When I started watching HBO’s “Big Little Lies” a couple of weeks ago I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that it was a fiercely female storyline and cast. I was also caught up on the other shows we watch and without my husband for a week so thought I’d check it out.
After one episode, I was hooked. And because I was finishing off a bottle of margaritas one night I finished three more. I have never been a fan of Nicole Kidman and after the first episode I stuck by that assessment. But over the next few episodes her character started to develop. She is playing a woman in a horribly abusive marriage, but not the kind we’re used to seeing on screen. She appears to have it all figured out to the outside world.
Celeste (Kidman’s character) is hopelessly in love with her younger husband and has surrendered every part of her identity to be Perry’s wife and the mother to their two young boys. Once a high-powered attorney, her husband becomes outraged by her taking on a pro bono conference for her best friend. After what we believe is the first of seriously physical incidents, they start counseling.
Kidman’s performance is flawlessly harsh. She is playing a woman who is scared out of her mind but doing everything she can to protect her husband and keep her shameful secret hidden from the world. As Celeste sees their counselor on her own due to Perry’s work conflicts, we begin to learn more of her history through questioning and flashback. Celeste, of course, doesn’t honestly answer her therapist’s questions, but the questions trigger intense flashbacks.
Watching Kidman’s performance is really uncomfortable, and that’s how I know it’s good. There is so much of me, of many of us who have suffered through domestic violence, in this character. The shame and the blame that Celeste carries with her. “I hit him too” she tells their therapist. “But did you hit him first or hit him back?”
One time I slapped XN. We were in the garage, me in the doorway to the house and him preparing to leave me for the tenth time. I was shocked to hear myself whisper “I’ve never wanted to hit someone so badly.” He had opened the door to the drive and stopped dead in his tracks then turned and charged at me screaming “So hit me! FUCKING HIT ME!” over and over again. He was inches from my face screaming “go ahead, fucking hit me!” When he slammed the door frame just behind my head with the heel of his hand I flinched, thinking he was going to punch me, and I slapped him. He shook his head and smiled, then chuckled. “You’re pathetic. You’re fucking pathetic.” Then he left, leaving me to care for the 3-week-old baby crying in the other room.
I carried that event with me everywhere and the guilt that came with it. “It is my fault,” I thought. “I deserve this. I am just as awful to him.” Up to that point he had not hit me. He’d thrown things at me: baby toys, phones, soda, the dog. But he’d never hit me so was it really that bad?
In S1:E5 Celeste’s therapist is pressing her to recognize what is happening to her. She asks, “have you ever thought you were going to die?” Flashback. Quick glimpses of humiliation, intimidation, strangulation, suffocation. And it hit me. “Yes, I thought I was going to die.” Repeatedly I thought I was going to die. “This is it. This is the time he kills me.” I took up my journal and my teal inked pen and began to write. I just let it come and with it came the tears. So many tears. I think a poem is what developed and I am working on it. In my heart was an unleashing of pent up fear that has guided each and every decision I have made in the last 8 years.
I highly recommend this show, but if you have a history of DV be prepared to be shaken, maybe in necessary ways to open you up to healing. If you have no personal experience with domestic violence, watch Nicole Kidman’s performance. The clues that there is something terribly wrong in her life are there. Watch for them among your own friends. It is my hope that there are women watching this show who see themselves in Celeste and are awakened to the danger in their lives and find the strength to seek help. Thank you, HBO, for putting these very important and very real storylines out in the open where people can see them.
Learn more about domestic violence on television.