I wrote most of the essay below, about a year ago, right before Season Three of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had begun, and before #metoo and #timesup- before people were coming out about Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, etc… I chose not to share my thoughts last year, only to be inspired and emboldened by the conversations and protests had in public forums over these issues that have so deeply impacted my own life.
When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt arrived on the Netflix menu I had little desire to click on the image of what appeared to be a cheery-looking, pretty, young woman setting out to “make it” in the world. It wasn’t until my coworker, a quick-witted humanities teacher suggested I watch it, that I decided to check it out.
For those who don’t know, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's protagonist is a woman, played by Ellie Kemper, who recently escaped from a doomsday cult in Indiana, where she and three other women were held underground for fifteen years by the character, Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, played by Jon Hamm. “Mole Women” is what society calls the women, upon their release.
The intro and theme song tells us everything we need to know in order to relate the event to events in our own, “real” world.
On the surface, Kimmy is presented to us a Disney Princess out-of-water. She loves life, candy, stickers, puns involving the word, "grape," and living free after all those years of being trapped underground. She’s excited about getting a job and living in the city of New York, where she found herself after an appearance with her co-captives on The Today Show. Wearing brightly colored clothes for tweens, she smiles all the time, despite having been locked underground for fifteen years and admitting in season one that “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker.”
Fifteen years ago, when I came out of my own ten-year abusive relationship with someone I now understand to be a sociopath, a rapist and a sexual deviant/predator, I too had an incredible zest for life.
One of my breaking points; a moment I began to understand how fucked up things were, came one day when I looked around the room in the house I shared with the aforementioned rapist, and was able to zoom-in on the fact that I had spent ten years painting disturbing portraits of brightly colored, happy, childlike creatures. A room full of (alien) Kimmy Schmidts; all wide-eyed and grinning suddenly reflected back at me as a chorus. Most of them I referred to as, self portraits.
I made and surrounded myself with these creatures until that day when suddenly I understood exactly why people are creeped out by clowns; it’s not natural to smile all the time. It was a cover up. It was my cover up. This moment wasn’t what led me to have the strength, or whatever it was, to leave, but it was a pivotal moment in the process of my “eyes opening,” that led to my eventual escape and change of life.
In the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, they address the way a sense of denial, while often necessary for survival, does a poor job of hiding the fact that something is wrong. Despite her smile and cheery disposition, Kimmy burps, for instance, and the smell of them is wretched. It’s explained as something that happens to people who repress their emotions.
We learn more as Kimmy begins to see an alcoholic shrink, played by show co-creator and writer, Tina Fey. I love that they made her an alcoholic, thereby presenting the one with knowledge of what is going on with Kimmy as also, imperfect.
I, personally, began to truly understand how I had been a victim of abuse once I left my abuser. I can speak from my own experience that taking one step outside of your own “bunker” and acknowledging that a person you chose to trust is actually someone who believes 100% in the validity of their cruelties, is a very hard pill to swallow. I finally accepted that it isn’t in his heart or mind to care about anything beyond his desires. It never was. I learned that he simply refused to accept any possible explanation of why it’s not okay to control someone by insulting them (me) constantly, by shaming them (me) whenever possible, by preying on their (my) weaknesses and manipulating them (me) and behaving with anger and cruelty mixed with some fucked up version of praise/promise of reward until they (I) succumb and do things they (I) don’t want to do. And yes, just like in Kimmy’s situation, there was weird sex stuff involved. From the start.
And just like Kimmy, once I made my way out, I was overjoyed and filled with enthusiasm for life and for hope of the most magical love. I became a love monster. I was a gratitude monster. I gave everyone advice to “trust” and “believe.” Psychotic cartoon hearts and stars seemed to pour out of every orifice I had and if they didn’t, well then I Photoshopped it happening and posted it on my website. I shared and shared and shared acceptance, kindness, love, gratitude, forgiveness, both in person and online. I needed to become my creepy, smiling artwork that disturbed me so. (Disassociation.) The depiction of Kimmy as an insane optimist is what immediately drew me into her character. I got it.
