Big Little Lies and the Truth About Women’s Grief

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Big Little Lies and the Truth About Women’s Grief

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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hat do you see when you look into the mirror? Some days, I see myself as a confused, scared child who experienced something no child should ever have to experience. On other days, I’m 24 and violently in love with a man who would go on to break my heart. There are days when I’m 28 and drowning, arms flailing wildly as a career I spent a decade building is torn asunder. On the days that are left I am the me of today: 32, and silently surveying the shrapnel left behind by wars past. There will be more, experience tells me. 

Which one of these versions is the most authentic version of me? Which heartbreak or hurt changed me irrevocably? Was there a fork in the road where pain distilled the essence of me the individual components it was made up of, the sum of the parts always destined to be lesser than the original whole? We are, after all, as much a product of our most soul-searing sadnesses as the joys that make the nerves sing. 

Despite its infuriatingly wasted potential, the second season of Big Little Lies flirted with this grief, a state of the human condition that makes us wary, uncomfortable, and eager to tuck away into the most lightless corners of our person. Grief, at its desolate best, is too tedious for us to engage with just for the sake of it. Its narrative has to be woven around that silver bullet called moving on. It takes great eloquence to tell a story of unspeakable grief, not simply so you can promise your listener that everything eventually falls in place and people go home happy, but because life’s messiness needs to be acknowledged too. Not everyone gets a happy ending; sometimes you just have to settle for a-little-better-than-before. 

If season one of Big Little Lies was all about shattering the them-not-us illusion of what a victim of domestic violence looks like, season two tried — but failed — to capture the hypnotic nature of grief

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It takes great eloquence to tell a story of unspeakable grief, not simply so you can promise your listener that everything eventually falls in place, but because life’s messiness needs to be acknowledged too.

HBO

One of the most popular and thoroughly debated theory about mourning and grief — stage theory — posits that there are five stages to the process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Poorly written they might be, but between them, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) and the Monterey Five — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), and Jane (Shailene Woodley) — perfectly encapsulate the messiness of mourning. Their feelings, like their sorrows, aren’t linear. They reveal themselves in the oddest, most inconvenient moments, a lifetime after the societally approved statute of limitations to talk about them is over.

I was a Madeline once upon a time, stuck in an unchallenged loop of denial, obstinate and unwilling to admit — even to myself — that it was my own feeling of inadequacy not anything he said or did that made me sabotage a relationship that I really, desperately just wanted to protect. Did he break my heart, or did I break it myself, so I could be the destroyer, not the destroyed? Who among us can claim innocence from standing in the way of our own happiness? 

I dated a Renata once. If rage could manifest itself in human form, it would be him. Wealth — the creation of it, the pursuit of it, and watching it grow — was what gave his life purpose. His commitment to affluence was both vulgar and a thing of great beauty. Unlike me, he’d crawled his way out of a hole of hardship and was adamant he was never going to be returned there, if he had any say in the matter. To date, I can’t tell with certainty what he could never forgive me for: the fact that I fell out of love with him without notice, or the money he lost on a bad deal with someone I introduced him to. 

I know several Celestes (who doesn’t?) secretly in love with men who in no way deserve them, and wracked with helplessness, guilt, and shame, at being unable to stop. Celeste number one was married to her monster. He had the kindest eyes you saw on a man; no one could have imagined the violence they were masking. I’m ashamed to admit it, when she called me one morning, shrieking that he was going to kill her, I almost didn’t believe it. If even doting, devoted husbands like him were hitting their wives, what hope was there for the rest of us? I’ll never forget the boot-shaped mark on her back, on her stomach, and her sides. Celeste number two was going to marry hers. They were looking at homes together. She was already looking for jobs in his country. And then one day he vanished. No calls, no explanations, no apologies. What do you do with all the love you’re left with, when something like that happens? Can you lock it up somewhere and lose the keys? Throw it into the ocean? Is it possible to ever stop bargaining with reason so you can land on an explanation for why you can’t stop loving someone who discarded you in the most brutal manner possible? I think not. 

Grief, at its desolate best, is too tedious for us to engage with just for the sake of it.

My cousin is a Bonnie, married to a man she will never love, but secure in the knowledge that he’s too gentle to hurt even a fly. She grew up watching her mother being beaten by her husband. And her mother being beaten by her father before that. Depressing as the prospect of a loveless life is, even to herself, it’s her way of tending to the psychological wounds by one parent who never allowed even home to be safe, and another who didn’t do enough to protect her from the onslaught. 

A friend from college is a Jane. We were 17 when he told me his story. At 11, his best friend’s brother raped him, repeatedly, over a period of three months. At 13, he tried to kill himself. He tried again, at 14. Then 15. Then 19. For a very long time, the incident robbed him of his ability to participate in happiness, or even seek it, for a very long time. This year, we will celebrate 12 years of freedom from suicidal thoughts. The ghoulishness of his past can’t ever be erased, but acceptance has made his suffering end, at long last.

But the most terrifying realisation of it all is that there’s a Mary Louise lurking somewhere within almost all of us. I’ve watched staunchly feminist friends turn into hostile victim-blamers and apologists when their own boyfriends’ and brothers’ heads were on the #MeToo chopping block. I’m ashamed to admit I hovered dangerously close to the precipice too, straddling all five stages of grief, when the accused was someone I had wholeheartedly believed in. We’re all capable of righteous disbelief when the only reality we’ve ever known, is under threat. 

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BLL2 did manage to tease out the throbbing, raw nerve that connects the very particular — and yet very widely shared — griefs of humankind.

HBO

There is a deceptively simple dialogue in Fleabag that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I heard it: “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny.” Fleabag and her friend are talking about menstruation. It made me wonder, is pain our emotional destiny too? How can it not be, given the world that we live in? 

BLL2 may have buried the evocativeness of grief under layers of wishy-washy, non-committal storytelling, giving no character the respect her story so richly deserved. But it did manage to tease out the throbbing, raw nerve that connects the very particular — and yet very widely shared — griefs of humankind. The experience of pain might be exquisitely personal, but it’s very rarely unique. It helps to remember that, whether you’re a Madeline, a Renata, a Celeste, a Bonnie, a Jane, or even a Mary Louise.

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