I am not Jessica Jones. Despite my penchant for wearing tank tops (also, wearing the same outfit every day, but who’s keeping track) and my delightfully snarky sense of humor, I am not gifted and I have no special powers, unless you count an uncanny knack for never returning library books on time.
Other caveats: I am neither a theologian, nor a philosopher—I’m not even sure if I’m an existentialist. No matter: I am not Jessica Jones, and her story is not my story.
But—and here’s the kicker—I’ve been in an abusive relationship.
And this is where the show resonates the most with me: Jessica Jones portrays what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship more accurately than anything I’ve ever seen. Take one Netflix show from the Marvel universe and stir liberally with the existential theology of Paul Tillich’s book The Courage to Be, and you get the thesis of this essay:
Jessica Jones illustrates the ontological, spiritual, and moral anxiety of abuse, as well as what Tillich calls “the courage to be,” or a way of moving forward “in spite of” trauma.
The Anxiety of Meaninglessness
“Knowing it’s real means you gotta make a decision. One, keep denying it. Or two…do something about it.” —Episode “AKA Ladies Night”
Tillich defines anxiety as “the state in which a being is aware of its possible non-being.” The first type of anxiety is the anxiety of meaninglessness, felt as emptiness.
In my own life, I’ve found the trauma caused by abuse to be one of the most meaning-resistant experiences of all.
Trauma challenges my beliefs and assumptions about the meaning of my life—for instance, the idea that every experience serves a purpose. That everything I go through, even tough times, can make me better, stronger. Or even the Christian version of this, in which God works everything out for my good.
I’m not going to pretend that I was the most mentally healthy person on this planet before my own Kilgrave (Kilgrave is Jessica’s abuser), but even in the early stages of relationship-gone-bad, I reached for meaning and I found it. I recovered—at least partially, by finding redemptive meaning in each experience, no matter how painful or wounding.Even as I experience the non-being of trauma, I exist. I stand apart from it. Even as I am overcome with mindless terror when I encounter something that reminds me of the past, I exist. Even when I am in fight-or-flight mode, I exist.
But as soon as the abuse escalated and trauma sparked to life within me—a feeling of overwhelming, irrational, and persistent terror—meaning, and my ability to grasp ahold of it, fled. It’s impossible for me to imagine a life in which spontaneous terror is a good, helpful thing. I’m not talking about fear, because as Tillich points out, fear always has an object: fear of flying, fear of pigs, fear of flying pigs. There’s something there to be afraid of.
Trauma is different. It is nameless, faceless terror. Trauma is starting a new job and crying uncontrollably because my boss is being nice to me. Trauma is walking down the street thinking that every man with a similar build might be him. Trauma is going to work paralyzed by the fear that at any moment I will be fired for some random mistake. Trauma is walking into church and feeling my throat close up because deep down I believe that something terrible is about to happen.
There is no rhyme or reason to it.
Tillich writes at length about the role of creativity in the courage to be. The act of creating meaning from meaninglessness: writing a poem about chaos, structuring a symphony about despair, crafting an essay about abuse—all these are acts of courage, a taking of the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself.
After my traumatic experiences, one of the only things that seemed to help was writing. I did not initially identify the relationship as abusive and didn’t use the word abuse to describe what happened. It was only through writing that I was able to see the dynamics of the relationship for what they were. It was as if I were watching a romantic comedy for the second time, except now I could see the manipulation, the deception, and the control.
In the episode “AKA 1,000 Cuts,” Kilgrave triumphantly recalls the 18 seconds in which Jessica chose to stay with him of her own free will. In his version of events, they share a romantic kiss on a rooftop, wine in hand, Jessica resplendent in a vivid yellow dress. Jessica, however, recalls the scene very differently. In her version, she stands on the ledge of the roof ready to jump and pictures herself riding away on a beautiful white horse. But the moment passes, and Kilgrave commands her to come down from the ledge, regaining his control of her.
When she obeys him, he yells at her for not listening and orders Jessica to cut off her own ears with a knife, before stopping her and comforting her (but not before leaving a scar).
This type of revisionist history was a common theme in my relationship, and for months I obsessed over “his story.” I obsessed over the story that I ”knew” he was telling everyone else: That he loved me. That this was all just a big misunderstanding. That I resisted his love and turned around and attacked him. That he was the real victim.
Studies have shown that writing about traumatic experiences can help with healing. Jessica retells her experience, bringing a painful memory into sharp focus and refuting Kilgrave’s own self-serving narrative. Her retelling is corrective.
