Like you, I’m addicted to Netflix, so when Jessica Jones started appearing on subways ads during my daily commute, I knew I was watching. What I didn’t know was that Jessica Jones would save me ways I didn’t know I needed saving.
You see, Jessica and I (we’re on a first name basis) are both survivors of intimate partner abuse. For over a year in my early twenties, I was powerless to escape my attacker. That is until, like Jessica, suddenly, I wasn’t.
It’s been 9 years, and still I didn’t know that I had undiscovered triggers until my first binge-watching session. Jessica Jones explores, more than anything else I’ve seen, the true terror of intimate partner violence—it’s the mind control—but even further, Jessica, as a character, explores her fear, shame, and baggage more authentically than even I have.
If you know a survivor, you know mind control. When my abuser told me not to go anywhere, I froze. I recalculated. That’s how much power he had over me. In the beginning, our relationship was mind-numblingly easy. He decided what we’d eat for dinner, where to go on weekends. He even picked out the clothes I would wear everyday. In the beginning, his charisma and confidence were hypnotizing. He was like a choice drug—a favorite drink I could order up, kick back, and get lost in—which made that first blow to my face all the more startling. Even immediately after, in those first few seconds that it took to register, his will was more powerful than mine. A simple “I’m sorry; I’ll never do that again,” turned into “it never happened; you did something wrong.”
I don’t know what a one-off encounter with mind control feels like, but I trust the experiences of Kilgrave’s support group. My life, though, was more like Jessica’s, where being controlled, no matter how you feel about it, becomes the new normal. Months before my escape and his final attack, I tried to run. My co-workers at the time helped me develop a plan: wait for him to leave for work first, even if that meant being late; then, come to work, cash my check, take the first cab to the airport, buy a one-way ticket west—doesn’t matter where—and start over. I kept counting through my hundred dollar bills, googling flights to Los Angeles or Texas. But at the end of the day, there I was still at my desk, confused. How could I not get up? Why can’t I leave? Instead of boarding a plane I came home, confessed, and took my licks. A couple of months later, when I finally told him I was done, he stabbed me.
Life is over, or beginning, after you leave your abuser. Where Jessica has cheap whiskey, I have 40oz malt liquor. Where Jessica counts street names, I count old college classmates who made me feel safe.
I’ve been struggling like Jessica for 9 years with the idea of heroism. Hers is super-powered, fueled with strength and not-quite flying. Mine is political activism—social and economic justice. It’s not possible for Jessica (nor I) to re-write history, to undo what was done to us, but it is possible to try when we can to do better for others. I work in activism because I want to prevent the system from creating the same kind of man that abused me, in the same vein that Jessica fights for Hope Shlotman’s innocence.
But let’s not get confused; neither one of us is a hero. The first time I spoke out publicly about my abuse was at a “Take Back the Night” rally. A good friend pulled me aside after and told me that she too had had an experience but couldn’t talk about it. I was her hero, she told me, but what that felt like, in the moment, was nothing like a hero. It was shame. Talking about your abuse doesn’t change that it happened, and helping others doesn’t change that it happened to you.
I never get to be the same again, not since him and all the times he hit me. For years, I thought I was okay with that, but Jessica taught me better and gave me tools that in hindsight I always knew were there but never thought to try.
(Spoiler alert:) Jessica, at one point, goes back to her attacker, in a house he set up for her in the hopes of “rekindling” whatever relationship they had. An outside observer could say this move was unwise, and a keen outside observer could say Jessica’s act was selfless. That she was trying to save others. Both of these are wrong: Jessica needed to go back for herself. She did what I could never think to do—meet her attacker on open grounds, as much equals as is possible. The harsh side of abuse is that’s it’s always about power, about mind control. You can never really be equal, but Jessica bucked up and faced the kinds of fears that I still have nightmares about.
Watching Jessica confront her attacker honestly, without shame or reservation, was like an exorcism for me. More than all the therapy sessions I sought, Jessica Jones allowed me to mentally play with the idea of closure in ways I never thought possible—and in ways I’m sure she never thought possible (she has her whiskey and I have my 40s). I’ve tried for years to move on, only for a Netflix series to glaringly and embarassingly show me that all I’ve ever done was cope. Heroes, Jessica and I aren’t.
What makes a hero is a central emotional arc of the show, and we’re given lots of examples good and bad of that (Malcolm versus Simpson, Hogarth versus Trish). But every one is flawed, because at the core, “the hero” is a facade. It’s a role we play.
I hate being called brave, especially in reference to my abuse. I’ve attempted to date men who use brave as a term of admiration—a compliment to throw out before the clothes come off—but brave would have been leaving my attacker the first time he hit me. Brave is resisting mind control, and even super-powered, super sexy Luke Cage couldn’t do that. In my experience, brave is what comes after. What you do not in the days following your last attack, but in the years. Brave is the idea of opening yourself up in love when the first person you loved tried to literally kill you. Brave is what I wish to be, and maybe, hopefully, can become … because of what Jessica taught me.
Jessica never knew she was immune to Kilgrave (sorry, spoiler alert), and neither did I know I was until watching the show. We become immune because our bodies (not our minds, not our heart) build up a resistance. I’ll confess that I sometimes display “odd” behavior while sleeping next to someone. Sometimes I’ll unconsciously insist on not being touched, not being near someone. This has happened to one-night stands as well as men I’ve been in years-long relationships with. It’s my body, unconscious, yet somehow still “mind-controlled,” immunizing itself.
Jessica wins the day by not being a hero. She doesn’t sacrifice herself, she doesn’t triumph in a punch-trading battle. Yet somehow, more than even watching King Joffrey’s death, Kilgrave’s death became cathartic and necessary even in its quick, unceremonious end, and I’m starting to understand why. Our abusers don’t need to see us live happy, productive, rewarding lives, and they don’t deserve 1,000 cuts, either. What they need—what we need—is for them to end. For Jessica, that’s murder. For me, it’s something I’m still left to discover.
I need the ghost of my attacker to end. Nine years have been far too long. I need a release, and I don’t know how to get it, but Jessica has been more than a role model for me. She’s become a beacon of the kind of hope that only someone traumatized can understand. Jessica faces her past, with all the ugliness, with all the danger. She doesn’t always have a plan, she isn’t always sober, but she stands and faces her attacker. She says to him, “you raped me!” And one day, I will too.
(image via Marvel Entertainment)
Reuben Hayslett is the National Online Campaigns Coordinator for the Working Families Party. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, lives in Brooklyn, and posts a lot stuff about white privilege, intersectionality, queerness and Indigenous activism. Follow him on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/reuben.hayslett.
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