Jagged Little Pill tries to fit as many issues into it as possible. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much to keep track of, that I started to give up by the end of act one. MJ has a drug addiction and a series of unresolved traumas she feels is out of the norm to bring into public. Frankie is adopted, and her sense of self-expression (not to mention her feeling of racial isolation) is causing severe friction with her parents, as does her intense feminist and equality activism. Nick is the perfect son with the perfect scores with the perfect school… but he has no self-determination, as almost everything he does is low-key expected by his parents. And the one time he does do something he chooses without his mother’s permission, we meet:
Bella. Nick’s high school friend. Arguably the show’s central character. Everything ties back to Bella.
This is where things start to get a little heavy for me.
First I am spotted across the room
Bella comes in stages.
- At first, she’s a party girl.
- Then, she’s a victim.
- She’s accused of being a liar.
- And, only because of Nick, she becomes a survivor.
This is a simplistic set of events that don’t quite represent what happened – and I’m sure many would disagree with my description. Bella shows up to quite the winter break party. Everyone’s drinking. So is she. After a brief conversation with Nick and Frankie, she’s swept away by Nick’s bestie, Andrew. The next day, pictures of her topless are spreading across the internet like wildfire.
And so begins the whispers in the high school halls.
I’m lucky enough that I have no recollection of something similar happening during my own high school years, to me personally or my peers — or perhaps I’m simply naive enough to believe safety in my own school districts. Reflecting on my life and encounters with the many women I’ve met, I don’t believe I’ve ever met one who has never experienced someone taking advantage of them. For a long time, women had to get up and move on — what else could they do? They’re not believed, and if they are, what changes could possibly be made? This is essentially what MJ tells Bella in a short, curt conversation. A hypocritical exchange in which she tries to shield her son (an eye-witness to Bella’s rape) so that he may “have a future”. As if Nick was in danger.
Bella’s take-away from the conversation with Nick’s mother is simple: you got yourself into this situation. It’s your fault. It’s a cycle of torture. I’ve no doubt MJ was told the same when she, too, went through what Bella is going through. These words are ancient, passed down from generation to generation because it was against the norm for a lady to accuse a lord of behaviour unbecoming and put that man’s reputation in jeopardy in the 1800s. How dare a woman accuse a man of behaviour unbecoming and put his reputation on the line in 2018. Ghastly business, to be certain. It is simply not done. Keep these things hush-hush. Make it easier for everyone. Don’t break the norm.
It’s not his fault, it’s yours.
I’ve never spoken about my #MeToo, to anyone. I’ve never chosen to recount the events, say who did what and when exactly. Perhaps I shouldn’t write this without the editing of my counselor, but Brenda be damned, I call her next week.
Sussed out for the degree of naïveté
Both my parents work very hard to provide for me and my brother. Often this meant working from the early hours of the morning to ensure they could be there for us in the afternoon. The caveat was: they couldn’t be home for school drop-off. This fell to my grandparents, who lived in our backyard. It was the simple solution.
You might be able to tell where this is going. I feel like I’ve swallowed a gallon of ice just typing this.
It was not my grandmother who got up in the early hours of the morning to look after us, but my grandfather. He’d be in our house anywhere between 5am right through til school time. To this day I’m not sure why — perhaps that’s the arrangement my parents had with them? I’ve never asked. Maybe they didn’t know, and they’re only finding out about this because they’re reading this essay (hi, mum and dad, hope your day’s going well…).
In those days, kids cartoons aired from the early morning. I was in primary school, in my early years. I got up from bed and wandered into the lounge — there was my grandfather, watching the news. He’d switch it on to cartoons.
[I have to pause here, for a moment. I need to swallow my own tongue, take a breath. It’s hard. But what’s the point of having written this god-knows-how-long piece if I don’t continue, right? Fuck it.]
I’d sit next to him. One day, his hand slowly ran up the inside of my thigh. And it’s not with fear, or confusion, that write these next words with distinct accuracy, as though words were burned into my ears by the analogue television in front of us.
“Is this okay?” my grandfather says to the seven-year-old Deanna. She doesn’t know what he means, what the hand up her nightie means. She’s just watching Bananas in Pajamas.
And despite the rage her 24-year-old self feels looking back on the encounter, child-Deanna shrugs.
When I make the cut, then all systems go
A shrug begets the better part of a month’s worth of grooming.
I’ve sought counselling about this. My “encounters” with my grandfather as a kid was a hot topic of conversation during my first psychology appointments as an eighteen-year-old. Years and years of training and my psychologist’s coping mechanisms has meant I’ve managed to, with some relief, block out the worst of what happened. Turns out avoidance is and should be considered a legitimate method of dealing with your issues. And I’d been doing that for a solid six years.
