Big Little Lies (2017) – A Surprising Honest Portrayal of Domestic Abuse

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Big Little Lies can easily be dismissed as a vehicle for former has been A-list movie stars who turned their attention to the small screen because they are past their sell-by date by Hollywood standards and are no longer profitable box office draws, but this turns out to be better than that. It is a HBO 7-episode miniseries about four wealthy women living in the seaside utopia of Marin County in Northern California. It is one of the richest counties in California and a favorite of tech millionaires. I was apprehensive about using rich women in extremely privileged backgrounds to depict the trauma of domestic abuse because with wealth and privilege, victims can be better sheltered by the aftermath.

It stars Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Mackenzie, who is basically a grown up version of Tracy Flick from her breakout role in Election. She is nosy, bossy, gossipy and shrill, an all around pint sized nightmare. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright, a former lawyer but is now a stay-at-home parent to her twin boys. Laura Dern as Renata Klein, a tech company executive, sits on the board of Google and a multimillionaire, the richest of the group – she is equally bossy and shrill, and then you have the odd girl out, Shailene Woodley as Jane Chapman, a single mother to a son Ziggy, and she’s not any single mother, she’s a single mother who doesn’t know the identity of Ziggy’s father. He was conceived during a night of fun flirtation which turned into violent rape and the man who raped her disappeared. She never got his real name or phone number. She wants to find him and confront him about what he did to her.

The series start with a murder, a man was murdered, he seems like an important person who everyone knows, we only see shadows and far away images of him; he’s white man, wearing a nice suit and fancy shoes. The story is told in flashback and as the series progresses, we are to find out who the victim is and what led up to his death. This is juxtaposed with first day of orientation at Otter Bay Elementary School, which all the children of the four main characters attend. It is a public school but because of the rich tax base of Marin County, it functions like a free private school for the residents of Marin County. By the end of orientation, Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) daughter Annabella has been choked by a classmate and a mark was left on her neck. Renata Klein of course was appalled and proceeded to make a big deal out of it in front of all the students and demanded her daughter to point out to her who choked her. Annabella pointed to Ziggy Chapman, son of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), the newest student (and resident) to the school as the boy who did this to her. Jane didn’t overreact but asked her son calmly if he did this, he said ‘no’, but he looked scared, and Jane told her son that she believes him and to not worry, but Annabella is insistent that Ziggy was the person who choked her despite his denials. The teacher decided to end the discussion there and take it private. But the damage was done. The new boy, Ziggy Chapman, whose mother isn’t rich like all the other parents, has been marked out as the class bully with no proof except the words of a scared little girl. It was downhill from there for him at the new school.

The battle lines are now drawn and sides are forced to be chosen by all the other moms. When Annabella’s birthday party came around (and these aren’t just any normal birthday parties, they are whole dog and pony shows with a circus act flown in and custom designed cakes), Renata Klein declined to invite Ziggy Chapman for bullying her daughter. When Madeline Mackenzie found out she was indignant, as she and along with many other parents even the teacher didn’t believe Ziggy choked Annabella, he was just being blamed and scapegoated because he’s the new boy and his mother has no wealth or status. Madeline rallied all the other moms to boycott Annabella’s birthday party. She not only told everyone to boycott the party, she arranged for all the kids to attend a Disney on Ice show via private chauffeur and complimentary champaign all paid for by her. Even though she’s just met Jane Chapman, she has decided to take her under her wing. It can be easily dismissed that Madeline has some type of a savior syndrome and wants to make herself out to be a good person, but the truth is, Madeline was that single mother once. She has an older daughter Abigail from a former marriage. She married very young and her husband walked out on her to pursue his dreams and hobbies which were not compatible with family life. She struggled on her own as a single mother in a very affluent town, until she got remarried to her very rich second husband, who also works in tech. This is Madeline’s strange way of showing solidarity with another single mother, not for once considering how little Annabella might feel when half of her friends are missing from her birthday party.