As Tillich writes, “Spiritual self-affirmation occurs in every moment in which man lives creatively in the various spheres of meaning.” In one sense, Jessica’s work as a P.I. is also a form of spiritual self-affirmation. She’s good at what she does—and you get the sense when she’s working that she is more than her pain, her despair, her self-loathing. There’s almost a sense of immanent joy.
When you choose to create something new from abuse, you create meaning from one of the most meaning-destroying experiences possible—part of what makes abuse so destructive is that it deprives its victims of the freedom to live and to act spontaneously, of the freedom to move within meaning, whether through creation or participation.
I believe that this is part of what Tillich means when he says that the courage to be is the courage to take non-being into oneself or upon oneself, to integrate it into being. Or to put it another way, to bring death into life.
The Anxiety of Guilt
“Do you know what shame feels like, Wendy? No, I mean like, real shame, Wendy. You know when you’ve done something, you’ve hurt, disgusted someone so completely that you can see it in their eyes: the black oozing shit inside you. You sweat it through your skin. You keep sweating. Until you would do anything not to feel it. Anything.” —Episode “AKA Top Shelf Perverts”
According to Tillich, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation represents the threat of non-being to a person’s moral self-affirmation. In essence, your life is not only “given” to you but also “demanded” of you and you are “responsible for it.” In other words, what have you done with your life? Are you living up to all the potentialities that exist within you? Are you fulfilling your destiny? Are you becoming the person you were meant to be?
Or are you “contradicting [your] essential being”?
For Jessica Jones, her trauma triggers obviously self-destructive behaviors: drinking, sleeping with the husband of the woman she killed, assaulting Hogarth’s estranged wife, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle.
But even without the brutal effects of trauma on the psyche, who among us goes a single day without doing something that contradicts our essential being, whether it’s binge-watching Gilmore Girls instead of studying for that economics test or eating one too many red velvet Oreos (though, personally, I might argue that red velvet Oreos are an integral expression of my personal destiny).
Christians often refer to this phenomenon as sin.
But even though victims of abuse are more sinned against than sinning, the shame can be absolutely overwhelming.
When it came to the most traumatic events of my abusive relationship, I found myself obsessively going over every single detail in my mind for hours, often right when I woke up or just as I was trying to fall asleep. I felt like I was climbing uphill, forever.
If I could just figure out what I had done to make him to treat me with such cruelty, if I could only find the one thing that I had said that caused him to turn from “loving” to emotionally abusive, and on and on and on. Kilgrave was still in my head, as he was in Jessica’s. And I couldn’t get him out.
This is one of the enduring effects of abuse that continues long after the relationship has ended. It’s that voice in your head telling you that this was your fault, that you caused it, you deserved it—that you are “a piece of shit.” If you weren’t a piece of shit, why would anyone ever treat you this way? This type of mind-control continues as long as there is any self-condemnation for the abuse.
I’m often blindsided by just how persistent this type of shame can be. Recently, I broke down crying while debating with my dad about whether or not my ex-boyfriend had been abusive (I wouldn’t recommend this). And the only thing running through my mind was, “God, I am trying. I am trying so hard,” as if God were judging me for not being over it yet, for still being affected, even two years later.
Again and again, I have to tell myself that it’s okay. It’s okay to feel pain. It’s okay that I’m not over it. That I might never be over it.
The courage to be in the face of the anxiety of guilt isn’t easy. It requires taking the anxiety of guilt upon oneself and engaging in moral self-affirmation (acting as a moral agent) “in spite of.”
In Jessica Jones, we see this courage to be played out in all its messiness. Although Jessica momentarily succumbs to the temptation of shame and self-loathing, she is jolted awake by Ruben’s death (yet another Kilgrave casualty). By choosing to act in spite of her shame and the imperfection inherent in all human activity, she demonstrates courage in the face of anxiety by working to stop Kilgrave by any means necessary.
As she tells Hogarth (who is facing her own crisis of moral anxiety) in “AKA Smile”: “Doing something… good… it helps with the self-loathing. Trust me.”
The courage to be is doing the good you can despite the inevitable imperfection of every action. It’s moving out into the world and making choices: choosing to develop new relationships, choosing to write, make, create, choosing to be even in the face of failure and uncertainty.
The Anxiety of Non-Being
“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 Goddamned pain and you live with it, assholes!” —Episode “AKA 99 Friends”
Although Tillich distinguishes between three different types of anxiety, he also asserts that they are integrally related. The anxiety of meaninglessness feeds into the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, and vice versa.
