What It’s Like To Watch 'Jessica Jones' As A Survivor Of Abuse
He shoves me up against the door, cups his hand over my mouth. I’m screaming for help, but it’s like he’s forced my voice back down my throat. I am utterly powerless in this moment, and though I am powerless every minute of every day with him, I feel it all the more acutely now, which is why I do not fight back.
Then, in a moment, it’s over. He lets me go. As usual, things have gone too far but it is my fault, he says. He’s hurt me, frightened me, and he is without remorse.
Being in an abusive relationship was like being under a spell. In the time I spent involved with an emotional abuser, I was miserable, frightened, and so full of rage and self-loathing it made me physically ill, yet I couldn’t get out. I watched myself do things I didn’t agree with. I watched myself create distance from friends and family. I was complicit to the extent that I wanted to placate my abuser, so he would stop hurting me, but eventually, I realized nothing would make him stop.
In Jessica Jones , a new Netflix series based off the Marvel comic, private investigator Jones is a curmudgeon with superpowers, a heavy drinker, and a misanthrope with a chip on her shoulder. She’s also a survivor of unspeakable abuse, perpetrated by Kilgrave, a super villain who has the ability to control the mind of any person within his sight — much like Charles Xavier of X-Men, only without the professor’s moral compass. Kilgrave forces his victims to kill people, abandon their children, inflict self-harm. But the true torture is that they remain semi-cognizant of his control, yet unable to resist.
While Jessica Jones is cunning and possesses superhuman strength, on her own she is no match against Kilgrave. No one is. His power is a metaphor of perfect symmetry for the ways in which abusers break down and control their victims, subduing their will, regardless of their personal strength or integrity.
Kilgrave also brings the serial abuser to the level of the supernatural. His extensive surveillance of Jones’s every moves lends him a kind of omnipotence. My own abuser so effectively monitored my habits and behavior, repeatedly invading my privacy, that I began to police my own thoughts. Even my dreams altered as a result of his influence and the way he strategically used gaslighting to control me. There were times I felt he could read my very thoughts.
I kept a journal periodically, a document I buried on my computer’s hard drive, but after a short time, I would always panic and delete the file, afraid he would find it and my innermost feelings would be revealed — and then used against me. He had already done exactly that by reading my emails and instant messages. An entire archive of thoughts and conversations were at his disposal, evidence of what I “truly” believed or felt, despite my protests to the contrary. I was a liar, a whore, someone undeserving of trust. In reality, I was the opposite of all those things, but when you are subjugated, “reality” no longer matters.
Jessica Jones has a lot to teach viewers about how abuse functions — like how it is a fallacy to think only the weak succumb to abuse. Anyone, including a smart, independent feminist such as myself, can be controlled by someone skilled enough in manipulation to know which buttons to push. In fact, the idea that I was not the strong person I had thought I was, that it was weakness that kept me tied to a man who hurt me on purpose, contributed to my sense of shame over my relationship. This kept me from seeking help. I didn’t want loved ones to know what kind of nightmare I was living. I was embarrassed that my life had shrunken down to a withered husk of its former self. Therein lies the irony of Jessica Jones’s Hulk-like strength, which provides zero protection against an insidious mind-controller.
Yet, like Jones, I, too possess a superpower: my voice as a writer. It does not mean I am not terrified as I write this. Because he will see. And he will know that I spoke out. And that makes me vulnerable at the same time as it makes me powerful, just like Jessica Jones. In her character, there is no boasting, no superhero posturing, no unflappable heroine. Instead, once Jones realizes her torturer is alive, her first instinct is to run. Considering the scope of his power, this is not an irrational impulse. When her talk show host bestie insults Kilgrave on-air and Jones panics, I got goosebumps. Yes, I thought, don’t poke the bear. But courage is not the lack of fear, it’s the will to persevere in spite of your fear. My desire to speak honestly about an experience so many other women share is stronger than my terror. Or, at least, I choose to make it stronger.
Some have called Jessica Jones a feminist show. I believe that it qualifies, because a feminist show is one centered around a complex and believable female character who is more than an archetype and who is not defined by her role relative to that of a male counterpart. Jones is sullen and often self-centered, even as she fights everyone else’s battles. She is not the honorable, innocent victim we are so familiar with, the kind who sweetly weeps and makes the audience go, “Oh, no, not her.”
Instead, Jones is morally ambiguous. She doesn’t believe in therapy, but she does believe in alcohol. Jones is also adamant that what Kilgrave has done to Hope, his latest victim, is not Hope’s fault. By extension, neither are the horrors he forced Jones to commit. But Hope still evinces internalized victim-blaming, claiming she “wasn't strong enough to resist Kilgrave.” And as the episodes progress and Jones continues to unravel, the audience catches glimpses of her internal conflict and self-blaming, too. She doesn’t write herself the same pass she offers Hope. Jones is not impervious; she is fragile and fallible, as much as she is powerful. It’s in that contradiction that the truth lies, that complex dichotomy that is so visceral and rings so true.
My therapist once told me that to get over my trauma, I would have to admit to having been powerless in my relationship. It sounds easy, but try admitting you weren’t really in the driver’s seat of your own life. Kilgrave’s “gift” turns this powerlessness into something finite and easily identifiable. In real life, it is far more nuanced and complex. But the result is the same: trauma, self-loathing, a questioning of one’s identity.
Like Kilgrave’s fictional victims, I have had to reclaim the woman I was. What happened to me does not confuse the reality of who I am: a person of integrity with a huge heart who offered love to someone undeserving of it. If anything, having survived this ordeal proves how resilient I am. In the immortal words of Queen Bey, I’m a survivor.
Images: Netflix; Giphy (2)