Like so many of the three million people who watched HBO’s fall sleeper hit, The Undoing, I found myself rooting for a complete sociopath up until the very end. Every character on the show seemed to think that Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) killed his mistress, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). The only people who weren’t entirely convinced that he was a cold-blooded killer were apparently his wife, Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), and … us. Which is exactly what director Susanne Bier wanted: for the viewer to see, just like Grace, that no one is above being fooled by the charms of a sick man.
As a survivor myself, this is the kind of show I’ve been desperate for. Because it addresses maybe the most misunderstood aspect of intimate partner violence: the total mind fuck of it all. By putting the audience itself in the same position as Grace, we’re never quite sure who or what to believe. Anyone who’s found themselves orbiting around a violent narcissist knows how confusing and maddening it is to accept that someone can be both loving and lovable—and also inflict unspeakable amounts of pain. That there is, in fact, no such thing as monsters. Because monsters aren’t supposed to have any redeeming qualities, or they’d be humans.
My ex violently raped and nearly killed me. But before that, he was a really fun, cool guy both trusted and loved by every single animal he encountered. Before that, he was a teenage boy defending the life of his mother from his own father. And before that, an innocent child with no healthy adults to show him empathy or make him feel safe. At exactly what age does one graduate from child to monster? From a boy figuring things out to a sociopath incapable of regret or admitting guilt? Or is he born this way?
We don’t know. But the world sure would seem safer if everyone could be pigeonholed into good or bad so we knew who to avoid.
The Undoing gives a voice to those of us who’ve learned through terror that many contradictory things can be true at the same time. That all humans are both good and bad, just with widely varying degrees of each. Society’s collective inability to face this fact is exactly why #MeToo has still only scratched the surface of the epidemic of violence against women. We still can’t accept that our world is full of loving and lovable people, who also inflict violence against those who trust them most. The Undoing drives home this unsettling truth—that we all could know, like, or even love one of them right now. And their abuse is enabled by our attachment to this longing for duality, this world vision of monsters versus good guys, instead of a spectrum of sickness and health.
Through Grace’s journey, we the audience are faced with the question survivors get asked all the time: Why believe and stay with a man everyone else knows could kill you?
It’s complicated. And different for everyone. There are often kids, money, isolation, battered self-worth, and multiple other factors tying someone to their abuser. Sometimes there’s former trauma that’s looking for an act two. Sometimes there is a chronic level of codependency, which can be a force of nature so strong that 12-step groups have been formed to help people escape its grip. There’s also a very human instinct to protect those we love. And then, all this is made worse by the patriarchal social conditioning that reinforces this idea that women should put men’s needs above their own. Intuition and logic don’t stand a chance.
Besides, we didn’t fall in love with monsters. We fell in love with very believable versions of the people presented to us.
For me, the only thing harder than physically getting away from my ex was escaping the grip of an equally scary and powerful foe—that being my own mind. I was facing the humiliation of being a proud feminist who somehow ended up dating a misogynist who hates women so much he rapes and tries to kill them. I always fancied myself tougher than most. I am a former white water raft guide, professional mountain guide, and climber who travels the world solo and has been regularly labeled fearless by men and women alike. Despite my dangerous jobs and lifestyle, in the end, falling in love was the riskiest thing I ever did. Like Grace, I was only willing to face the truth and the great shame that accompanied it when not doing so was worse. For Grace, it was her son’s safety that snapped her out of the lie. For me, it was fear of death itself. I was lucky though. Some women are killed before they get a chance.
I knew long before I left my ex that he was dangerous. The evidence was overwhelming. But I was convinced I was always one step ahead of him and had it under control. Until I didn’t. I could not, would not admit that this man I fell in love with was capable of hurting me. Until he was. Even though the evidence piled up with time, I clung to this lie harder. First, it was a thrown glass, then a chair, then my TV. It wasn’t until he raped me that I was able to admit out loud, “Okay, so maybe I underestimated him.”
It doesn’t help that the patriarchy has socially conditioned women to gaslight ourselves, so often downplaying things we intuitively know aren’t okay. The day after my ex raped me and my friend begged me to move in with her, I assured her I’d leave him “when the time is right.” But that moment almost never came. He raped me several more times and nearly drove me off a cliff. It also doesn’t help that the police often treat victims like me with such cruelty and suspicion. We need their help but don’t trust them, and rightfully so.
As with Grace, I was lucky enough not to be financially controlled by my ex. But unlike her, I wasn’t tied by kids or marriage. I was free to leave at any time. And yet I didn’t. I worried about him more than myself, almost like he was my child not my partner. The scariest part was that leaving wasn’t the end of this nightmare. Even after I moved to L.A. and had the entire state of Arizona between me and him, I still answered his texts. Worse yet, I even fantasized about seeing him one last time. These thoughts scared me into finally getting help.
I haven’t spoken to him since.
Grace has a long road ahead of her. Getting away was just the beginning. Trusting others or even herself again is the hardest part. But it can be done. Seeking the honest advice of healthy, trustworthy friends and mentors is what’s kept me grounded to my intuition, which is where all truth is found. Unlike my ex or Jonathan, who seem incapable of admitting to themselves that they are guilty of anything, my freedom hinges on facing and forgiving myself for my contradictions and staying focused on learning from them.
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