What 'Jessica Jones' Got Right About My Experience As A Survivor
At first, it didn’t seem like such a big deal not to eat at Balthazaar anymore — there were other French bistros in Manhattan, after all. Then my best friend moved, and I realized that I couldn’t take the train past his stop without experiencing heart palpitations. I even stopped going to my favorite stationary store, because I had spent hours there agonizing over his birthday gift. Abuse doesn't just affect a person. Abuse transforms the public spaces and rituals shared with the abuser, too. As a survivor of intimate partner violence, I have learned that abuse leaves traces everywhere.
People who suffer from PTSD often avoid people and locations, go out of their way to side-step reminders of their trauma, because triggers — experiences that cause memory recall of a past traumatic event — can occur at any time. Sometimes, you can’t go to those places without summoning what feels like superhuman strength. Jessica Jones, the Netflix series about a super-powered private eye who must track down Kilgrave, the mind-controlling supervillain who abused and raped her, navigates the importance of space for trauma victims and the fiction of privacy. The show also demonstrates exactly how particular places and events can be triggering. Very few TV shows or movies get this experience right. But Jessica Jones nails it.
Jessica, a snarky anti-hero with special physical abilities, is also deeply damaged emotionally. She suffers from panic attacks, has difficulty with intimacy, abuses alcohol, and puts herself in dangerous situations — maybe because she can fight her way out, but maybe because she doesn’t care what happens to her.
Orphaned after a tragic car accident, Jessica is adopted by a manipulative stage mother and bonds with her adoptive sister, Trish. As a teenager and young woman, Jessica relishes putting both her adopted mother and arrogant men in their places; she’s feisty and unapologetic about exposing those who take advantage of others. But Jessica’s life changes dramatically when she meets Kilgrave.
Through the character of Kilgrave — who is able to control both the minds and bodies of his victims — the show addresses rape culture, street harassment, PTSD, and consent. Kilgrave uses his ability to possess Jessica, a woman who, for him, embodies power that he longs to have. Like any abuser, he wants to break Jessica by striking at her sense of self, by destabilizing her conception of identity, and by shattering her esteem. He succeeds; we meet Jessica as a profoundly broken woman. She doubts her motivations. She doesn’t trust anyone. She has done things she didn't want to do and is ashamed.
Ask anyone who has been in an abusive relationship, and they will tell you a similar story: they have done things they didn’t want to do.
When I met John, he was nice. We had a good first date, a great second date. But over the course of a few weeks, he became a jailer of sorts. First, he praised my intellect. He’d borrow my books and read them, pointing out how my marginalia was smart and incisive. Then, he praised my looks: my eyes were expressive, my ass was sexy. I trusted him enough to confess that I’d struggled with depression and anxiety. This only made him more interested — he was a recovering alcoholic, he said, and understood pain.
When we first had sex, John said I was amazing. An hour later, he wanted more. I turned away from him, thinking my body language would convey that I was finished for the night. He punched the wall. He punched the wall again. “I’m so attracted to you, I just can’t help myself,” he spat. “What’s wrong with you?”
Really, I just didn't want to have sex again that night, and I eventually told him so. But I didn’t sleep at all. I stared at the ceiling, at the crack between the curtain and my window, wondering what I had done wrong. I felt like a stranger in my own bed. I wanted to ask him to leave, but I also wanted him to stay. Over time, punching the wall turned into verbal and emotional abuse, and eventually, assault.
I had decided on my own to remain in an unsafe space. I couldn’t leave that space because I couldn’t face the rest of the world. I was embarrassed, and I wanted to disappear. After all, I was a smart girl; I should have known better.
Bit by bit, John broke me down. He had been entranced by my fiery spirit, he had said, my irreverence and willingness to raise hell. But he seemed to take pleasure in my increasingly common tears and growing helplessness; in fact, he later told me he enjoyed watching my flame sputter out. I became so depressed, I didn’t want to be around other people anymore. In order to avoid my roommate and my friends, I had taken to holing up at his apartment. I could disappear for days there, watching the boats slide by on the river from the bedroom window. Then he’d come back from work and embrace me, tears welling up in his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re still here,” he’d cry. “It’s like a dream.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but John had isolated me from my friends, family, and familiar surroundings. Wandering around his apartment all day, avoiding phone calls from my mother and my roommate, and panicking over going outside, I had essentially become a prisoner. But here’s where abuse and coercion become complicated: John wasn’t actually telling me to stay. I had decided on my own to remain in an unsafe space. I couldn’t leave that space because I couldn’t face the rest of the world. I was embarrassed, and I wanted to disappear. After all, I was a smart girl; I should have known better.
When you’re in an abusive relationship, your environment gains new significance. You become hypervigilant. You analyze doors and windows. You lock your door. You double check that you locked your door. You even get new locks, just in case a copy of your key is floating around.
One of the very first things I noticed about Jessica Jones is how the show treats environment. In the first episode, Jessica throws an angry client through the glass pane on her door, and we’re introduced to one of the show’s running jokes: Jessica’s problem with broken windows. Jessica doesn’t fix her window right away; she doesn’t even lock her door. Instead, she tapes a piece of cardboard emblazoned with the words “Fragile: Handle With Care” over the gaping hole.
Despite her superpowers, Jessica is fragile. There’s a recklessness about her refusal to secure her private space — but also a depressing logic. For Jessica, her mind has already been violated; physical space is not her primary concern. Privacy isn’t, either — she wakes up and finds the neighbor wandering around her kitchen in a drugged stupor. Instead of panicking, she quietly escorts him out. The permeability of her living space demonstrates her refusal to police her own space, and also her pessimism about whether such policing even works.
On college campuses, like the one where I currently teach, the concept of “safe spaces” has become an important part of conversations about rape, intimate partner violence, racism, and other forms of aggression and hate speech. While the media often pokes fun at “safe spaces,” citing the creation of such spaces as evidence of college students’ increasing inability to deal with the rigor of real world stressors, there is something to be said about creating a place where one can feel free from violation.
But there are no safe spaces in Jessica Jones. When Jessica realizes she must revisit a restaurant that Kilgrave took her to during her captivity (“their” restaurant), she wavers for a moment, clearly uncomfortable about entering the space. Going to the hotel where she and Kilgrave spent intimate nights causes Jessica’s vision to blur and her balance to falter. But Jessica survives this dark voyage through the spaces where Kilgrave controlled and raped her because she needs to save his latest victim, Hope.
Throughout the show, we hear Jessica repeating a kind of mantra every time she has a traumatic reaction or panic attack: “Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane.” We later find out that this ritual is a kind of cognitive therapy to alleviate symptoms of her PTSD. Her childhood home is a safe space for her; her happiest memories occurred there. Repeating the names of streets in her neighborhood helps calm Jessica down. So when Kilgrave buys Jessica’s childhood home and refurnishes it exactly as it was when she lived there, he commits an unfathomable cruelty. By owning Jessica’s house, recreating the atmosphere of her childhood and adolescence, and then inserting himself in this environment, Kilgrave not only violates Jessica all over again but also violates her memories. His presence taints the home, transforming it from a safe space to an unsafe one.
During this surreal experience, Jessica is infantilized and stripped of the power she has worked so hard to gain. She can only protest by stomping into the dining room, having a “liquid dinner” and then stomping back to her bedroom, locking the door, and jamming a chair under the knob. Her reaction to this childhood space is striking. While in her Hell’s Kitchen apartment, Jessica doesn’t care about locking the door or even repairing the window. In her childhood home, she protects her space by locking her door and bracing a chair against it — a symbolic gesture, her way of trying to protect her happy childhood memories from Kilgrave’s rot.
A few months after John broke up with me (yes, I was dumped by my abuser), I moved into a new apartment. One day, I opened my mailbox to find an envelope addressed to me. It was in John’s handwriting. I stared at the letter like it was about to bite. My palms started to sweat, my heart palpitated, and my hands shook. I grew dizzy and had to sit down on the staircase.
After taking some deep breaths, I went into my apartment and locked the door. Sitting on the couch, I opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It was written in very neat, almost robotic handwriting — an apology that wasn’t really an apology, but a formulaic Alcoholics Anonymous letter. More disturbingly, it was a revision of the events. I didn’t know how John had gotten my new address, but the presence of the letter felt like an extension of him, invading my private space, violating and disempowering me. I did the only thing I could. I took out a pen and responded to each line, deconstructing the letter like it was a bad student paper. In a way, it was. I finished by scrawling a big, red “F” on it.
By writing directly on John’s letter, I made steps to take control of my own narrative. My handwriting, sloppy and blood red, rampaged over his controlled, neat print; my jagged marginalia filled the letter’s silent borders with rage. Once I neutralized the letter’s power, I folded it up and put it in a box, to save as proof in case one day anyone questioned my story. After all, I was a woman who had allowed abuse to happen to her — why should anyone trust me?
When I share my story, sometimes people ask why I stayed. I can offer a few reasons: I felt I deserved the abuse, I had become a degraded human, no one else would have me, I was depressed, I was ashamed. These reasons never feel satisfactory — to me or to others. We have agency, right? We are free to make our own choices.
When Jessica argues with Kilgrave about control and free will, he references a moment from her past. While under Kilgrave’s control for months, Jessica had a single eighteen second window of agency in which Kilgrave lets his power expire; eighteen seconds to make her escape.
“For eighteen seconds, I wasn’t controlling you. And you stayed with me. Because you wanted to,” he tells her smugly.
“I had waited so long for that moment. For one single opportunity to get away from you.”
The flashback to that moment is particularly poignant. Jessica and Kilgrave stand on a balcony, enjoying a glass of red wine and watching the extraordinary New York City skyline. Jessica climbs up onto the balcony, her yellow dress billowing in the breeze. She has a fantasy of herself, jumping off the balcony to safety and riding away on a waiting white horse — a princess saving herself.
But in real life, she can’t jump. Kilgrave orders her to get down from the ledge. Just like that, she’s under his control again.
Back in the present, Jessica shakes her head. “I wasn’t fast enough. Getting you out of my head was like prying fungus from a window. I couldn’t think.”
Does abuse ever end, and can we ever truly feel safe? Jessica Jones doesn't dance around this question. When Jessica finally snaps Kilgrave’s neck at the end of Season One, she stops him from manipulating, controlling, and harming more people in the future. She can’t, however, erase the past or heal his victims. There will always be lingering doubts, questions, and shame.
Images: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix; Giphy (6)