Have you seen the new Netflix/Marvel series Jessica Jones? So many people are all abuzz about it. I have a hard time sitting down and finishing one episode of ANYTHING, let alone binge out on an entire season of something in the space of a few days.
But yeah, Jessica Jones is that good.
It’s empirically good storytelling, with a female lead writer (Melissa Rosenberg) writing kick-ass female lead characters navigating plot lines that pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. But beyond being action-packed, the series is very much a brilliant portrayal of abuse, trauma, sexual assault, violence, and PTSD survival. Which sounds miserable, I know. But it is done brilliantly. Joss Truitt, Feministing.com contributor, nailed it when she wrote:
Yes, this is a “superhero” show with a female lead, but Jessica Jones is so much more. The show does what we all got excited about Mad Max: Fury Road doing this summer: it’s a story about the aftermath of sexual violence that doesn’t include gratuitous rape scenes, one that takes on issues of violence and patriarchy head on without replicating harmful tropes. But Jessica Jones goes further than Fury Road by making survivors the central characters, and making their trauma and recovery the meat of the show.
What I appreciate most about the story is that it doesn’t fetishize rape. You do not see the sexual abuse that both Jessica and Hope experience at the hands of Kilgrave. Instead, the story begins and carries through the aftermath and the healing process. And the series is stronger for that decision.
The aftereffects of the experience are clear, and infinitely more important than the acts themselves.
I’ve discussed the shows with clients, friends, and colleagues. I think it has enormous potential to be healing, and open up avenues of discussion for many people who have experienced traumas in their own lives. Because I do so much work around trauma and PTSD, I immediately went out searching for some questions, discussion guide type articles about the show to share with my own clients and with other therapists who may want to use the show in group settings and the like.
Which meant I had to get off my ass and write some. If you think of any others, please share them and I will add them to this post. Let’s crowdsource this with all the awesomeness that is the interwebz! If you have any great experiences using the series therapeutically, I would love to hear about them (and share them here if you feel comfortable with doing so).
A couple of caveats:
While I haven’t had anyone yet tell me this show was triggering for them, it sure as hell could be. Be aware of this potential, and take good care of yourself as I hope you do anytime past memories stir up in your present life. Life is already difficult, so if you find watching this (or anything!) that causes more harm than good, it’s more than OK to take a pass.
The questions in this guide will contain spoilers. Because, duh, they are meant to be used to discuss the series after it’s been seen. If you read the questions first and realize that this study guide hits up some major plot points, do not come torch my village, mmmmkay? You were warned.
Jessica Jones Discussion Questions:
1. In the first episode, before we even know the entire backstory of Jessica’s relationship with Kilgrave, we see evidence of her PTSD symptoms. She struggles with using alcohol to medicate, she struggles with personal relationships, and she experiences flashbacks. She uses a grounding technique of reciting street names from her childhood as a way of keeping herself in the present when the flashbacks take hold. Have you ever used similar grounding technique? What has worked best for you?
2. In what other ways can you relate to how Jessica has managed her trauma? In what ways were you experiences very different?
3. Jessica is by no means the only trauma survivor in this series, and this quote from Episode 4 (in a monologue toward Audrey Eastman who lost her mother and blames all “special” humans for that loss) shows her fury with the experiences of individuals who lash out at those around them due to their past traumas:
"You think you're the only ones who've lost people? You think you're the only ones with pain? You think you can take your shit and dump it on me? You don't get to do that! So you take your God damned pain and you live with it, assholes!"
– From Episode 4, AKA 99 Friends
We all have instances of hurting others because of our own histories, and have all been hurt by others struggling with their own pain. How do you apologize when you find yourself reacting against those around you? How do you call out people reacting against you in a way that shows empathy to their experience without excusing their actions?
4. Because the show explores the many facets of the traumatic experiences many individuals face, we also get to see how individuals care for and support each other. For example, Trish was abused as a child. Her experiences brought them both closer, and they created the family each needed and were lacking for different reasons. How have you created the support networks that you have needed in your own life? How have you been able to support someone else’s healing experience because of your own?
5. Jessica continues to argue with Malcolm about attending the support group for individuals who have been victimized by Kilgrave. She states that “someone has always had it worse” as a way of dismissing her own experience. Have you ever found yourself minimizing your experiences in the same way? Had other people minimize your experiences in a similar manner? How do you find a balance between maintaining perspective while honoring what you have been through? How do you respond to others who struggle in that regard?
6. One group member states that processing his experiences has been pointless because in the end, he still hasn’t gone his son back. Long lasting or even permanent consequences are often a result of traumatic experiences. Is there a point in discussing these issues if you can’t change your circumstances? Why or why not?
