Film and television are increasingly exploring the experiences of abused and psychologically coerced people, from cult members to kidnap victims
We’re running! Outside!” Ellie Kemper shouts with glee as she runs beside a stranger at the start of the Emmy-winning comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the second series of which has just arrived on Netflix.
Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the show explores Schmidt’s struggles as she tries to create a normal life after escaping from a Doomsday cult, where she was held in an underground bunker for 15 years. Running is hilarious to her; turning on a tap gives her a rush of excitement.
Kimmy Schmidt reflects a current trend in film and television to explore the experiences of victims of abuse, holed up and held captive, spanning genres from comedy to thrillers to superhero romps.
Room, starring Brie Larsson, about a mother and son who escape from the room they have been held in for five years; Jessica Jones is, admittedly, about a superhero-turned-private detective — and her controlling boyfriend did use actual mind control to force her to do his bidding — but the effect on Jones is too sadly realistic, as she turns to alcohol and shuns intimacy, in between bouts of super-human kick-assery.
In the UK, the BBC mini-series Thirteen follows Ivy Moxham — played by Jodie Comer — at the point where she escapes from the man who held her captive for 13 years. Now 26, she wants to make up for lost time, but she can’t do it immediately, for both practical and psychological reasons.
These shows all contain grains of truth in revealing the complex relationship a person can have with their abuser
“I had been fascinated with this idea of a survivor – how someone could endure the unimaginable and then return to reality,” says Marnie Dickens, the show’s writer and creator.
“I felt very strongly that I didn’t want the story to be one of ‘victimhood’. [Ivy] has learned behaviours, but these all came from the past 13 years of her life when she had only one significant point of contact. She’s just coming out into the world and trying to find her place in it.”
Comer’s character is more feral and far more distrustful than Kemper’s naive and easily-pleased portrayal of Kimmy, but both series tap into what it is like to try to rebuild your life after someone else has taken it from you.
While incidences of abduction are fairly rare, these shows all contain grains of truth in revealing the complex relationship a person can have with their abuser. Dickens sought advice from a clinical psychiatrist while writing Thirteen and has created in Ivy a woman who is curiously protective of the man who held her captive. “It’s a very complex relationship… for various reasons – guilt, shame and a deep-rooted privacy,” says Dickens.
“We think in images of shackles and chains, keys and locks, but it is not about that nowadays. Often people are allowed to go and they will see TV,” says Jakub Sobik, a spokesperson for the charity Anti-Slavery International, “but what we are seeing is people are forced to work or provide services, which may include sexual exploitation, or domestic labour, by some kind of coercive or psychological mechanism, such as threat of violence.”
Far from being something that only happens on TV and in distant lands, the UK government estimates that there are around 13,000 people trapped in this modern form of slavery.
Coercive control, a pattern of behaviour which seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom, to strip away their sense of self, was written into UK law in December last year, when it became an offence with a penalty of up to five years in prison. According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.4 million women suffered from domestic abuse, including coercive control, in 2014.
Flor Edwards spent 13 years of her life removed from society like Ivy Moxham. Like Kimmy Schmidt, she was in a cult with an enigmatic male leader. In the Children of God cult, which originated in the US, members were not allowed to make decisions for themselves.
After escaping the cult, many of its former members took their own lives, but Edwards says she identifies with Kimmy’s unbridled optimism, even though the comedy series doesn’t capture “the darkness of the experience”, or the struggle that comes after escaping. “I feel her life is pure Comedy and mine is more of a tragi-comedy,” says Edwards, who has just completed her memoir Apocolypse Child: a Life in End Times.
When she left the cult and came to live in California, the first things she saw were a drinking fountain and an obese man drinking from a bucket-sized cup of cola. “The juxtaposition of those two things was shocking,” recalls Edwards, “this type of deformity was unfamiliar.”
She left the cult when she was 15. Now 34, she is still affected by it. “Things astound you,” says Edwards, “I just got a full-time job and I think my friends think I’m crazy because I am so excited about it. I can definitely identify with Kimmy’s enthusiasm for life.”
The positivity in these shows — demonstrating that you can define yourself by more than victimhood — also resonates.
“Taking charge of your destiny is something that you can fall off the horse with sometimes, but then you get back on,” says Edwards. “When life gives you something dark you always have a choice to turn it into something positive.”
Modern slavery helpline: 0800 0121 700
Illustration: Lungo Forte