The lynchpin of the series is the story line of Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård). On the outside they are admired and envied. Perry is handsome, charming and a ‘perfect’ father and Celeste is the ‘barbie doll’ of the group, though she is an ‘older’ mother, she looks ever youthful with a handsome and rich younger husband. Even after 7 years of marriage, they still pack on the PDA like teenagers, much to the envy of those with established marriages. But in the middle of all this ‘perfection’, there is chatter of about how it looks ‘too perfect’ and fake and no one is that ‘perfect’. The PDA is just weird and too much (envy aside). And they are right. Perry Wright is a vicious abuser. He beats his wife mercilessly. In fact he is such an expert at beating her that he knows exactly where to inflict the bruises so that no matter what she’s wearing they won’t show (upper arms, shoulders, upper back and breasts). This is one of the few shows where it delves into the nitty gritty details of domestic abuse, what happens before, during and after. What the battered wife does when her husband isn’t around, the far off stares into space, the jumpiness when someone suddenly walks up behind her and maintaining a facade of perfection when it is a nightmare at home. This is one of Nicole Kidman’s best performances of her career. I’ve seen many of her films, including the The Hours where she won an Oscar for best actress portraying the writer Virginia Woolf, it doesn’t come close to the depth of this role. Nicole Kidman fully captures the mannerisms, psyche and actions of an abused woman. The fact that she’s rich, lives in a seaside mansion, has two adorable sons, having the looks of a movie star never compensates for or distracts from the fact that she is a domestic abuse victim first and everything else second.

After one really horrific beating where she was choked to the point of almost passing out, she told Perry that if he lays his hands on her one more time, “I will fucking leave you.” and she meant it, he knew that she meant it. They decided to seek couples therapy to fix their ‘toxic relationship’. The actress playing therapist Dr. Amanda Reisman is Robin Weigert, who puts in a subtle and brilliant performance as a family therapist. In their first meeting, as Perry and Celeste dance around their ‘toxic’ issues, it very quickly it became obvious to Dr. Reisman that this is a dangerous and abusive situation and Celeste’s safety is in peril. Her face went from neutral to barely disguised disgust (one of the finest pieces of acting). Perry Wright has the classic symptoms of an abuser, emotionally manipulative, controlling, needy, insecure, doesn’t like his wife to go out with her friends, cut her off from her inner circle of family and friends, doesn’t want her to go out without him, and he blames his violent actions on everything except himself. Dr. Reisman doesn’t even think of trying to reform or counsel him, her goal is to get Celeste out of that situation as soon as possible.

Celeste begins to see Dr. Reisman regularly on her own without her husband (he travels a lot for work), as she begins to divulge the details his abuse (aided by flashbacks of the actual abuse – and this is very triggering to watch), Celeste realizes that Perry wasn’t just toxic he is deadly. After each beating he cries to her and apologizes to which they have passionate (or violent) make up sex after, sometimes Celeste preempts all that by just taking off her clothes first so he’d skip the beating part. It is a deadly and twisted game of abuse and sex; some would argue that to be marital rape, for a wife to perform sex to avoid abuse. When Celeste is insistent that her boys do not know about this abuse, Dr. Reisman dropped the polite therapist act and told Celeste to get real and rent an apartment immediately, furnish it, get the children’s rooms ready, stock the fridge, set up a secret bank account so that she can leave him the minute she needs to. Celeste dismisses this as going overboard, she’s not ready to let go of the life she gave up everything for and hope that it would all work out in the end.

The therapist also allowed Celeste the space to say good things about her husband, to reminisce on their good times. For example, when he dropped everything to attend to their premature twin boys in the hospital, taking care of her along and their twin boys. When the boys had repeated trips to hospital from lingering premature birth issues, he was awake every night with them and reassured her that they would be fine. Their joint suffering and sadness at the many miscarriages before finally delivering twin boys. Domestic abuse is very complex, the emotions involved are very complicated. Most abusers aren’t abusive every minute of everyday, they have their good moments and most victims hang on to those good moments for as long as they can, until they run out of emotional reserves. But it’s made clear no amount of ‘good’ in the marriage could compensate for the abuse.

The most disturbing scenes are not always the violent sex scenes or when her husband empties a bucket of legos over her head and pins her down and pummels her but the before and after. It’s the fight before or non-incident which he blows up to be a major travesty against him and he’s escalating verbally and you know what comes next; the punch, the shove the grab, choking or the aftermath when she’s inspecting her bruises while alone in her bedroom or applying makeup to her bruises in the car before she gets out of the car to pick her kids up from school. Or her holding back tears when she’s sitting quietly alone at home or in a coffee shop thinking how did her life come to this? In spite of all this she is in deep denial, she believes that with the ‘right’ help, their toxic marriage could be transformed into a healthy one. Her therapist told her that she can do whatever she likes but in the mean time, as her therapist she’s already begun a log of incidences of abuse and detailing her injuries.

