“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Gaslight,” and our collective sanity

30 November 2011

There’s an amazing scene in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011): the titular character (Elizabeth Olsen) has reappeared at her sister’s house after being gone for two years — and although she won’t talk about where she’s been or why she’s scared, her strange actions speak volumes. One night as Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband have sex in bed, Martha walks in and curls up on one side. She’s so quiet it even takes them a moment to notice her there. They explode with a sense of violation — screaming at her about privacy and such behavior being abnormal. Once they’ve calmed down, Lucy asks Martha whether she understands why they were so upset. “Because it’s private,” Martha parrots back, again with that placid look on her face. “And it’s not normal.” We know with absolute certainty that she’s learned to repeat whatever truisms she’s told, because when she does, she’s rewarded with love — or is it because when she doesn’t comply, there are scary consequences?

This isn’t just a post about two excellent films, nor is it a typical review. I want to suggest that what those films portray — two different versions of a woman having her sanity challenged by a controlling, ostensibly loving male authority — can be seen not just as specific, individual cases, but a broader cultural phenomenon. It’s similar to the way I treated Black Swan last year — film as a jumping-off point to talk about culture.

Perhaps you suspect me of having jumped the shark with such a point. Most of us are not escaping from cultlike, charismatic leaders like John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Neither are most of us gaslighted, describing what Lauren over at Feministe calls “a repeat, systematic series of lies that are designed to make the victim doubt her reality. It’s not one lie or two lies, it’s part of a pattern of abuse meant to make the victim more compliant to minimize the effects of abuse, accept blame, and accept the abuser’s version of events that are contrary to her ownIn other words, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

“Death by a thousand cuts.” C’mon, everyone: this is not just an individual phenomenon.

Perhaps you haven’t seen Gaslight recently (I’m talking about the 1944 US remake of the 1940 British film), but you should. It’s surprisingly creepy even now, begging you to wonder how easy it would be to be persuaded you’re crazy. He (Charles Boyer) starts with little things: he hides his wife’s (Ingrid Bergman) brooch, or a framed picture on the wall, and then persuades her that she hid them and doesn’t remember.

When she’s alone in a room he stomps around in the unused attic and fiddles with the gas lights, then laughs at her when she claims there’s something wrong with the lights or that she hears footsteps. He isolates her from other people, claiming it’s for her own sake. He starts to threaten her with institutionalization. He tells her that her madness is genetic, and that her own mother was insane.

Now let’s think about how the denials of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment prompted a surprising number of GOP mouthpieces to deny the very existence of sexual harassment charges earlier this month. It’s not just that Cain is innocent, they said. It’s that women are scheming liars. Women misunderstand jokes. Women try to move ahead by inventing stories about men. Women might believe they were harassed, but they’ve just got overactive imaginations. Women are stupid pawns, easily manipulated in men’s political games. Women who claim they’ve been raped are likewise presumed to be sluts who are lying: thus the GOP wants to redefine rape so that only evidence of the most extreme violence can be used as proof. (Be assured, friends, that effort is still underway.)

“It’s no longer just a Republican war on women. It’s a war on the idea that any woman might ever tell the truth,” as Dalia Lithwick concludes in her excellent Slate piece.

That scene I described above from Martha Marcy May Marlene is indicative of a pattern: she’s learned to repeat, and perhaps even to believe, whatever she’s told — no matter what the circumstances. When she’s subjected to a horrific act that her fellow cult members call “the cleansing,” they soothe her afterward by telling her how wonderful it is, how much they wish they could go through the process again for the first time. Soon Martha is laughing, as if her entire experience of violation has been rewritten as a mystical and transformative.

Surely we can believe that if a misogynistic, horrific idea is repeated long enough, it can start to seem normal. Let’s take the idea that has been building since 1973 into its current incarnation: that abortion is always, always bad. I was a teenager in the 80s in a small evangelical town and even I knew that if I got pregnant I’d get an abortion. If I were growing up now, would I believe what they’re saying: that abortion causes cancer, that it causes permanent emotional trauma, that abortion doctors are butchers, that even if I’d been raped or if childbirth would kill me I’d need to bring that baby to term? I don’t know — but young people today disapprove of abortion in far larger numbers than they did during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Can we deny that this onslaught of misinformation, making women doubt their own opinions or needs, is to blame?