This way of existing contrasted the art I made during this time; my first years of “freedom.” My work back then was messy, graphic and disturbing- but, like the smiling portraits that creeped me out, it was also colorful. Some of it was beautiful. It mostly acted as therapy. Making art out of my experience was what saved my life and allowed me to develop a belief system and my own spiritual language. A few people cried back then, when I presented them with my visual “story.” They didn’t cry because it was sublime, they cried because it was that sad. I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was my first real art, and maybe it was.
The circumstances that led me to leave my abusive partner was a trauma that led to what I now understand as a psychotic break (PTSD with psychosis), but it was a powerful spiritual experience. The time after, on my own, was the most important time of my life. The veil was lifted. Words fail to describe what happened to me and I swear it was not unlike what Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact went through and I’m fully aware of how incredibly silly it is to make that connection but I was awakened -no other word for it, and it's an awakening that I can't prove as being real, but I need it to be and I believe it is. Without the trauma, I might still be “asleep,” so I’m grateful I was able to translate someone's horrible actions toward me in the ways that I did. I’ll be making art and writing about this experience, in one way or another, for the rest of my life, as an attempt to capture the wonder of it. I found Diana Raab’s article, Is it Psychosis or a Spiritual Emergency an interesting look into my perception and while I am fully able to admit that I had a psychological occurrence due to behavioral patterns and trauma, I choose to hold and honor my experience as a “spiritual emergency,” or a “kundalini experience.”
When I talk to people who were there for me then, they recall my demeanor as being insane. Literally insane. Some say they weren’t sure if they would get “the old Linda” back. The thing is, I don’t want “the old Linda” back. Not ever.
But I get what they meant. I was scary after my big catalyst (my traumatic event), and for better or worse, I am pretty sure I have made my way back to the part of my personality that makes people feel (relatively) safe.
No, I don’t want the old Linda back.
Speaking of being a crazy person, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also shows us the lives and characteristics of the other women who were held captive along with Kimmy and I like that because it speaks to “the whys” of those of us who find ourselves in abusive relationships. It’s presented in a silly way, but that fact helps me investigate something so difficult that baffled me. It’s not always cut and dry. It’s never cut and dry.
I think this is especially relevant now, considering #metoo and the arrest of Harvey Weinstein. Just yesterday I listened to my seventy-seven-year-old mother, who is well aware of what I went through, say to the TV, “Idiot women who do those things in the first place. Why would women put up with that unless they want something?” while watching Weinstein get arrested.
Obviously, one of the hardest parts of being a “survivor of abuse” (I hate this term) is noticing the moments when you should have simply stopped or those times when you could have simply run away. It’s also very difficult to listen to the many people looking in from the outside, who openly express disgust and disbelief that I took the abuse, engaged in bad behavior with my abuser, acted as his life-partner, his teammate, his best friend... There are those who are personally offended by the fact that I didn’t leave earlier and that I believed in our life together. There were times in my life, since leaving, that I too didn’t get it. I have been ashamed and felt guilty, but I’m done with that.
This is why I love the flashback scenes in the show when we see moments where the women could have escaped, but they didn’t because they believed the lie their captor fed them; that there was an apocalypse. For whatever reason, they don’t have it in them to question their reality and see for themselves. They believed the ridiculous stories and they took the horrendous abuse, instead. Something about this being presented within the realm of a comedy makes perfect sense. It’s a terribly sad situation, and it’s frustrating and confusing when you see it happening from the outside.
During the second season we begin to learn about Kimmy’s life; what led her to being that person, when we learn about her life/relationship with her mother. We start to learn about the roots that live deep underneath behavioral patterns.
