On Big Little Lies, Celeste has spent years suffering in silence, but there's finally one person in the world who knows that she's physically and verbally abused by Perry. Dr. Reisman is slowly but surely getting through to her in private sessions, and the meticulously-created facade has been dropped in the safety of her therapist's office. It now seems highly likely that Celeste will leave Perry on Big Little Lies — but it won't be easy, and not just because she's heartbroken by the thought of divorcing her husband after all they've been through together.
Although she hasn't stated outright that she plans to leave and briefly claims Dr. Reisman is being "an alarmist," Celeste follows her therapist's advice and immediately begins searching for an apartment in Monterey. There are, of course, many reasons a divorce will be painful — Celeste describes the thought of breaking apart as "like tearing flesh" and, like many domestic abuse victims, she focuses on the couple's history and maintains that she's in love with Perry. She seems ready to confront those aspects, but there's another major reason the split will be excruciating. The child custody battle will undoubtedly be bitter, because the system is mistrustful of women who come forward about domestic violence amidst divorce proceedings.
Dr. Reisman has important advice for Celeste — she must begin to document the abuse, maintain written records, photograph her injuries, and keep medical reports. Her last piece of advice will likely be the hardest for Celeste to follow — she needs to confide in a friend immediately. She puts tremendous effort into making her life and marriage appear idyllic because, as she tells Dr. Reisman, her self-worth hinges on how other people see her. It's a bitterly ironic moment when a clueless Madeline tells Celeste that she shouldn't bother talking to Jane about her rape because, "how will she identify with your life, which is just a tick north of perfect?" If only she knew.
Celeste has sung Perry's praises to all her friends and, on the surface, they're a picture-perfect couple. As she told Dr. Reisman earlier in the season, she feels ashamed and the abuse is a "dirty secret." With domestic violence cases, it's extremely common for victims to not tell friends and family members. This is completely understandable behavior, but women are often punished for their silence when they do leave an abusive partner. As Dr. Reisman reminds Celeste, there are no witnesses and she's maintained that Perry is a loving husband and father. In a custody battle, she'll be peppered with accusations such as, "We only have your word. You said he was wonderful. Now you say he's a monster. Were you lying then or are you lying now?"
Big Little Lies is fiction, but it provides an unflinching and realistic depiction of domestic abuse — and Dr. Reisman is absolutely correct that Celeste will face an uphill battle when it comes to custody. According to The Advocates for Human Rights, "25 to 50 percent of disputed custody cases involve domestic abuse," and abusers are more likely to pursue sole custody. But, most disturbingly of all, batterers are just as likely as non-abusers to be granted custody. The reason for the latter is because, as Dr. Reisman said, often women are considered liars until proven truthful.
An abuser's primary defense in a custody battle is that the victim fabricated the claims in order to gain sole custody. Attorney Michelle Kaminsky, chief of the Brooklyn District Attorney's Domestic Violence Bureau, told Cosmopolitan that it's common for women to be accused of lying about abuse in situations like Celeste's:
If and when she does leave Perry, Celeste will be forced to deal with the painful aftermath — she's already exhibited symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks and disassociation, and she nearly jumps out of her skin when Tom lightly touches her shoulder. Celeste will require much more therapy to recover from the trauma, and it's going to be incredibly difficult for her to explain the situation to the couple's young children.
And, in addition to all that, she will be re-victimized by a system that would prefer to label women liars rather than acknowledge the prevalence of domestic violence. Big Little Lies is a tough look at how the system can treat domestic abuse victims, but I'm glad something is showing the harsh reality in such a mainstream way.