Recently, the HBO series Big Little Lies has been taking the media world by storm. Based on a best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies has been wildly successful, winning four Golden Globes awards and signing on an all-star cast for a second season. On the surface, a TV show about wealthy Monterey families hiding some deep, dark secrets should have nothing to do with us, frum Jews living modest lives on the opposite coast. But Big Little Lies offers some truths about abuse that are just as true in Teaneck as they are in LA–and teach us critical messages on how these dynamics function in real life, and what we can do to help.
Abuse Happens Everywhere
The first lesson Lies teaches us is that abuse happens everywhere. When you think about a domestic abuse situation, what comes to mind? Are you imagining a certain socioeconomic level, or a particular cultural group? If so, you’re off-base. Abuse happens everywhere, in all religions, in all cultures, and at all levels of financial success. In Lies, Celeste and Perry Wrights’ enormous affluence and beautiful beachfront home do not protect them from the dangerous threads of power and control that destroy their marriage. “Good, frum” families can also experience the same struggles. Abuse very often does not fit our mental image–an abuser can be the president of the shul; the guy who cleans up kiddush every week; the one everyone can count on to do a mitzvah. I say this not to make you paranoid of everyone you meet (or the people gracious enough to clean up a shul kiddush!) but to make you aware that things are not always what they seem, and that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a story because it doesn’t fit our stereotype of what abuse is “supposed” to look like.
The Imperfect Victim
A second fascinating element the show introduces is the idea of an imperfect victim. Celeste Wright is not only a passive victim of her husband’s abuse, but one who fights back. She responds to his attacks with her own physical lashing out, and makes comments that provoke her husband’s rage. These actions viscerally impact Celeste, who seems to feel less entitled to help and support because of how she reacts to Perry. This dynamic brought to mind how we treat the imperfect victim.
Very often, we have a tendency to want to turn situations into black and white absolutes–this is the good guy, this is the bad guy. When it comes to domestic abuse, things are not always that simple. Sometimes survivors of abuse are sympathetic and easy to rally for; sometimes they are not. Despite the personalities involved, however, abuse is unacceptable no matter what. In my work with abuse survivors and agunot, each case has involved different personalities, some easier to connect to than others. It’s easy and natural for us to want to support agunot and abuse survivors who are likeable, appealing, and well-spoken. But we need to remember that a person does not have to be any of those things in order to deserve freedom, safety, and dignity. There are some basic elements we all deserve, no matter who we are. As we face issues in our community, we need to support all those who are struggling with abuse–no matter how we feel about them personally.
There’s Nothing Simple About Abuse
I once overheard two women having a passionate conversation about domestic abuse. “If my husband ever laid a single finger on me,” one woman exclaimed, waving a manicured hand, “I would be OUT of there in a second.” These are easy words to say, but real life is usually not quite as simple. In Big Little Lies, we see Celeste’s anguish as she tries to make a heartrending decision about her future. Her choices are limited, complex, and fraught with fear and loss–and they are anything but simple.
While we do need to be adamant that abuse is not acceptable and should never be tolerated, we also need to understand that real life is complicated. We don’t want to end up blaming the victim for not leaving because we are oversimplifying what is actually a very complicated situation. Here are just a few of the factors that make abusive relationships so difficult to leave.
First, The complicated thing about abusers is that they vary so much–between each other, and even within themselves. An abuser can present very differently when they are interacting with the public and behind closed doors. In the show, Perry Wright can be attractive, successful, charming, and a playful and devoted father. The other characters watch him and are envious of Celeste. What they do not see, though, is who Perry can become when no one is watching–threatening and controlling, with sudden and terrifying bursts of violence.
What Big Little Lies illustrates so powerfully, however, is that Perry is not always a monster, even behind closed doors. He can be loving and tender with Celeste; he playfully chases his twin sons around the breakfast table. In one scene, the family is driving in the car together. Perry is loving and warm, the boys smiling, the sunlight brilliant overhead. You can almost hear what Celeste is thinking–Am I going to break this up? Am I really going to take the kids and go? In this moment, Celeste has everything she has ever wanted, and leaving is unfathomable. As the audience, we watch her knowing that the dark times will come again. But in the moment, there is no leaving. Celeste echoes these thoughts in a therapy session soon after: Leaving, she says, would be like “tearing flesh.”
Just as Celeste wrestles with deciding to stay or go, for most women, leaving an abusive relationship is an incredibly difficult decision to make. When a spouse chooses divorce, they are walking away from good memories as well as difficult ones, and they are breaking up the family unit they had envisioned. Leaving is a dangerous decision, as well–survivors of domestic abuse are at significant risk when they leave, and now have to face an uphill battle in obtaining their freedom, access to their children, financial security, and a new future.
Changing Social Norms
During many scenes in Lies, Celeste sits on the couch in her therapist’s office and debates her situation. She strongly resists the label of “abuse victim” and maintains that what is happening in her marriage is not unusual, but “this is just how it is.” Fundamentally, part of what the show’s narrative accomplishes is to challenge that mentality and establish that abuse is not “normal” at all. This is not how it is, nor should it be.
In my work at ORA, I see this same attitude applied over and over to abusive get refusal. When a woman faces an extortion tactic–told she must give up the rights to her home, for example, or she will never receive a get–she receives a chorus of advice telling her to give in, let it go, because this is just how it is. While I strongly believe that anyone in such a situation has the right to make whatever decision they feel is best for themselves, I want to challenge the mindset that using a get as a weapon is “just how it is.” Determining “how it is” is not done in a vacuum, but something that we as a community decide together.
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Part of what is so captivating about shows like Big Little Lies is that they offer us a chance to explore a different reality. If the same cameras were turned on our community, what would they show? What realities do we ignore, or excuse? What do we devote our energy to changing?
It is how we answer these questions that determines not only how it is but also who we are. So let’s create a community we can be proud of.