Netflix’s “Alias Grace” is the Most Relevant Margaret Atwood Story Yet

“A woman is a branchy tree/And man’s a clinging vine/And from her branches carelessly/He’ll take what he can find,” Anne Briggs sings in “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” a traditional Irish folk song that haunts the end of each episode in the new Netflix miniseries Alias Grace. Based on the 1996 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, this true-crime drama might seem rooted in 19th-century specificities–dealing with themes of the rise of spiritualism, early psychiatry, and historical edicts regarding modesty and sexuality, particularly for working-class girls — but its focus on mental illness and the power of controlling one’s own narrative lends it contemporary relevance. Most particularly, as the series’ signature song implies, the men (physicians, lovers, and journalists) in Alias Grace plumb women’s bodies and minds alike for their own benefit.

The titular Grace (Sarah Gadon), Grace Marks, was a poor Irish immigrant who arrived in Upper Canada, after a harrowing sea voyage during which her mother died, to work as a maid. As a young woman, she suffered physical and sexual abuse from her alcoholic father, and mourned the death of her friend and fellow servant Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), who passed away after a botched abortion and abandonment by the father of the child.

The central question around which Alias Grace revolves concerns Grace’s guilt in the murders of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his lover/housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin), for which house stablehand and Grace’s presumed lover James McDermott (Kerr Logan) was hanged. Initially institutionalized and again sexually and physically abused at an asylum, Grace was later sent to Kingston Penitentiary and imprisoned for thirty years before her ultimate pardon.

When we meet Grace in the miniseries, she is being questioned by one Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) about the crime, which she claims to have largely forgotten, in an attempt by a committee from the Methodist church to pardon her. Their belief is that she is an hysteric, and they’ve sought out Dr. Jordan to prove it. If she is indeed mentally ill, then, they conclude, she cannot be held responsible for her actions.

And despite the show’s largely sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Jordan, he, too, is not an exception to the aforementioned lament about men who use women’s narratives to serve their own ambitions. He plans to open his own asylum and to be a pioneer in his field; both goals would be well served by bringing closure to a high-profile case like Grace’s.

In Dr. Jordan, and perhaps in the evolving practice of psychiatry itself, Grace sees a potential savior: He is male, and thus more powerful and likelier to be believed than the other women she knows. Moreover, he at least presents as more willing to listen, and to believe her — notably, with minimal moralizing — than anyone else (at least, with any clout) that she’s encountered.

It’s clear that Grace’s narrative has heretofore been entirely controlled by the men around her, resulting in dire consequences as they manipulate her for their own ends.

The court testimony of her former sweetheart, Jamie Walsh (Stephen Joffe), condemned her to conviction. Her frustrated lover McDermott, too, turned against her, and her appointed lawyer, she claims, forced her confession, promising her safety if she said what he demanded.

At first, then, Grace takes Dr. Jordan’s attentions as the first attempt anyone has made to understand her side of things, from the abuses she has endured to the crime of which she’s been accused.

During their therapeutic sessions, Grace experiences, she says at the first episode’s close, “a feeling of being torn open. Not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach. And not even torn open, but too ripe, and splitting of its own accord.”

There is pleasure and release in the telling of her long-held secrets, as in confession or pillow talk.

Eventually, though, Grace realizes that her suffering is being used as spectacle. “He likes to picture the sufferings I have endured,” she writes to Dr. Jordan after her release from prison of Jamie Walsh, who returns to ask for her hand in marriage (primarily, it seems, out of guilt for having aided in her unjust conviction). “I must confess that it reminds me of you, Dr. Jordan. You were as eager as Mr. Walsh to hear about my sufferings in life. Your cheeks would flush. And if you had ears like a dog, they would have been pricked forward, with your eyes shining, and your tongue hanging out.” Even though the story she tells Dr. Jordan is ostensibly for her own potential benefit, Grace knows her painful history is being used: for his career, for his pleasure, and for voyeurism.

The documentation of female suffering for the purposes of male ambition is key to the history of psychiatry. 19th-century clinician Jean-Michel Charcot pioneered a new view of hysteria, as he compiled posed photographs (all of female patients), widely disseminated among medical professionals, that were purported to display the traditional postures of hysteria, from fits of rage to melancholia and erotic, masochistic ecstasy.

These photographs formed the backbone of the understanding of hysteria at the time. Using suffering as spectacle, whether as fodder for interpersonal gossip, exploitative attempts at research, proof of physicians’ prowess, or breathless media sensationalization, is in many ways the story of early psychiatry and its formation. Usually, these spectacles were gendered, with men — clinicians, judges, and witnesses — driving both narrative arc and performance, and women serving as actors and objects.