7. Malcolm struggles with what it means to be a good person. As someone who had a traumatic past and was studying to become a social worker, becomes another victim of Kilgrave, he wants desperately to do things to save humanity. He mentions his upbringing, in a family that did good works and prayed for people. He asks if it’s all hopeless in the end…is everyone just out for themselves. His experience, in essence, is a crisis of faith (that shows signs of resolving in the last scene of the last season 1 episode). Have you had similar struggles with maintaining hope for the world? Was your process similar to that of Malcolm’s? How did you work through it, or how are you working through it now?
8. Some people may argue that Kilgrave uses literal mind control to manage his victims, while in real life individuals have a choice about the abuse they suffer and endure. This topic is handled exceptionally well when Kilgrave makes the argument to Jessica that he deliberately didn’t control her mind for enough time for her to be clear of his powers, but she chose to stay. Jessica countered by saying that while the control wasn’t literal, she wasn’t able to get his presence out of her head long enough to act in such a way to escape him. This is very true of many people who suffer ongoing abuse…the control feels very real and literal and escape seems impossible. Have you had a similar experience? What would be your response to someone who didn’t understand how literal abusive control can feel?
(If you are looking for a domestic violence safety plan that helps you remain safe whether or not you choose to leave, this one from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence is excellent.)
9. The show has been viewed as very sex-positive, something that Melissa Rosenberg addressed beautifully in her Los Angeles Times interview:
It's interesting, I've never thought of it as sex-positive as much as, again, real, grounded sexuality and the expression of it. I have zero interest in portraying female sexuality as anything other than empowering and as a very natural part of our makeup. I was not handling it with kid gloves. I'm not interested in these romantic, pretty, hand crawls up the back, thing. I really wanted a very visceral experience of these characters, it's another facet of who they are. Because it's Jessica's story, you're experiencing it from her point of view. Between her and Jeri Hogarth and Trish Walker, these are all characters who are sexual beings like any other women and it was very much about allowing that to be the case. Again, just being honest with who these characters are.
I love that about these characters. That they are sex positive, but in a matter of fact way that is a facet of their personalities, rather than something that is paraded by the writers through each episode. However, intimacy can sometimes be a struggle for individuals after a trauma. While sex positive, you can see all these characters struggle with their intimate relationships, and trusting their respective partners in a very real way. What are your perceptions of how sexual intimacy is portrayed in the series? What have your experiences been regarding sexual intimacy? Is there anything about how sexual intimacy is portrayed in the series that you relate to?
(For more resources on intimacy after sexual assault or abuse, check out this handout from the University of Alberta, the Sexual Effects Inventory by Wendy Maltz, and The Consent Commandments).
10. Also in the Los Angeles Times interview, Libby Hill and Rosenberg have the following exchange which I love:
The audience isn't necessarily rooting for Jessica to heal or change, so much as they're rooting for her to keep being herself and being awesome at being herself. She's not a "strong woman" trope, she just is who she is.
There is a healing process with the trauma that she's gone through. But that's still a part of who you are. You don't become a different person because you've faced your demons. And who she is, is fantastic. We never want her to change that.
Wounds heal, but scars are forever.
Jessica is so clearly a flawed hero. She struggles on a continual basis with the after effects of her experience. She questions her judgement on a minute by minute basis. She doesn’t consider herself a hero at all, stating:
"They say everyone's born a hero. But if you let it, life will push you over the line until you're the villain. Problem is, you don't always know that you've crossed that line. Maybe it's enough that the world thinks I'm a hero."
In trying desperately to free Hope, Kilgrave remains at large for weeks, much to the fury of those around her. She takes responsibility for the deaths he causes in the process, even in Hope’s eventual suicide. Jessica has to find herself and stay to true to her sense of justice, despite how Kilgrave has altered her world. She is as imperfect as the rest of his, and her scars are reminders of her experience. What kinds of scars do you carry, either physical or emotional? In which ways have you changed? In which ways have you remained true to who you are? How have your experiences led you to be stronger? What would you want people to most know about your experience?
“One has to gaze upon the dead, cremate them and bury their ashes – then begin to tell their story. Remain silent about the dead, and they’ll never leave you in peace.”
Full disclosure: Joseph McBride is a friend of my husband’s. He tolerates me, as well, in all likelihood due to bemusement that my husband (also a Joe) finally gave up bachelorhood at age 43. So when he sent a copy of his new memoir, The Broken Places, it was kindly addressed to both of us.
I doubt he intended me to read it and then review it through the lens of a therapist with an awful lot of experience working with individuals with complex trauma histories. But just like he will always be the cool guy who co-wrote the screenplay for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, I will always be the therapist who views intimacy through the lens of trauma experiences.
So clearly, he’s way more fun at parties than I am.
Joe’s latest book offers itself as a memoir of both the author’s childhood and adolescence, replete with a honest portrayal of his breakdown and stay at a psychiatric facility. Additionally, the story takes us on a journey through McBride’s first love, a young woman he met while at this facility, who wove in and out of his life until her untimely death when she (and Joe) were both in their early twenties.