So much of my artwork and my writing from that time was my way of trying to figure out why I followed someone else’s insane rules for living, so completely, so against my own sense of value and why I could not seem to make my way out for so long. I have had to sort through my attachment issues, learning differences and behavioral patterns, as well as my default adherence to patriarchal rules. -What I believed it took for me to have a good life; what the trade off was and who owned that currency.
I am not making the suggestion that one must have attachment issues, learning differences or a toxic upbringing to have these perceptions and I’m certainly not saying this is the reason everyone gets into an abusive situation, but I’m pretty sure it’s part of the case with me. The show does a great job of exemplifying behavior I can relate to in the episode called Kimmy Kidnaps Gretchen! when her ex-bunker-mate is about to join another cult, after living for a short time without one. In this episode Kimmy forces Gretchen to make her own decisions and they are WAY out of control (and hilarious!) and this is pretty much what I was like that first year out, on my own, in Hollywood.
As I touched on before, I count this as the most magical year of my life and I’m so glad my experience led me to to the Midwest to an esteemed art school where there were healthy, stimulating and valuable rules for me to follow. There were also sexist professors who behaved dreadfully and thankfully I fought against them or advocated for myself to those who were in charge. I was in a space (both mentally and physically) where I felt supported enough to do that. (Kimmy also makes her way to college, in season three.)
What I love most, so far, about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, is that it’s looking at all of these aspects surrounding victim-hood and womanhood (I am aware that the two are not exclusive to each other) and behaviors formed socially and those that are embedded in our behavioral patterns, with humor. I needed that. As an artist and a writer, I can't help but sift through and mine my experiences for material and I have made terrible, just awful artwork out of some terrible things that happened to me and that’s funny and I want to laugh at it. I have every right to laugh at it and ask others to do the same.
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
I chose not to fight my abusive partner. I left. I figured out how to get what I needed without a legal battle because I knew I would not have been supported. I first learned this the day I asked a police officer to be present when I gathered my things to leave, and he took me aside and shared with me how unneeded his presence was, and how badly my ex’s heart was breaking. He tried to reason with me and get me to see how harmless my ex was and how he felt bad for him, that I should "go easy" on his delicate, broken heart. This actually happened. On TV, Kimmy battles her captor in court and wins.
Living a life after abuse is hard, and everyone’s life is hard for one reason or another or twenty reasons or another. This has been my own personal path and it's one that many others have been on. For the sake of the show, Kimmy Schmidt was trapped in a bunker, underground. I wasn’t locked up anywhere, but I felt like I was. I lived like I was. I made choices like I was– so I relate.
As “lightly” as it’s presented, I’m thankful for this portrayal. I grew up with issues of rape and abuse of women in pop culture in the 80’s and 90’s being presented within movies like The Burning Bed, The Accused and Thelma and Louise... and the countless television drama series’ involving the abuse of women that have been broadcasted over the years-
In regard to this, I find that Jill Soloway’s words capture and reflect my feelings in a more eloquent manner:
“So The Female Gaze can be a cultural critic. We can use it to call out all of those fucking storylines on those procedurals -- that are meant to work as public service – meant to educate us about rape but they actually are just more rape.
THANKS SO MUCH GUYS. WE GET IT.
As Bell Hooks said the other night at the New School, ‘I would like to go my entire life without ever having to see another rape scene in a movie as long as I live.’”
And this sentiment seems to encapsulate the reasons why I value this show. I appreciate the adventures of Kimmy, Titus, Lillian, and Jacqueline, even though I have cringed a bit when it comes to the way they depict Kimmy’s rapist and kidnapper, and I can understand some of the show's critics for other issues. To me, the best part of it is how the show tries to tackle complicated issues in a silly but human way and seems to say, this shit happens in this shitty way and being "broken" is kind of what we all are.
In a couple days, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season Four is going to be released. It’s apparently the last season, ever. It’s supposed to address #metoo and white privilege. I love TV. Thank you for reading.
Diana Raab Ph.D.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher.