On Physical Abuse and ‘Big Little Lies’
(This article contains spoilers concerning the TV series titled ‘Big Little Lies’)
Big Little Lies is a mini-series with 7 episodes for now, first aired on February 2017, produced by HBO and adapted by the book with the same title. In the series, we witness the lives of several wealthy and privileged women living in a seaside town, how they look from the outside and how they actually are behind closed doors. Before we discuss this series further (which I believe have successfully shown physical abuse), let’s first explain what physical abuse is.
Physical abuse includes all actions that inflict physical pain in order to keep the victim under control. The abuser hurts the victim by; slapping, punching, kicking, biting, pinching, pushing, burning, asphyxiating, hitting (with an object) or pulling on their hair etc. Actions like throwing an object at someone, locking them in or leaving them out in the cold also count as physical abuse.
Physical abuse is the easiest form of abuse to notice. If there are scars, purple marks, cuts etc. on a person’s body, they might be suffering from physical abuse. Abuse usually starts with smaller actions like a light push or a slap, and then it reaches grandiose proportions. Because it escalates slowly, the victims don’t even realize they’re being abused until it’s too late. Most of the time, physical abuse is accompanied by severe emotional and psychological abuse.
Physical abuse within family can continue outside of the house as well. Other adults, children or animals can be targeted.
Big Little Lies focuses on a very common form of physical abuse. We witness the abuse that takes place between a couple. The character named Celeste, portrayed by Nicole Kidman is the abuse victim. Celeste’s life looks utterly perfect from the outside. She has adorable twins, an attractive, loving and successful husband and a gorgeous house. But in fact, Celeste’s life is far from being a fairy tale. She suffers from emotional, sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her husband systematically. Although Celeste is aware of the fact their marriage is ‘problematic’, she avoids admitting that it’s ‘abusive’ even to herself.
Her husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is also quite an admirable person on the outside. Everyone describes him as a loving husband and father. But in fact, he frequently hits his wife, squeezes her throat and pushes her roughly.
All this abuse leads to the sex Celeste calls ‘passionate’. And then things go back to normal. Perry apologizes to his wife, buys her presents and tries his best to make it up to her. Everything seems alright until the next attack.
Even though the toxic cycle between Celeste and Perry seem quite familiar, both the victim and the abuser in Big Little Lies are far from being stereotypical. For instance, most people think that a woman suffering from physical abuse is meek, docile and damaged. She’s uneducated, too young and naive, or dependent and desperate. However, Celeste is smart, wealthy and pretty. She’s a well-educated and successful former lawyer, and she’s not too young or naive. Which causes the audience to ask this question: Why wouldn’t a woman like Celeste dump her husband for abusing her?
But of course this isn’t a question asked only for Celeste. Upon watching the news or witnessing abuse in some other way, we usually ask the very same question. Then why didn’t she leave him?
I’ll try to explain the reasons why Celeste and other abuse victims cannot easily leave the person who’s been abusing them.
- Perhaps the most important reason why Celeste can’t leave her husband is because she’s not even aware of the fact she’s being abused. When she’s abused, she fights back. So when Perry hits her, she hits him in return. Although this is simply a natural reaction to abuse, Celeste believes they both have violent tendencies instead of acknowledging the fact her husband has issues. As a result, she fails to see herself as an abuse victim. This denial mechanism causes her to share the guilt and make her husband look less problematic. Abuse victims -no matter how brutal it was- find it hard to acknowledge that they’ve been abused. Because admitting that it was abuse means you admit being a victim and that isn’t an easy thing to acknowledge. Besides, most of the time our abuser is not a stranger but a spouse, friend or parent. It’s hard to accept that someone you love and someone whose love you believe in would willingly and deliberately hurt you. Therefore the abuse victim can easily deny the ordeal, try to minimize or normalize the abuse.
- But of course the way Celeste shares the guilt and claims she’s just as problematic isn’t all about denial. She genuinely feels guilty about the whole violence. Or in other words, Perry makes her feel guilty. For instance, in one episode Celeste tells him that she’s taking the kids to Disney. Because his opinion wasn’t asked and he was not invited; Perry gets so annoyed that he accuses her of deliberately taking his kids away from him. Even something as simple as this is enough for Perry to abuse Celeste and in Perry’s eyes, she’s the sole person to blame for this entire conflict. By putting the blame on her, Perry successfully justifies his actions. And because of all the constant accusations, Celeste ends up believing that she truly is partly responsible. A lot of abusers in abusive relationships tend to claim that their victims are to blame. They can often say things like ‘you made me do this, you caused this’. Apart from blaming their victims, abusers can also make up excuses for their actions. For example, they can claim that they abused their partner while under the influence of alcohol and that they’re very sorry, or they’ve been extremely stressed lately. But we should always remember that no abuse can be excused or justified.
- Celeste doesn’t want to give up the things she has. In one of the episodes, her therapist asks: ‘When are you going to leave him?’ But Celeste doesn’t feel ready to leave him just yet because she has a lot to lose: Two kids, a husband she dedicated her whole life to, the life they built together and so much more. Thinking about all the things she might lose, she isn’t inclined to give up on their marriage.
- Celeste believes it to be love. In the series, we see two different sides of Perry. One of them is controlling, aggressive and conceited but the other one is a man who’s madly in love with his wife, who’s extremely afraid of losing her, who’s loyal and polite and charming. Celeste prefers focusing on the latter and she loves him deeply.
- Celeste believes that things can change. In majority of the abusive relationships, the abuser doesn’t always look bad. In this story, Perry is someone who often plays with his kids, who compliments his wife frequently and who’s been there for Celeste back in the day. All these traits keep Celeste hopeful. She believes that Perry can be changed, she thinks he can eventually overcome his anger issues and turn into a much better person and husband. But manipulators like him can seldom change. Most of the time, these rare occasions are actually the continuation of the abuse but in a much more subtle way.
- The abuse is unseen by the society. The abuse she suffers from remains unknown by Celeste’s friends and neighbors. On the contrary, Perry looks like a perfect husband and father from the outside who’s also successful and respectable. Abuse takes place behind closed doors with no other witnesses. Therefore, Celeste’s inner circle often compliments Perry on what a great father and husband he is. This situation prevents her from opening up to her own friends about the ordeal she’s put through.
- Although it isn’t clearly highlighted in the story, one of the reasons why Celeste stays by his side might be her financial dependence. We find out that Perry prevented Celeste from working by various manipulations in the past. Even though she used to be a successful lawyer, Celeste quits her career and becomes financially dependent on her husband once her children were born. This situation makes it hard for her to leave him and start over. In many abusive relationships, the victim is often economically dependent on the abuser. They need enough money in order to be able to leave in peace and start over without feeling the need to come back.
- Celeste chooses to stay because she has children. This is one of the biggest handicaps of abuse victims who have children with their abusers. A lot of people can insist on continuing a toxic relationship just to prevent their children from witnessing a problematic divorce and forcing them to adapt to a whole different life. But unfortunately this situation often leads to worse outcomes for the children as well. Sometimes the abusive may be directed at the children as well or even if the children are never physically abused, they can still witness the abuse between their parents and have the notion that this is what a normal relationship looks like. Children who grew up in an abusive environment end up struggling with psychological and emotional problems in the future. Worst of all, these kids often end up being a victim or an abuser themselves.
- One of the reasons why Celeste won’t leave her husband can be the effects of her trauma on her self-respect. Although she’s intelligent, beautiful and successful; such a long-term and systematic trauma can damage her self-confidence and self-respect. This can prevent her from making a healthy decision.
- Celeste is ashamed. Believing herself to be a woman who’s been abused is too much for her to take. As I’ve mentioned before, most of the time abuse victims are believed to be weak and desperate. Therefore she can’t picture herself as one. I’m not like that, she thinks. But what Celeste doesn’t know is that there isn’t a woman who is ‘like that’, abuse can happen to everyone.
- Celeste is afraid. Deep down, she knows that the abuse may get more severe, and that she can be punished or even killed if she ever tries to escape. This is something we should remember when we’re having a hard time understanding why a victim remains by their abuser’s side despite everything they’re put through. Victims fear for their lives.