Then, as I’m sitting in the Comedy Theatre, Nick relays to MJ what happened to Bella. Grace Miell (Bella) and Josh Gates (Andrew) go through the sweeping moments of Predator, and I relive looking up at my childhood lounge room’s wall from the floor, illuminated by our analogue television. My grandfather laid across the top of me. “Don’t tell your nan,” he whispers, smoothing himself against his secret toy.
[My skin is crawling thinking about it.]
Bella’s experience is highly publicised, because Andrew decided he wanted to be extra douchey that day and posted Bella’s naked photos (and I should note this is somehow not automatically enough for the police to arrest him for (depending on the state of America he’s in) posting child pornography, but I digress). Everyone knows what happened, and has begun forming their own opinions, usually consisting of “Bella, that whore” or “Bella, what a trouble-maker for poor sweet Andrew!” Even Nick, who saw what happened with his own two eyes, wanted to brush the whole thing off as “Bella got drunk”. It took his sister to beat some sense into him. I wish it’d been a literal beating, but that’s my unresolved anger I suppose.
My story is not public. Or, rather, was not public. In fact, I personally didn’t believe anything was wrong in my life until 2017’s #MeToo movement. I was in my first stint of university, on a holiday break. My family were gathered in our grandparents’ backyard. News of the Harvey Weinstein “scandal” had just broken and discussion had somehow gotten to it. “I’m sure most of those women just want his money,” my nan says nonchalantly.
“You don’t believe them?” I asked her.
“Of course not! As if he’d assaulted eighty women. It’s all a ploy.”
My mother, seated across the coffee table, bulged her eyes and desperately, minutely, shook her head warning me not to say anything more. Don’t do it, she pleaded. Don’t do your uppity university thing.
I didn’t do my uppity university thing. But as I scrolled through tabloids on my phone and read more about #MeToo on the car ride home, I had a brutal realisation.
And I’d literally just spent the night having civil conversation with him and his wife.
My honesty is commendable but won’t pull your heartstrings
Knowing you were abused, but are psychologically hand-cuffed from telling the truth, is a destructive thing. I was nineteen, technically an adult but still living in my father’s house. If I said something I’d be accusing my father’s father of molesting me. How am I supposed to prove something that happened in a different house over ten years ago? My grandfather’s family is quite large: my word, against the dozens of them?
And how could I wreck my father’s relationship with his father like that? I’d be held responsible. They’d blame him, to blame me.
My father became an issue I could not navigate. I couldn’t broach this topic with him without ending up in a situation I wouldn’t be able to resolve without it blowing the family into smithereens. My mental health spiralled.
As I was spiralling downhill, word got out about one of my cousins. It was her, too. I learned about it in the car, driving home with dad one day on a dirt road in the early afternoon. “Her brother’s all up in arms about it. You think she’s doing it for attention?”
This was my chance. I could tell my father everything that happened, spew my guts to him with the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one and that I might be safe in numbers and I fucking hesitated.
My stomach swirled with adrenaline. I’m not sure if my father noticed my silence for that moment. “…she wasn’t the only one…” I murmured, pushed up against the passenger door waiting for the explosion.
My words are slow. My words are quiet. Dad turned the radio down for me to keep talking. “He did it to me, too.”
What started as union, turned to isolation
Nothing happened next. The spirit of “nothing”, at least.
We spoke a little more about it. “I feel sick,” dad said. When we got home, I told him I approved of my cousin and supported her. He asked me if I wanted to do something, like press charges, but I don’t know what that involves. What was I meant to say? “He’s made up for it,” I lie, not really sure how else I was meant to respond. This was stupid and I don’t believe in it.
Dad didn’t really push the issue anyway. “He’ll be dead soon,” he huffs.
Less than a week later, he speaks to my grandfather as though I’d said nothing. As though he learned nothing about my cousin.
As if it all meant nothing.
So, the spirit of “nothing” happens.
My anxiety grows. This whole issue, coupled with the death of a beloved friend of mine, compounds my anxiety into one nasty ball that doesn’t stop bouncing against the walls of my brain. I drop out of university. I don’t see my friends. I stay home. Home is safe. Yet I’m more informed about everyone’s relationship with my grandfather.
My mother finds out when she was meant to be on holiday that year. In the middle of a DJ gig, barely able to read my phone as I type an essay only a little shorter than this explaining my conversation with Dad and an argument we’d had on social media. With people like Anthony Rapp coming forward to share their stories, I must admit; I felt emboldened. Mum begs me to tell her what happened, but I wasn’t ready. Now that I’m writing all this down, I’m still not — something to talk about with Brenda later, I suppose.
So I didn’t tell her. She came home with a gift: a glass, light-up bottle reading Make your dreams come true. She felt guilty, felt responsible for what happened to me. I tried to tell her it wasn’t her fault. It’s entirely my grandfather’s.
