WOMEN
11/30/2015 05:49 pm ET

'Jessica Jones' Uses Superheroes To Expose The Terror Of Domestic Abuse

What happens when a strong woman is controlled by a sadistic, violent man.

Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

As superpowers go, Jessica Jones doesn’t have much to boast home about. She can lift heavy stuff, sure, but only up to a point. She can jump, not fly. But her ability to survive an abusive man who controlled her every move for eight months? That’s goddamn impressive.

In Netflix’s newest Marvel universe television series, "Jessica Jones," we see what happens when a strong woman is controlled by an sadistic, violent man. (This whole article is one big spoiler, so readers beware). The series paints an unflinching portrayal of intimate partner violence, and the accompanying trauma that survivors must learn to live with.

When we first meet Jessica Jones, it’s been a year since she escaped Kilgrave, a villain whose chilling superpower is the ability to control minds. He need only verbally suggest someone do something -- shoot themselves, leave their child on the sidewalk, toss hot coffee in their own face -- and they will do it without hesitation. For eight months, Kilgrave held Jones captive, and without her consent, acted out a romantic relationship with her. He told her what to wear, how to feel and when to smile. He raped her, again and again. And he forced her to hurt others, even compelling her to kill a woman at his behest. He exercised total control over every aspect of Jones’ life.

Abusive relationships are, at their core, about control. Abusers will assert control over their partners any way they can, often employing sophisticated tactics: Manipulating their victims with mental and verbal abuse, scaring them into submission, isolating them from their communities, and ultimately convincing them that the pain and suffering is completely their own fault. Kilgrave does all of this, but through the metaphor of a superpower.

A year after escaping him, Jones is still grappling with the trauma from her experience. She drinks heavily, throws herself into her work as a private investigator, and barely sleeps. She has nightmares and flashbacks. We find out she briefly saw a therapist, but stopped going to sessions, though she learned a simple technique to help manage her panic attacks. Whenever she is overcome with anxiety, she recites the names of the streets by her childhood home to ground herself in the memory of a safe place -- a place, we find out later, that Kilgrave will desecrate too.

Not only did you physically rape me but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head. Jessica Jones

But her freedom from Kilgrave is short lived. He is not dead, as Jones initially thought. And as often happens after women leave abusive relationships, she gets entrapped in the cycle of abuse again. Kilgrave has taken a new prisoner, a young woman named Hope. With Hope under his spell, he begins to relive the faux courtship that he did with Jones, taking Hope to the same hotel, picking the same restaurant for their one-month anniversary.

Abusive relationships often follow a pattern, and Kilgrave is no different. He flaunts to Jones that he will continue his behavior, and if it is not her who is being controlled, it will be someone else. While Jones succeeds in rescuing Hope, Kilgrave forces the young woman to execute her parents, and she is arrested for the crime.

Netflix screeshot
Jessica Jones dines with Kilgrave on their one-month anniversary.

Hope’s experience after arrest also mirrors what many victims of abusers go through. No one believes Hope's story of mind control. She is written off as a mentally unstable woman, an unreliable narrator of her own experience. And Kilgrave’s powers render him immune to the justice system. No cop can touch him. It’s an experience not unfamiliar to many domestic violence survivors. The justice system may not protect you, and may even incarcerate you for crimes an abuser forced you to commit.

As Jones works to prove Hope’s innocence, Kilgrave sets about making Jones’ life so unbearable that her only choice is to come back to him. While he is not actually controlling her mind, he makes the world around her unpredictable and violent, robbing her of any semblance of safety. She can’t trust anyone, and doesn’t want to get close to anyone for fear that he will use them against her. Kilgrave isolates Jones. Her self-esteem is shot, tormented by the things she did and the person she became while under his control.

What makes Kilgrave such a frightening villain is his familiarity. Many women have met a man who acts like him. He is adept at manipulating people, and ducks all responsibility for the violence he creates. Even as bodies pile up because of his actions, he maintains that he’s never killed anyone. He uses psychological and verbal abuse to control his victims -- a critical element of domestic violence that is less understood than physical abuse. He tells Jones that she is remembering the past incorrectly. That she is crazy, and dramatic. That she really cared from him when they were together, and that she chose to stay. There’s a name for what he’s doing -- gaslighting. Kilgrave distorts the truth of Jones’ experiences in an effort to make her question her own version of reality. In the real world, gaslighting has a disorienting effect and can make survivors mistrust their own instincts.

The series also deftly shows the compromises survivors make to protect themselves and those close to them. In one episode, Kilgrave threatens to hurt someone Jones cares about. To stop him, she agrees to send Kilgrave a smiling selfie every morning at 10 a.m. Survivors know what abusers are capable of, and whether it’s worth it to try to mitigate the damage. They are experts in their own experiences. (Just imagine, for a minute, how those selfies would be used to discredit Jones if they were reported about in the media. The public would ask why a victim would send smiling selfies to an alleged rapist? The images would be used to impugn her character.)

Netflix
Kilgrave looks at a selfie sent by Jessica Jones. 

Survivors don’t act like you might expect them to. Sometimes they do things that seem counterintuitive -- returning to their abusers, for example -- but they are doing what they need to do to keep themselves or their loved ones from harm. Sometimes surviving means taking the blow, so your kid doesn’t bear the brunt later. Sometimes surviving means stealing food so that you don’t have to ask your abuser for money. Survivors’ choices can look incomprehensible to outsiders.

There’s a point in "Jessica Jones" where an exhausted and isolated Jones returns to Kilgrave to live with him for a few days. It’s unclear if her plan was always to double-cross him, or if she thought it was her only option to minimize the carnage, or both. But her calculation is clear: Better the devil you know. She is willing to sacrifice herself, rather than let another person get hurt. While at the house, he tries to touch her, and when she resists, he reminds her they used to have sex. She corrects him, and calls it what it was: Rape.

"Which part of staying in 5-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?" he asks. "The part when I didn’t want to do any of it. Not only did you physically rape me but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head," she says.

In those two sentences, Jones captures what is so insidious about intimate partner violence. It’s much more than just physical violence. Or being called cruel names. Or living with fear. The real damage is how deeply the abuser can get inside your own mind, and control how you think and feel about yourself.

"I want you to say it: ‘None of it is my fault," Jones urges Hope early on in the show, trying to alleviate the young woman’s guilt. But despite her insistence that the things Kilgrave compelled Hope to do aren't her own actions, Jones still spends the remainder of the series trying to believe it herself. "Jessica Jones" is a show about many things, but chief among them is a story of how a woman learns to live with trauma and still persevere. Jones does, and that's what makes her a real hero.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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