Actually, let’s talk about what I find even more upsetting, yet widespread: the anti-abortion message that women are incapable of making good choices, so the state needs to make choices on their behalf. I think this is a campaign designed to sidestep popular support for the notion of “choice” — no one wants to be seen as “anti-choice.” Instead, anti-abortionists have changed the terms of the debate — they’re not against choice, it’s just that women make selfish and bad choices they will regret. Women who have abortions are bad. Women who think it’s more important to feed the children they already have than add another child to the family are bad. Women who want to finish college rather than have a baby are bad. Therefore, anti-abortionists file out in front of clinics and torment the women walking inside. In its effort to criminalize abortion, the anti-abortion movement has even gone so far as to  seek to make every miscarriage a potential crime scene and call into question every single aspect of a pregnant woman’s lifestyle. The Mississippi “personhood amendment,” which every single GOP presidential candidate supported, redefined life as starting with conception — potentially outlawing the Pill.

What we need are more cultlike, charismatic male authority figures to watch us. Obviously!

The effect of that shift in thinking is a scary breaking down of the notion that a woman’s body might be her own. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, she learns that in exchange for giving up all privacy, all rights to her body, she receives love and comfort from her fellow cult members. (One of the fascinating things the film shows us is how lonely, isolated, and inarticulate she becomes without the cult: it’s terrifying to sleep alone, to return to a world where even one’s sister only offers up a teensy amount of physical affection.)

But let’s return in the end to the great, amazing climactic scene from Gaslight — a climax notably lacking in Martha Marcy May Marlene, I might add. We have no idea how crazy he’s made Ingrid Bergman by this time; she doubts all her own memories. She trusts her husband implicitly. She’s so weak emotionally that she can barely understand it when an inspector finally arrests her husband for a murder many years ago — that’s the secret he sought to keep — and ties him up in a chair. The film ends with her alone in the room with her bound husband, with him trying to manipulate her one more time: to help him escape.

It’s terrifying, because she seems to be manipulable. He tells her to withdraw a knife he’s hidden from a drawer and cut him free. She moves, robotlike, to the drawer and fishes around for a while, telling him there’s nothing there.

Yet when she turns back to him, she has the knife in her hand, gripped in an odd backhanded grip (and what a great acting choice Bergman made with that grip). We realize that she has stopped listening to her husband, and that now she’s doing the talking. She denies that there is a knife — and then tosses the knife off into a corner.

“I’m always losing things and hiding things and I can never find them — I don’t know where I put them. That was a knife, wasn’t it? and I have lost it. I must look for it, mustn’t I, and if I don’t find it you will put me in the madhouse. Where could it be now? Perhaps it’s behind this picture — yes, it must be here. No — where shall I look now? Perhaps I put it over here.”

By now we’re feeling a little bit better — after all, she’s not going to let Boyer escape — but the film doesn’t let us off the hook. It takes us to another kind of terror: that she has been manipulated so terribly that she will kill him. Then we get to the most amazing series of lines:

“If I were not mad I could have helped you. Whatever you had done I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad I hate you. Because I am mad I have betrayed you and because I am mad I’m rejoicing in my heart without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”

We’re all being gaslighted, friends. How much more before we, too, are mad? How much more before we aren’t sure what’s “normal,” what’s “private,” and what isn’t?

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5 Responses to ““Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Gaslight,” and our collective sanity”

  1. Dienna Says:

    Great piece. The idea of “gaslighting” has been written about a lot lately, such as a piece that was written not too long ago for the Huffington Post. Women’s views and concerns are constantly belittled and dismissed to make them think they’re going crazy, and these films show a horrible way of art imitating life.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh yes, and I meant to reiterate that in talking about insanity as a feminine condition I didn’t mean to belittle or set aside the individual experiences of women who are actually gaslighted. I hope that’s obvious.

      It just seems as if the responses I’ve seen to Martha Marcy May Marlene have focused solely on it as portrayal of this crazy thing that happened to this one girl. Whereas, as with Black Swan, I kept thinking about all the analogies to stuff I see in the news all the time. All those refusals to believe rape victims; all those women who refuse to come forward with rape or sexual harassment charges because of the public beating they’d take in the media. Dark days, friends.

  2. servetus Says:

    did you want to have one more sentence?

    I don’t know how to answer your question, though I too have wondered if I am crazy.

    • Didion Says:

      Yes, version 1.0 of this post got cut off mid-sentence at the very end, but it has been amended to version 1.5!


  3. […] Ingrid Bergman’s face register that betrayal is akin to watching her two years earlier in Gaslight (1944) as the young wife driven mad as a result of her husband’s machinations. Her face […]


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