I mentioned earlier I am unsure if I like the depiction of domestic abuse from the point of view of white, rich, high status, powerful people, even though domestic abuse spares no one, no social class, race, ethnicity or gender. On the other hand, the most common depiction of domestic abuse is usually the working class alcoholic or drug abusing husband beating up his even lower status wife; it rarely goes into the details, you just have scenes of huge blow up fights followed by physical beatings and then a trip the the ER, followed by apologies and the cycle repeats itself. So perhaps a portrayal of domestic violence involving rich people so that it’s not burdened by the crude stereotypes of the working class drunk beating his wife would serve better to showcase the horror of living with domestic violence. The devil is in the details.

There is often a conspiracy of silence when it comes to domestic abuse. No one wants to talk about it, even when it’s happening right in front of you, people are too afraid, too ashamed and the favorite excuse they don’t want to meddle in the domestic affairs of another family, so the victim often suffers in silence for far too long. But sometimes the conspiracy of silence starts with the victim herself, the shame and embarrassment at being labeled a domestic violence victim; while they have no trouble leaping to the defense of another battered woman, to reveal their own situation of domestic abuse is not something they do willingly, as is the case with Celeste Wright. It is a vicious cycle of abuse, silence and denial.

Back to who choked little Annabella on orientation day and then later during the school year she came home with bruises on her back too and who the murder victim was, I won’t spoil it. It wasn’t Ziggy who assaulted her, but the one who did, the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree and puts to rest the idea that children don’t know what’s going on inside the home. Even though Ziggy’s mother believes him when he said he didn’t choke Annabella, she was worried that he might have unknowingly done so because his biological father is a violent rapist and that Ziggy might have inherited that ugly trait. She projected her own fears for her child onto him.

I was pleasantly surprised at the honest portrayal of domestic abuse victims and how far the violence and dysfunction of one family can spread. Some of the abuse scenes are very hard to watch, I would go so far to offer a trigger warning, especially for those who suffered abuse at the hands of ‘handsome charming’ men. Alexander Skarsgård does a brilliant job of playing a handsome, winsome but brutally abusive man, it’s so believable that when he comes on the screen you just seethe with rage. For Nicole Kidman, this is one of her best performances and it’s all in the details, during her unspoken moments does she convey the pain of a domestic abuse victim.

The Gig Economy: Precarious and Anxious

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Gig Economy: Biggest scam to hit workers

I am part of the gig economy. When I am not stuck in the kitchen radicalizing myself, I take side contracting jobs (gigs) when I can from the list of contacts I’ve made in my years of working in the formal economy. I am not dependent on this for my income but anything I make will go towards the family budget or savings nest egg.

My week started out normal, if not slightly sunny and optimistic (which is rare), I had what seemed a fairly simple contracting job and it was going along smoothly. It hadn’t taken up an inordinate amount of my time and it appears to be moving towards completion. Many moons ago I was a mortgage loan processor before the market crash and all that really means is I am a glorified paper pusher. The listing and selling agents make the deal (and get all the big fat commissions) and I make the deal happen by completing the mortgage process for the buyer. It’s not a hard job but a tedious one, one that requires patience because nine times out of ten, you are dealing with a buyer who knows nothing about what they are signing, what they are doing and all they are thinking about is getting the shiny keys to their new house. I get a fee for doing all this work and I don’t get compensated unless the deal is ‘closed’ or until the buyers get their keys. I don’t really pursue these gigs, they sort of find me and I take them on if I can perform the contract in the time required. I emphasize this point because for many people, they don’t have this luxury, they need the ‘gig’ and more importantly they need the ‘gig’ to close so they can get paid.

The buyer in this case is purchasing a condo on a FHA (Federal Housing Administration) sponsored loan, which means they can get into a home with 3.5% down payment with very lenient income to debt ratio requirements. It’s the preferred method for most first time home buyers or buyers who don’t have a lot of savings but make a healthy income to afford a mortgage payment. However, one almost always non-negotiable requirement of purchasing a condo under a FHA loan (and conventional Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans too) is that there can be no pending litigation against the HOA (Homeowners Association). Pending litigation means that the Homeowners Association (a motley crew of builders, investors and homeowners themselves) can become financially insolvent and the whole condominium complex needs to be liquidated to meet the lawsuit compensation; which means the mortgage holder could lose their investment in the condo.