But it all came to a head with my brother in 2018. We got into a conversation about one of his Discord mates claiming sexual harassment and that he believed the whole situation was being blown out of proportion. I don’t recall how, but we ended up in an argument online and I blurt my experience out to him in writing. I’m always writing. My brother has no tact, though, and is marred by the boy-code. “Are you sure he meant it?” he types back to me. “You’ve been roughed up Deanna. So if this is true, then why isn’t he in prison?”
Fucking what mate?
I tore my brother into tiny little pieces. When he finally mustered the guts to walk into the rumpus room and face me head-on — me, covered in snotty tears and sharp breaths — I told him through my sobs that I couldn’t trust him anymore. He burst into tears with me. I pushed him away to go to bed. He did the only thing a kid could: go to Mum and seek forgiveness. She was livid with my behaviour, but caught between a rock and a hard place. I’d hurt my brother severely. How does she punish me, without punishing me for what happened to me?
A week or so later, I met my first psychologist.
This magnet for predators is learning to be discerning
I mentioned earlier my psychologist recommended avoidance. His recommendation is not based on avoiding the problem, but avoiding the perpetrator. I cannot avoid what happened to me. That takes time and energy, and while I’ve an abundance of time, I’m very slim on energy no thanks to anxiety. I’ve got a right restless leg just sitting at my desk writing this.
In lieu of his being imprisoned by our justice system, my grandfather is in a prison of my own making. I have not seen my grandparents since 2018. I’ve spoken few words with nan over the phone, but I’ve never communicated (or wish to communicate) with my grandfather. Save for my immediate family, I avoid speaking to anyone that regularly speaks to him. I refuse to add my gazillion family members on Facebook no matter how often they send a request. I don’t attend family Christmas parties.
People have noticed this. In late 2021, an argument broke out once again about my grandfather in hushed-hushed tones, because more of my cousins have begun taken the same actions — almost as if we’re in an unconscious agreement about boycotting a child-molestor from our lives. Apparently no one has told Nan this, though, and people are fed up of coming up with a different, non-confrontational reason as to why they aren’t calling or coming to visit. My name got dragged into the mix.
Dad calls me as I take a break from cleaning my workplace. “Hey, have you spoken to my sister recently?”
“Last I spoke to her was in February.” It was December. “Why?”
“Well, she’s put two and two together and told my brother why you won’t see Pop, and he’s called me asking what’s going on.”
“That’s nice,” I tell dad. “Tell my dear uncle if he has a problem he can come to me.”
I also proceeded to explain to my dad, who didn’t need it explained, that he stopped making decisions for me after I turned eighteen. The issue died a still death shortly after, though I’m still bitter that I was brought up in the first place despite having done quite literally nothing to be dragged into the middle of an argument I didn’t even know was taking place.
My psychologist was right to inform me that his relationships with others are not my responsibility. It is not up to me to dictate what Dad can or can not do, nor should I form an opinion on what he thinks about me based on his communications with others. Humans are complicated. Keeping the peace can be important. And keeping the peace sometimes means certain types of deception.
What it all comes down to
Jagged Little Pill enforces reflection. The show raises some valuable points: why does it take Nick, the perfect son, to finally step forward as a witness for anyone to believe Bella’s telling the truth?
I believe part of the problem are the women like MJ.
I haven’t touched much on MJ. Her addiction to opiates can be due to many things — she claims she needs them following a car accident, but it’s suggested later in the show that the unresolved trauma prior to the accident might also be a significant driving force. But the show, too busy trying to shove as many characters’ problems into the narrative as possible, doesn’t have the time to expand on that. It’s hinted only visually (Smiling choreography) and in passing to Bella. MJ experiences very little personal growth by the end of the show. She goes to rehab for the addiction, states she relapsed but is back on track.
And her own rape? Shrug, that’s life, right?
I don’t think this is a fault of the writing. I want to believe it’s intentional. I think this is a fault of the character herself. MJ doesn’t want to break the norm. She wants to protect herself as much as possible, and that means keeping her rape a secret. She is, at least, seeking therapy and supposedly has told her husband what happened to her. This is the closest to a resolution she, and many other women, will ever get.
As for Bella? The show doesn’t even give us a happy ending for that, either. Her case is going to trial. But her rapist is still leading his happy life, having secured his place at Harvard University despite the controversy. Hooray!
My rage is infinite. The show isn’t the problem, though. In fact, despite a few niggles in it’s narrative unrelated to Bella and MJ, I highly recommend it.
My problem is with this “keep the peace” bullshit everyone is so insistent on. What peace? Mine or his? Because I’m fairly sure I’m not at peace. I’m so far from peaceful that I could decapitate the man and not break a sweat. And I’m supposed to shove my anger, my disgust, under a rug for the benefit of my family members?