The anxiety of non-being, however, constitutes the Ur-Anxiety, the anxiety from which all other anxieties flow.
Part of what led me to write about abuse in the context of Tillich’s theological existentialism was the non-being of the traumatic experience. Tillich doesn’t write about trauma explicitly, but he does write about despair as the “ultimate or ‘boundary-line’ situation. He notes that all of life can be understood as the effort to avoid despair. Having experienced trauma, even on a small scale, I can say that this makes a lot of sense. I would do almost anything to avoid it.
Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being. I don’t know how to define it exactly, but it can feel like pure terror, standing on the edge of the abyss looking down into complete and utter nothingness.
The recent Twitter hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou highlighted forms of controlling behavior that are less obvious (but still abuse). I might argue that all forms of abuse, even those that do not harm the body, exist on the same spectrum as non-being itself (death). In other words, abuse can cause emotional or spiritual death. To claim otherwise would be to assert that it is merely the biological processes of an organism that constitute life—that as long as someone is living and breathing, they have life, fully and abundantly.
But life is so much more.
In Jessica Jones, Kilgrave uses mind-control to abuse his victims. He doesn’t need to use physical force to control his victims, challenging the belief that “it’s not abuse unless he hits you.”
In fact, mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.
Tillich doesn’t go into detail about what might be called “structural abuses,” or unequal power structures that contradict a person’s freedom to be, their freedom to say, “I am.”
However, in my experience, structural abuses often coincide with and reinforce intimate partner violence. For example, stalking or sexual harassment is reframed by the dominant narrative as, “He’s just trying to win you back,” as if threatening someone’s job were a form of courtship and paralyzing fear were a normal outcome of being romantically pursued.
Jessica’s Kilgrave uses traditional narratives of love and romance to justify his actions: “I am new to love, but I do know what it looks like! I do watch television.”
When I first watched the series, I was struck by Kilgrave’s version of love. There is nothing more chilling than being told I love you by someone who is trying to control you, by someone who thinks that your will to choose is simply a bump on the road to a perfect love story.
It’s difficult to communicate the kind of terror that this inspires or what it feels like to have your no twisted into a yes over and over and over again, until you wonder if you even exist at all.
Because abusers almost always love you or care about you or only want what’s best for you, love and abuse become confused. And if you had parents who loved you, cared about you, only wanted what’s best for you, but who also in some way coerced or controlled you, then love and abuse might seem inextricable.
Despite this, I know with every fiber of my being that God is not an abuser, because as author bell hooks writes, “love and abuse cannot coexist.” God is not love and control, love and power, love and violence, love and coercion, love and entitlement. God is love. Period.
Jessica repeatedly refutes Kilgrave’s declarations of love. She calls his love story what it is: rape. Again and again, she reclaims the narrative of her trauma and demonstrates the courage to be in the face of non-being.
The Courage to Accept Oneself as Accepted
What then is the courage to be in the face of abuse?
Tillich’s definition of the courage to be includes the presence of non-being. Non-being is taken into being as an essential part of it.
As he points out, in order to experience non-being, being is presupposed. The only place or vantage point from which to feel anxiety and despair is being. You have to be to experience non-being, you have to have life to fear death, you have to have hope to experience despair.
The courage to be is the courage to claim being itself, that in an important sense, before anything else, I am (also one way God introduces Himself in the Bible, as the great I AM, the One who gives meaning to our being). Before “I am a woman,” before “I am a daughter,” before “I am an English major,” before “I am American”—before every other conditional qualifier, I am. I exist. Everything else is merely contingent. Tillich writes:
“In every encounter with reality man is already beyond this encounter. He knows about it, he compares it, he is tempted by other possibilities, he anticipates the future as he remembers the past. This is his freedom and in this freedom the power of his life consists.”
Even as I experience the non-being of trauma, I exist. I stand apart from it. Even as I am overcome with mindless terror when I encounter something that reminds me of the past, I exist. Even when I am in fight-or-flight mode, I exist.
Perhaps the courage to be is a precursor to mindfulness.
Toward the end of the book, Tillich defines the courage to be as “the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.” This is one of my favorite definitions. God as being-itself accepts me “in spite of.” As I embrace being, I experience the acceptance of a God who loves me. Even in the midst of trauma—in spite of trauma, in spite of the terrible, awful horror of non-being—I can courageously accept that I am accepted.
In the end, Jessica integrates her trauma into an incomplete and imperfect definition of what it means to be a hero. She allows herself to exist. And that is enough. That is courage.
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