Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
At the end of Netflix’s Jessica Jones season 1, superpowered private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is floundering. She has just been cleared of murder charges for killing Kilgrave (David Tennant), her longtime abuser and sadistic mind controller, and everyone around her seems to think she’s a hero. But she doesn’t feel like a hero. Suffering long years of trauma stemming from the car accident that claimed the lives of her entire family—an accident she blames herself for—Jessica never lets go of numbing her pain in bottles of hard liquor, and she has no interest in reopening doors to the past that she’s spent a long time sealing shut. But people keep coming to her for help, and Jessica can’t move forward until she looks backward and finds out how she got her powers of super strength, and whether or not those powers define who she is.
In Jessica’s world, powered people are people who are easily taken advantage of, and this is what defines Jessica’s story, and her trauma. For Jessica Jones, her superpowers are not a blessing, they are a curse, and they were foisted on her against her will. In this sense, Jessica Jones is a distinctly feminine hero story in a male world delivered to us in the era of #metoo. It deals with abuse, consent, and personal autonomy in ways no other Marvel story has or does. And it speaks loudly to us who are also dealing with how these issues pervade our society. Jessica is, essentially, an abused woman who has never healed, and the many facets of her abuse remade her into the person she is. As much as she wants to bury the past with Kilgrave’s body, she can’t find freedom until she grapples with how it made her who she is.Jessica Jones is a distinctly feminine hero story in a male world delivered to us in the era of #metoo.
In season 2, Jessica faces a Kilgrave of another sort. But this time the villain is not so easy to spot, nor the manipulation of Jessica herself as obvious as mind control. In a sleight of hand, the writers cast the focus on a monster Jessica has to stop—a powered person on a killing spree. But when Jessica discovers the monster is her mother, back from the dead, her pursuit leads her to a scientist named Dr. Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) and his unethical experimentation on human subjects.
Jessica’s powers of super strength, it turns out, were no accident, but the result of Dr. Malus’s experiments, and she and her mother were not his only lab rats. Without their consent, Malus routed people from emergency rooms to his lab, rewrote their DNA to make them “super,” remade them according to his vision. For all intents and purposes, although Malus and Kilgrave are very different men, this is what Kilgrave did to Jessica, as well. Penetration, manipulation, control. Kilgrave went inside both her body and her head. He made her smile, he dressed her up in clothes like a doll, he made her kill for him. Dr. Malus took a benign housewife and her daughter from the suburbs, dead on the operating table from injuries sustained in a car accident, revived them, rewrote their DNA, and—although he never intended for either Jessica or her mom to hurt anyone—turned them into supernatural killers.
In many ways, Dr. Malus is as abusive as Kilgrave ever was, just in the name of science. Later, Malus continues his research on Alisa (Janet McTeer), Jessica’s mom, under the banner of love and desire, as Malus falls for her the more he studies and experiments on her. When Karl falls in love with Alisa, he says, “Screw ethics,” but ethics can never be left at the door in scientific experimentation. Progress without ethical limitations allows people to do monstrous things. The irony is that Karl is doing just that—playing Dr. Frankenstein and bringing people back from the dead. His work on Alisa leaves her brain damaged and prone to violent rages, hence her killing sprees. He believes he can control her, but he can’t, and the body count rises as she exerts her autonomy.
And this is the greatest difference between Jessica and her mother, although they have the same superpowers. Jessica struggles throughout the season, as she did in season 1, with who she really is. Kilgrave tried to remake her into his image, and he failed when she threw off his control and ultimately killed him. Dr. Malus rewrote her DNA long before Kilgrave, making her into his image as a superpowered human—defining himself as her savior. But man cannot supplant the place of God, and his work left Jessica a broken woman, not only ripe to be taken advantage of by other men, but also fearful, weak, and isolated. Jessica doesn’t know who she is, but she knows she strives against being defined by these men who remade her against her consent. And Jessica knows that although she’s just as physically strong as her mom, she wants to choose to do right.
Alisa also never gave consent to Dr. Malus to remake her, but her rages rule all her other passions. Even when calm, Alisa shows she has a warped sense of autonomy. When talking to Karl on the beach one day, she compares herself to the ocean, saying, “It doesn’t give a sh—. It cries and it laughs and it takes what it wants. It’s free.”
But Alisa is wrong about both freedom and the ocean. To be free is not to take what we want when we want it. That is monstrous. That is what Dr. Malus did to the patients who couldn’t give consent to being experimented on. That is what Kilgrave did to every person he ever controlled. And that is what Alisa has been doing since breaking free of her bonds and starting her killing spree. If the ocean actually behaved that way, it would be an incredibly destructive force, but the ocean abides by its bounds. Freedom is found in moral law and constraint. It’s knowing right from wrong and using our autonomy to choose right. Alisa, when she breaks free of her (literal) bonds in the show, becomes a destructive force. She becomes the monster Malus made her.
“With great power comes great mental illness,” says another of Dr. Malus’s “patients” early in the show, riffing off the well-known line from Spider-Man, another Marvel superhero. In the MCU movies, to be powered is a glorious calling—a burden sometimes, but glorious nonetheless. In Jessica Jones, to be powered is to be abused, hunted, experimented on, and re-formed in another person’s image. It is to have your autonomy, and sometimes your life, taken away from you. The cognitive dissonance between Jessica Jones and the rest of the MCU exists in this perspective on power, and in one sense, Jessica Jones takes a much more honest look at the world the MCU has created than any of the other stories out there. In this world, where Asgardians travel across rainbow bridges and Wakandans live in a virtual Utopia and Iron Man zooms around the stratosphere, there will be many “lesser” people striving to achieve the extraordinary status these superheroes have attained. And where men strive after superpowers, terrible abuses will occur. That is where a story like Jessica Jones takes shape, and it’s a dark story, but not a story without healing and hope.
At the very end, Jessica is not healed, but she’s on her way there. She consistently chooses life, forcing Kilgrave’s voice in her head into silence. He assures her he’ll always be there when she needs him, and in that, there is a hard reality—abuse leaves lasting scars, but those scars don’t have to rule a victim’s life. Jessica recognizes that in her autonomy, she has the freedom to reject the narrative proposed for her by Dr. Malus, by her mother’s example, by Kilgrave, even by the impulses of her own sometimes volatile moods. She is not Frankenstein’s monster, and she chooses life. “It took someone coming back from the dead to show me that I’ve been dead too. Problem is, I never really figured out how to live,” Jessica says in voiceover at the end of the season. Rejecting isolation, Jessica steps into the light, and into communion, with a family in her apartment complex. In one sense, she’s lost everything—again—at the end of season 2. But in another sense, she’s beginning to finally come back to life.
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