Except it’s not a memoir. Not really. And it’s not a treatise on first love. Or an homage to the brilliant and shattered Kathy Wolf. At its core, The Broken Places is a trauma narrative. It’s about a childhood so intense, it causes an emotional shattering in the teenage Joe. And it is about his connection to a young woman, also shattered and also trying to find her way home.
Plato’s Meno is a Socratic dialogue on the nature of virtue. Plato asked “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
How do you, indeed? How do you realize your own empowerment when you have never, in the entirety of your life, experienced it?
Joe shares a letter sent to him by a friend and colleague of his mother during his period of institutionalization, a man named Marty Parnelli. In this letter, Parnelli encourages the psychotherapy available to him in this setting:
Most people blindly accept their conditions as intellectual, emotional, and moral pygmies, and are content to vent their frustrations by merely complaining about their negative situations. If one can recognize how, when, where and why he became stunted, then at least he starts thinking, and perhaps he starts to understand that he has a problem. His thinking about the problem will keep him from itching about the situation; and so long as he thinks there is a chance – and the hope – that he can solve the problem. If he solves one such problem, he can probably solve other and more complex problems.
One gets the feeling that the individuals on staff there to provide this service were dismissed as inept and useless. This is often the perspective of patients. Honestly, this can often be an exasperatingly accurate supposition. So instead, Joe and Kathy turn to each other for support, both drowning and holding onto each other in the process…in an effort to rescue themselves. McBride notes the unsustainability of the relationship near the end of the book:
I thought about how I was going away to a promising new life and abandoning her to unending emotional chaos. I felt there was something almost cannibalistic about our relationship, as if we could not both be healthy at the same time. She had rescued me once; didn’t I owe it to her to repay the favor? Well, I’d tried damn it. I’d tried every way I knew. She seemed saner in the hospital, and happier when she was craziest.
Exchanging his family home for an inpatient facility (and shortly thereafter, university) gave McBride some space to heal. But, as he notes, forming a bond with a deeply hurting and complicated woman mimicked the relationship he had with his mother, which was the impetus for his hospitalization in the first place. Kathy become his tether to the feeling of emotional hopelessness. He moves forward in many ways, but also continues to return to her. He felt responsible for her, as he had his own mother for all of those years.
In the final letter Kathy sent to Joe, she stated “I’ve gone where I belong and I know I will be happy.” Kathy never found her place of hope through empowerment, the healing Parnelli desired for Joe. It is unclear if Joe had yet done so, at that point.
But here is my guess (and doubtless he will rebut kindly if I’m wrong): Much of our work in trauma informed therapy is to help our clients find a safe place in which to find healing and meaning within their story. We fight our stories, most of the time. We fight because we feel no control over them. They become the pygmies Parnelli warned against. We complain of them rather than own them.
And they fester until they eat us alive. For Kathy, this was a literal experience. Because these broken places that Joe writes of are deep and painful and fester within us. We let them scab over and ignore them for a while, perhaps years or decades on end. But eventually they infect everything. They either kill us or we find a way to heal.
That’s what a trauma narrative does. It serves to move away from complaint into ownership. This is our best chance at moving forward. We are marked forever by these wounds, but have regained power over our lives. I think this was Joe’s ultimate task here. To let go his family, to let go Kathy, and to create a memoir that healed his past wounds. Joe would never be the same for these experiences. No one ever is. That was Parelli’s main point, likely unbeknownst to the teenaged Joe who first read that letter.
The Broken Places is an examination, in the end, of Joe’s scars. And blessed are those scars that
serve as reminders that we have healed.
1) Let people merge in traffic. Even if it means you miss the traffic light change. Unless you are bleeding or performing surgery, your day will not be remarkably altered.
2) When people are serving you smile, make eye contact, call them by name if they are wearing a badge or tell it to you. Ask them how they are doing. Acknowledge how hard they are working and how busy they are. Put down your damn phone when talking to them. Say please and thank you. Generally acknowledge their human presence.
3) Ask for a service individual's boss and compliment their customer service.
4) If you have a great coworker, send them an email thanking them for their good work with specific examples. Copy their boss. A staff member told me last month that an email I sent her doing so kept her from resigning.
5) Compliment people. Their great shoes, hat, earrings. Knowing you are recognized positively is worth more than you realize.
6) Provide tangibles. If you can't afford to bring someone a coffee, can you bring them homemade cookies? Write them a note?
7) Slow down. Breathe. Drink hot chocolate. Watch a movie. Wear fuzzy socks. It isn't a race you can win, so stop running.
8) Do this all year, not just during the holidays.
9) Make this list viral, I want a kindhearted, connected, low stress holiday season. Let's turn this ship around starting now.
10) Then go take a nap.