This history says something, too, about the fraught intersection between femininity, sexuality, and mental illness. If Grace is mentally ill, she may be more innocent than previously believed — but she is even less reliable, and more vulnerable. After all, the presumption of her insanity (and thus, as was believed, her biological degeneracy) was what led to one series of abuses at the hands of the asylum staff. Dominant understandings of hysteria at the time were focused on the “organic” (i.e., internal) origins of the disorder, and largely disregarded trauma as a potential cause of emotional and spiritual disturbances. Claims of sexual abuse by women deemed “hysterical” were regarded not as potential catalysts for the onset of hysteria, but as its symptoms.

Alias Grace, by inserting the fictional character of the understanding Dr. Jordan as a willing ear for Grace’s self-told biography, partially rewrites this history. The series centers trauma. Flashbacks to her abuse at the hands of her father, and to the psychological and bodily control exerted over her by prison staff, asylum doctors, and employers alike, punctuate the low desperate hum of her tale. Alias Grace’s attention to trauma renders it all the more contemporarily relevant, as our understanding of gender differences in mental health diagnoses increasingly points to trauma as a key aspect of those disparities.

Women are likelier than men to experience depression, anxiety, and PTSD, with the most common cause of the latter being sexual violence. Depression, which, it’s predicted by the World Health Organization, will be the leading cause of disability burden in 2020, is experienced by women at three times the rate of men.

In response to trauma, including the fundamental trauma of being unheard and powerless, the female characters in Alias Grace make various attempts to control their own narratives and assert some degree of control. Nancy Montgomery, whose reputation was disgraced by a previous unmarried pregnancy, does so by abusing her servants. Meanwhile, Mary Whitney, a self-proclaimed radical, initiates Grace into an alternative way of thinking that offers the potential of complete freedom, including sexual equality and reproductive rights. In this imagined utopia, women, too, can threaten violence, and women and lower-class workers alike can control narratives themselves.

For Grace, who eternally strives for propriety, the opportunity to be the protagonist in her own story comes only in the form of the dead.

In the terrifying finale, Grace undergoes hypnosis, or mesmerism, as it was sometimes called at the time, at the hands of former peddler Jeremiah Pontelli, who now calls himself “Dr. Jerome Du Pont, Neuro-Hypnotist.” Behind Grace’s black veil, the voice of the late Mary Whitney emerges. She claims to have seduced both Thomas Kinnear and James McDermott by turns, alternately teasing them and turning them away, just to watch them squirm for once. She claims to be aware of Dr. Jordan’s desire for Grace: “I can always tell,” she laughs. Most importantly, she claims to have possessed Grace repeatedly since her death, including during the murders of both Nancy and Thomas.

Many of those watching are scandalized and offended, their reactions suggesting that even in the throes of hysteria, Grace is expected to walk the line of approved modesty standards. Even her mental illness (or spiritual possession, as would have been believed by spiritualists of the period), as in the case of Charcot’s hysterics, must be expressed in the way that is expected of her. Mary Whitney, or Grace’s alter ego, laments that even in death, she is not believed or heard: “I liked it at the asylum at first, I could talk out loud, I could share things. But they wouldn’t listen. I was not heard,” she says, before accusing Dr. Jordan and the Methodist committee of the same sin: “You’re all the same. You won’t listen. You won’t believe me. You won’t hear.”

This ending suggests that the mystery of Grace’s guilt or innocence is less significant than it appears, and isn’t the central question at hand. Is she possessed? If she is ill, whether hysterical or suffering from what would now be known as dissociative identity disorder, does it damn her more or less than before? Is this the ghost of feminine rage unexpressed? Or is it the righteous feminine rage, sublimated and manifesting as mental disorder, of a woman still alive? And does it matter, if we are unwilling to listen to either one?

At the heart of Alias Grace is the telling of stories, both about women’s sexuality and about what is going on in their heads: Their reputations, whether as “whores” (Grace is called one so often that she tells McDermott to find a new word) or madwomen, inevitably precede them. It doesn’t matter how you end up alone with a man, Grace tells Dr. Jordan, so long as someone tells others that you were there at all. In other words, Grace implies, no matter what actually happened — as resistance to accepting the Weinstein accusations and the #MeToo campaign have shown us — what matters is who controls what is told about it afterward. Whether we are to take Grace’s possession as deliberate role-playing on her part, as a function of her mental illness, or as actual seizure by Mary Whitney’s restless ghost, is less a question of the truth and more a question of whose story we choose to believe.

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