So after I’ve done about 90% of the leg work and now it’s just a matter of the buyer signing her loan documents to finalize the closing, we hit a snag. What did we find out from the Homeowner’s Association? There is a pending lawsuit against them. Someone fell in the common area while trimming shrubs and injured himself. The HOA said the lawsuit was frivolous just to extort money from them and they in the process of resolving it, but it’s been filed since late 2015 and it’s still pending. This particular detail which can derail whole deals is the responsibility of the listing agent to find out BEFORE they list the property to sell. And it’s also the responsibility of the seller’s agent to make sure they are not advising their buyer to purchase a condo with a pending lawsuit against it. Clearly no one bothered to check. The finger pointing commences. From prior experience, I know in these situations the blame almost always gets placed on someone with the least power and least compensated (The listing and seller agent get 5% commission between them, the loan agent – person who gets them the loan gets anywhere from 2-3% of the loan amount for commission paid by the lender, I get $925 for processing the loan). I could smell the blame coming my way a mile away.

Between the listing and seller’s agent there is over 40 years of ‘experience’, as all real estate agents love to boast about their experience, I have an on and off 10 years experience with loan processing, the last time I did loan processing as a full time job was 2008. I was being asked if I had a ‘check list’ I referred to when I worked on my files, to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. On top of coordinating between 4 to 5 agencies and departments, sending hundreds of emails to make sure everyone has everything they needed, I will not do the jobs of people who out earn me by almost ten times because of their carelessness, which can cause the whole deal to tank and the buyer to lose their deposit. It’s not my problem. I told them point blank that I am not here to compensate for their mistakes. And the listing and seller’s agents each have their own assistants as well. What were they doing? Privately, I told my contact at the lender that I don’t compensate for the stupidity of others, I am sorry all of your big paychecks are at risk, but up until now, between this and all of my other responsibilities, I’ve been more than on top of everything. I’ve not only met every deadline but stayed ahead of it. No one will pin this major, idiotic, stupid blunder on me.

We are to find out what recourses we have on Monday, if we can switch the loan program, which then means the loan agent won’t be happy as his commission will be cut, or worse, no one gets paid because if I were the buyer in this case, I’d sack everyone. The days where I ran around solving everyone’s problems to prove my worth are over. I know my worth, I know my value, and it’s a lot more than $925 and I am sure as hell not going to take the blame for the incompetence of those who have much more experience than me.

This is one side of the precarious gig economy. The $925 I made would have gone towards utilities, food and part of the rent or even to our savings. I am lucky, I have other sources of income. I don’t depend on these $925 contracting fees to meet my monthly expenses but if I did and I just now found out that one-third of the monthly income I must earn to just meet my minimal expenses to live is in question or perhaps gone, I’d be going into a panic and meltdown right now. My week ended with me being in a foul mood, for wasting time on a deal that was basically dead to begin with and the listing agent or her assistant bothered to place a phone call to the HOA offices all of this could have been avoided. But at least I am not panicking or spiraling into the rabbit hole of anxiety which would then render me non-functional and thus unable to quickly find alternate ways to make up for my lost income. People who regularly suffer from anxiety know what I am talking about, when you are so anxious your heart races, brain freezes and you go on autopilot, instead of trying think quickly to resolve a crisis.

The gig economy is not cool. It’s not more relaxing or autonomous. It is fraught with anxiety especially if your compensation doesn’t come through for one reason or another. And then there is the issue of uncompensated labor. When a gig doesn’t pan out, you would have just wasted hours upon hours working for someone for free. This is more than surplus value, this is outright theft, theft of someone’s labor, time and resources (internet, wifi, office supplies, transportation expenses if they need to travel). This is the type of economy waiting for Millennials and those who have been laid off in the Great Recession and haven’t been able to find full time gainful employment since. Is it any wonder that mood disorders and addictions are on the rise?

Just yesterday a Texas representative by the name of Rodey Arrington (R-TX) justified cutting of SNAP benefits (food stamps) by using the Bible, saying that God said only those who work get to eat (‘If a man will not work he shall not eat.’ And he goes on to say ‘We heard that some of you are idle.’ ). People on SNAP don’t work so therefore they don’t deserve to eat. This piece of racist white trash thinks its fine to starve those who can’t get work, who can’t work, who are too ill to work by using the Bible as justification. He is the scum of this earth. It’s time to sharpen those guillotines.