of herself, of ourselves, of me.

The end of Big Little Lies isn’t the end of the story. It’s certainly not the end for Celeste. On the contrary, it is only just beginning for her. We catch her in one, life-affirming, post-traumatic moment. Sun shining, kids laughing. But I’m sure there are many more moments that we don’t see. Moments of earth-shattering guilt, sadness, memory, shame. Moments alone in the darkness. The emptiness that the absence of fear can bring about… none of these elements are shown in those final moments. Because they don’t need to be. They live there, in the dark corners among the mold spores and dust bunnies. The forgotten fights. The scars to remember.

It took me a minute, but now I welcome those feelings. They hurt but they remind me of how far I’ve come. How much I have to live for. How grateful I am to my inner voice, my bold, resplendent inner child for yelling at the top of her lungs when I needed to hear her most. I have to believe that somewhere, Celeste is healing her wounds too, and honoring the scars.